The Chocolate Saints

… word ‘Russia’ is enough to make some Bengalis teary-eyed. They made me recite my poems at great length in Russian, although they didn’t understand a word. In return some of the men recited Bengali poems. I was surprised to learn that the plant boss had given permission for this exchange and that the whole factory had come to a halt for the duration. I live in Boston where poetry is an obscure priestly pursuit. I thought to myself, Calcutta’s air is thick with a million fumes but here a poet can breathe easy. Perhaps I’d been affected by Bengali sentimentality, after all I’m Russian.

After that first visit I returned several times. I’ve travelled in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra and stayed in ashrams in Delhi, Benares, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Dehra Doon, and rural Bengal. A pilgrim’s progress and a poet’s progress. I learned Urdu and Hindi to the point of some fluency. When I visit India, which isn’t as often as I’d like, I use Calcutta as my base and branch out from there to Delhi, Bombay, Madras.

I met Xavier and Doss toward the end of my first visit when I attended the poetry conference. I had done some translation, Pushkin, Mandelshtam, Brodsky. When Xavier asked if I could contribute to the anthology I thought he wanted my translations from the Russian. But why would he want Russians in an anthology of Indian poetry? When I realized what he was getting at I didn’t agree right away. I didn’t know if my Urdu was good enough to translate poetry into English. Of course that was the point. Doss and Xavier came up with the idea of anthologizing the kind of poets who had never before been anthologized, outliers, rebels, hermits, dangerous faces unwelcome in polite society. They found poets no one had ever heard of, or had heard of once and quickly forgotten, or had heard of many times over a period and then never heard of again.