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Finding poetry on a city’s streets

Poetry ebbs and flows, it returns like a song, a dash of colour, a transformative beam of light at various turns of one's life

At the launch of ‘New Delhi Love Songs’. Photo courtesy: TCLP
At the launch of ‘New Delhi Love Songs’. Photo courtesy: TCLP

You don’t read me poetry any more," may have been the most romantic complaint my husband has ever made to me. It was six years ago, he was on the phone, calling me from another city, and I had just told him that the poet Wislawa Szymborska had died. I needed to share my grief with him.

To remind him of Szymborska, I read out the poem Under One Small Star as he listened on the phone. We had read it together years ago.

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a photograph of a page from Michael Creighton’s first book of poetry, New Delhi Love Songs, on my Twitter timeline. The words read like a gentle, rhythmic nazm, and even as I read the poem in English, I could hear it in my mind in Hindustani too. It brought alive my city vividly—its desperation, its indifference and the beauty of its small moments. I downloaded the image on my phone. A few days later, on a long drive towards home, I read it aloud to my husband.

Smog and dust mix with the air in New Delhi.
I buy jasmine for her hair in New Delhi.
People come from everywhere to this city;
all are welcomed with a stare in New Delhi.

Poetry has saved my life many times. When I first left school, and discovered the freedom of browsing the city every day on my way to and from Delhi University’s north campus, I also began to follow street signs and signages like an explorer hoping to recognize what I was looking for when I stumbled upon it.

At the Moolchand bus stop, a second-hand bookseller used to arrange books on the pavement, some of which were hard-bound anthologies of literature that once belonged to American high school libraries. I bought as many as I could carry.

This is how I discovered world poetry on the streets of New Delhi. Emily Dickinson and Edna St Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

I found solace in this haiku by Richard Wright as I walked over newly built flyovers, allowing the evening ochre sky to wash over my estrangement with both the city and myself. A line, What happens to a dream deferred, from the poem Harlem by Langton Hughes helped me recognize my own seething discontent.

The internet brought Hindi and Urdu poetry into my life, through songs and videos crafted to bring words alive again. My friends and I sent translations of European poets to each other. Wislawa Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, Czeslaw Milosz and Rainer Maria Rilke illuminated our imagination. Some of the poets from our school curriculum—Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Shelley, Neruda, Kamala Das, E.E. Cummings, D.H. Lawrence, Ogden Nash—returned as good memories.

Poetry ebbs and flows, it returns like a song, a dash of colour, a transformative beam of light at various turns of one’s life.

Last week, when the formal launch of the book New Delhi Love Songs was announced, I was specially drawn to the event because of the unique programme details. The event was hosted by The Community Library Project (TCLP) at their library in the Ramditti J R Narang Deepalaya Learning Centre, situated in a working-class area in south Delhi. TCLP is a citizen-driven initiative managed by a team of volunteers, including Michael Creighton and Mridula Koshy, with the aim of expanding access to books for all. Currently, TCLP runs two community libraries in Delhi, where they also organize read-aloud projects for all their members. Almost 22,000 books were issued in 2017, going up from 17,508 in 2016. Their social media hashtags #ReadingIsThinking and #LibraryMovement are self-explanatory.

There was also an announcement of an open mic session, inviting members from the audience to read aloud their own poems. Before my inhibitions could kick in, I sent a message to Koshy, volunteering to read my own poems at the open mic. I have always wanted to, and yet never done this before.

I realized that my husband wouldn’t be in town on the day of the launch, so I showed the invite to my daughters. I ran my finger over the words, “We will close with a chowmein dinner."

“Should we go a little late," our middle child suggested, “so that we reach closer to the time when the chowmein will be served?"

I pointed out the part where it said, “Join us for tea at 6.30pm."

“You want tea also?" she asked me. I nodded. She shook her head at me. I reminded them that we had all been to this library two years ago, armed with books from their own early childhood. Our children love libraries, so I didn’t have to say anything more.

The event itself was exhilarating. The stage was set in the inner courtyard of the TCLP venue. In the first few rows sat the children members of the community library. The rest of us—parents, friends, writers, poets, readers, Creighton’s colleagues from the American Embassy School, where he teaches—packed ourselves in circles around the stage. There were people peering in from the stairs going towards the first and second floors, in the corridors of all the floors above, and by the windows of rooms that overlooked the inner courtyard.

In a Facebook post, Creighton describes the scene: “We packed somewhere close to 150 people into The Community Library Project—TCLP last night for the launch of New Delhi Love Songs.

“It wasn’t your typical crowd. Yes, there were important members of our literary community…but the room was also full of scores of people from our library community who wouldn’t be able to travel across town for poetry."

The event started with Hindi rap poetry by teenage boys who drew applause from every corner. I read my poem and was reassured by the poet Manglesh Dabral that it was a good decision. Finally, Creighton took centre stage. After he recited each poem, his library colleague Sujit Prasad read out a translation in Hindi. As he spoke to the literary critic Trisha Gupta, every now and then Creighton would switch humbly to Hindi, providing much entertainment to all.

“Still, the ‘important’ thing about last night was not the poetry, but the people who came to listen to poetry," Creighton elaborates.

“I don’t want to overstate this…this was just a very small step towards building a more democratic intellectual life in this city. But there were a few moments when I thought, Jesus, I know we’re not there yet—but yeah, when we get there, it might look something like this.

“We need libraries and literature in every part of this city. If we do that, who can say what we’ll be capable of?"

By the time we got our copies of their books signed by both Creighton and Koshy, my children and I had forgotten all about the chowmein as we stepped out into the clear night outside—satiated with connections, poetry and laughter.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets @natashabadhwar

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