Poem: Calcutta Shop

By Sekhar Banerjee

1

I cross leaky boundaries of greater Calcutta
in a sickly yellow cab; it has a permission to roam
the streets with dead trees, contagion and cyclones

I identify the dead trees, one by one – neem, gulmohor,
mango, jackfruit and eucalyptus
I look at the faces of arjun, jarul, krisnachura, and amaltas,
as if, it is my undivided family that had made settlements
in the city and its suburbs
after the partition and each war. They are now gone forever.

And I smell the disinfected rust of forgetting
everything that was once precious
I juxtapose my relatives with each tree that has fallen
defending a house, an idea, a city or a settlement
as ordinary soldiers always do
and I watch the lanes and by-lanes of Calcutta issue
obituaries for an undivided family of the supporting staff

For every dead tree – I write an epitaph:
‘Here lived Arjun Das (43years), Palash Das (11 years)
and Dolonchmapa Das (38).
They are survived by us’

I get into the blind alleys of the city and the suburb
In its ancient womb, I smell
freshly ground spices – cumin, coriander,
turmeric powder, and ancient ships. I also smell
the freshly cooked hunger and some stale rice

2

I search for whatever is not completely broken
whatever has not stopped, whatever has not gone
completely dark
and whatever is not recently renamed
for a lost cause
The crowded Howrah Bridge is the feeding breast
of this city and the lonely Monument is its maleness
I find both of them in place

Calcutta is hermaphrodite like a red hibiscus
or a tomato or pumpkin or a horse chestnut
Cities are always like their trees and their plants
Now that Calcutta sleeps in the middle of a dead woodland
strewn with dry branches and leaves, as if,
they are summer’s rough wet kemp
I walk alone in the rain to define myself

3

In the centre of the tangled city I roam
pavement to pavement looking for something familiar and old
Is it an intact billboard, blank?
– maybe it is something more than that;
I don’t know what it is, yet I am searching it still
browsing through old, new and broken things

I stand before a colonial church –
grandiose with a post-classical arch. Does solidity sustain
more prosaic thoughts? The prayers are now colloquial
and shrill. I flinch
I now know more
about the language of contagion and  the devil

4

From the north node of the place of God
to the closed art galleries, theatres and old museums I roam
and I stand almost still in front of an open crematorium
It is now decked up with silence
and some white flowers – almost stale

Death is now finally as loud as my crude thoughts
I search for things I don’t know of
Is it a simple form of art – say the dated paintings of Kalighat
or some X in the old Calcutta shop? From numerous fallen trees
to an ancient  lamp-post in a solitary street,
nothing forces me to stand by for a while. I watch masked
human beings; I watch gods
with broken wings

5

I buy unnecessary things from the pavement of Park Street:
an antique clock, a colorful balloon, a painting
of an old woman silently looking on – she resembled my mother.
I give the balloon
to a junior health clerk, return the work of art
to the masked shopkeeper
I hang the clock on the road-railing
near the old Calcutta shop

Bio:
Sekhar Banerjee
 is a bilingual writer. He has four collections of poems and a monograph on an Indo-Nepal border tribe to his credit.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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