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> > > Debjani Chatterjee: A Miscellany

13 January 2015

Award-winning poet-translator, Debjani Chatterjee MBE, shares a few poems from her collections, including her latest book Do You Hear the Storm Sing? (Core Publications, winter 2014). She has been called 'a rainbow spirit' (Paul Beasley) and 'a voice of rare originality' (David Morley).

photo of two the author debjani chatterjee pictured outside 11 Donnington Rd

Debjani Chatterjee

I lived in many countries and thrived on the poetry and stories of diverse cultures. Ambitious to be a writer, I had poems and stories published in the children's section of Hong Kong Sunday newspapers and in magazines like Bharat Ratna. I won a Shankar's International Children's Poetry Competition.

My parents were supportive, but insisted that writing was just a hobby. I studied Literature and Religion at universities in Cairo, Canterbury and Lancaster. After completing a PhD, I experienced ‘proper’ jobs in: industry, education, community relations and the voluntary sector. Voluntary work and writing are my life's staples. I became a full-time writer around 1997. To date, I have written over sixty books.

Passionate about education, I chaired the National Association of Writers in Education. My interest in community writing led me to produce bilingual books like 'Who Cares? Reminiscences of Yemeni Carers' (Sheffield Carers Centre). Writing for wellbeing is another special interest: I write for 'The Colour of Health' and support mental health charities like Survivors' Poetry and Hyphen-21.   

The only time I could not write was the year following my first cancer diagnosis (2007), a year that scarred me with physical and mental disabilities, including: neuropathy, osteoporosis, restricted mobility in both arms, post-traumatic stress and an unmanageable phobia. In 2010 I set up The Healing Word support group for cancer survivors and carers. Writing, storytelling and art therapies loom large in my life. 

In this selection, I offer mainly recent work, ‘What I Did Today’, ‘Just Middling’ and ‘Recognition’ from my latest collection, 'Do You Hear the Storm Sing?' (Core Publications, 2014). There is one translation: Nazrul Islam's 'Eid Mubarak! Eid Congratulations!' that I included in an anthology I co-edited with my husband Brian D'Arcy - Let's Celebrate! Festival Poems from Around the World (Frances Lincoln Children's Books).

What I Did Today  

Today I blew up the Northern General - again;
bulldozed the waiting room in Hell
where I had sat all morning in a silly gown;
I strangled the arrogant GP who knew so little 
but pretended to know it all; 
my itching hands throttled the oncologists:
the indifferent one who swanned off on holiday,
forgetful of referring me for a Hickman Line
under anaesthesia at a half-decent hospital,
and the one who lost my consent form and thrust me
into a nightmare place of endless screams;
I fought the boffin butcher who drilled holes in me;  
and finally I exterminated
every homicidal side-kick masquerading
as an angel of mercy...
All these things and more I did today.

In violent days and everlasting nights,
I’ve lost count of the times I have done these things...

© Debjani Chatterjee
Pleaase visit this link for information about the Northern General Hospital
 

Just Middling

Just the middle brother, I was no one’s favourite. 

I soon learnt my place in an illustrious family.
I did not have Elder Brother’s patience,
nor his insight and saintly disposition;
nor Arjuna’s charisma and military might.
Even our half-brothers, the twins Nakula and Sahadeva,
had their divine good looks to recommend them.

But I - I was always just middling;

so early on I learnt to cultivate my brawn.
I do admit that brains were never my forte,
I was not exactly stupid, but I muddled
through our childhood studies
with more painful diligence than aplomb.
Our teachers and elders had such
great expectations of my shining brothers
and the playful twins got away with smiles
and no homework done, but I was never excused.

The fighting club was my weapon of choice
and wrestling my preferred leisure.
Slowly, surely, I built my muscles
and learnt to grin away everyone’s jokes
about my all-consuming hunger,
my supposed dense wits. ‘Thick as an elephant,’
they said, ‘and jumbo’s never-ending appetite!’ 

But I knew, alas, that my skin was thin.
Food was just a substitute - it was love I craved.
Ma’s inviting lap was ever ready for the twins
who must never feel any less her sons than Madri’s.
Her embracing arms were stretched for her darlings,
my noble brothers Yudhishtira and Arjuna,
but I spied the pain in her soft eyes -
they looked beyond us as if for another
and I could only guess at all the losses in her life:
Father in heaven, Mother Madri and many more -
all salutations to the noble ones.

‘But look, Ma! Look at me. Here I am - your middle son.

When my siblings leave to carve their places in history,
I will still be your rock; Destiny sent me to this family,
it made me your son - and you my mother.’
Once I asked shyly to sit on her lap
but she said: ‘Son, you are like a hillock,
your weight would crush my bones!’
I rushed outside, I howled as I hugged
a tall peepal till it shattered like my young boy’s heart. 

We were royal Pandu’s sons, five Pandava brothers,
and each one counted like the finger of a hand.
But I was the sticking-out sore thumb:
the fat lonesome one in a close-knit family –

just the middle one that did not fit in. 

That was when Great Father Bhishma found me.
I did not hear his footsteps in my mad howling.
He held me with his powerful arms and drew me
sobbing to his man-mountain chest.
Sitting on the wreck of the sacred tree,
he asked me, for once, to sit on his solid knees.
‘Son,’ he said, for we were all ‘son’ to him,
though he was generations removed.
‘In our glorious Raghu dynasty,
we are both big men. You take after me.
I come to this spot to share my woes with the river.
Though my goddess-mother flew back to Heaven,
no mother can abandon her child and she left
in this flowing river her undying love.
Ma Ganga is equally yours, so tell her your sorrows;
she will wash them away and pour her blessed peace.’

