Orpheus in Kolkata

What breath first breathed the songs of Earth,
the stories that are told?
A god of fishing spread a net
in India of old,

and in an instant it became
a veena, seven-stringed,
to catch the souls of men in air,
new-born and various-winged.

First String – the Para

A nest of roads. There is a kinship here
where people tread with open eyes, and greetings
are less than a thought, merely a lilt on the air,
and time’s a thing in common. In the evening
a host of small shops spark a flickering fire
of services. Wood is sawn for tables,
a cupboard’s made. A heavy steam-iron flattens
an array of shirts. Dancing Needles painted
in Bengali script on the side of a shack
tells of a tailor’s. A dark lane tells of a city.
Somewhere a conch-shell’s blown. Orpheus is singing
and the wild birds and the stones of men’s hearts follow
out of a rough mist, into a courteous throng.
Do not expect a finer pattern than this.

Second String – the Crossing

Esplanade. A city’s crux. On high
a raised loudspeaker stabs out party slogans
that alternate with snatches of love lyrics
in a demented crossroads of the sky.
Below a freeway at cross purposes
lets travel the diverse and separate movements
of all the world. Yellow Ambassador taxis
honk at Xlusivs. Caravans of pedestrians
meet at infinity. And Orpheus laughs,
such a richness of notes flies off the stave,
as belts and combs, wallets and hats and watches
on paper make a treasure-hoard of the pavement,
a stretch of stall-ware at the travellers’ feet;
and at the end, a small boy offering corn-cobs.

Third String – the Temple

Here is the tree with white flowers. Only today
is the house sweetened by the breath of the poet.
Such a hubbub outside. The roads and cities
sound with his songs: the halls of learning resound
in this and that land with the staccato report
of conference papers: films are on air: the globe
thrills to the news of an old man’s death. But here
the anniversary’s quiet. Rabindranath
upon the Earth you took the way of truth
and path of beauty. Now the gulancha flowers
speak with the freshness of a living poet
to all who take the air at Jorasanko.
Orpheus listens. It is his dwelling too.
Here he was born and here today he died.

Fourth String – the River

Take away the crowd, the seething hotbed
of grit: and in a still and dreaming moment,
it is a lane of wonder you are left with.
From this the city grew. From this came dark
ferocities: the shout of a tortured township,
hurrahs of hell. And from it too came song.
Orpheus breathes upon the water’s surface.
Thousands of lines are written onto the mind-slate
of soul on soul. An old ferryman paddles
down the Hooghly, into a world-capital
of poetry. Skirting the white kash-grass
he sings a song about a love he lost.
A river-kite listens, skimming the quiet stream
in the all-open, under the deep of sky.

Fifth String – the Job

“Mend the well! Mend the well!” Walking, walking, walking,
a tribe of hawkers down the dusty paths
of countryside and deep into the city.
“Brooms for sale!” “Sandalwood incense-sticks!”
“Umbrella repairs!” “Get rid of the bugs and mice!”
“New pans for old!” “I’ll fix your keys, your locks!”
“Do you want balloons?” Sustained notes on the air
drift in the byways. Here is the great free market,
the timeless enterprise of India’s calling.
Walking, walking, tirelessly the country
shouts its skills upon an open way.
A trade is done, a body recognised.
What music is this? “Orpheus’s fried snacks!”
cries one loud fellow. “Taste – and you’ll buy stacks!”

Sixth String – the Holiday

On the train into the underworld no-one can move
or stand upright. In the dark and the rain
part of the crush tears free at each stop, as more
fight their way on. In the gasping struggle
a moment of humour as a window-seat woman
drags the window-board shut to avoid the rain,
and a thousand voices roar for the fresh air.
She opens – shuts. Opens – shuts. Anger
and laughter ricochet round the clanking carriage.
Suddenly Orpheus is at peace. The gods
are wonderfully with him on his careering journey.
Durga smiles. Kali is strong and near.
Saraswati dances him on. Look there! – Shiva! –
glimpsed by the iron road. A platform gathers.

Seventh String – the Village

He is there. In the first light after rain,
too softly for the minds of men, the air
carries the sound of a stringed instrument
at its full sweep. A village comes together.
Two trees are reared as sisters, side by side,
a peepul and a banyan; in their shade
a priest gives puja-blessings. On the path
outside the family home of a new marriage,
an alpana-design offers the news
in dust of coloured chalk. No more than this.
No more than this. Orpheus plays, and knows
each last soul in the world is village-born.
On his own path he plays, and walks, and knows
if he does not look back his love is his.

The city is a star of night.
But still one goes along,
and still the rudra-veena plays
a lone and living song.

A city rises by a stream.
In India of old
a god of fishing spread a net:
again a tale is told.

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