Marco Polo Travels : 2020 – Amar Mitra
READING TIME: 20 MIN ( WORD COUNT: 3955 )
Translated from the Bengali by Bishnupriya Chowdhuri
The epidemic invaded one city after another, in silence, unnoticed. When they realized, the cities began to close down. The term was “lockdown.” Before it was declared, and as it rolled on, people became homebound to their countries, cities, and villages. One of them had started for Venice, Italy. Marco Polo, the wanderer, on his way back to Venice, had arrived in a new country. So began this world-travelogue.
Lockdown is underway in Venice, Italy. A video came out about a month ago at 2:30 p.m.
Not a single person around. Only the quiet movements of a few pigeons in a silent city. Church bells. Marco Polo, a man from Venice, a traveler of the world, is passing through many a country, many a town to find his homeland. Mister Mayor, listen to him, about the cities and those settlements that he has crossed. Alas my friend! There remain no people in those cities now. Exhaust fumes from factory chimneys have been comatose for more than a month. Wanderer, carrier of this news, Marco Polo, faces the Mayor of Cezan. The city sits on the banks of the river Cezan after which it was named. Cezan means beautiful. For the beauty of this city is unparalleled.
“Mr. Mayor, I have reached Cezan after so many towns and settlements. From across the river, I looked at the city, so splendid! The shrines, those impeccable minarets and the extravaganza of those theatres!”
Marco doesn’t know how he arrived here. He only walked this earth.
Listen my respected Sir, I don’t know which Marco Polo is this person. The man from 750 years ago, or later? As a child, I suffered from malaria, typhoid, and jaundice. At the wake of that springtime ailment, Vidyadhar cowered under the mosquito net at home, and I scribbled in pencil, calling it news. Those were my first writings. First ever attempt at the craft… I would draw a plane and report the news under it— ‘So many people have died in a plane crash.’ Yes, that was the time a Pan American airplane, about to land in Dumdum, crashed in Kaikhali. There were heavy casualties. After so many years, here I am, still writing, reporting records of the pandemic.
Attend, honorable Mayor, the foreboding for death is anything but new. Japan overcame Hiroshima-Nagasaki; Eastern Europe survived Chernobyl, the plague, the Spanish flu, the French flu. How many have died in epidemics? Scared of the deadly virus, I have crawled under the net. I shall report what I see.
This unseeable assassin flies from one continent to the other killing people. As a child, I had heard of such invisible flights of Ma Shitala at the onset of spring. When Shimul and the butea come abloom, silk cotton bursts in the air, deep redolence of the mango blossoms saturate the sky and the monks of Gajan bellow, “Let’s all surrender at the feet of Mahadev!” They roam about the village roads and with them the deities of cholera and jaundice too join in their teams looking for humans. The dogs can smell the sinister Gods and, tucking their tails between their hind legs, they slip inside the bushes and pant, exhausted.
What do I do now? I am writing the news sitting under a mosquito net. Reuters, P.T.I. Associated Press (AP), private correspondent. The way they send out news to the outside world, I shall do the same. I, the old hag of a messenger, shall report about the invisible killer. Flying on a witch’s broom it reached the metropolis. From the metropolis, it rode on a donkey to the suburbs. From the highways of Tehatta, Chandannagar, Siliguri, New York, Venice, Sydney, and Delhi, to the cramped alleys.
Let me come back to Marco’s words. The Mayor of Cezan and Marco faced each other. Marco was talking about the lockdown. Kolkata, Patna, Delhi, Lahore, Kabul, Samarkand, the city of Nur Sultan, Astana, Moscow… all asleep. There were no people on the streets. Wild animals prowled. An invisible virus had taken over the world.
So, what you are saying is that the governor and the Mayor have ordered everyone to go home by declaring a lockdown. But then, how will the people survive if they go back home – who will till the lands and build the palaces?
“No one,” Marco said.
“Production stops?” asked the Mayor of Seychelles.
“Yes, mills and farms, all retired.”
