Thursday, May 26, 2016



How much of good intention,
That does not listen too,
Can lead to tribulations
For such as me and you.

We do not know each other's minds.
Suspicion then is bred.
When trust is violated,
Then all grows dark--or red.

How much misunderstanding
Has led to needless wars!
How much of blood is wasted
For Venus or for Mars!

We go about our business,
Not looking down the street,
Where those who're wretched gather,
In the sun or in the sleet.

When ignorance is sacred,
To Mammon then we bow.
How little is our knowledge!
How much we do not know!
How much of evil rises
From blindness of the heart!
How much of woe, imparted
Through guns or legal art!

How bitter is enslavement
That tortures body-mind!
How dear is freedom’s potion
That’s still so hard to find!

The winds are strong. The tempest
Has darkened sky and sea.
We pray, amidst the tumult,
For calm again to be.

The fever still is rising.
We shiver, toss in pain.
Oh when will this be over,
So we are well again?

There’s darkness, grief and sorrow,
Deception, slaughter, pain.
But there’s light and joy and laughter,
And there’s hope that burns again.

2016 May 26th, Thu.
Brooklyn, New York

Sunday, May 22, 2016

When Jesus Christ is CEO

When Jesus Christ is CEO

When lamas, popes are set on thrones,
And ayatollahs throw their stones,
Who heeds Gotama's words? Alas!
The one who does is deemed an ass!

When Mammon rules the hearts of men,
What chance is there for Yesu then?

So missionaries once would bless
The remnant natives who'd confess
That they had sinned, so greedy Spain
Was not to blame for all their pain.

The peasants labored in the field,
As kings and priests enjoyed the yield.

A king, enthroned, could sip his wine
As priests declared that he's divine.
The temples then were filled with gold
As pigs and slaves were bought and sold.

It then was so and now is still.
The names have changed, but not the swill.

So presidents invoke the Lord,
And guns have now replaced the sword.
The gods on high, it now appears,
Have bombs that burn. They shed no tears.

The TV's used by reverend Stash
For praising God and raising cash.

When godmen and the Aga Khan
Are weighed in gold, should we demand
That they be gilded then as well?
So Mammon leads us all to hell.

When Jesus Christ is CEO,
It's time for us to quietly go.
2016 May 22, Sun
Brooklyn, New York

Friday, May 20, 2016

As Souls Who're Freed

As Souls Who're Freed

 It always breaks my heart to see
A bird that's caged that once was free.

And so I also take delight
In seeing wheeling birds in flight.

I thank you, Jean, for filming this
And posting it for viewers' bliss.

So too, perhaps, we both shall fly
As souls who're freed, when bodies die.

And if our dying be the end,
We yet at times can still pretend.

So in our dreams our minds can fly,
As gulls and pigeons, through the sky.

And from on high we then might see
The ones below—like you and me.

2016 May 20th, Fri.
Brooklyn, New York

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


In Between the Cliff Walls, White Mountains, New Hampshire
There are places and times, in the course of our lives,
When we seem to be able to be
At the pivots of space and of time—that are still,
As the eye of the storm in the sea.

So the universe gyres around us and yet
We seem to be frozen in place.
There are nodes that are still that exist in the swells
Of the ocean of time and of space.

There's the sea and the sky and the water and air.
There's the land with its rock and its earth.
And they pass through us each as we pass through these things,
As the spirit that's given us birth.

There are times when we trek through the ravines and see
The stars and the hand of the dawn.
Then we're grateful we've lived to have tasted of grace
In our time on this planet we're on.

In the depths of despair, in the darkness of grief,
In the sorrow and madness of war,
We have glimpses of things, without and within,
That remind us of all that we are.

We're no more than the ants and no less than the gods.
We are passing, like hues in the sky.
And yet we are born and can open our hearts
And our minds—and that innermost eye.

2016 May 18th, Wed.
Brooklyn, New York   


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Notes on the poem "Choices"

Notes on the words 
    a) "surd"
    b) "root"
in the poem "Choices"

a) surd   /sərd/

adjective: surd

1. MATHEMATICS: (of a number) irrational.
2. PHONETICS: (of a speech sound) uttered with the breath and not the voice (e.g., f, k, p, s, t ).

noun: surd;  plural noun: surds

1. MATHEMATICS:  a surd number, especially the irrational root of an integer.
2. PHONETICS:  a surd consonant.

mid 16th century: from Latin surdus ‘deaf, mute’; as a mathematical term, translating Greek (Euclid) alogos ‘irrational, speechless,’ apparently via Arabic jiḏr aṣamm, literally ‘deaf root.’ The phonetics senses date from the mid 18th century.

Source: (searched for “surd definition”)
Both surd and its more common cousin absurd come from the Latin word surdus, meaning "unhearing, deaf, muffled, or dull." Absurd traveled through Middle French before arriving in English in the early 16th century. Its arrival preceded by a few decades the adoption of the noun version of our featured word directly from Latin, which referred to an irrational root, such as √3. By the early 17th century surd had gained a more general application. The adjective describes speech sounds that are not voiced-for example, the \p\ sound, as opposed to the voiced \b.


b1) root of a number

The root of a number x is another number, which when multiplied by itself a given number of times, equals x. For example the second root of 9 is 3, because 3x3 = 9.

