What do I think of damp and soggy days When all the mud there is begins to squelch And squeak like frogs wòunded by a Plunging branch, when every fallen leaf Looks just the same, as if each one had fallen From some giant water-tree, and when the clouds Simply cannot decide on how to fall: like this, Like that? Like here or there? Like big or small?
I suppose I liked all this when I was young and free And when the only sky I knew was hid among the Puddles on the ground, or when I browned my Friday- Dress in mud that squelched and squealed and sang Beneath the green-grooved canvas of my trusty shoe.
But I do not like to think that I have aged, oh no, Much rather would I think the rain is not as young.
The idea of this poem came to me as I cycled through the Tata Institute on a chilly wet evening, some three and a half years ago. It remains a favourite poem of mine.
There are so many ways To sit out in the sun. You could paint your toes And stretch your legs Until the sun reflects off them. Or you could lie upon your back Upon a lighted sward of grass And hold a book Up to the fire of the sun. Or you could turn the other way And rest your stomach on the ground And feel the sunlit blades of grass Grow damp beneath the favour of your skin. And then, of course, you could Spread leopard-like out on a branch And lick the air with a sleepy tongue. But perhaps best of all would be To sit wild-eyed upon some timeless tree And dream of gliding like a cloud (Growing gradually thick and proud) Before swooping down like rain upon A dusty and a thirsting earth.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about the sun – and particularly about my lack of exposure to it. Ever since I began working some three years ago inside an air-conditioned office (and certainly over the last four months since I moved on from a steady job), I’ve had to make an effort to get out and feel the sun upon me; its light, its warmth, its vivifying qualities.
I didn’t think like this about the sun when I was young. The sun was there and so was I, underneath it most of the day. Playing in the sun was an everyday affair; sunbathing by the swimming pool before going back into the (deliciously cool) water was the luxury of summer-holiday afternoons; and looking for every last ray of the setting sun’s light was the adventure of countless football-evenings. I did not stretch then towards the sun, it was the sun that magnanimously embraced me.
To dramatize a simple truth: we are all of us only as young as the sunlight we know. I look forward with renewed enthusiasm to exploring the sun – in ways both mentioned in the poem and otherwise.
I said I’d dispense with a Foreword, but I just wanted to say that this is a longish poem…which means some of you may prefer to listen to it rather than read it. To facilitate that, I have put the audio recording of my recitation right above the poem. (Please try to ignore the noises in the background.)
Upon Reading of The Death of Satao (An Imagined Prelude)
I am not sure my story’s very good; I’m afraid it may be like the wood Chopped up by a clumsy carpenter: Rough and splintered. (But I will continue and tell You of the time when evening fell Upon the green land of Tsavo, And I took up bow and arrow.)
I am Kibaki; son of Kiprono Moses, (A good man, my uncle says) Who died before his time and mine. I lived until the age of nine With my mother; a loving, gentle woman Who is now dead, and in heaven. Dear mother, it is because of you That I know what is good and what is true.
There is a river by my home Where many wild animals come; I have seen the leopard bend his spotted yellow Head and sip water from his favourite shallow, And sat for many hours upon a crooked rock And watched the old antelope talk With the cheetah under the group of trees That I once clambered up with ease. (Mother said later: the wild beasts do not kill Like man does. Perhaps that is God’s will.) But now I will not care To go back there; Not even to chatter with the friendly swan; Because last evening, I grew from boy to man.
Two weeks ago, my uncle brought Home two men who taught Me how to use a bow and arrow. I was so eager to show That I could shoot like Waaciira, (Who was our tribe’s first hero), That forgetting the antelope by the lake (Or maybe simply for pride’s sake), I shot a wobbling arrow at a baby deer. And when the two men gave a loud cheer, I laughed, without really knowing why, (Even as the little deer looked on mutely). And when my uncle shook his greying head With a loud sigh and said: “Kibaki, we must not hurt the innocent,” I acted as if I had not meant To; but instead just laughed at him and ran, For I had not yet grown from boy to man.