“The markets, entertainment centers?” asked the Mayor.
The Mayor shuddered, “What a terrible thing you report, Marco Polo.”
“Everyone has gone back home, or they are heading there. Hundreds of frightened and hungry people are walking hundreds of miles on their way home,” said Marco Polo. As he spoke, Marco looked out the window and saw the city on the other side of the river, as if her beauty had somehow changed.
How handsome are the men and women of this wonderful city! The colorful frills of their gowns, the fine cloth on their heads, nose rings, exquisite beads around their necks, red-green-blue rings on their fingers – Marco saw them as he crossed the river. How long have you not heard the chatter of people? The relaxed footsteps of humans, songs, roasted meat, bread? Beautiful girls like colorful butterflies? Musical instruments, musicians, dombra, garmon, flute – all are in this city.
This was the first time the mayor of Cezan saw Marco. Globe trotter Marco Polo came to the Tatar somewhere on this continent 700 years ago. This person here, too, was Marco Polo. Did he walk 700 years back, or did he emerge with the legacy of his ancestors? The Mayor noticed Marco’s skin was sunburnt, his golden hair awash in gray.
This man resembles the pictures of Marco that the Mayor has seen. Of course, it depends on what you would consider resemblance. The Mayor found similarities in the shape of his chin and eyes. That pointy chin, blue irises, and a face that looked cleansed with water. A beard grows on his face due to the lack of regular shaving. The Mayor himself was six and a half feet tall, robust. He was middle-aged. The Mayor knew things. A foreigner had come to the city. They said that he had arrived from hundreds of years back, from the city of Venice, from the far West. It seemed to the Mayor that the man was wearing the dust of numerous villages, the winds of many countries, the memories and dreams of many years. The man said that he’d almost forgotten about this town as he traveled. He loved to travel. One day as he was walking around, he suddenly saw that there was no one in the yard, nobody on the road. Horses had bridles on their muzzles but no saddles on their backs. Bridles meant that they were not wild but domesticated and pets. They had masters. But now, they wandered alone looking for food. The masters have gone indoors and abandoned them.
The Mayor was astonished. He said, “I have never heard of such a thing. This has never happened in this city. There are no abandoned horses, dogs, or cows in this city – our cattle are kept at home.”
“Your Excellency, Mayor, the lord of our city, it has, indeed happened elsewhere. On my way to the city of Venice, I went the wrong way in the whirling wind. Then changed my route again to somehow reach the city of Cezan.”
The Mayor looked at Marco Polo. His eyes showed signs of fear. Marco said, “Sir, I have been to many a town in my long journey and people are afraid of looking at other people’s faces.”
“Marco Polo, Venetian wanderer, please relate what you have seen, I welcome thee,” the Mayor implored.
Marco said, “Then, let us listen to the messenger.”
“Who is the messenger?” the Mayor asked.
“I have been a foreigner, a foreigner in all countries. May be even in my own hometown, Venice, if I go there now. When I returned to Venice with my father and uncle in 1229 after 25 years, everyone took us for foreigners and refused to call us their own. My relatives too. We had to prove so many things. That’s a story you better keep for another time, Honorable Mayor.”
“I asked, who was the messenger?” The Mayor prodded with the same question.
“Honorable Sir, he is the one who tells Marco everything. You don’t need to concern yourself about how he does that. To keep sources secret is the way of the trade.”
The Mayor seemed satisfied with Marco’s reply. “Proceed, then.”
I had stopped interacting with others for fear of the Coronavirus as of 14th March. The 15th and 16th March, the next two days, I sat at home. But Kolkata was Kolkata. Hordes of people on the buses and trams. I didn’t see anything alarming on television. Only a fleeting warning on the arrival of an invisible assassin in the city. 16th March was sunny. Arindam Bose called at 9 a.m. to tell me the news of Subrata Mukherjee’s death. Subrata’s death got me out of the house again.