The second root is usually called the square root.
The third root is susually called the cube root

b2) root of a word

The root in language is either a base word, or a part of a word to which affixes are added. Or, it is the part left after affixes have been taken away. Technically, it is the smallest unit which carries meaning: it cannot be reduced into smaller units. It is the same as a free-standing morpheme.

If a root is a whole word, then it is called a base word. It is the word which stands at the head of a dictionary definition, as the base of a word family.

Examples (in each case, with the root bold underlined):

science. This one is interesting because it is so ancient. It is a descendant of the Indo-European root scei, meaning to cut or split. It comes to us via the Latin language.


Click here to return to the poem "Choices".


Monday, May 16, 2016



It’s been awhile but now I’m writing
Once again in metered verse.
And some of those to whom I’m sending
This will smile or laugh—or curse.

And since I’ve blanked out my emotions,
I consider now my choices:
How to give a form substantial
To the whispers of my voices.


Should I only draw my pictures—
Not with crayons, but with words—
Painting sunsets, valleys, mountains,
Fields and skies with flying birds?
Or should I chant in rhythms ancient,
Sounding vowels in my words,
Seeking rhymes and rising, falling—
Trilling like the singing birds?

Or should I write of what I’ve eaten—
Rice and cabbage, lentils, curds—
Writing also of digestion
And of what I’ve left as turds?

Perhaps it’s time that mathematics
Filled my verse with roots and surds— *
Or perhaps, I should write dirges
For Armenians, Turks and Kurds…


Should I fill my lines with nonsense,
Wasting my and readers’ time—
Though they offer still amusement,
Spoken out aloud with rhyme?
Or should I write of what I’m thinking,
How I view this sorry world?
Will you enter in the prisons,
In the hells in which we’re hurled?

Or should I write of feelings pleasant,
Sing of happiness and love,
Or raise my head towards the heavens,
Howling at the moon above?
Who can answer whence or whither,
Give us half a reason why
Each of us is born to dither
Just a while—and then to die?

I’ll be gone and then my verses
Will be lost, as all things are.
Why then should I write of living—
Joy and sorrow, peace and war?

Who will read these verses, written
In my notebooks in the night?
Who will bother still to mouth them,
Holding scribblings to the light?

Mine are verses born of grieving—
More of black and gray than white—
Yet there’s gold and silver in them—
Sparkles, hidden, of delight.
So I write, as if by random
Breezes blown, till gone from sight—
Like a little sailboat, bobbing
Through the heaving swells of night.

Should I end this poem neatly—
Tie the ends and pull them tight,
Or should I leave them hanging loosely,
Wondering why I chose to write?


There!  It’s done, for better or—
As often far more likely—worse:
I’d felt the mists and rising vapors—
Asking for my rhyming verse.

Whence, these beings of the ether,
Seeking, each, their human voice?
Why is it—that we are bidden,
Yet appear to still have choice?

2016 May 13th Fri
Brooklyn, New York
(first two stanzas, central single stanza and
last two stanzas added 2016 May 16th, Mon)


 * Listed here are the uses of the words:
    (a) “surd” in mathematics and phonetics;
    (b) “root” in mathematics and linguistics.

Saturday, May 14, 2016



She told herself that he was worth no more
Of all her tears and unrequited love,
Remembering the many scars she bore—
Betrayals, witnessed by the gods above,
That she had only learned of later, yet
So painful then, with wounds she’d buried deep,
That even now she still could not forget
Those gifts of venom that were hers to keep.
And yet, she loved him, more than honor, life—
That man who would not take her as his wife,
But stole her heart as none had done before
Or ever since.  She only wanted more
Of what he’d tossed her, knowing she was his.
So love was hate, as passion often is.

2016 May 14th, Sat.
Brooklyn, New York

For perhaps a more pleasant note, see:

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stay Awhile

Stay Awhile
I’m grateful that you came and I
Am sorry that you’ll go.
But good things always have an end—
And this I’ve come to know.

So when it comes to say goodbye,
We’ll wave to one another.
So did I once to my sister and
My father and my mother.

And once I had a spouse but now
I’m left myself, alone.
I now depend on strangers, since
It rarely rings—that ‘phone.

And so, I deal with those, with whom
Connections still are slight.
And some do wrong, while others try
To do what seems is right.

Don’t leave me to their mercies yet,
But stay with me awhile.
It’s good to hear your voice again,
It’s good to see your smile.

At times, I tried to think  ahead,
But fled to safer ground.
For I could see, where I would be
If I was still around.

But now, I'm here, as I had feared,
And so I fear no more.
I live—and day by day I bear
Whatever is in store.

And so I know how it will be,
As days and months go by,
And even years, until it's time
To close my eyes and die.

The seasons, they will come and go,
But all I’ll see is walls,
And not the sky and sun and clouds
Or rain or snow that falls.

They’ll wall me in, within a room,
With the TV as a friend,
And wheel me out, in summertime
Or when I meet my end.
But so it is, and so will be.
And what are we to do?
But stay awhile and chat, my friend,
So I can smile at you.