Last week, the two men came back With a larger bow and arrows and a sack; “Come, Kibaki,” they said, “let us go Hunting and we will show You how to shoot an elephant.” I wanted to say: “It is wrong to shoot an elephant.” But when I saw the curve of the polished bow And the gleam of the feathered arrow, I simply said: “Where must we go?” “We must go,” they said, “to Tsavo For that is where great Satao lives With his children and his many wives.” That day we left for Tsavo in a van; That day I took a step from boy to man.
When I went to the river by my home, I loved to look down at the dome- Head of the elephants when they bent low Over the river’s edge; and how With great show and splash they drunk The water with their snaking trunks. And when the afternoon was clear Their white, curved tusks would glimmer In the shallow water, and make me sigh At their beauty. But now all that time seems no more than A happy hour before I grew from boy to man.
The green savannah spread from side to side And the plains of Tsavo seemed as wide As the sunny, cloudless sky Above us, full-blown and happy. But the two men and I brought a shade That settled over the land and made It dark and quiet; as if the sky above Had sensed the clench of an iron glove. Then there, beneath the crying birds And among the many-membered herds Of animals, began our hunt for old Satao.
Come to think of it, I am writing this afterword almost as much for myself as for the reader.
To begin, it is not untrue that this poem is just as much complete as it is incomplete.
This poem was begun some four-and-a-half years ago; and perhaps some three months after rumours first began to spread that Satao had been killed. (I believe it took the authorities some time to confirm the fact.) If memory serves correctly, I think it was a social media post that directed me to this (?) longish article in The Guardian that related the story of Satao and his death at the hands of poachers. I had never heard of Satao before, but the news of his death affected me – as the passing of a majesty such as his is likely to affect anyone who hears of it. But what struck me particularly, I seem to remember, was how he had died: killed by the bows and arrows of ivory-greedy poachers.
Saying it this way makes the death seem almost anachronistic. Crude even. Yes, it is true that this was a 21st-century killing accomplished using weaponry from the Bronze Age. But this matter of fact does not make the killing just something regular. Not at all! Instead, it only highlights Satao’s death as the poison-fruit of a cunning and rapacious cruelty, a cruelty wholly bereft of even the slightest tinge of redemptive innocence. The poachers were not playing fair (as men in the Bronze Age might have when they shot unpoisoned arrows at a charging elephant) when they shot at Satao with their arrows; they were being murderously stealthy in ways that gunshots never could be.
If I have offered all this detail, it is because I have tried to find (not only for the reader but myself too) what inspired the poem’s narrative. I mean – wherever did Kibaki come from? I do not know for certain, but I suppose he emerged as a plausible player in a narrative defined on the one hand by Satao and on the other by his poachers; poachers who, I surmised, would have had no qualms about enlisting a young boy as an accomplice in their heinous crime.
It is pretty near the truth if I say that I did not begin with anything particular in mind; not even the story that “[likely] is not very good”. Nor did I set out to write a narrative poem. However, as an outline began to emerge, I began to look for details and content to fill it with. If the poem ends where it does, it is because not only was I not sure what next to do with Kibaki but also because it seemed like a fairly felicitous place to stop: the narrative is not injured and the reader is allowed to imagine the rest of the story.
One last thing. The motif of “growing from boy to man” may appear somewhat well-worn. The predilection sports writers (and sports commentators in particular) have for harping on about “boys vs men” as also the closing line of Kipling’s “If” makes it almost inevitable that, you, the reader are familiar with the trope. I’d like, however, for you to see this from Kibaki‘s point of view; specifically, that he feels the loss of his innocence so acutely that he no longer can think of himself as the boy he very much is. His repetition of this emotion illustrates how adversely the episode has affected him.
Note: I have never been to Kenya nor have I visited the plains of Tsavo. I have tried, however, to keep things real. First off, I have a Kenyan friend, one of whose names, incidentally, is Moses. Kiprono is the name of several well-known Kenyan long-distance runners. Kibaki, I know, is a Kenyan name – because I looked it up. Lastly, Waaciira, I remember finding out, is the name of a folk hero of one of Kenya’s tribes.
