This afternoon, a well-wisher and a friend
asked for a poem for these ‘covid times’.
I was flattered by her faith and said I’d try,
but, really, what she’d said
was as good as asking me
to not think about an elephant.
So as I walked briskly on my evening walk,
my mind began to formulate a plan.
With rhyme and rhythm being my taste,
the poem’s opening was metred;
end rhyme is not easily unfacile
but a rhythm is a lot easier to find.
Six lines into my thought-poem (that I
was going to write down after my walk),
it occurred to me how corona’s devasta-
tion was without both rhyme and reason,
and that its contribution, as it were,
was, simply, to upset the world’s rhythm.
‘Poetry must disrupt’ is a worthy slogan
(often used unworthily by poets
whose only disruption is their poetry),
yet at its best can be a way to see
what we only ever look at mindlessly.
But how can poetry (itself) deal with a
disruption, what adjustments make it stay
relevant? What must it lose what must it gain
for what it says to outlive the sayer?
if corona had to take a poem’s form,
what would it be?
would every comma in the poem mean ‘tested positive’,
a semicolon spell seriousness;
and a full stop stand in for death.
The lockdown’s done, people are free (if masked)
and the road no longer stretches on, lonely.
I followed the news when it first raged but
now I cannot say I really care; I’m comfortable –
I have a house, food, water, snacks, a mask, a stiff-backed chair.
I know no one that covid’s killed – it’s like that
man-eating tiger you read about that’s killed someone
who knew someone (who knows someone) you know.
The direness of poverty’s
a paper-pic, a facebook-post, last evening’s news –
something you’d like to prick at you
but that you know you will forget.
Privilege and death are kindred –
either you or a close relative must be involved
for you to know it.
Ten days into the lockdown my ajji died,
what took her was not the virus but time; inexorable.
At 93 years old, it’s hard to say she wasn’t due –
though the suddenness of her passing came as a blow.
(the doctor who came home was a leech. not a bad man –
but greedy for the money he could strip
without damage to his or your dignity.)
The rites, the rituals, the mantras were performed; the
rhythm of the chants remained but other rhythms failed –
the crowd that gathers to mourn an elder’s passing
could not obtain; tradition, prepared for this,
said six months later would not be late.
(On the obverse side, marriages were infected too.)
Last year this time, I ran and walked the Institute;
my childhood place, my stomping grounds, my grace.
The gulmohar flowers are now upon a different tree –
the Institute is temporarily closed to me.
But the flowers’ happy red remains – reminding me
not everything can be locked down;
life’s disruption is limited –
even the best dictators can control
just other men and their families.
Exaggeration’s the name of the game,
but its shelf life too is limited.
2020 may come to be called the ‘corona year’
but 2021 will have a different theme, vaccine or no vaccine;
the simple truth’s that death’s so much a part of life,
it can only distress so much.
Remember Yudhishṭira’s answer to the yaksha –
the most wonderful thing in the world is this:
‘that a man can see men die all around
yet think that he’s beyond it.’
(Composed on 18th and 19th June, 2020)
Note: This one’s for Aruna, a friend, well-wisher and sahrudaya-rasika. After all, it was her request that got me started.
By the way, if you’re reading the poem on a phone, holding it horizontally would be the best way to ensure correct scansion.
1. ajji – the Kannada word for grandmother
2. The story of Yudhistira and the Yaksha: go here to read the whole story. If you’d rather just go straight to the question, scroll down to pg. 8, Q33
There’s a glossary below. Clicking on the asterisk by a word will take you to it.
Did you knów the fragrant flówer was once the fláme of a fiery stár? Did you knów a woman’s milk is but nectar stráined through silk? Did you knów the Dionýsian* dance was bórn of a sōma*-induced trance? Did you knów the human heart has a place in the Múseum of Cosmic Art? Did you knów the vaidic* fire once lit unstáined Baldur’s* pyre? Did you knów the Arctic sea was fórmed from the frost of the Yggdrasil* tree? Did you knów the sweetest fruit is seéded in wise wisdom’s sight? Did you knów the bányan tree fálls to the ground in ecstasy? Did you knów the sweat of toil is nectared-ráin to the drought-dry soil? Did you knów the song for the deaf spríngs from the kàlpataru’s* leaf? Did you knów each cloúd above once carríed water to a thirsty love*? Did you knów that in the earth lives a wórld of unheard mirth? Did you knów that myth and man are as rávelled as the chaff and grain?