2016 April 12th, Thu.
Brooklyn, New York 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In April, See the Tulips Blow

In April, See the Tulips Blow

Do listen to the cooing dove,
And listen to the songs of love.
In April, see the tulips blow
And see the sky of spring above.

From sources that we do not know
There comes at times this gentle flow.
It whispers kindness, caring, love—
And as it came, it then can go.

We still remember what it said,
Those things that each of us should know.
So when it's gone, from heart and head
We sing these gentle songs instead.

2016 May 11th, Wed
Brooklyn, New York

This was written after listening to the first of these two
Celtic bards:

Donovan (Donovan Philips Leitch):  Catch the Wind

Ralph McTell:  The Streets of London

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Notes on "The Kalka Mail"

Notes on the poem "The Kalka Mail"

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A) Place Names and other Vocabulary (in order of occurrence in the poem), with Pictures and Maps

B) Some Cities, States/Provinces and Regions of the Subcontinent (mentioned in the poem or its preface)

C) Geography of the Subcontinent and the Violent Creations of Three of its Modern Nation-States

Political map showing Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent, with its six nation-states

A) Place Names and other Vocabulary (in order of occurrence in the poem), with Pictures and Maps

A1) Kalka:  See B1 below.
A2) ikka or ekka:
an Urdu/Hindi term for a two-wheeled carriage drawn by one horse, with seats for the driver and a couple of passengers. The tanga/tonga is a larger version, with more seats, at times covered. The bagghi (buggy) is an yet larger, four-wheeled carriage. These traditional horse-drawn passenger vehicles of the northern subcontinent have been disappearing from the cities. See:  and .

Ekka carriage, 1894

Tanga in Saharanpur
A3) riksho: Bengali word for rickshaw--an import from China or Southeast Asia, in which the passenger(s), seated on a two-wheeled, hooded cart, were pulled along by a racing man, often running barefoot on the hot tar of city streets. In the city's periphery, where there was less automobile traffic, the less manoueverable cycle-rickshaws were also permitted. In these, a man pedaled a bicycle attached to the passenger cart. A motorized version of this, still common in many cities of the subcontinent, is the scooter-rickshaw. And then there was the phat'phat'i or phat'phat'iya.  See A19 (the last entry for A) below.

Rickshaw, with puller and passenger, Bengal ?

Rickshaws in Rain
Calcutta rickshaw

Hand pulled rickshaw in Kolkata's waterlogged streets
Sheikh Abdullah of Kashmir and Jawaharlal Nehru, walking (on left),
with Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel. in rickshaw, Shimla (Simla), 1940's

Two young women on a cycle rickshaw 

The Plight of Rickshaw Pullers  in Kolkata -- a Video

A4a) T'aligo`nj (Tallygunge) and Bou Bajar (Bau Bazaar): localities in the city of Kolkata (Calcutta), regarding which see B6 below.

A4b) Asansol: the second largest city (after Kolkata) in the state of West Bengal, in Bardhaman (Burdwan) district.  Asansol lies on the state's western border, near to the state of Jharkhand.  On trains headed northwest to Dilli (Delhi) from Kolkata, this is the last major stop in West Bengal.  It will be better described and illustrated when this page is updated.
A5) “Ça, gawrom ça!” ("Cha, gawrom cha!"):  "Tea, hot tea!" a commonly heard cry, in Bangla (the Bengali language) in railway stations. Tea vendors used to run along the platform dispensing hot, milky tea from kettles into disposable, baked-clay cups. Similar cries were used by tea-vendors speaking related Eastern Indian languages and dialects

Vendor pouring tea for a passenger in a train at a railway platform in India
Disposable baked clay tea cups, Kolkata (Calcutta), West Bengal
A6) Bengal: a fertile, riverine, densely populated region in the eastern part of the subcontinent.  It consists mainly of the combined delta of the Ganga (Ganges) and Brahmaputra rivers. The main languages are Bengali and its dialects--although many other languages are also spoken. Islam and Hinduism are the major religions, although several other religions are also extant.  Bengal was once an undivided cultural and political entity,  However, it was divided, in 1947, on religious grounds, into what is still the Indian state of West Bengal and what first became (1947-1970) East Pakistan and then (from 1970 onward) the country of Bangladesh.  Please see B4 below.

A7) “Çae, çae—garam çae!” ("Chaey, chaey--garam chaey!"): "Tea, tea--hot tea!" in Hindi/Urdu and related Northern Indian languages and dialects. The contents, methods of preparation and flavors of the milky teas prevalent in different parts of the subcontinent vary from region to region.

Tea in a kulhar
A8) "Kaavi, kaavi, kaaviya!":  the cry, "Coffee, coffee, coffee!" in Tamizh (Tamil), a language spoken mainly in the southeastern region of peninsular India, being the main language of Tamilnad'u (Tamilnadu).  Similar cries are used by vendors speaking related Dravidian languages, The wonderful flavor of freshly-brewed coffee in south India is something that remains with one forever.  See also Çennai (Chennai/Madras city) in B3 below.