He went there to die, she said; No premonition of his death awakened me Within the watches of the night Or blood-dyed nightmare make me clutch His smiling face, his goodbye-waving hand. (Her voice was steady as the wind, Her eyes were dry with tears.) No dream of Yama and his noose Upturned my dreamless sleep Nor did I see my daughter kneeling, Fatherless, broken by grief. And on the evening of his death, (The candle of her voice fell low), No bullet bit my breast Nor shrapnel singe my woman-heart. I loved him as a woman and a wife: I love him still, but he is dead And I must live.
In 2005, there was a wholly unexpected “terrorist-attack” on the IISc campus in which I lived. There were several injuries and one life was lost, that of a man who was there just that day for a conference. I remember mention being made of his wife and young daughter – and wondering what it would be like for his wife when she heard the news. Written some ten years later, this poem considers the matter.
I thought I’d get with the times and post something that isn’t several years old. So, here’s my most recent poem, begun on January 30, 2019 and finished on February 3, 2019. (I can’t believe it’s been more than three months already!)
Cockroach – Underbelly
ì just killed a cóckroach in a minute and a half. one–two–three–four (i could’ve but i did not stop); five–six–seven–eight (phutphut–phutphut) – and, suddenly, it was too late: the roach lay writhing on the ground, its legs were smashed – beyond escape.
i turned my head and saw myself inside the mirror on the door (headphones arched over a crumpled face); i looked at me and returned to the floor.
old memories all flew in different ways like a flock of birds unperched: the stepped-on ant again stepped on, the mice i saw beat by the broom, the spider and the spider-web – both gone.
…i wish now i had chosen to brush off the cockroach like it brushed my foot.
…and was i right? or was i wrong? (a cockroach-court would sentence me i’m sure); but i would ask for leniency and time and charity to regret my choice – and then create a life-and-death-philosophy.
I think this “piece of writing” can be contrasted nicely with this piece of writing. The linked-to piece fits much more nicely into most people’s idea (I include myself) of poetry. Like I say in the introduction to that poem, it possesses several qualities one usually associates with poetry, especially lyric poetry. Specifically, it possesses both rhythm and rhymes – which, together, impart a euphony, as it were, to the poem. As my recitation (I hope) makes clear, these qualities combine to make the poem an incantatory creation.
Now, here below, is a piece of writing. Is it poetry, prose, poetic, lyrical, prosaic, euphonic, musical?
“I just killed a cockroach in a minute and a half. One–two–three–four (I could’ve but I did not stop); five–six–seven–eight (phutphut–phutphut) – and, suddenly, it was too late: the roach lay writhing on the ground, its legs were smashed – beyond escape. I turned my head and saw myself inside the mirror on the door (headphones arched over a crumpled face); I looked at me and returned to the floor. Old memories all flew in different ways like a flock of birds unperched: the stepped-on ant again stepped on, the mice I saw beat by the broom, the spider and the spider-web – both gone. …I wish now I had chosen to brush off the cockroach like it brushed my foot. …And was I right? or was I wrong? (A cockroach-court would sentence me I’m sure); but I would ask for leniency and time and charity to regret my choice – and then create a life-and-death-philosophy.”
You will have noticed that the paragraph you just read was the poem, presented differently. Now think: what if you had seen the paragraph first? How would you have read it? My guess is that you would have read it in a monotone – that is to say, you would have read the words rather than concerned yourself with the lift and fall (unstress and stress) of the syllables that make up the words. So – what is the piece of writing? A poem? Or just prose chopped up?
I’d argue that it would be “just prose chopped up” were it not for the fact that the “point of chop”, (technically, enjambment), has been deliberately chosen to give the prose a certain sinuous (sinusoidal?) quality; a certain oscillatory motion. It is these “points” that signal to the reader (or reciter) the pace of the prose; or, in other words, the poem’s rhythm. And it thisrhythm that distinguishes poetry from prose, that takes the even ground of prose and makes of it the gently undulating lea of poetry.
