For many poets in a mega city like Mumbai, writing poetry is not a peaceful activity. This bustling, buzzing Indian metropolis may seem to have recovered from the mindless acts of violence it has suffered – among them, the riots in 1993, and the ten coordinated terrorist attacks in 2008. The scars, however, are still throbbing, and as Mumbaikars move on with their daily lives, poetry takes a back seat; it must jostle for its space, struggle to be heard.
There are those who believe, however, that poetry can be the medicine that heals, even as it stings; in this city of multiple languages, through the cacophony and the din, the honking of cars and hooting of trains, through all the sounds of its 22 official languages and many more that are spoken on the streets, there is one tongue that unites all poets – the language of peace. Mumbai’s poets may arrive at it through different routes, define it in varying ways and seem to live in different worlds, but there is no denying that a common ground exists somewhere, even if it remains hidden on most occasions.
When Michael Rothenberg got in touch through email – a complete stranger from thousands of miles away – the concept that he shared seemed exciting, but strange. One hundred thousand poets? As an acquaintance guffawed over a drink at the Press Club in Mumbai, “you mean, there are actually a hundred thousand poets in the world?”
I had dealt with such skepticism before, when I co-founded the Poetry Circle in Mumbai in 1986; at that time, I did not think anyone was interested in poetry, and yet, the poets came, from across the city, and across the spectrum in terms of age, professions, social strata and political views. I discovered that while skepticism has its place, it cannot be a limiting view.
Given the complexity and multiplicity of Mumbai, then, it was only logical that the 100 Thousand Poets for Change movement in the city go beyond the confines of the English language, down to the grassroots and involving poets writing in a variety of languages. Anju Makhija, an award-winning poet who writes in English, joined me in the venture, and together, we organized two events - a workshop for tribal children, and a multilingual poetry reading on the theme of peace.
The workshop took place at a small school in Bandanwadi, a village that is a couple of hours’ drive away from Mumbai, in the Raigad district. Over the years, Anju had been quietly reaching out to these children, many of whom were the first in their families to receive some kind of formal education. Their assimilation into the new economy may be beneficial in some ways, but it is taking a heavy toll; the children are losing touch with their own aboriginal, or Adivasi, culture and language - a dialect close to Marathi but with its own distinctions. While learning English has become a matter of pride, in the process, a rich legacy of the oral tradition is being lost. The workshop, with the active help of the teachers and local organizations, introduced the youngsters to the songs that their parents and grandparents would traditionally sing while working in the fields, or cutting trees to sell to timber merchants - simple but robust music that eased the struggle of their daily lives.
For us, as the organizers, it was a learning experience, an insight into a rural society that is far removed from the nearby metropolis to which we belong. Unlike many of their urban counterparts, for instance, Adivasi men and women share a sense of equality; after a hard day’s work, they will enjoy a drink together instead of the woman disappearing into the kitchen to prepare the meal while the man relaxes. One of the songs, we discovered, exhorted men not to drink too much because otherwise they may be tempted to beat their wives!
Another song that the children had learned was about education – “give us pencils and we will study”, they sang, with an energy that reverberated across the village. In fact, Anju has been helping children through her Vishindevi Children's Media Centre, and during the course of the workshop under the 100 Thousand Poets for Change, she made arrangements for them to receive books and pencil boxes, which were presented to them at the end of the workshop. After all, if the 100 Thousand Poets for Change movement had to make a difference, it had to be on the ground and in practical ways as well that would go far beyond the immediate event.
If this workshop was a success, it was because of the active participation of the school authorities – Principal Shriram Kamal Patil, who sang, and the teacher Lalita Santosh Ombale, who encouraged the youngsters to perform their traditional dances; another active participant was Santosh Thakur, who works with a local organization nearby, the Yusuf Meherally Centre. For these people too, it was a special occasion, being part of a global movement, right in the heart of a rural district close to Mumbai.
The second event, the multi-lingual sharing of poetry, was hosted by the Press Club in Mumbai on (in) September 24, 2011. It featured senior Gujarati writers Dileep Jhaveri and Kamal Vora; Marathi poets Meenakshi Patil and Hemant Divate; Indian English writers Anand Thakore and Annie Zaidi, and others like John Mathew, who participated in an Open Mic session. Sanskritirani Desai, an award-winning Gujarati poet, learned of the event and turned up; she read a poem in Hindi. Nutan Jani, an academic, launched her book on the occasion – a Gujarati translation of Freedom and Fissures, an anthology of Sindhi Partition poetry that Anju Makhija and I had done a few years earlier.
The collection included work by writers who had lived through the brutal fracturing of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan, a traumatic event in which millions died, or lost their families and ancestral homes. Many others, who could not be present at the Press Club, sent in their poems, including people from other countries, who identified with the Indian idiom. Through the evening, Madhusudan Kumar played his soothing sitar, accompanying the poets as they shared their thoughts.
It was an intimate gathering, a quiet sharing, in a city that has been ravaged by riots, gunmen and bomb blasts. There were no picket demonstrations, no candle-light vigils, no screaming on the streets to get the message across. Hopefully, however, somewhere the message did penetrate, and the effort will remain an ongoing one.
In January 2012, Anju and I organized a multi-lingual poetry reading at the iconic Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai. We decided to stick with the theme of ‘Poems for Peace’, and held the event under the banner of 100 Thousand Poets for Change. There were new audiences here, and some of them were very excited when they heard of this unique movement that Michael Rothenberg set in motion.
With seven hundred events around the world in 2011, ours was just a miniscule drop in the ocean. We may not be able to stop – god forbid - another riot or terrorist attack in the city; we may not be able to counter incidents of road rage, or the pointless violence that erupts between citizens trying to survive the high-pressure living of Mumbai. But for us, the organizers, 100 Thousand Poets for Change was a deeply personal event, acting as a reminder that peace comes to us in many ways and that all poets speak this universal tongue. When 100 thousand poets unite, somewhere, somehow, the rest of the world has to listen – and 2011 was just the beginning.