Claiming Poetic Spaces: The Poetry of Youth in Calcutta

Kathy Sauber
Sahar Romani, founder of Kalam: Margins Write, left, and Sakina Hussain, a fellow graduate student associated with the UW South Asia Center, prepare to hang a photograph of a student poet. 
The University of Washington Faculty and Staff Newspaper
Mar. 29, 2007
Claiming poetic spaces: The poetry of youth in Calcutta

By Catherine O’Donnell
News and Information


Bijoy Das sweeps the floors in the Malda train station outside Calcutta, India. But the young man is more than a janitor. He’s also a poet.

Das is part of Kalam: Margins Write, a creative writing program for young people ages 16 to 22 living around Calcutta on train platforms, in a red light district, or in a shelter for daughters of sex workers.

The young people’s writing is the heart of Poetic Spaces, a photo essay mounted by Sahar Romani, a graduate student in UW South Asian Studies, who created the Kalam program. The exhibit, which began March 20 and continues through April 30, is on the first and second floors of Odegaard Undergraduate Library.

Romani, 26, created Kalam — in several south Asian languages, it means “pen” — as the result of a seven-month trip to India and Nepal, where she studied alternative education programs.

The first Kalam workshop began in 2004, producing one booklet of poems. Since then, Kalam has expanded to four workshops a year plus a series of poetry booklets, performances and exhibits. Twenty Kalam interns work with three coordinators, including Romani. Charities help Calcutta people with food, shelter and education, but intangibles are needed as well, Romani explained. “There’s also a basic need to nurture imagination and one’s own voice. Our program is for these young people, to help them struggle with lives beyond labels, to think outside the label.“Oftentimes, when we think of urban youth in Calcutta, we imagine them helpless victims, but their reality is more nuanced,” she said. “This photo essay tries to capture those nuances. It captures the poetry in their daily lives. In their own neighborhoods, they’ve claimed poetic spaces.”

Many of the young people Romani works with know how they’re expected to respond to police and aid organizations, said Keith Snodgrass, associate director of the UW South Asia Center. Rarely, though, do such people have chances to speak candidly. “The Kalam Project helped provide the opportunity,” Snodgrass said.

Photographs next to the poems speak of simple things: teenage girls in a bare, rustic dormitory; a girl studying a book while lying on her stomach in the sun; a boy writing in a notebook while perched on a railway platform.

The poems and photographs give a sense of perspective, said Seattle resident Lalit Kraushaar, who visited the exhibit in late March. Lives Westerners might perceive as desperately poor and ugly may actually be hopeful and even joyous.

“Sahar Romani recognizes the power of helping young people find words to share both their joys and their struggles,” said Christine Stickler, a member of Kalam’s advisory board and director of The Pipeline Project, a UW center for experiential learning. Romani and Bishan Samaddar, who helped build Kalam and is now a program coordinator, wrote the exhibit text. A friend, Tapomoy Guha Sarkar, took the 28 photographs.The UW Center for South Asia is sponsoring the exhibit as part of its four-year Exploring Asia Project. This year’s emphasis is youth and childhood in Asia.

Funding for Kalam, $20,000 a year, comes from The Daywalka Foundation, which is based at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.

Two poems from the exhibit:


One day I went to Calcutta city.
Suddenly a guy asked me
“Hey kid, who are you?”
Then I told him
“I’m a poet.”
The guy said, “But you sweep train floors.”
I said, “I do sweep floors,
But on my own I’ve become a poet.”

By Bijoy Das


The Umbrella

The second monsoon month
A red sky
I had gone out with an umbrella
Amid the crowd on the main road
But I was alone
Raindrops were flying in the wind, the smell of
Dust and burning tyres
And my umbrella flew off and was lost
Just as some people lose their love, faith, shelter.

By Gopal Paswan


2 Responses to “Claiming Poetic Spaces: The Poetry of Youth in Calcutta”

  1. 1 queer3779 April 3, 2007 at 4:11 am

    Well, that looks really great. i am pleased to know that things made sense. i guess both of us were pretty apprehensive that there would be not enough context to the exhibition of photos and poems.
    great work, Sahar. and to think you did all this on your own! i really i wish i was there to help out.
    bye the way, i would love to see what the poem exhibits look like. can we have photos of those?

  2. 2 Sahar April 6, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    Yes, I will post some pictures really soon. Need to get my hands on a digital camera. One thing though: althought the news article says that Bijoy’s poems is on display, it actually isn’t. The three poems on display are Almarih by Nargis, The Umbrella by Gopal, and Raat by DIKSHA writers. I hope to be getting some critical responses my fellow students and staff members about the exhibition soon — so I will post those as well.

    More soon ji,

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