I walked to the Metro station under a ruthless sun. The metro was relatively empty, but I still had to brush past people. I had my mask on. It felt uncomfortable. I took an auto-rickshaw to Sonarpur. We were yet to cross the Garia bridge when I saw a huge crowd by the side of the road. A long queue of people – their faces hovering over the shoulders of others. The women had brought offerings for the goddess – coconuts, confectioneries. The goddess must be Shitala or Kali. Brass bells rang. Why was it like that? There was no fear.
I could see from the auto-rickshaw that nothing was different. Shops were open, trading was going on as usual. People strolled, swinging shopping-bags in their hands. I could hear the relentless honking of cars. Young civic police clad in green and blue attempted to control traffic with their batons. Cloth masks covered their faces. People crossed the roads; vagrants went on standing in the middle of the road unable to decide which way to go. I was going to meet a dead friend. Subrata of Barrackpore had passed away at the Liver Foundation Hospital in Sonarpur at 11:55 last night. He was calling me, “Come, my friend, come see me.” On my way to Sonarpur, I noticed that the greenery from years ago had disappeared. It was concrete upon concrete. So many floors, apartments, stacked on top of each other… so many people in such a small place.
After you reach Sonarpur, you must get into a different auto-rickshaw to get to the Liver Foundation Hospital. At Sonarpur, autos and buses were running, rickshaws screeched, rabbles of people of all ages busied themselves with an endless number of occupations. I walked in the acid sun. The auto stand was not very close to the railway. I could move fast with people on the street. No one seemed to know anything, no one cared who the invisible killer had taken hostage.
Sonarpur had changed. I remembered, many years ago on a rainy afternoon, I was driving to Kolkata via Sonarpur. It was raining a lot and the car stopped suddenly. Some fish crawled peacefully on the wet road. Sonarpur with its uncultivated fields and swamps overgrown with Hogla reeds, was no more. Everything had been erased. I crossed the railway line, walked some distance again. It was almost 11:30 when I finally arrived. It was very difficult to look at Subrata. The face of my handsome friend had blackened, as if the dusts of an entire kingdom had settled on his face. As was the case with Sonarpur. Sand filled the hot air. But amidst all that dust, there was this butterfly – a little away from where Subrata lay in the shade. How the colors played on its wings! It perched on a wildflower and sipped honey. The world was as it has always been. For a few seconds, the colorful butterfly fluttered over the ever-sleeping Subrata. It seemed his eyes opened to meet hers. Then there was no butterfly. Subrata shut his eyes again.
On hearing this, the Mayor said, “I didn’t see anything unusual in this description. That butterfly is not in the city of Cezan. I can’t say why, but there used to be so many. Did it die?” The Mayor sounded concerned.
Marco said, “No, she flew away. There must be butterflies in the forests of your city. I am sure of it. But the one that fluttered about his friend was not common. Of course, there are butterflies in the city of Cezan. It is a big city. If they have gone away, they will return. Cezan seems wonted. But the world is not, at least from what you say.” The Mayor’s voice returned to normal.
“In the context of the current state of the world, the situation in the city of Cezan, is unusual. Life here is unusual,” Marco said.
The Mayor said, “It is true that those quiet solitary cities and villages are where all animals and insects now roam free. So, maybe we don’t have the butterflies here in Cezan – they have flown to other peaceful kingdoms.”
Marco thought silently about that butterfly – how many colors fluttered on its wings!
Returning to the previous context, the Mayor said, “A friend goes to visit another who has passed away; a town runs as usual; butterflies feast on floral nectars. They sound normal. I also heard that once on a rainy day, some fish crossed from one side of the road to the other. How big were the fish?”
Marco had heard it from the conversation of the three passengers sitting inside the auto rickshaw. He heard that the fish were called Koi.
The Mayor said, “You didn’t ask if the fish that walked on the street on a rainy day had two legs, or whether they stood up vertically on their tails, checked their surroundings, and then moved on. Or maybe, they walked on their fins. I’ve heard such fish could once be found in Africa. At some point they stopped mutating. Otherwise, they would probably be humans by now.”