Anyway, here’s a recitation. It may elucidate some of what I’ve said.
As much as a well-written introduction can offer the discerning reader perspective on the work they’re about to read, there is a good chance that it will – especially if it is both insightful and detailed – exert a disproportionate influence on them; and, by doing so, rob them of the chance to simply savour the work in their idiosyncratic way. Consequently, I have decided (from now on) to do away with an introduction or foreword. Instead, I will reserve my commentary for the afterword.
Death, a Mile Distant
Upon the railway track I see A limping dog, a ragged soul within A coat Of flea-bitten fur Half-sheared by the razor of the years. The ash-white stones Cut, dagger-like, into his Canine pads: the fox and wolf in him are dead. He stumbles now, A soldier on enfeebled feet. Ahead, (where curves this track Of rushing dreams), he hears That dread metallic howl. Gently, He spreads himself Across a sunburnt bar of steel and waits For death, a mile distant.
“…our images must be given to us, we cannot choose them deliberately.” – W.B Yeats
“…ಹಾಡೆ ಹಾದಿಯ ತೋರಿತು” or “…the song itself showed the way” – ದ. ರಾ. ಬೇಂದ್ರೆ (Da. Ra. Bendre)
The poem above was written, in late 2014, in about three minutes, the words flowing like rainwater down a slope. I do not say this to boast. Instead, I am almost certain that the poem was the (eventual) expression of an image “given” to me – that of a dog that meets its death on a railway track. Where the image came from I cannot really say. What I do know is that I would love for more images to be “given to me”! Also, the free verse form of this poem is in stark contrast to the rhymed forms of the other poems I wrote around the same time. It is this obvious difference that made me reference Bendre. Who knows – in this case, perhaps it was the poem itself that showed me the form it needed to take. I’d like to thank my aunt, Anjana, for immediately recognizing the merit of this poem and offering her praise. She has since the beginning (and despite her overwhelming schedule) found the time to be both my most faithful reader and discriminating critic.
I consider this poem among the more “important” poems I have written. I know myself (forgive my immodesty) that I have written better poems than this one, but few, I think, of more importance. Perhaps you will understand why I say this after you’ve read the poem. Incidentally, in light of the poem’s theme, it is interesting that the rhyme scheme of the poem (aabccb) is exactly that of the ಕುಸುಮ ಷಟ್ಪದಿ or Kusuma Shatpadi (~ floral sestet), a medieval-metre that appears in Bendre’s early Kannada poetry. Believe me when I say that it was not a deliberate attempt but, rather, pure coincidence that gave the poem this form. Please note that I’ve included a glossary (at the end) for the several non-English words in the poem. Do refer to it whenever you need to.
NB: Do read the “Afterword” too!
(P.S: This poem too is from 2015. I would publish more recent poems – but, to tell the truth, there aren’t a lot of them.)
As usual, here is an an audio of my reciting (chanting? intoning?) this poem.
India In English
How does it matter if I write poetry or prose, Or if I compáre the jaaji and the rose If all my writing’s in the English alphabet? What does it matter if I tell of Rāvaṇa’s Defeat by fire to a long-tailed vānara If such a play with words reaches just the literate?
What does it matter if I heed the raita’s tragedy And pray húmbly for Indra’s pity If English is the language of my prayer? How does it matter if I sing a song For a beggar-child, crying and alone, If my words of song mean nothing to the crier?
Why should the wretched dalit give a damn If I, in my best English, express my shame At his bèing denied temple-entry? Why should the tired cement-worker care When I write in English, eloquent yet spare, Of his exploitation by the industry?
How can the ártless village-girl blush If I, in the throes of a romantic flush, Should praise her ‘Venus-like beauty’? How can the warm and tender lullaby I wrote in a state of rhapsody Be sung in English by the old ajji?