South Indian coffee, frothed and served in a typical metal cup and bowl
South Indian coffee being cooled and aerated (frothed)
South Indian coffee being cooled and aerated
A9) Deccan
: southern.  This Anglo-Indian word is from the Sanskrit dakxin (dakshin), meaning "right-hand". This is the direction towards south when one is facing east, which is purva (in front) while the west is paxçim (pashchim, behind).  The Deccan plateau occupies the interior part of peninsular India, which was once attached to what is now eastern Africa. The Tethys Sea that once arced  between what is now peninsular India and the rest of Asia further north was filled up, over the eons, by sediments carried down from the Himalayas that were raised up (along with the Tibetan plateau and more) as the Indian-Australian plate wedged under the Eurasian plate.  These deposits now constitute the low-lying, fertile arc of the Indo-Gangetic plains.

The Deccan Plateau, in relation to other physiographic divisions of India 

Plateau regions of peninsular India
source: unknown

A10) Çhot’a Nagpur (Chhota Nagpur): a hilly region, in the east-central part of the subcontinent, with the hills being being the eroded remains of a northeastern intrusion of the southern plateaus. It lies between the rest of peninsular India to its south and west, the upper plains of the Ganges to its north and west, and the Bengal delta to its east. From the trains running between Kolkata (Calcutta) and Dilli (Delhi) in the 1950's, the crossing through this hilly region between the delta and the northern plains was magical, with the tall, dreaming Chhota Nagpur hills, which were then still densely wooded, appearing blue-green from a distance.

Chhota Nagpur Ecoregion
Low outlying hills of Chhota Nagpur in Bankura district, W. Bengal

A11) Mughal Sarai:  "Mongol" caravanserai -- camp or watering place for caravans and armies.

The Mughals were an imperial dynasty in India, whose first emperor, Babar, became marooned in north India during a looting raid, when his ancestral  seat, in the Ferghana valley of what is now Afghanistan, was taken by a rival warlord.  Babar was descended, on his father's side, from Islamicized and Persianized Turkic tribesmen, with Timurlang (Tamerlane) as a paternal ancestor. On his mother's side, he was of Mongol descent, with Genghis Khan as a maternal ancestor. So Babar was able to command, as his raiding army, a diverse crew of Central Asian and Afghan tribes, who collectively came to be known in India as "mughals" or "moghuls".

Mughal Sarai has been an important railway junction in North India since British times, lying about halfway between Kolkata and Dilli (Delhi), in what is now the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (Northern Province).  It lies close to the city of Varanasi (Benares/Banaras/Kashi) on the Ganges, the ancient holy city of the Hindus.  Mughal Sarai lies on the way to Varanasi from Gaya, a city to its east, in Bihar, near to Bodhgaya, a site revered by Buddhists as being the place where the Buddha was enlightened.

When we note the location between Varanasi and Gaya, and note further that this railroad junction at Mughal Sarai came into existence during British rule, while the much older name of the place, with its Mongol, Turkic and Farsi roots, derives from northern and central Asia, we begin to get a sense of some of the cultural interactions that occurred in this region.

Sign at the Mughal Sarai Railroad Junction, in Hindi, English and Urdu
A12) Dilli: the current pronunciation, in Hindi/Urdu and most other Indian languages, of "Delhi", the historic seat of empire in North India, situated strategically at the divide between the plains of the Indus to the west and those of the Ganges to the east.

Tomb of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, son of Babar, in what is
now a suburb of New Delhi, near to the gravesite of the saint Nizamuddin,
and close to a library devoted to the Urdu poet Ghalib.  When I was a young
teenager, my family moved from Kolkata to New Delhi, and we lived next
to this site.  I spent many hours, after school and on weekends, on the
greens, where our two dogs could run free.  Humayun might not have
liked this, as dogs, like pigs, are considered to be haraam in Islam.
Purana Qila (Old Fort), New Delhi. These fortifications were renovated
by Humayun, 1533-1538, and soon after by an Afghan king, Sher Shah
Suri, who defeated Humayun. But the site dates back several thousand
years, as has been revealed by excavations, and might even be the
Indraprastha of the Pandava clan, heroes of the
ancient Hindu Arya epic, the Mahabharata.,_Delhi.jpg

A13) Noakhali: a district in East Bengal (later part of East Pakistan and then part of Bangladesh). The Hindu-Muslim riots that had started in Calcutta on the "Direct Action Day" called by the Muslim League leaders, M.A. Jinnah and H.S. Suhrawardy, spread quickly to other parts of Bengal, with Nokahali being one of the worst affected.  My father, the photographer Sunil Janah, was then working for the Communist Party of India.  Along with the American photographer, Margaret Bourke White, he had made, by steamboat and other means, the long and dangerous journey, from Calcutta to Noakhali, even as the riots were raging there, with residents fleeing burning villages. Some escaped on boats, others made their way to railway platforms to wait for trains that never arrived. Gandhi later also traveled to ravaged Noakhali, and began a fast that might have helped end the riots. Even more lethal riots, pitting Hindus and Sikhs against Muslims, had, by then, occurred in the Punjab.
A14) Dhaka:  formerly Dacca, the capital of East Pakistan and later Bangladesh.
A15) Howrah:  a city immediately across the wide Hooghly river from Kolkata (Calcutta),  The main local railway station is located there.
A16) Medinipur:  Midnapore, the southwestern-most district of  West Bengal, bordering the state of Od'isha (Orissa). It is a coastal district on the Bay of Bengal. My father's father came from that district. The city of Tamluk (ancient Tamralipta) was an old sea-port from which locals once voyaged across the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean to places as far as what is now Malaysia, Indonesia and Indochina,
A17) Çat'ga~:  Chittagong, the southeastern-most district of  East Bengal (later East Pakistan and then Bangladesh). Chittagong district borders the Arakan region of Myanmar (Burma), contains hilly tribal regions in its interior and the important port city of Chittagong on its coast. It lies across the Bay of Bengal from Medinipur and Od'isha,
A18) 'Pind'i, Quetta and Peshawar:  'Pind'i (Rawalpindi), is a city in what became West Pakistan. It is situated at the start of the foothills of the Himalayas, close to the modern capital of Islamabad.  The Pakistani capital has moved over time from the port city of Karachi to Rawalpindi to Islamabad.  Quetta is a city in Baluchistan, in the west of Pakistan, bordering Iran and Afghanistan. Peshawar is a city in what is now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province) in the north of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan.
A19) phat'phat'i: phatphatiya, an eight passenger vehicle, consisting of an elevated, covered cart attached to a powerful motorcycle.  This was once a popular means of transport in Dilli, being a larger cousin of the scooter rickshaw and much noisier.  The loud, puttering sound of its engine led to its onomatopoeic name.