(written ca. mid 2015)
For more about the context of and history behind the poem’s creation, see notes.
1. Dionysius (die-oh-nisi-yus): A figure of Greek mythology, considered the patron god of drink and revelry.
2. sōma (so-maah): A fabulous kind-of-nectar (distilled from a plant) that is supposed to have been drunk by the vaidic priests.
3. vaidic: Relating to the véda-s, the oldest extant Sanskrit literature.
4. Baldur (bald-er): In Norse mythology, the son of Odin and Freya. Killed, as a result of Loki’s machinations, by his own (blind) brother Honir.
5. Yggdrasil (ig-drus-il): The giant tree of Norse mythology that straddles the three worlds.
6. kalpataru (cull-puh-thuh-rue): The wish-tree of Hindu mythology. Located in swarga.
7. thirsty love: a reference to the “Mēghadūta (The Cloud Messenger)”, the famous Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa’s celebrated work. The premise of the poem is of a deliriously lovelorn yaksha (a demigod-like creature) speaking to a cloud above and telling it the message it should take to his equally lovelorn beloved hundreds of miles away.
This is my English translation of my own Kannada essay. I wrote the essay at the request of Kuntady Nithesh, editor-in-chief of the online Kannada magazine “ಋತುಮಾನ”. It was published on Jan 31, 2020, Da Ra Bendre’s 124th birth anniversary. I thank Nithesh for his ಸಹೃದಯತೆ (sahrudayate) and his goodwill.
I have tried to keep the translation as literal as possible. I have added audio recordings everywhere. Please note that the wordplay in a few poem-excerpts makes them untranslatable; however, it is sufficient to listen to their sound. Also, a couple of other translations are less “rigorous” than those I usually publish.
Finally, here is a guide for those who’d like to read Kannada written using the English alphabet (like has been done here).
It must have been about ten years ago. I was studying for my BA degree at the time. One day, I’d put the music on in my room and was working on something when a Kannada bhāvagīte (a lyric poem set to music) came on. Its rhythm attracted me and I stopped to listen to it more carefully. I found the words to the song unfamiliar and could hardly grasp more than a few of them. However, I was smitten by the song’s wonderfully attractive rhythm and listened to it several times over. As I did so, the two lines (above) were the only ones I was able to catch clearly. For some reason, listening to them sent a thrill through me. With repeated listening, they became a part of me. This was my first meeting with varakavi Bendre(’s poetry). I think it was the middle of 2013. A friend of my father’s sent me a book that was a collection of writings about Bendre and his poetry. Having only just learnt to read Kannada reasonably well (though I’d been speaking it from when I was very young), a perusal of that book introduced to me both Bendre the man and his poetry. I began to take a pride in him and enjoyed the excerpts of his poetry I found among the essays. A few (praise-filled) writings especially excited me. I was now eager to learn more about Bendre and his poetry. By about 2015, I was making headway in my Kannada reading. A significant portion of what I read concerned Bendre. At the time, I read more about Bendre’s poetry (including critical appraisals) than I read Bendre’s poetry itself. There was a reason for this: I knew very little then about both Kannada poetry and the Dharwad register of the Kannada language. I’ve already mentioned the book my father’s friend gave me. That aside, I’d managed to lay my hands on a copy of Bendre’s ‘gaṅgāvataraṇa’ that had been lying about the house. Sunaath Kaka’s blog too had come to my attention. On a trip I’d made to ‘Sapna Book House’, I’d had the luck to come across the collection “sūryapāna“ which contained the poem ‘The Dance of the Bear’. I was also browsing the web for articles about Bendre and his poetry. All told, Bendre was someone I had begun to feel close to. At the same time, my own “poetic conceit” had begun to show itself. Which is to say – the desire of several years had finally come to fruition and my own poetry had begun to “stream forth”. The language of my poetry, though, was English. (The English language itself was something my mother had bequeathed me.) But why did what until then was a quiescent underground stream suddenly spring to life? It’s my opinion that it was because, at the time in question, the language of my reading (Kannada) and the language of my thinking (English) were different languages. In other words, in some strange almost inexplicable way, the two languages closest to me melded with one another and, offering inspiration, brought out the poetry that had stayed hidden within. What’s more, my close, parallel association with Kannada gave the English poetry I wrote at the time a colour it might have otherwise lacked.