How can I catch the scent of the flower That scènts the pious woman’s hair When English does not know the flower’s name? How can I lyricise about the goddess Who uprose from the sea within a lotus When English is oblivious to the dēvī’s fame?
How can a bhāshā that is known to ten Among a group of a thousand men Càpture the yearnings of each wretched woman? How can the shāstrās of olden times Among whose copious chaff are hidden gems Be learnt through a language that is alien?
Cán the rasa of a thousand years That flóws in the véins of the villagers Be distílled throúgh the English tongue? Can àdages bòrn of the land That see in all life some gód’s hand Retain their flavour in English’s rationale?
Cán a language that once colonized, That tyrannized, criticized, destábilized A culture that submìtted to god’s will, Be used once more tó revìve The clotted hòney in the hive? Wátch – wátch as I bend English to my will.
1. jaaji (jaah-g): The Kannada name for a flower of the jasmine family.
2. Rāvaṇa (raah-wuh-ṇaah): The ten-headed king of the ancient kingdom of Lanka (today’s Sri Lanka). His kidnapping of Sītā, Rāma’s wife, culminates in his defeat and death at the hands of Rāma and his army of vānara-s.
3. vānara (waah-nuh-raah): A member of a race that is today identified with monkeys. Its most famous representative is Hanumān. It is a matter of contention if the vānaras of the Rāmāyaṇa are simply mythical beings or if the word is a derogatory reference to the (darker-skinned, aboriginal) Dravidian peoples of South India.
4. raita (rye-thaah): The word for farmer used in Kannada (and other languages).
5. Indra (in-dhraah): The king of the dēvas, the gods. A rather insecure ruler, he is considered the god of the rain – whose weapon is the vajra, viz., the lightning bolt. [Looking now at the poem, I see that I have imputed to Indra an ignorance of the English language.]
6. dalit (the-lith): lit. crushed. A Marathi word used to describe those downtrodden people who belong to castes not included in the “caturvarṇa” setup of Hindu society. They were previously known as the “untouchables” – an English word that, it can be argued, more accurately expresses a sentiment than an actual practice. What is inarguable, though, is that they were treated diabolically for centuries by the “upper castes”. When I refer to them as “wretched”, it is in recognition of the fact that their status mostly remains “unhappy or unfortunate”.
7. ajji (uhjj-e): The (generic) Kannada word for “grandmother”.
8. dēvī (they-we): The female counterpart to a dēva; a goddess. The dēvī referenced here is Lakshmi, Vishṇu’s wife, who is supposed to have risen from the ocean when it was churned. This churning (known as the sāgara manthana) is a fascinating story in itself.
9. bhāshā (bhaa-shah): The Sanskrit word for “language”.
10. shāstra (shaahs-thraah): Any of the numerous ancient scholarly texts written in the Sanskrit language. They deal with a great range of subjects and are often prescriptive in nature. Today, the word is often used colloquially (in the various Indian bhāshās) to refer to old, dogmatic directives.
11. rasa (ruh-saah): A very important word (as well as idea) in Sanskrit poetics. It is occasionally translated as “juice” but is more often left untranslated for lack of an English equivalent. However, the word “sap” or, better still, “lifeblood” may be thought to be closer equivalents.
I remember listening, some years ago, to a well-known Indian poet in English reading out some of her own poems. (I cannot be certain if it was before or after I wrote this poem. I believe it was after.) One of them was written, she said in the video, in response to a Welsh (?) critic who questioned the “lack of Indianness” in her poems. Adopting a posture of haughty indignance (as though the Welsh critic was right in front of her), she read out her poem – which, if I remember correctly, contained self-conscious (and obviously ironical) references to well-worn “Indian” tropes like sambar and henna and verandah and cashemere. “Who are you to question my Indianness?” was the poem’s import. More recently, the same poet said in an interview that she was tired of talking about the language that poetry was written in. Identifying herself as an Indian poet writing in English, she said she preferred to think of poetry itself as the language.
