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To Fly to the Himalayas

By Yuyutsu RD Sharma
(This post is based on Yuyutsu Sharma's 2010 visit to Cordoba where he was invited as a guest poet at the Cosmopoetica Poetry Festival.)
My life
I can tell you in two words--
a patio
and a small piece of sky where
a lost cloud
and some bird fleeing from
its wings pass by sometimes.
(Marcos Ana, “My Life,” Translated from the Spanish by Nicolas Suescun )
A nameless apprehension overwhelmed me. A nauseating thud hammered my heart as I stepped over the threshold of the Centro Penitenciario Provincial de Córdoba (Provincial Prison Cordoba), Spain, after a security check.

The event was part of the Cosmopoetica Poetry Festival, Córdoba, Spain where I was invited to read and launch a Spanish translation of my selected poems, entitled, Poemas De Los Himalayas published jointly by Cosmopoetica International in collaboration with Juan de Mairena y de libros. As Córdoba is fighting to be the cultural capital of the European Union for 2016, scores of poets from around the world including Marcos Ana, Ana Istaru, William Ospina, Robert Hass, Sebastia Alzamora, Amalia Bautista, Nicole Brossard, Ma Auxiliadora Alvarez, Arnaldo Calveyra, Abbas Beydoun, Elisa Biagini, Fatima Naoot, Edoardo Sanguineti were invited for the event.

“I‘ve never been to a prison in my life,” I told poet Alejandra Vanassa, coordinator of the event.  Entering Cordoba prison was like entering a forbidden world you’ve feared all your life. It looked like an episode from Prison Break.  Security check, emergency alarms, automatic doors, security cameras, and then the auditorium. Ana Martin, Director of the Prison, cheerfully joined us.

I  was scheduled to give the finishing touches to the Poetry for Freedom Workshop along  with  other poets including the legendary Spanish poet Marcos Ana, Colombian poet William Ospina, and inmates of the Cordoba prison. The workshop was in its fourth consecutive year and was organized in collaboration with CIC-Bata. 

Over three dozen prisoners and media reporters had gathered in the auditorium. Magically, the moment we reached the stage, my fears vanished. It might as well have been a high school event. Marcos Ana with whom I shared the workshop was a heroic testament to the history of Spain. Marcos had spent the prime of his life in Spanish prisons during the Spanish Civil War. Born in 1920 in the small village of Salamanca in a poor family of field laborers, he joined the Republicans at an early age. After 1938, he was made a prisoner and given the death penalty. He spent twenty-three years of his life in prison and soon started writing ennobling poems that escaped the misery of prison cells and reached the world.

Marcos was the first Spanish prisoner to be defended by Amnesty International. After his release in 1961, Marcos traveled around world and was received by parliaments and universities the world over. He advocated freedom for prisoners. He founded and directed the Centro de Informacion y Solidaridad con Espana which was based in Spain until the end of the pro-Franco dictatorship and was presided over by Pablo Picasso. As I gathered this information on Marcos from the poets present, I could hardly believe that he could be so agile and upbeat even in his nineties.

Reading with Marcos remains the highlight of my Spanish tour. My friend the Spanish poet Veronica Aranda was kind enough to interpret for us as we read. Alejandra Vanassa began by describing the history of the workshop.  The inmates were the first to read their poems; there were poems on deserted family members and the fear of losing hope and on survival in harsh times.

I was so overwhelmed when my turn came I didn’t know where to begin.

“Prison is everywhere. Even a relationship can turn into a prison house.  And nations too. Despotic Rana rulers had turned Nepal into a prison cell, a sequestered kingdom.” I narrated to them the hardships in Nepal’s past and explained the role of poets like Gopal Prasad Rimal and Siddhicharan Shrestha in ushering democracy into the Nepalese polity. Incidentally, the birth anniversary of these Nepali poets falls in the same month of Jestha (April).

The Rimal story struck a vital cord. Rimal’s descent into madness despite the arrival of democracy in Nepal, roaming the streets with a knife, touched the inmates. Unlike Marcos, there was no happy ending for Rimal. The foolish doctors pulled a rib out of his body to make him concentrate on the pain instead of his political ramblings. Political leaders ignored him and he died limping in the streets of Kathmandu  

Like always, after my readings, I said, “Please come to Nepal.”

I forgot I was in a prison. One of the inmates had been to Nepal and wished to return, “I am scheduled to be released after five years.”

The last poet from the workshop caught my attention. His face was a wrinkled sea of worries. He read his poem very theatrically. I gathered from Veronica’s translation that his poetry had a gloomy edge. He came to greet me and asked me to sign the booklet the inmates had published.

As I was writing in it, he mumbled something in Spanish which Veronica conveyed to me: “I’ve been in prison for more than ten years. I’m sixty-two now.  I have eleven more years to spend in prison. In this lifetime, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it and fly to the Himalayas.”

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Published May 15, 2012   Copyright 2012 Yuyutsu RD Sharma

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