Cecilia Meireles: The Brazilian Poet Who Sang India

In 1953, a Brazilian poet stepped onto India for the first time and instantly felt at home. Her poems tell the tale.
In 1938, while India geared up for a freedom and possibly world war, a Brazilian poet on the other side of the world had vivid dreams of a land she has never seen.

Cecilia Meireles is among the great poets of Latin America. Her poems knew few boundaries, inspired as they were by the sea, flowing seamlessly from nation to nation. And as she explored the sea as a theme, she developed an innate fascination with India.

In 1953, Cecilia made her fascination a reality. She was the first Brazilian writer to spend a considerable amount of time travelling across India, writing impressionistic poems about life here. It was no coincidence that India affected her so, for she had a lifelong fascination with living poetic and spiritual traditions of India.

(In India) poetry is not futile versification; it’s an inner illumination, a sort of holiness and prophetism. The word of the poet is not a personal ability, a dilettante exercise- it’s instead an example, a revelation, a teaching through sounds and rhythms…How fortunate am I to be able to breathe in a country where one still thinks in those terms! What a hope in life! What a renewal of faith in humanity.

But the physical, touchable India left a different mark on her writing. She developed a masterly, colloquial use of the word ‘Bhai’ (brother) in her poem Crowd:  

Where are those steps rushing to, Bhai?
To meet whom? At whose call?
In which place? For what reason?

And also in the poem Colourful Drawing:

Your eyes were black, Bhai
starless, absolute night,
extreme nocturnal darkness
outside this world.

And yet, she was also an observer. Where many Indians walk past the poor without a glance, she reflected on the sight – and saw divinity in an old man on the street.

He was not a sculpture,
though equally precise,
dry,
shaped in deep folds of dust.
Nobody gave him anything.
Didn’t they see him? Couldn’t they?
They passed by. We passed by.
He was such an ancient man
that he seemed immortal.
So poor
that he seemed divine.

As she noted in her chronicle, Kingdom of Hanuman:

India is a country where wisdom is not only found in the sacred books but in daily life…

Yet, wisdom is sometimes accompanied by sadness. When she saw a haggard elephant, she wrote:

The wrinkled elephant has only an old yellow rug,
a torn and poor yellow rug, quite different from
the magnificent covers, the brocades that once
covered its forefathers, bearers of palanquins.

Cecilia_meireles
Image courtesy Abhay K.

Cecilia had come to India seeking the Mahatma. She had twice written about him, once following his assassination in 1948, titled Elegy on the Death of Gandhi, and again during her visit to India in 1953 – when she saw him everywhere. In her Elegy she wrote these memorable lines:

The afternoon wind comes and goes between India and Brazil, tirelessly.
Above all, my brothers, Non-violence.
But they are all carrying their smoking guns in the bottom of their pockets.
And you were, in fact, the only one without guns, without pockets, without lies
– unarmed up to the veins, free from the eve and the next day.

During her visit, she was given an honorary doctorate by Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president. And she even got to meet Jawaharlal Nehru, of whom she wrote to a friend:

Tomorrow I have a special lunch with Nehru (he looks very much like me, he has many teeth and he is very black like me…I believe we will become good friends.)

Cecilia is one of the finest voices in Brazilian poetry and the Portuguese language. She set out to India on a spiritual inquiry; a quest for self-realization, poetic meditation and the wisdom of life. Her ‘Song for the Peaceful India’ summarizes this experience:

Those who know you,
are touched forever in their hearts,
O patient India.

She longed to return to India.  In a poem written in 1961, three years before her untimely death, she wrote:

Rush, rush, It’s a trip to India…

A legend exists that when she was on deathbed, three Indians were reported to be present there to give her last words of exhortation before she died. In 2003, to mark the 50th anniversary of Cecilia’s trip to India, the Brazilian Embassy in New Delhi published a bilingual edition of her 71 poems, translated from Portuguese into English. 

It is fitting that Cha Com Letras, a monthly literary event organized by the Embassy of India in Brasilia, is paying homage to this great Brazilian poet who loved and was deeply inspired by India. On the occasion of its 18th edition, with readings of her poems written in India will be read out by eminent Brazilian poets.

It would be fitting to end with the last poem in her poetry collection, Poemas Escritos na India, titled ‘Beach at the end of the World’:

…friends, let’s sing,
in this impossible place,
neither land nor sea:
the beach at the end of the world
that will not retain
our shadows nor our voices.

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