Two three-wheeled vehicles:  a scooter rickshaw (left), driven by a turbaned Sikh man,
and a phatphatiya (right) carrying two women passengers on the covered cart, driven
by a man seated on the attached motorbike.  Connaught Place, New Delhi.  


B) Some Cities, States/Provinces and Regions of the Subcontinent (mentioned in the poem or its preface)

Political map showing Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent, with its six nation-states

B1) Kalka:  a city, currently located in the state of Haryana, adjoining the Union Territory of Delhi, in the Republic of India. It was formerly part of the larger (east) Punjab state, and, prior to the partition of 1947, part of the even larger undivided Punjab,  Kalka is an important railway terminal, including for the Kalka Mail train that ran, as I remember from the 1950's, for a distance of about a thousand miles, between Howrah station (across the river from Kolkata/Calcutta) in the state of West Bengal, near to the border with what is now the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh, and Kalka, which is not far from the border with what is now the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,

B2) Kashmir:  a former independent "princely state", ruled by a Maharajah, during the British Raj.  It is located in a mountainous region in the northernmost part of the subcontinent, .  After the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, most Kashmiris sought to remain independent, but instead the region was (and still is) claimed and carved up between what became the Republic of India and what became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The Indian region is now the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the Pakistani region is the province of Azad Kashmir.

Political map of the subcontinent, showing the states of the Republic of India, 
as of 2015, along with adjoining countries (Warning: ultranationalist site!)

The violence, carried out by both the military and the insurgents, in Kashmir,where hundreds of thousands of troops are stationed and active, has taken more lives, since the 1940's, than the violence in Palestine-Israel, which began around the same time.

After several decades, the influx of Wahabi Sunni theology and militancy in the late 1980's, 1990's and early 2000's resulted in an ethnic turn to the conflict.  So most of the minority Hindu Pand'its (Brahmins), who had generally lived peaceably among the mostly Muslim population of the Valley of Kashmir through the ages, were forced to leave.

In the 1960's. Ladakh, a region in the NE, part of the Tibetan plateau, inhabited by followers of Tibetan Buddhism, was claimed and occupied by China. This resulted in a high-altitude war with India in which China prevailed.

The Indian portion includes the valley of Kashmir, where the main language is Kashmiri, and the region of Jammu in the south, where the main language is Dogri, and which was and remains mostly Hindu. The Pakistani portion in the north and west includes mountainous regions inhabited by various Muslim tribes speaking a number of languages.

Urdu and its sibling, Hindi, are widely understood in Kashmir.

In addition to clashes between the military and insurgents and the population itself, there have been several wars between India and Pakistan that began in or involved Kashmir.

B3) Çennai (Chennaiformerly Madras city):  a beautiful city on the east coast of South India, capital of the state of Tamilnad'u (Tamilnadu, formerly Madras state). The original name might be connected with madrasa (an Arabic word for a religious school, cognate to the Hebrew midrash).  Madras city was once the center of the large Madras Presidency of the British Raj.  The division of  the Republic of India into states based mainly on language occurred some time after Independence and has been ongoing since.  English is widely understood in Chennai city,  but the main language there and in the rest of Tamilnadu is Tamizh (Tamil), a Dravidian language closely related to Malayalam to the west and, more distantly, to Telengu (Telegu) to the north and to Kannad'a (Kannada) and Tulu to the northwest. Tamil (along with Malayalam) is also spoken in parts of Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

Political map of Afghanistan, Myanmar (Burma) and the subcontinent, showing
capitals and major cities.  Kolkata is in the east, near Bangladesh.  Delhi is the north center.

B4) Bengal:  a mainly low-lying, wet and fertile delta region in the eastern part of the subcontinent.  Bengal was divided on religious grounds, during the partition of 1947, into what became the Indian state of West Bengal and what became East Pakistan.  This was accompanied by massacres and movements of millions of refugees across borders, in a great (partial) ethnic cleansing. The Hindu-Muslim riots that started in Kolkata (Calcutta) spread throughout Bengal and also soon reached other parts of the subcontinent--particularly the Punjab (the land of the five rivers, in Farsi), which had also been divided on religious grounds. There, there were even greater massacres, and an almost complete ethnic cleansing of the region, with Muslims fleeing west across the new border, and Hindus and Sikhs fleeing east.

