Sampurna Chattarji
Fantasia for a Tortoise
From Absent Muses

A tortoise that once belonged to British colonial general Clive of India in the 18th Century has died in a zoo in Calcutta…West Bengal officials said records showed Adwaita was at least 150 years old but other evidence pointed to 250 - BBC News, Thursday, 23 March 2006


It is the grey of great age, and weather,
the blue of poison, or nectar.
‘Elephant of the atoll’, trampling grass,
dwarfing plants, it is the sap green
of memory.
Coral island, heron rock.

Once no bigger than a man’s fist,
Adwaitya walked in scrub,
sank in mangrove marsh.
Grazing, browsing, dozing,
a quiet life,
the latitude of the lagoon
all he could ask for.
Nameless, just one of a million
others, a giant race of tortoises.


The magic ring of sesame in its sound—
The abracadabra of voyagers
landing in boats, speaking Arabic,
and Portuguese and French.
Not staying, hunting for the big beast
with the indifferent eye and retractile neck,
leaving, with a tortoise or two.

What kind of passage, to other shores?
Swimming behind, a cord round their heads,
or slumbering peacefully on board?
Waiting for offerings of giant cabbage
from human hands, or going without food for ages?
Not tame, not ferocious.
Safe in their shells, these gifts from Seychelles.

While in Zanzibar, far from Aldabra,
their cousins met similar fates.
Size is not its own protection.
For that, another century must pass.


No other like Adwaitya.

Enshrined in the meaning of his name,
the years would armour him.
Two hundred and fifty years,
give or take a decade.

Abducted from their coralline home
Adwaitya, and three others.
The colour of rock, lichen and water,
a fraternity of fable.

No one talks of the others.
Maybe they died too young.
Maybe their names were not
powerful charms, easily forgotten,

ordinary names like Billy or Jack.
While smaller tortoises died for the table,
those three died of oblivion.
Memory, short-lived, like their master,

a man who took his own life,
knife carving a hole
through his opium-heart.


The Baron of Plassey
was mad for the lassie.

Songs might have been sung
and ditties written,
if hate hadn’t darkened
him of late.
Subduer of Siraj, amasser of fortunes,
Shropshire lad gone bad.

But this isn’t a litany of deeds,
a dirge or a song of misdeeds.
This is about Clive, the keeper of tortoises,
only one of which survived.

Adwaitya, Jack, Billy and Susan.
Trawling through the sprawl of estates,
fed, admired and perhaps even loved.
A gift from English seamen,
carrying within their shells
the reptilian gift of cunning,
the godly gift of longevity, unasked for.


Did Adwaitya dream
of home?


Did Salzburg dream
of such genius?
Little Wolfganerl, pretty in frock-coats,
beloved of god, Amadeus?

Waltzing through Vienna, Paris and London,
the genius-child on the piano,
performing seals, brother and sister both.
So many kinds of abduction.

The seduction of fame and fortune.
Amadeus and Adwaitya, in one year
two hatchlings delivered to the world.
The prodigy and the prodigious.

The One and Only Beloved of God.
Names crafted for remembering,
one living through massacres and treaties,
the other through sheets and sheets

of music. Arias for the ocean, serenades
to lost lands. Wind instruments for fleeing,
strings for holding back. Divertimenti,
dances, requiems for lost times.


Living on and on,
the kurma that upheld
the churning rod of gods and demons,
the myth of mortality,
Unspeaking witness to the heave
of human lives, the petty heft of history.
Time to leave.
Long used to bars, the friendliness
of zookeepers, the pinprick hands of children,
time to retreat into another shell,
vast and unmoving.

Swallowing whole the black hole of Calcutta, the Hooghly river, the smell of gunpowder, the swell of crowds, the grove of mangoes, the bursts of rain, the triumph of traitors, the loot of empire, the addictions of power, the siege of delusions, the trances of opium, the traumas of captivity, the riot of freedom, the blaze of famines, the march of time

Adwaitya dies,
ringed like a tree
by the years.
Two hundred and fifty rings,
each clear as a bell
in this giant hall of stone.
Up in the nave, the choir is singing
glorias to heaven.
Down by the cage,
the experts are silent as they wait.
They will carbon-date the shell
cracked open at their feet,
and prove Adwaitya’s age, at last.

Scooped clean and hollow as a bowl,
the shell will stay, a curiosity for tourist eyes,
more potent than a history lesson,
consigned to posterity, graven with past.

And Adwaitya will rise,
festooned in coral wreaths,
a thing of lightness, a bubble no bigger
than a man’s fist,
carrying the world on his back.