The great patriarch did not question what ailed me.
I did not ask what troubles brought him to the river.
But I sobbed into his silvery beard.
My archer-brother Arjuna was his favourite,
but it little mattered then. I would have given
my life for Great Father Bhishma
because he told me: ‘Never forget your glorious role -
you are the Middle son. The honour
of our dynasty rests on your able shoulders.
In time, Son, your strength will surpass mine.

Stand firm in the middle - be the family’s strong, just heart.’
© Debjani Chatterjee

Note: Bheema or Bhima was the middle of Kunti’s three sons, whom she raised together with their twin half-brothers, who were Madri’s sons. The five were called Pandavas and are the heroes of The Mahabharata. Bhishma, son of Ganga and grand-uncle of the Pandavas, was called Bhishma Pitamaha or ‘Great Father Bhishma’. Please click on this link for a brief summary of The Mahabharata story 


Recognition

When I asked him why
he chose to stay here,
where did such mercy
spring from,

he said that to die
was easy – relatively.
Magnanimity
wasn’t in the picture.

It was his karma.
Being a Bodhisattva
is to know one’s Buddha nature
and to recognise

that this is nirvana.
© Debjani Chatterjee

Please visit Tricycle.com for an article on ‘What is a Bodhisattva?’


A Tribute to Mahmoud Darwish
(after visiting his tomb and museum, 26th October 2013)

It was a brave thing you did, Mahmoud,
though a simple word. You said:
‘I am an Arab’.
Millions kissed you on both cheeks.

It was a hard way to live, Mahmoud,
though a noble hope. You said:
‘We are both human’.
Billions hold you in their hearts.
© Debjani Chatterjee

From 'Poems for Mamilla' edited by Seamus Cashman (Otherworld Press, 2014)
Please visit Mahmoud Darwish for further information about the poet and his poem ‘I am an Arab’ 


All Whom I Welcome Leave

All whom I welcome leave without my leave,
Just as they come without invitation.
I am not their host, so why do I grieve?

Respite from sickness is a mere reprieve,
Death remains the final registration.
All whom I welcome leave without my leave.

While graying hair and shades of old age cleave
To me, those I love abandon station.
I am not their host, so why do I grieve?

Because I wear my heart upon my sleeve,
I stumble, prey to Death’s revelation:
All whom I welcome leave without my leave.

A spectator’s role I cannot achieve;
My life explodes in participation.
Though I am not their host, Must I still grieve?

I writhe in every net that Fate may weave.
Wisdom accepts my human condition.
All whom I welcome leave without my leave;
I am not their host, so why do I grieve?
© Debjani Chatterjee

From 'Albino Gecko' by Debjani Chatterjee (University of Salzburg)


Eid Mubarak! Eid Congratulations!
By Kazi Nazrul Islam 
Translated from Bengali by Debjani Chatterjee

Eid Mubarak! Eid Congratulations!
Let each home have celebrations.
Friend or foe, stranger or dear one,
Whether near or far away,
I send you greetings on this day.
I give myself to all, with love for everyone.

In zakat charity I offer God this aching heart forever.
Whether beggar or emperor,
Let us sing of His splendour.
I bring a cup of fellow-feeling;
Come, believers, for Iftar dining.
Come together in love and let us share God's blessing.
© Debjani Chatterjee

Note: Muslims fast from dawn to dusk in the month of Ramadan and they break their fast with an evening meal called Iftar. They also give zakat or alms in charity.

From Let's Celebrate! Festival Poems from Around the World edited by Debjani Chatterjee & Brian D'Arcy (Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2011)

Please click on this link to visit Debjani Chatterjee's website

Comments

Claire McLaughlin

/
26 January 2015

For me, this selection of poems shows exactly why Paul Beasley and David Morley have responded so admiringly to Debjani Chatterjee’s work. Her 5 poems presented here draw with ease on a wide range of material and poetic styles – on Hindu myth in Just Middling, on buddhist spirituality in Recognition, on Palestinian history in I Am An Arab, and on Western forms and freedoms in All Whom I Welcome, Leave and What I Did Today.

In them all there is a quiet but confident voice that speaks about what is centrally important to the human heart and spirit. At first I thought that Just Middling, asking me to get involved with “foreign” characters in an unfamiliar story from a strange culture, probably wasn’t for me; but then I was completely hooked by the portrait of Bhina, who is not only a superhuman figure out of myth, but any and every child who feels himself an unvalued misfit in his own family: yearning for signs of love and special regard, swallowing down hurtful comments, desperately sensitive to suffering in others, longing to give, as well as receive, healing and comfort.

It is so moving; it expands awareness. That I have to overcome a ‘difference’ barrier in myself in order to know the poem, makes me like it even more! It’s also reinforced my sense that all the great myths have much to say about the human condition, even on the really ‘modern’ level of psychology. And it is such a lovely poem in itself, with all the exotic names and background, and the warm, satisfying ending.

Recognition and I Am An Arab also gave me things to think about, and it is excellent that Debjani has supplied links which will help one find out more about the background to these poems; I had never heard of Mahmoud Darwish, and was interested to know about him. I think Debjani is a ‘rainbow spirit’ also in the sense that she can write about a whole spectrum of human emotions, and bring them powerfully and excitingly together in one poem.

I love What I Did Today - its detail, the telling precision of its words – because it is not only angry, funny and despairing, in a way we surely all recognise and can admit to, about how the author was treated at the Northern General, but quietly conveys, in its last few lines, the pain such treatment causes, the deep and lasting damage it does.

In All Whom I Welcome, Leave, I think Debjani Chatterjee wonderfully uses the convoluted villanelle form to express a sequence of thoughts and feelings that keep restlessly returning on one another, will not resolve. And the Kazi Nazrul Islam translation that ends this selection seems to capture a unique, exotic flavour that makes us keen to know more of this poet’s work.

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