rasika, let my troubles stay my own,
I will give you just their song! And if that melts your sugar-heart,
send drops of sweetness back along!
(from the “sakhīgīta” collection, pub. 1937)
Bendre had a special affection for the rasika-sahrudaya. Like the lines above demonstrate, he has directly addressed the rasika in several of poems and called to them to participate in the ‘Kāvyōdyōga (The High Yoga of Poetry)’ that he was engaged in. Literary readers may be generally divided into two categories: critics and rasikas. Those part of the “rasika group” are keen to experience the feeling literature inspires, to partake of the happiness it provides; they do not concern themselves too much with its provenance, its reasons, and its ‘defects’. In a word: their point of view is innocent, innocuous. Those in the “critics group” possess a more trenchant point of view. It is not enough for them if literature simply provides happiness; its intentions, its scope, its novelty, its sensibility – all these are equally important. It is their belief that the merit of a work of literature must be recognized by an evaluation of these aspects. These two groups are not completely disparate. It is possible for a rasika to be a critic and it is just as possible for a critic to be a rasika. However, the number of people who are both rasika and critic in equal measure is extremely small.
It is fair to say that my temperament has, from the very beginning, been that of the ‘rasika‘, the ‘sahrudaya’. (Especially so in the case of poetry.) Consequently, I have always preferred enjoying a poem’s beauty, the felicity of its words, its rhyme and rhythm and euphony and have never had the desire to examine it critically by ‘taking it apart’. In the case of Bendre’s poetry, Shankar Mokashi Punekar’s ideas gave credence to this natural approach of mine. I first became acquainted with Punekar’s writings through an essay of his in the book “To say Bendre’s to say…”. His essay titled ‘The Study of Bendre’s Poetry’ was one I thoroughly enjoyed, especially because it illustrated the intimate relationship Mokashi Punekar had with Bendre’s poetry. Reading his essay helped kindle an especial appreciation of and enjoyment for Bendre’s poetry in me too. In the days to come, I sought out and read other essays Punekar had written about Bendre. Common to every single essay was his faith (in Bendre and Bendre’s poetry), his affection, his loving belief, his kinship.
However, reading Shankar Mokashi did not preclude me from reading what other writers and critics had said about Bendre. I also read the writings of Kurtakoti, G.S Amur, Pu.Ti.Na, Adiga, Ki. Ram. Nagaraj, GSS and others. I enjoyed some of them and even learnt from them. But in none of their writings did I find the intimacy, the rasika perspective, or the ‘flashes’ (of both language and insight) that I found in Shankar Mokashi’s writings. Which is why, as far as I am concerned, Shankar Mokashi is the man who gave me the gift of Bendre’s poetry. He is the ‘master-rasika’ who nurtured my natural rasika instinct and for that I will always be grateful to him.
kṛtiya racisade kṛārthave jīva? rasa vima– rsheyu rasada yōga koḍaballudē?
is life fulfilled without creativeness to fill it?
is analyzing rasa the same as drinking it?
