|Stranger in a strange land 2|
I spent over a month at his place. Changed several addresses thereafter. Besides writing for newspapers, I worked as a domestic servant too. I did have to adopt a Hindu name, though. I lived on the streets as well, after quitting jobs. I have written extensively about those days in The Statesman in the past and I don’t want to repeat myself here.
I could have easily exchanged my name permanently for a Hindu one and begun life anew in Calcutta. But I wondered if the political partition of 1947 meant that I really was severed from the Indian cultural biosphere. Was I an alien, just because the countries were divided? But Tagore was mine too! Then? And my father had lived in Calcutta before partition. How can this country disown my forefathers?
The police, however, aren’t swayed by such arguments. They don’t need to listen. The cops can’t be avoided forever, several people reminded me. I wrote a poem:
Should I then drift away from this rooted mountain
Into the desert fire?
Am I not
A part of this Bengali landscape?
I wish to gift you my exile,
But can you keep away
From the eternal sentient life
on the shores of this earth?
Can you paint in watercolours this emptiness?
Or shatter the silence of a howling sky?
Of course, there is no fax or Internet at the time. If your phone call gets through to Dhaka, you feel like a king. There are no public telephones either. So I wait every day for letters from home. Waiting can be worse than death — Calcutta drills this realisation in.
No money for a meal. I hang around the numerous restaurants in the Park Street-New Market area. Every whiff from the kitchens excites my stomach. Not enough clothes with me either. I window-shop — looking at spotless shirts and trousers. I say, "No thank you, I won’t be buying anything. I just want to look at them…"
I see the shopping malls of Dhaka — memories of the city I’ve grown up in and left behind come rushing back. Then one day I discover that Calcutta is as lonely as I am. Tormented by the loneliness, it waits silently for death. Only a loner can befriend another. Thus begins our love — the love of the friendless.
My love for Calcutta becomes so intense that I think I shall never be able to love another city. So intense — for someone in exile — that I soon begin to admit that I have lost my innocence to Calcutta. I declare this love in a poem, which ends with:
Youth, at the far end of a long lifetime,
Wants you in love’s soul-hugging embrace
You — my liberation in spring, autumn or the monsoons
The poem is published in an obscure little magazine. Obscure, because a second issue never came out. But amazingly, two young ladies — students of Calcutta University and Jadavpur University — write to me. The editor duly delivers their letters to me. Which bear their addresses, so I write back. Disaster strikes. Both the ladies declare their love.
I fix a date with one of them. We decide to be together in Haldia, near Calcutta, from morning till eight in the evening. We book a hotel room, she pays. When we’re in bed, she says, "What? You’re circumcised?" Then she says, "Muslims eat a lot of garlic. You must be eating a lot too. So don’t kiss me…"
"Okay, no kisses," I say, adding, "Let’s go for a walk on the river bank."
"I don’t have a condom…"
"Don’t need one… please?"
"So you’re in exile, right?" she asks two hours after that "please".
"So how do you mingle in this country?"
"Every exile mixes with the local cultural and social milieu. There’s no religion at work here — no concept of the nation and the self either. But the questions arise after you mingle. Like they have for me now. Like they arise for anyone in exile. And these questions compel exiles to hunt for their country, their socio-cultural moorings, their identity. Actually, these very questions never let them forget that they are in exile, in asylum. Despite the shelter allowed, you are still an alien, you do not belong."
"But do you really not belong to this country?"
"Of course I’m of this socio-cultural biosphere. But my identity is that of an alien, or an exile. I don’t belong because of the difference in my appearance, my manner of speaking, my attitude, my social behaviour. And because I’m an alien, I’ve been desperate lately to portray my own culture."
"Can you do that here, in this foreign land?"
"Certainly. First, through the difference in my physical appearance; then through the differences in my accent and dialect…"
"Then how do you define your existence in this country?"
"I’m a foreigner."
"Aren’t they more… global?"
"Not really; not if they hang tags like ‘alien’, ‘exile’ on me…"
"Do you sing? What songs do you sing?"
"Who will live in this foreign land…"
"Who’s written it?"
"Dhut! You fib so much. Since when have you been writing songs?"
"From the day Tagore did it. All his songs are mine. As they are yours. As they are every Bengali’s. He has written on behalf of every Bengali. On behalf of everyone in this world. Tagore is yours, mine… everybody’s. Doesn’t that justify my claim?"
"So what? You didn’t sing it…"
"Every Bengali sings it. Every exile sings it. The Bengalis are always in exile, forever seeking their identity. And whenever a clear picture emerges, they sing out:
Who will live in this foreign land!
Live with this hesitation, misery and grief,
Who will offer shelter in sorrow, fear or crisis
With no one to call one’s own in this desolate field…"
Dusk, foggy grey like the wings of the eagle, flies in over the landscape. Strange sky. Strange evening. Strange horizon. Strange environment with stranger people. Their faces stick out. They look tired, exhausted, troubled by deep inner storms. Carrying on with depressed eyes on a journey without destination. Alone in this universe. Humming under the burden of loneliness:
"O motherland, I lay my head down on thee…"
The collage of emptiness and silences forms itself amidst all the din and chaos. I see my own shadow all over the room. It looks exactly like me. It even moves its lips in a silent song: Who will live in this foreign land…
Translated from the Bengali by Arnab Ray Ghatak with TLM
Daud Haider, a revolutionary poet of Bangladesh, was jailed and forced to leave his country in the seventies. After several years in India, where his poetry flourished, he now works as a broadcast journalist in Berlin