In 1970, following an election in Pakistan won by a party based mainly in East Pakistan,  and a subsequent fierce military clampdown there (that again sent about a million terrified refugees, mostly Hindus, but also Muslims, especially students, into West Bengal and other adjoining parts of India), an intervention by the Indian army led to the creation of what later became the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh.

The main languages spoken in Bengal, on both sides of the border, are dialects of Bengali, with the standard written and spoken language, along with a literary tradition, taught in the schools and used for formal communication on both sides.

West Bengal has had a long history of leftist coalition governments, including two major Communist parties and other socialist parties.

Political map of the subcontinent, showing the states of the Republic of India, 
as of 2015, along with adjoining countries (Warning: ultranationalist site!)

B5) Kerala:  a geographically and ethnically diverse state, green and fertile, lying along the southwest coast of India. It was constituted out of the former Malabar and Travancore-Cochin.  The main language in Kerala is Malayalam, a Dravidian language closely related to Tamil and more distantly to Kannada, Tulu and Telegu.  Among the Indian states, Kerala had, as of 2011, the lowest population growth rate (3.4%), and the highest human development index (0.79), literacy rate (94%), life expectancy (77 years) and sex ratio (1080 women to 1000 men, unusual in the subcontinent). It has had, along with Bengal, a long history of Communist and socialist governments.

B6) Kolkata (Calcutta): currently the teeming, bustling capital of West Bengal state, being a port city situated mainly on the eastern banks of the Hooghly river (an estuary of the Ganges).  Kolkata is an ethnically diverse city, with a significant cultural history dating from the Bengal Renaissance that began with the meeting of western and native cultures initiated by the British rule that spread out from Bengal, with Calcutta long being the regional imperial capital during the British Raj.  Calcutta has also had its share of extreme misery and poverty (dating from the time of the predatory British East India Company), of refugee influxes dating from the partition of 1947, and of political unrest.

Political map of  Afghanistan, Myanmar (Burma) and the subcontinent,  showing capitals
 and major cities.  Kolkata is in the east, near Bangladesh. Delhi is in the north center.

B7) Dilli (Delhi): the old center of power of the Mughal and other Indian empires, with New Delhi being the capital for undivided India in the latter part of rule by the British Raj, and continuing till now as the capital of the Republic of India, being located in the Union Territory of Delhi, adjoining the states of Uttar Pradesh to its east and Haryana (once part of the Punjab) to its west.

C) Geography of the Subcontinent and the Violent Creations of Three of its Modern Nation-States

While Kolkata (Calcutta) lies in the Bengal delta in eastern India, Dilli (Delhi) sits nine hundred miles to the northwest, at the slightly raised divide marked by the old, worn Aravalli hills.  This is where the plains of the Ganga (Ganges) and Jamna (Yamuna), sloping to the southeast, meet those of the Sindhu (Indus) and its tributaries, sloping to the southwest.

The subcontinent, with low-lying plains and coastal areas in greens, higher areas
in yellows and browns.
In the old German map above, names are not visible.  The Bengal delta is in the east, with the Bay of Bengal to its south. The Gangetic plains slope gently upwards, NW from the delta, till they meet a slightly raised divide. Delhi (not visible) sits on that divide. The plains of the Indus slope gently downwards, SW from that divide, to the Arabian Sea.
Map of the rivers of the subcontinent: The Himalayan arc separates China (Tibet)
from the subcontinent. 
The major rivers of North India arise on the Tibetan side 
of the Himalayas. The plains of the Indus are in the NW, those of the Ganges,
just south of the Himalayan arc, lead to the Bengal delta in the east.  The 
valley of the Brahmaputra (Tibetan Tsangpo) is in the NE.  The southern plateau
of  peninsular India 
slopes, generally, from the west to the east. Most of the major
rivers of the peninsula follow that slope, 
with several starting in the Western Ghat
mountains near the west coast of the peninsula, and flowing east 
from there to the
Bay of Bengal.  Some, however, further north, flow west into the Arabian Sea.
In the old German map below, names are not visible. Nepal, the Himalayas and Tibet are in the elevated area in the North center and NE. Afghanistan is in the NW. Assam, with its Brahmaputra valley, and adjacent regions are in the ENE. Myanmar (Burma) lies to the east of the Bengal delta. Peninsular India, with the central Deccan plateau and the coastal strips, occupies the center and south.

The large island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) is visible. So is the chain of the much smaller Andaman and Nicobar islands, in the SE. The international borders are marked (not too visibly in darker areas) in black and brown. The major rivers are in black.

The trains to Dilli from Kolkata’s Howrah station travel northwest from the delta, up the Gangetic plain.  Some of the routes encounter, when leaving the delta, an intrusion of the Deccan (dakxin = dakshin) = southern) peninsula.  These are the hills of the Çhot’a Nagpur (Chhota Nagpur) plateau.  In the 1950’s, when I first rode a train from Kolkata to Dilli, those hills were still well forested.