(from “kṛti“, “uyyāle” collection; pub. 1938)
I began to feel particularly close to Bendre’s poetry when I began to translate (and transcreate) his poems into English. It seems to me that my beginning this work was destiny. In any case, by June or July of 2015, I had reached the point where I was writing, on average, one original English poem a week. Like Bendre says in the excerpt above, I had, with these poems of mine, achieved a fulfillment of sorts. At about the same time, my study of the Kannada script and my reading about Bendre has reached a ‘next’ level. Even as I was asking “what next?”, I asked myself why I shouldn’t try to translate a poem of Bendre’s into English – which is what I went ahead and did! However, that attempt was simply incidental; a one-off, “why not?” sort of attempt. (It certainly wasn’t work I’d taken on in ‘serious’ fashion.) My hunch is that I was, at the time, looking for a creative engagement with Bendre’s poetry – because, let it be remembered, I had until then read much more about Bendre’s poetry than directly engaged with it. In the event, my attempt (to translate a poem of his) was a way of plugging this gap. The poem I chose to translate then was ‘nānu (I)’. Part of the ‘Gaṅgāvataraṇa’ collection, a documentary made in 1972 shows Bendre himself reading the poem out loud, even as he gesticulates in that unique manner of his. (As far as I know, this is the only video recording of Bendre reciting his own poetry. When he lived, his manner of reciting or singing his own poems was at least as famous as the poems themselves.) In all likelihood, I chose the poem for the very reason that I’d seen and listened to his recitation of it. Even now, I remember trying to translate the poem using the rhythm of Bendre’s recitation as my touchstone.
The most notable difference between the English and Kannada languages is phoneticism. The makeup of Indic languages means it is possible to represent a sound the tongue makes by means of a single symbol. Languages of this kind are called phonetic languages. On the other hand, in English, it is very possible that several symbols (in this case, letters) are needed to representa single sound. Languages of this sort are called non-phonetic languages. Succinctly, the character of the English and Kannada languages are very different. From the very beginning, I had a clear goal – that the English translation or transcreation I make capture as fully as possible the poetic qualities inherent in the Kannada original. In the transcreation of ‘I’, Bendre’s recitation served as an aid. It was by paying special attention (and respect) to the rhythm of that recitation that I undertook my English transcreation. As I continued on, I wondered about what it would mean to use accents to add a ‘push’ and ‘pull’ to the translations and transcreations. (I had already begun to do this in the original English poetry I was writing.) As I began to translate and transcreate more poems, I learnt what kinds of challenges I’d have to face, the sorts of experiments I could try, and what qualities of a poem (would) remain beyond the grasp of both a translation and a transcreation.
What do these lines mean? What have they set out to say? For the bee to travel from flower to flower drinking their nectar is part of the natural order of things. In the poem, the poet has made a metaphor of this extremely natural action (of the bee’s). To the poet, the poem is the nectar-filled ‘[lotus] flower’ that is calling the rasika ‘bee’ towards itself. It appears that the poet himself is curious and excited about the ‘new creation’ that will result from the bee bending over and drinking the nectar. Speaking for myself, the (idea of a) ‘new creation’ interests me more than the ‘bee-pollen-flower’ metaphor. Like I’ve said already, ‘I (nānu)’ was my first translation. It would not be wrong to call that translation experimental. But once that was done, a ‘what next?’ surfaced. While I cannot remember exactly when in 2015 it was, my first great endeavour as a translator was the translation of the poem ‘gaṅgāvataraṇa’. What I just said may have raised a few eyebrows. A translation of the poem ‘gaṅgāvataraṇa’ (more famous as ‘iḷidu bā tāyi)’? You may have even chuckled to yourself and said, ‘Look here, fellow, did you manage the properly understand the [original] Kannada poem first? It’s only after that that translating it or creating an anuvāda or whatever all comes. You get that, don’t you?’ What can I say now? I suspect I did not, at the time, fully understand the scale of what I was attempting, and that my bravado made me push forward. I thought to start with the first couple of lines and see where it went. I was soon done with the first stanza – by the end of which I had managed to create a corresponding English rhythm. But the second stanza held me up. It contained several unfamiliar words and several lines that suggested (rather than being obvious in their meaning). A quick scan of the rest of the poem brought further complexity to my notice.