“I also heard that or probably read it in a story. But the fact is, it is not like that anymore. The water bodies have been filled and mansions have been erected. Those fish may have become extinct, or their normal production may have ended. People gave birth to them, and then they ate them.”
“Which way did the fish go, from the east to the west?”
Marco said, “Maybe to the east. Now the East is closed by a huge wall and barbed wire.”
The Mayor looked over the windowsill. It had started snowing. Winter was waning and spring was on its way, but there was no end to snow. This time the winter has been long. The Mayor was wondering if this traveler knew how to play chess. He began to arrange his army. Marco was thinking about the fish; the story could very well be a rumor… So many truths and lies float about in the cities these days. If fish walks ashore, it could be a merman or a mermaid whom no one has ever seen, including Marco. So, that is the end of the problem. But were they moving out of one body of water to another, or were they evolving for good? Do they no longer need water, air, light, or darkness to survive? The creatures of darkness would become stronger than ever without the support of any of the elements.
Marco was startled. The virus, COVID-19, is constantly mutating. He heard it on the way. Is the COVID-19 like that?
The messenger says:
Homebound since the 18th – like so many others. The television relentlessly asks people not to gather. Everyone MUST stay home. A video from Venice, Italy, arrived at the crack of dawn on WhatsApp. Silent noon. Not a person around. Which city is this? The camera moves through the quiet alleys along the banks of the canal. The boats are tied up without owners or customers in sight. Shutters on all shops are drawn down. No sign of life on the road. It seems like the winner murderer Coronavirus is showing me the carcass of a city: ‘See what I have done to the people!’ Alleys that feel so much like our Kolkata. And that canal! Speed boats, gondolas caught in a strange torpor, the shadows of the magnificent architectural edifices lie fallen on the somnambulant water. The country of the ancient Renaissance is asleep with its massive mansions.
As I mentioned at the outset, Marco Polo was born here and started his journey from here. Marco remembers the young man’s desire to see the city. He was tired of wandering in the woods. Then one day, we arrived in a town called Isadora, the city where perfect telescopes and violins are made. When one’s mind is conflicted about choosing one of the two beauties, one finds a third here, which is even prettier. The young man had imagined such a city and he had walked all his life to get there. But when he arrived, he was old. Sitting somewhere in the center of the city, he was looking at the young people. He saw a city that looked uninhabited. Old monuments, pigeons, eagles and kites… This is how the video of Venice looked to me.
Antonio Vivaldi, the great music composer was born in Venice. He holds a high place in the history of symphonic and operative music. The music in Venice has stopped. The video reaches a spacious attic. It seems like it used to be a place of joy. The church bells of the final hour is ringing. Pigeons peck on grains on the ground. There are pigeons now. I understand what Venice has become. Everyone has crept back into the houses to survive. This is how we have to evacuate the city. In this way we must leave the whole city to the pigeons and hide inside our homes.
The Mayor said, “Are you here on your way back to Venice, Marco Polo? I had never dreamt that you would come to the city of Cezan. 700 years is not a short time!”
Marco said, “I don’t know where I’m returning to, sir, but I’m coming back. And on my way, contradictions galore. Look in the mirror, what was there is not anymore. The mountain used to be on the west where a desolate steppe now prevails. It doesn’t end at the horizon. I don’t know where or how long it goes on.”
“Nikolai Ivanovich would know,” the Mayor said as he shuffled chess pieces.
Marco looked at the Mayor’s face in surprise. The Mayor said, “A mathematician, but he is no more. If you go to Cezan University, many mathematicians there would be able to measure this distance.”
“Where is he?”
“That will also be clear there,” the Mayor said.
Marco said, “There is no limit to infinity. Oh, Mayor, the more I measure, the farther it moves. Go as far as it can, mathematicians can’t resolve it. Sir, I have come from the city of Kolkata – infinite is the distance. Everyone is leaving the city. So did I.”
Listening to this, the Mayor of Cezan asked, “Why is everyone leaving?”
