Lalon Fakir at the Kolkata Book Fair

Lalon, Lalon, how did it happen?
One minute I’m treading the dust-grit of 2006
in its sky-grime and car-crush and frantic alleyways
and not even the next, my friend, we are on a path
between two villages, and you are singing

What is this bird I cannot see?
If I don’t look, so close to me
it hunts and nests, its very wings
can bear me up, and then it’s gone.
My mind soars to unspoken things.
But what is this bird? says Lalon.

Since being with you – is it a hundred years?
two hundred? – I have come to know the touch
of wood, the feel of leaf, the sense of air.
But look! We are at a gate. We are simply in.

Lalon, with you I can hear the breath of the word.
Century-long your way
from Muslim back to Hindu back to No-name
made sense of nature’s whisper. A cosmic breeze
finds out the soul. Lalon Lalon
in company with the roadside’s flowering branches
you sang your way between two villages

Thousands of people in a plasterboard city
moving to a gradual festival beat
on the Maidan. Here the word is unhurried,
here the colourful shops can stand on Earth
without a High Street shrieking. Here no caste
can stay in line. Lalon my friend
where have you come from, how did it happen that we
travel a brotherly way to the Book Fair?

Onto the dry ground of my brain
a million letters fall like rain.
But what deep seed is it that’s stirred?
Ah, what is it that makes a word?
What gives it greenness, sets it on?
– Walk by a little, says Lalon.

As if a story told another tale
behind the first, yet close-up as the first,
a page of space-time folded on itself,
I hear the singing Baul; and softly on
a loudspeaker, to haunt a small book-city,
a song of yearning sounds out, amar bangla.
Who is not here? The youngsters at their cell-phones,
as if to overtake the staccato minute;
the middle-aged, at a purposeful saunter;
the older with their slow, considered movements;
and groups of students sitting on newspapers
in busy indolence about the ground;
and all, it seems, within an open forest.
Here one may come, alone and not alone,
to see a nation in an afternoon.

A grove of books. But now my friend is speaking,
and all is gone, only we two are here,
as Lalon Fakir tells me of a journey.

From one faith or the other I came.
But which one? Neither. I became
as one who understood no name,
as my first self, at last the same.
Born in the house of the wind

I suffered smallpox, lost an eye,
beside a stream was left to die.
A weaver-woman passing by
then cared for me. And that is why,
born in the house of the wind

a feather, I blew here and there,
between two faiths that could not share
their food or water. Yet the air
is common property everywhere.
Born in the house of the wind

we chisel stone, of name, of caste,
and decorate it, set it fast,
build mosque and temple to outlast
the sense that we were, in time past,
born in the house of the wind.

Now I have come back to the start.
Outcast, rejected, loved, my part
in my one home, is by my art
to trace the Person of the Heart,
born in the house of the wind.

I see a time
of freedom for the word. When god-given utterance
is a mere oddity, an uncouth relic.
When every faith has faith in others. When
no dogma slams a cell door on the mind.
When leaf and lake a breathing lightness add
to artificial codes of brick and dust.
When sunlight warms the twisted iron of law
and takes away its harshness. When each complex
has room enough to roam in. When the mall
of human need and greed still has a space
for two to sit together. When the maze
of highways and of byways that we follow
has its own silent zone. When every city
has a green centre.

This is the Fair.
Down the long tables of Little Magazines
stand poets and translators, folklorists
and specialists in cussed argument. Two old men
block a row for half an hour in battle
on the lack of revolutionaries today.
They both agree. Beyond them a young girl
sells a xeroxed copy of her short stories
at one rupee a page. Beyond her artists
unroll mythic scenes on village scrolls.
Someone is singing.

This stall, that stall, dodging, turning,
reaching for the latest textbook,
down what avenue of learning
will you go to buy your next book?
This stall, that stall,
another shelf, another wall.
O Baul, come dance, come play,
and while away the day,
and do not tell me anything at all.

This stall, that stall, take it, check it,
this fine story, that deep drama,
is there not a grander epic,
a more brilliant panorama?
This stall, that stall,
another shelf, another wall.
O Baul, come play, come sing
the All, the Everything,
and do not tell me anything at all.

This stall, that stall, pausing, drifting,
seeking bargains of the book-ground,
authors noting, titles sifting,
lift your head at last and look round.
This stall, that stall,
another shelf, another wall.
O Baul, come sing, come dance,
and wake me from my trance,
and do not tell me anything at all.

– Maybe we should buy only one book, old Lalon!
A sari-cloth-bound copy of the songs
of one who strummed and strolled the day away
between two villages? Ah Lalon, if your laughter
were heard in Cabinet, at Summit Meetings,
would the world fare the worse?
The crowds are gone,
and with you at my side I see a black cloud
bury the sky. It is a storm of words,
of anger-words, of imprecations, claims,
knife-words. A flash. Ah God, the cold! Don’t, don’t!

Heavy as time that hangs its head,
and heavier than the hard-rock sky,
is a word in anger said.
A murderer I

have killed by curse and cursed the dead.
Heavier than the heaviest cry
is a sigh of deepest dread,
a world nearby.

A poison-moon and seas of lead
encircle it. Who lives a lie,
unsees a slaughter, laughs instead?
I, Lalon, I.

The crowds are back. They are your followers,
the Fair your ashram. Just as for a time
you walked this way, came singing in this air,
still crying out for that mysterious one,
the Person of the Heart, so for an instant
your many lakhs of devotees are here.

Muslim, Hindu, all, Hindu, Muslim
followed him, the nineteenth century long,
and now again, the 31st Book Fair
has a home for one who was both and neither.
Shall I ever forget this wandering day?
What’s here for us, if not some acres of land
to know the corners of, to nod in passing,
to share a thoroughfare, to shape a going,
to be at home, upon a ground of difference?
Are we not still followers of Lalon?

I see him going.
His back is there – . He’s slipped away and gone.
All’s brushed aside. Where is that conversation?
But in the middle square
where billboards pictorise the Spanish theme,
and over the loudspeaker starts and stops
the silken cat-tread of a Spanish poem,
as dusk begins to mingle with the dust,
and as a Fair-thought looks toward the gate
as if – in all due time – to head for home,
even in the prowling colours of the lamp-light,
I blindly see – and farthest-off, half-hear
a singing Baul

leaf on rock
children, children
in the morning
through the gateway

leaf on rock
children, children
in the morning
a living wood

a living word

a living world

Since being with you – is it a hundred years?
two hundred? – I have come to know the touch
of an all-refreshing thankfulness.
Old Baul
you led me here. Your hand is on my shoulder
the rest of my days. As I leave the Fair
it seems that I have undergone a journey
further than I can know. I see a forest
and all about, a firmament star-filled.
Shining on tables, gleaming out behind glass,
all-glittering in a giant constellation,
a million grains. Each pamphlet and each book
at each of a thousand stalls, in transference,
is an unfolding, in the human field,
at one spot at one time, of something other,
further, more. In the night air
balloons are tossed up, a stilt-man is walking,
as thousands travel still next to the word.
The grass has turned to dry mud. Round the corner
an aroma of fried fish has drawn a following
to an exit shop. It seems a journey is over
I went on once. It was a dream ago.
I drift on out. A twelve-day city is gone.

Old Lalon
shall I catch up with you on an open path
between two villages?

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