It was at this juncture that Sunaath Kaka and his very own interpretation of the poem came to my aid! Reading through his explication helped the poem ‘open up’ to me. I returned to the translation. For every line that followed, Kaka’s detailed explication was the lamp that offered illumination. I continued on. The translation progressed easily – matching the original step for step, rhyme for rhyme, rhythm for rhythm. It wasn’t long before I reached the section of the poem that is an extraordinary blend of euphony, rhyme, rhythm and language. Kalinga’s Rao musical rendition of this section filled my ears. With Kaka’s explication in front of me, my fingers moved of their own accord, beating out words on the keyboard. To this day, I cannot explain exactly how I transcreated that section. A translation that should have difficult and presented the most acute challenge had, like the Gangé river, flowed on with an uninterrupted ‘suyyy’. (It was about a year and a half after I translated the poem that I shared it with Kaka. I had, in the meanwhile, translated a few more poems with the help of his explications. He responded to my reaching out with a sahrudaya’s wonderful affection. His extravagant praise for the translation made me very happy. We began a friendly email correspondence. Kaka was the first ‘serious reader’ of my translations. His support was – and continues to be – a great help. I’d like to take this chance to offer Kaka an affectionate hug.) My ‘successful’ transcreation of ‘gaṅgāvataraṇa’ was the springboard that allowed me to take off as a translator. At first, my translations flowed forth with the momentum and speed of a dam whose sluice gates have been opened. Though the momentum (and speed) lessened as time passed, the work I began then continues unimpeded today. Every ‘kiss’ given me by a Bendre poem has resulted in a ‘new creation’ that is my English translation (or transcreation). Although, like every creation, it is likely to have its faults and rough edges, I can affirm the act of creation has made me happy. In some particular instances, the joy I have experienced has almost overwhelmed me. All told, this ‘translatory journey’ has brought me closer to the the Kannada language. It has increased my affection for it. It has inspired me to experiment with (writing in) the English language and made my relationship with English a more intimate one. Most of all, it has, by offering constant opportunities to ‘create’, allowed me to keep the fire of my creativity burning.
mugila bāyi gāḷikoḷala beḷakahāḍa bīri
the sky-mouth played the flute-of-wind;
it sent fórth a song of light.
(from “A Play of Sounds“; “nādalīle” collection; pub. 1938)
beḷaku nūlutide tulārāshiyali bhavya rāṭiyāgi.
light’s weaving in the tula zódiac,
it lòoks like a magnificent reel.
(from “Rays Of the Eye“; “shatamāna” collection; pub. 2004)
beḷaku nāyi maimūsi barutalide shukra candrarante
Snìffing the skin comes the dog of light
lìke the stárs and moon of the night
(from “In the Garden of the Gods; “kāmakastūri” collection; pub. 1934)
navanavōnmēshashālinī – the ability to see the new with a renewing sight. This is what the ancients of India called pratibhā (a word that’s loosely translated as ‘talent’ but whose scope allows for it to be a synonym of ‘genius’). A poet achieves this ‘newness’ by means of conceits, similies, metaphors, and images. Bendre’s genius, to be sure, was a gift from the heavens; the genius of a heaven-touched poet. As for the newness of Bendre’s poetry, it corresponds to the ever-renewing newness of nature itself. The three excerpts above (from three different poems) illustrate my point. All three speak of light. But how different the three conceptions! It is likely to astonish anybody to learn that the same poet conceived of all three. Just as important is the novelty of these conceits. None of these is a well-worn ‘poetic cliché’. This novelty is what sets Bendre apart. Several commentators and critics have discussed Bendre’s originality. It is the quality that has irradiated Bendre’s poetry, has given his metaphors and similes their novelty and left his readers and listeners spellbound and astonished.
The chúrn and churning of the word brought forth a euphony
It felt a joy – it spred a joy – in its own lòve it was happy
It did not mean – it did not want – it was just lyric poetry
(from “The Lyric Poem“; “nādalīle” collection; pub. 1938)
“We need euphony we need euphony | we need to knead euphony | euphony needs a matching euphony”. Bendre may be the most singular ‘romancer of sound’ the Kannada poetic tradition has seen. He has given us more nāda (~euphony) than we could have asked for. That nāda has been the bumblebee’s guṅguṅ at one time and the koel’s kuhukuhoo at another, has resounded as the mrudanga’s tōmtanānā on one occasion and flowed on another occasion as the jum jumu rumujumu guṅguṅu dumudumu of the river-of-sound.