They are returning home. The invisible killer roams around, and all the shops, factories have shut down in fear. Crops are withering in the fields; vehicles are paralyzed on the sides of highways. Due to the restrictions on movement, there are no passengers. The driver and his assistant are also returning home on foot.”
“Your words are steeped in sadness,” said the Mayor. If you tell me how the city is, I will feel a little relieved. You describe things perfectly. I have not seen that city. One man cannot see all the cities and ports in one lifetime, so we have to hear about them from others.”
“I’m cold, in need of Vodka,” said Marco.
The Mayor was quick to make arrangements. His attendant served liquor and well-cooked veal with fruit, grapes, pistachios, nuts and graham, green lettuce, and mulberry. Marco was happy. He relaxed. How many times could he go on a trip if he had this supply of food and drinks? He could travel around the country to witness cities and towns. His body warmed up, his hunger too was satiated for now, at least.
He carried stories of hunger. Cities and settlements do not necessarily mean mansions, highways, automobiles, phaetons, and airplanes. They do not mean theaters, foods, and drinks overflowing with merriment, playgrounds, and bars. The city had revealed to him a destitute mother, and hapless people huddled inside drainpipes, and slums – seven people crammed in a room. Marco came to know people who gasped for air for they didn’t have enough breath. His inebriated head swam mildly. He began to explain the map of Kolkata to the Mayor. A river to the west. The city stops at the banks of that river. And the green pasture in the heart of the city where one went to see the sun set. The west of this city is not west of any location. The west can be viewed from many places. But from all the places in the west, the holy river Ganga could be seen.
There was no west on this side of the river. Another town sits on the other side. From there the west stretches on to infinity, beyond the eternal longitude. Once, Marco stood in that wilderness at the heart of the city and watched the sun set behind a castle. In front of him, a vagrant mother, too, looked on with her child on her lap. Marco said that he had seen the sunset from various places in Kolkata, but the sun god, going down in a circle of blood in front of a beggar mother who showed it to her daughter – that, he had never seen. The mother said that the city used to be hers, but it no longer is. The child was conceived hoping that it would return to her. Then, many people in the city, obese and frail, heads held high and low, people tall and short, all of them, they started walking towards the sunset through that green desert…
“Why towards the sunset?” the Mayor asked.
You must go somewhere. O Mayor, some people walk to the west, some go to the east, where, the sun will rise the next day. The woman went in the other direction.
“Did the horizon flow in that direction too, like the steppe?” the Mayor asked.
“No,” Marco said after a while. The multi-storied buildings lined up like a wall. But it seemed as if the young beggar-mother went through it. Nothing could stop her. I followed her but got lost. The news was circulating. People were afraid to touch the newspaper. They listened to what they heard. No one could tell truth from lies and rumors anymore. The epidemic was entering from the airports to the towns. People went home for the fear of it.
The Mayor said, “there is no epidemic in Cezan. Marco, you are welcome in this city. You tell me what is happening in that other city, what is happening in those countries.”
“Listen, Mayor …” And Marco Polo’s world tour began.
Brought up in the city of Kolkata, Amar Mitra has traveled extensively across West Bengal and studied the shades of rural Bengal, the land, its people. Having lived in Kolkata, he has also observed the nuances of urban living. The rural and the urban are present in equal measure in the body of his work. He has received numerous awards – Sahitya Akademi (2006) for the novel Dhruboputro, Bankim Chandra Award(2001) for the novel Ashwacharit, Katha award(1998), SharatChandra Award(2018) and many others. He was also invited as a speaker at the First Forum of Asian Writers held in 2019(Nur Sultan. Kazakhstan).
Bishnupriya Chowdhuri is a Bengali artist and writer trying to find her roots across continents and oceans. She weaves hybrid pieces about memory, women and bodies using what is often awkward if not an unsavory tangle of Bangla and English. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. She is a collector of girl-names, pretty pebbles and family-recipes. Her address keeps changing.
Cover image: Photo by en nico.