Howrah lies across the Hooghly river from Kolkata,  From that starting point in the southeast of India, the westbound Kalka Mail ran all the way to the town of Kalka in the northwest.  That town lies in what was once the eastern part of the undivided Punjab.  In 1947, after the partition of the subcontinent and the end of British rule, this eastern Punjab became part of independent India, with the western Punjab becoming part of West Pakistan.  Later, in 1966, after the Indian Punjab was further subdivided, the town of Kalka became part of the Indian state of Haryana.

Political map of the subcontinent, showing the states of the Republic of India, 
as of 2015, along with adjoining countries (Warning: ultranationalist site!)

After the partition of 1947, train and other routes that used to run between what became, eventually, the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (with its eastern and western wings) had been suddenly interrupted.   In particular, trains had ceased to run between the Indian capital in New Delhi and the Pakistani capital, which moved over time from Karachi to Rawalpind'i to Islamabad—all in West Pakistan.

Punjab, in the northwest of the subcontinent, was one of two British provinces that were cut in two by the partition of 1947.  In the east, the province of Bengal was also split. The western part of Bengal became the Indian state of West Bengal and the eastern part became East Pakistan.

So the land routes between the two parts of Bengal had also been interrupted, along with the sea routes between the old Bengal’s westernmost district, Medinipur (Midnapore), and its easternmost one, Ç~at’ga~ (Chittagong).  These two districts lay on opposite sides of the Bay of Bengal.

Much later, in 1970, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

The partition of 1947 had been accompanied by tremendous human misery, as refugees who happened to be of the "wrong religion" fled across the new borders that divided the Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east.  Countless numbers had been slaughtered in massacres.

The events leading to the birth of Bangladesh in 1970 were also marked by horrors in East Pakistan—beginning with a fierce military clampdown that negated the results of an election—and yet another flight of terrified refugees across a border.

I cannot go here into the history of the railroads in the subcontinent, that began in the British Raj. Suffice it to note that those railroads, running thousands of miles, were built, as elsewhere, mainly by human (and animal) labor.

– Babui (Arjun) 2016 May 1, Sun. (edited and expanded June 6th, Sun.)

Return to the post
"The Kalka Mail".

The Kalka Mail

I received a letter from my cousin, Ashoke Menon Dutt, on 2016, April 12th Tue, in which he suggested that I should try to write the lyrics to a “railroad song”, set in the Indian subcontinent.

He had been inspired by a song written and first sung by the late Steve Goodman.

For most of the past thirteen years, I had been regularly sending out, to some relatives, friends and colleagues, the verses that I had been writing on a weekly and even daily basis.  For the last several years, I had been posting these on my poetry blog, The Daily Poet, and sending out the links to the posts.   However, because of many preoccupations and for some other reasons, I had stopped  doing this for a while.

So I wrote back to Ashoke, saying that the “muse” appeared to have left me.

But later that night, I searched on the Internet for a “railroad song”, mistaking it first for the song “Lord I’m one, lord I’m two … lord, I’m five hundred miles from home”.  This, I found, was a song apparently written by Hedy West, in the 1960’s or earlier, assembled from melodies she had heard from her uncle in Georgia.  That song has elements that reminded me of classic Negro spirituals.

Soon afterwards, I found the song Ashoke had really been referring to, “The City of New Orleans”.

Ashoke had mentioned some things he liked about that Steve Goodman song, such as its catchy lyrics and rhythm that balanced the somewhat sad nature of the theme, which was not just about the railroad, but about the riders and more.  He had also outlined what he would like for the song set in India—a human element, references to the beauty of the surroundings, the inclusion of names of places not too well known, and perhaps a long route—north-south between Kashmir and Chennai, or diagonal between Bengal and Kerala.

Unfortunately, I have neither Ashoke’s experience of those routes, nor his gift for music and song.

Nevertheless, after hearing those American songs, from recordings on the Internet, I briefly considered trying to write the words for a “railroad song” in Bengali or Hindi.  I then stayed up late, into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, writing the verses in English instead.

These, reproduced below, are based on my experiences in the 1950’s, traveling with my parents and others between Kolkata (Calcutta) and Dilli (Delhi), India’s capital city.

Whether or not the muse took it upon herself to return to help me in this, I do not know.

East Indian Railway Mail leaving Kalka Station circa 1906

I omitted many historical places and interesting experiences on the route, including only a few.

For those who are not that familiar with the geography of the subcontinent and its history between the 1940's and 1970's, some information might be needed to understand the background to the verses below.   This can be found in the accompanying notes, which have pictures and maps.

But the reader may perhaps want to first read those verses. (See below.)

In the notes, I have not gone  into the history of the railroads in the subcontinent, that began in the British Raj. Suffice it to note that those railroads, running thousands of miles, were built, as elsewhere, mainly by human (and animal) labor.

    The Kalka Mail

I’ve ridden on a bullock cart,
I’ve ridden on an ekka.
I rode upon a riksho once—
And never will again.

But now we ride the Kalka Mail—
The Kalka Mail, the Kalka Mail!
And as we ride the Kalka Mail,
The night will turn to morning.
I’ve ridden on a ‘cycle and
I’ve ridden on a car.
I rode the tram to T’aligo`nj,
The bus to Bou Bajar.

