My Days with the American Poet Annie Finch in Kolkata

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Annie Finch Performs a Poem

Annie at Jorasanko Thakurbari

The very first thing we did was to visit Jorasanko Thakurbari where or Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore was born. It was my first time to Thakurbari.

The part Kolkata where Thakurbari is located is a busy commercial place. It was quite a spectacle to watch a tide of people ebb and flow in tonga-rickshaws, cycle-vans, and bamboo thelas. For a fraction of a mile, I ensured that Annie enjoyed the iconic Kolkata tram.

Thakurbari is a beauty. I am not a fan of old relics and architecture, although I value the supporting aesthetics. I was happy though to see Annie enjoying so much. Her intellectual curiosity is beyond measure. We appreciate the fact that Tagore had put his Nobel Prize money to set up Vishwa Bharati in Shanti Niketan. Vishwa Bharati is a world school that Tagore established to introduce world-class education in India. Tagore used everything in his power to promote art and poetry in India.

Dakshineswar Temple

It was a rewarding experience taking Annie to manifest her love for Kali at our Dakshineswar Temple in North Kolkata. The joy of meeting her deity brought tears to her eyes. Looking at Annie, security personnel made a special arrangement for her entry. She could avoid a queue of 60-70 people who came there for their various rituals. 

Annie’s phone’s probably got the recording of the part I helped her bargain the offering and make way to the place of offering. People around were taken aback by a white woman’s devotion toward their dark-skinned Goddess. Annie helped them love Kali a bit more than before.

The dali (an arrangement of a mix of lotus, marigold, and hibiscus along with Bel pata, sweets that should be blessed by the priest during the worship and brought home, and other stuff as per a person’s budget) that Annie bought to offer Kali was like a treasure box of blessings. Annie was beaming with joy in that hour. Ref: Video

Annie’s joy affected my mother and me; we had no idea that Annie would enjoy so much. I asked if she would like to visit my birthplace and she was already excited. The three of us took a bus (painted in blue and many motifs of flowers and Kali) and got down at Saheb Bagan stoppage on the Delhi Road National Highway.

My Village: Saheb Bagan

My birth house: Saheb Bagan, Bally

My birth house: Saheb Bagan, Bally

Saheb Bagan (British + Garden) was civilised by the British when they made Kolkata the capital of India. The information amused Annie as much as it did to me was when I heard it for the first time. In her eyes, I saw an appreciation of the environment that nurtured me.

Annie could not place the পুকুর ‘pukur’ (small pond; the concept that isn’t in vogue in America) in which men bathed, children swam, and women washed clothes. Annie read about the reference of this pond in a poem I had submitted to her anthology earlier in 2018 when I hardly knew her. I shared with her how my father would spank my ass every time I failed to stay afloat during his swimming lessons in the same pond.

I took Annie to my maternal uncle and auntie’s house. She met my handsome yet stupid cousin (Annie knows that Bublu was always particular about taking back the exact change for money he would give and not a whole currency) Bublu and his wife, and their pet Pushu, a rescued stray dog.

Left to Right: Mom, Aunt, Annie, and Chumki

Left to Right: Mom, Aunt, Annie, and Chumki

My uncle, who never spoke a word of English, was so excited to welcome Annie from America. He explained to Annie the Shiva Linga in their worship room. That reminded me to inform Annie to distribute the sweets (as per tradition) from Kali Bari, but to all our disappointment, the sweets weren’t there.

Annie for a moment thought my auntie wanted the sweets, so she wanted to buy sweets from a local sweetshop until I understood the situation and explained that my uncle and aunty have diabetes; they don’t eat sweets. My aunt wanted Annie to have the sweets as a blessing from Kali. Annie smiled.

Later, I took Annie around. I showed her where two lovers vowed to live a big life and their eventual marriage that culminated into the birth of the author you are reading. Now she knows the house I was born in a setting like Satyajit Roy’s Pather Panchali; the rail line in the background across acres of yam grove, and the elusive turtle well which can now be seen in the clearing but once contested my curiosity. 

The green ink that Indians use for the temporary tattoo on their palms during marriages comes from the Mehendi. In the US, Mehendi is exotic. Annie didn’t know that such Mehendi grew in the wilderness in India. She registered the hibiscus, jackfruit, and banana plantations that surrounded my home.

Annie tried the ladoo and me, the Kachori-Aloo Dum from the sweet shop that was once responsible for me missing the school bus. We tried tea in mud cups from a tea-stall where my dad and his Naxalite group gathered for an adda.

I showed Annie the village cooperative or the ration shop from where my mother bought discounted grocery. We walked through the fish market, across stories of emigration in Bengal’s erstwhile dominance of CPI(M) to the system of dowry now called gifting. We took the Bally bridge over Ganga to return home, collecting Annie’s laptop from GoAir’s lost&found.

MFA

I shared with Annie the poetry encounters and revolutions that brew at the Indian Coffee House in College Street. We discussed poetry, the works of Sonia Sanchez, Metta Sama, Lucie Brock-Broido, Amy Fleury, Eleni Sikelianos, Erica Meitner, and the likes. I also prescribed her a quick list of names of contemporary Indian poets.

Impressed by my work and literary contributions, when Annie inquired about my plans for an MFA, I informed her my apathy after the demise of my mentor Jon Tribble. Also, Jon wanted to my recommendation, but his untimely death shattered every writer he ever mentored.

Before Annie Finch Left

Dr Annie Finch holds a PhD from Stanford University. She taught in several colleges throughout her career. It was a privilege listening to Annie Finch as she fondly spoke of Agha Shahid Ali and Rheetika Vazirani while our first-time lunch at Kolkata’s China Town at Kim Ling. She so much appreciated Kazim Ali, the best friend of the queen Hoshang Merchant from Hyderabad.


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