OPINION Natalie HolborowNWR Issue r14
Valley, City, Village
Spices hissing in pans. Sellers hollering through a flutter of rainbow silks and clattering plastic sunglasses. Marigolds, bright barnacles, clinging to the side of the brown Ganges, or being roped between fingers on street stalls. Curries swim in steel bowls. Thin dogs scatter the pavements in little wide-eyed heaps. And above all, the car horns. I quickly learned that there is no place like India for screaming car horns and sputtering tuk tuks, swerving like stampeding herds across the dusty fug of the big city.
It was hard not to drag out my notebook every ten minutes to put descriptions onto the page, for fear that I’d lose the experience forever. It couldn’t wait. There is no waiting around in Kolkata; things are always on the move, and things are always on the move now
. My notebook and Samsung picture gallery started to swell with creative snapshots within days of our arrival.
The project was part of the partnership between the British Council Wales, Parthian Books, Literature Wales, Wales Arts Review
and Bee Books, exploring the concept of ‘The Valley, The City, The Village’, named after the Glyn Jones novel of the same title. As part of this project, along with writers Siôn Tomos Owen, Gary Raymond and Sophie McKeand and Parthian publisher Richard Davies, we travelled from the roaring bustle of New Delhi to the famed ‘holy city’ of Varanasi (previously Banaras), onto the lively chaos of Kolkata and the lush jungles of the Sundarbans. With every overnight train that clicked over the tracks, sliding down past wet paddy fields and fields bobbled with thin goats, it became clear that one cannot treat India as simply one country – with its range of wonderful cuisines, impressive array of languages and spectacular landscapes, I found myself waking up in one city and thanking everyone with dhanyavaad
, only to step off a train and start having to use shukriyaa
. Bengali and Hindi roll like silk off the tongue.
The primary focus of our trip was the Kolkata Literary Festival, which took place between 2 and 4 February as part of the city’s world-famous book festival. During this time, we were treated to three full days of back-to-back literary talks, panels, readings and discussions, all set against the world’s largest non-trade book fair. An awful lot of rupees crinkled out of our palms and a straining pile of books heaped themselves into our shoulder bags during those three days.
One of the most impressive statistics of the week-long book fair is its visitor numbers, which average 2.5 million people. Coming as we do from modest cities and comparatively small Welsh valleys, it was hard to get our heads around the fact that just these grounds alone attracted a footfall nearing the population of our own native country. There was no doubt about it: India is passionate about literature. And how infectious that was.
Away from the air-conditioned sofa space of the author’s lounge and beyond the vast expanse of tent after tent crammed with books, people, moon-white lassis
and fragrant cones of jhal muri
, Kolkata is a cacophony of colour, noise, heat, fog and irresistible chaos. Before India, I never thought I’d be able to claim having experienced a ‘white-knuckle’ taxi ride, even though I've been driven from Cardiff to Swansea on a match day, but there is no other term to describe the transport. Even the crows are an octave or two higher, jabbering from telephone wires, flying together like fists. I spend my nights with my head under the hard hostel pillow, earphones jammed into my skull, trying to drown out the sound of all-night festival drumming, car horns and dripping taps, but until my 5.30am alarm, I’m smiling. A barefoot man creaks past the window, dragging his rickshaw behind him like a wounded dog.
We were lucky enough to be in the city during the Saraswati Puja
, a Hindu festival celebrating the goddess of knowledge and learning, an apt theme during our cultural exchange. All through the city, all through the night, pujas
are held in honour of Saraswati, the colour yellow blazing out of sarees and marigolds. Interestingly, children are traditionally taught their first words during this day. This, appropriately enough, placed focus on the power of words and language, something we appreciated as we toured with books under our arms and bubbled in Welsh baritones through stanzas on the main stage of the literary festival. It’s as though we timed it perfectly, learning our new Bengali words and repeating the syllables carefully over spoonfuls of simmering daal.
To discover the real story of a city as culturally and historically rich as Kolkata, I couldn’t recommend enough the walking tours, which take you on two three-hour walks around the lively streets. Our guide was not only impressively knowledgeable, but he embodied a real love for his work and the city as we ducked and dodged through the old bazaars and markets. Here, women plucked their picks from neat pyramids of oranges, cats ribboned around the feet of fishmongers and stallholders touted steaming thimblefuls of chai. We huddled inside the opulent atone courtyards of babas
, saw the great puja
idols being constructed in electric colour and delved into the historical and religious background of Hinduism, Buddhism, Parsee, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Within those hours, we quickly learned that Kolkata and its people are as culturally rich, unique and spiritual as they are charming.
And I must credit the sheer warmth
of the Kolkatan people. In those moments where we had bickered over street maps or squinted at flashing red Bengali on LED train station boards, a local would quickly step in to help. This is a place which not only gets under your skin, it thunders in your eardrums and it warms your heart.
Natalie Ann Holborow
’s debut poetry collection, And Suddenly You Find Yourself
is published by Parthian later this month.
Video by Siôn Tomos Owen
of the title poem of Natalie’s collection And Suddenly You Find Yourself
Photo: Siôn Tomos Owen
previous opinion: Action Versus Inertia
next opinion: Writing the Mother Tongue