But now we’re on the Kalka Mail,
The Kalka Mail, the Kalka Mail!
And soon we’ll be in Asansol,
The way the wheels are turning.

I go to bed within the train.
The wheels put me to sleep.
I wake to find the train has stopped,
Within a darkness deep.

I look outside—and all is dark.
The wind is softly blowing.
And in the distance, I can see
A light is softly glowing.

What could it be, I wonder as
The wheels begin to turn.
And slowly then, it slides from view—
That light within the dark.
I toss and turn and try to sleep.
The wheels are singing songs.
And yet it seems I hear, in these,
The groans from ancient wrongs.
Before I sleep again, I hear
Ça, gawrom ça!” a call
That tells me, where we’ve stopped is still
A station in Bengal.

But when I wake again, I see
The night has turned to day.
And when we stop, I hear the chant,
Çae, çae—garam çae!

Kaavi, kaavi, kaaviya!”
I’d later hear that hail.
But that would be another trip,
Along the Deccan trail.
The dreaming hills of blue go by.
I wish that I could climb
A hillside track, towards the light
Of that Çhot’a Nagpur sky.

The hills are gone, and now I see
The sun-bright plains spread wide.
The dust and grit of coal is in
My clothes and hair and eyes.

The greens by now have turned to browns.
And yet I see, at times,
The yellow mustard flowers dance
As the train goes speeding by.

Mughal Serai!” The “Mongol” horde
Had camped upon this site.
So this was where the horsemen once
Had rested from the fight.

And this was where the caravans
That linked the east to west,
Would halt, so horses, camels, men
Could water and could rest.

I hear this from my parents and
My eyes are opened wide.
I wonder how and why they fought—
How many then that died.

And who were they who traveled then,
To whither and from whence?
How much there is to know, I think,
And dream of Mughal tents.

Mughal Serai!  And westwards still—
And northwards, on we go!
Who laid these rails, that stretch for miles
And miles, with labor slow?

“Who laid these rails?” I ask, but then
I’m told. “You’re just a boy.
And so, this ride, upon this train,
Is what you should enjoy.”

I’ve ridden on a scooter and
I’ve ridden on a bike.
But riding on the Kalka Mail
Is what I really like.

The Kalka Mail, the Kalka Mail—
It thunders through the night.
From Howrah, west and north it goes,
Till Dilli is in sight.

“How far are we from home?” I ask.
“How far is left to go?”
“We’re halfway there,” I’m told, “And that
Is all you have to know.”

“Who made these trains, who made these trains?”
“The British taught us how.
But hush!  There’s people sleeping and
You’re kicking up a row!”

“The Kalka Mail, the Kalka Mail—
It doesn’t travel slow.
It leaves the local trains behind—
But whither does it go?”

“The Kalka Mail, the Kalka Mail--
To Kalka still can go.
But there’s a line the British drew—
And what it says is ‘No!’”

“And why is that?” I ask and see
My parents’ worried looks.
“You’ll learn the reason later, when
You’ve learned to read your books.”

I hear my mother’s answer and
I hear my father’s sigh.
“This boy of ours is curious and
He’s always asking why.”

They’re speaking now in English, as
I still can now recall.
They do not know I’m listening still—
And memorizing all.

“He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know—
He doesn’t know it yet—
Those horrors that we saw—those things
We wish we could forget.

“Those trains that never came—and all
Those bodies in our alley…
The steamer that I took, towards
The fires of Noakhali….

“We had a dream, we had a dream.
But where did it all go?
He’s still a little boy.  There’s much
He’ll sadly come to know.

“The British now have left and yet
They still receive the loot,
From those who wear the khadi and
The ones who wear the suit.

“Perhaps the future will restore
The things that we have lost.
Perhaps we ‘natives’ still might learn
From paying such a cost.

“From Dhaka, will a train that runs
To Howrah, come to be?
From Medinipur, he’ll go, perhaps,
To Ça~t’ga~ then, by sea.”

I learn by heart the English words,
Although they make no sense.
I see my mother looking sad,
I see my father tense.

“Will Quetta and Peshawar be
On signs upon a train?
From Dilli, will the mail be run
To ‘Pind’i once again?”

I hear my parents talking and
I hear my father sigh.
I do not understand and so
I idly wonder why.


I’ve ridden on a phat’phat’i,
I’ve ridden on a camel.
I rode once on an elephant.
So many ways to travel!

But I prefer to walk—or else,
With Dilli as my dream,
I ride upon the Kalka Mail
That runs on coal and steam.

“Who laid these rails, who laid these rails,
That stretch for miles and miles?”
I ask again. My mother looks
At me and only smiles.

2016 April 12th Tue night to 13th Wed morning.
(several stanzas added April 23rd Sat & May 1st, Sun)
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York

Notes on "The Kalka Mail".   These notes have pictures and maps and include:
A) Place Names and Other Vocabulary (in order of occurrence in the poem) with Pictures and Maps;
B) Some Cities, States/Provinces and Regions of the Subcontinent (mentioned in the poem or its preface);

C) The Geography of the Subcontinent and the Violent Creations of Three of its Nation States.