I bring this up because I feel a certain sympathy with the Welsh critic. I never read his review (which may have been condescending or colonial in its outlook?), but I understand (and even share) his concern; a concern I express in the poem you just read. And I do this as a self-conscious insider, as an Indian writing in English who, although part of the privileged, is cognizant of – to a certain extent, even familiar with – both the “Englishlessness” and the “IndianEnglishness” of the India around him. But just how does one capture the essence of this chaotic, babel-like environment; how does one speak not simply for but to the “average Indian”; in what register of the (English) language does he represent the realities of a people who do not even speak the language? And, in case he does find a register, can the expression ever be poetic?
It must be noted that the questions raised here are not new. In fact, they have exercised several important Indian poets who wrote in English. (Prose writers have not been unaffected, but their medium is better suited to handle this vexing issue. R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Kamala Markandeya, Raja Rao, and, more recently, Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh are a few writers who have been praised for their capable handling.) One notable poet is Nissim Ezekiel, a Jewish-Indian poet often considered one of the pioneers of modern Indian poetry in English. Here are a few lines from his poem, ‘The Professor’:
“Whole world is changing.In India also|We are keeping up.|Our progress is progressing.|Old values are going, new values are coming.|Everything is happening with leaps and bounds.”
What stands out here is Ezekiel’s bold and deliberate use of the Indian-English idiom. The professor who speaks, presumably a well-educated man, uses an English that may be called patois and, strictly speaking, even incorrect. However, this “incorrectness” also imparts to the poem a “realism” that it would not otherwise have. By reproducing the professor’s speech, Ezekiel has tried to create what Wordsworth advocated for in the 18th century; namely, a poetry that borrowed its rhythms from the cadences of the common man’s speech. But did Ezekiel’s attempt lead to the creation of a (lyric) poem? I say no. Even taking into account the modernist movements of the 20th-century (that looked to rid English poetry of its historical rhythms and rhymes in favour of the many possibilities that “free verse” brought), it is hard to argue that Ezekiel’s creation is a poem. There is no musicality, no rhyme, no rhythm, no striking imagery even. Instead, it reads like a sterile record of a man expressing himself in an “outside” language even as he thinks in a “home” language.
What then is Indian poetry in English? I can offer no definite answer. Nevertheless, it seems to me (setting aside, for the moment, the problem of readership) that one possibility is a poetry that borrows (its spirit) from the cadences of the languages of India, viz., the bhashas, as they are often referred to. This poetry would conceivably meld the rhythms peculiar to (phonetic) languages like the Indian bhashas with the modern free verse form of a non-phonetic language like English to create a poetry that is Indo-Anglian in its character; that bends English (without breaking it) into a form that is incantatory; that can be chanted or intoned. In fact, it is an experiment of this kind that I began to conduct some four years ago – by using diacritics to indicate stretched and pressed syllables (in contrast to unstressed and stressed syllables). This poem itself is an example and so is this. Perhaps more significantly, this transcreation of my own bhasha (Kannada) poem to English is a nice example of what the English language is capable of when it is asked to progress to the beat of a (structurally) different language’s drum. In other words, I am fairly certain I could not have written this as an original English poem. What’s more, as a translator of Bendre’s wonderfully euphonic Kannada poetry into English, I have looked to work the (non-phonetic) English language in a way usually reserved for phonetic languages. Naturally, this has meant giving a lot of thought to what distinguishes the rhythms of phonetic and non-phonetic languages. Though germane to this matter, I will leave that discussion for another day.
To end, I thought I’d share a couple of (critical?) responses to my poem. They came about when someone I know shared the poem with someone she knows who shared it with the two people (both women) whose responses you see here.
I am, quite naturally, appreciative of and grateful to the first woman for her sympathetic reading. As for the second response, well, it seems to me extremely unlikely that the writer is a “well known critic in English”. (To tell the truth, I can only marvel at her remarkable ability to completely miss the point.)