Dialect of Distant Harbors by Dipika Mukherjee

Dialect of Distant Harbors is Dipika Mukherjee’s third poetry collection. The languague is inflected by her many lives. She is a sociolinguist, novelist, and poet; Bengali, global nomad, and currently based in the Windy City.

Amsterdam is one of Mukherjee’s many past homes. Of course, she needed to launch Dialect of Distant Harbors here. This month, I had the honor of moderating that launch at Perdu, Amsterdam’s poetry temple. Fellow poets Mia You and Milla van der Have shared the stage to discuss how they, too, write in dialect.

Father Tongue

In the title poem, Mukherjee tells us that “Bengali is my father tongue.” Yes, her mother spoke it, too, but it was Mukherjee’s father who insisted that his children learn the language of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, storyteller, songwriter, and essayist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The child Mukherjee who resented this fatherly edict has since become Bengali’s fiercest advocate.

The Bengali, Hindi and Malay languages leaven the poems in Dialect of Distant Harbors. Though I read none of them, they add to my experience of the many homes Mukherjee has known. In the United States, it’s common for a person of color to be asked, where are you from? An American address is never the right answer.

Going back to where I'm from

is to return to women who are goddesses,
incense smoke, and drumbeats & women
who bury infant girls in the ground, into
milk vats to drink until they drown;

to many-armed goddesses who slay
demons, and darkness, and scarcity
of thought & women who are womb
and vagina, never brain or mouth; 

to stargazers who send probes to Mars,
mathematicians of cosmic poetry & women
raped in temples, strung from trees,
disemboweled in a dark-tinted moving bus;

to Bengal and Indus Valley and Chittaranjan Park
& Texas and Ohio and State Street in Chicago [...] 

In conversation

For the launch, I asked our guest poets to place a poem of Mukherjee’s in conversation with one of their own. Korean-American poet Mia You paired on the theme of parentage. Dutch poet Milla van der Have chose Mukherjee’s atmospheric “A Diptych by the Seaside” to speak to her own work.

I read a section from my lyric essay “Fish Tales” to combine with Mukherjee’s exuberant memory of childhood in “K Block, Chittaranjan Park.” Here, a brief extract in the dialect of teenagers

[...] wearing redder lips and blacker
kohl and tiptoeing on stilettos to be older; life as
a conversation on hilltops and water tanks, words taking us
the long way home, past the Gurdwara, the GK II M-Block
Market, past the cigarette seller who wouldn’t sell
fags to girls, past Shiv Mandir and Kalkaji, just to keep
going; everything took time, shopping at Lajpat Nagar
was a slow cough of smoke-filled roads past Moolchand,
our dupatta masks against pollution and preying men [...]

The theme of male predation returns in Dialect of Distant Harbors. Mukherjee cites news reports of horrific assaults on women and girls in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. In “Migration, Exile … These Are Men’s Words”, Mukherjee pleads “O God, don’t make me a daughter.”

Mukherjee may speak the local dialect but her gaze at the country of her birth is not tinted by rose-colored lenses.

In translation

During the panel discussion that followed these paired readings, I got to fire questions at the assembled poets. For example, You works as a translator of Korean into English. Van der Have’s most recent poetry chapbook is in Spanish and English. Several of Mukherjee’s poems in Dialect contain translations of Indian poets, including Allama Iqbal and Hussain Haidry. So, I wanted to know: is translation a part of your writing process and, if so, what influence does it have on your style?

All three poets find freedom in writing in a language that is not their father or mother tongue. In a poll taken at the start of the launch, we learned that all of the members of the audience spoke at least two languages, some commanded three (like You and Van der Have) and a few (like Mukherjee) speak four or more. None of these poets is trapped in any single dialect.

The Japanese author Haruki Murakami claims to have acquired his signature spare style by translating his work from Japanese into English and back into Japanese. He says it helped that his English was terrible. None of these poets struggles with this burden.

Oddly, for a poetry launch in Amsterdam, no one chose the poem “Amsterdam!” to read. Of the many languages Mukherjee speaks, the Amsterdam dialect is not one of them.

Amsterdam, you will never be my city.
Graffiti sprayed on demolished doors:
“Please forgive me father
for I am ready to sin”—
and the purple latex pants
on phallic road hedgers—
so much perv-art,
ponderous posturing.

Do you speak dialect? You probably do but you don’t know it because everyone around you talks the same way. But when you cross as many borders and countries and cultures as Dipika Mukherjee has, you will find yourself speaking a dialect all your own.

24 Nov 2022 | Karen Kao