The bhaavageeta or the lyric poem was Bendre’s favoured form of poetic expression. Speaking generally, the form favours sound over meaning. That is to say, a lyric poet uses rhyme, rhythm, metre, euphony etc. to evoke (the reader’s or the listener’s) feeling. Bendre was a born poet. Like Shankar Mokashi said, he was ‘a true lyric poet’ (who could write a lyric poem about almost anything). At a time when poetry in Kannada (and other Indian languages) was, under the influence of the west, moving from ‘poetry to be sung’ towards ‘poetry to be read’, Bendre used his distinctive genius to create hundreds of modernlyric poems. What’s more, the flow of his poetry was as natural as a fount’s. Stitching together the sounds, rhythms, rhymes and words that came effortlessly to him, Bendre created a poetry that was variously complex, suggestive, melodic, intimate, simple, and many-meaninged. But, in the end, a bhaavageeta does not mean and does not want. In other words, every lyric poem is free – an untrammelled creation. It is a feather fallen from the bird flying in the “stretching cloth of sky [with] neither start or end”. It has one and only one aim: to spread joy.
(from “The Éla Song“; “gaṅgāvataraṇa” collection; pub. 1951)
The poet is a skilled worker. He is an artist. In his hands, a language can blossom, can take on new forms, can be infused with new vitality. The language a poet uses remains the people’s language while transcending it. Poetry offers space for suggestion, simile, and metaphor that everyday language does not. It allows for the use of rhythm, rhyme and sound that prose does not. In his use of language, no one has as much freedom as the poet does.
It is my belief that the “Ambikatanaya who mirror[ed] forth in Kannada the universe’s inner voice” lent the Kannada language the divine touch. The crown of varakavi – the poet given a vara, the heaven-touched poet – sits upon Bendre’s head like it can sit upon no other’s. His use of the Kannada language is unparalleled. He ‘burrowed deep into its [very] womb and drew forth [its] (inner) thread’. In my opinion, his poetry is a wonder of the world. What’s more, he is, as a poet, na bhūtō na bhavishyati, i.e. ‘never before and never again’.
On occasion, I play a game as I read Bendre’s poetry. The game is to count how many tatsama words (words directly borrowed from Sanskrit) there are in the poem. I am astonished almost every time I play this game and cannot help but ask myself: ‘What is this! How in the world did he write such sublime poetry in the janapada, in the the spoken language of the people of the Dharwad region! How, when Kannada – in the tradition of every language world over – had created a poetic literature by treading the classical path did he manage to use a dialect (Dharwad Kannada) of the language to create such magic! Has poetry of this sort ever been created anywhere?’
(For instance, the poem, ‘Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ)’ – labelled the poem of the 20th century [in Kannada?] – contains just ten tatsama words! Every other word is a ‘pure Kannada’ word. In order to properly understand the magnitude of this achievement, it is necessary not simply to read what poetry was being written in Kannada by Bendre’s contemporaries but to realize the emphasis that had been placed on Sanskrit all through the Kannada literary tradition – beginning with Pampa’s works in the 10th century AD. However, that doesn’t mean Bendre did not use Sanskrit in his works. As someone born into the vedic tradition, Bendre is known to have called himself a ‘vēdavit kavi’, i.e. a poet in the manner of the vēdic poets and written poems in the incantatory metre of the sāmavēda.)
It seems fitting to end an essay that began with Bendre’s words with his own words.
kannaḍavu kannaḍava kannaḍisutirabēku.
Kannada must always mirror itself in Kannada.
(The translation of this last line is necessarily approximate; in no small part because of its play with the Kannada language and the pun within.)
What do you mean she’s barren? Does she not send forth a tide of blood each month, that blood you call impure and quarantine within the dark? That blood you fear with all your heart, that blood is the blood of her heaving heart. (That heart you treat with disregard and force so brute, it dries and desiccates the root.)
So listen, you people whose tongues malign! Do you know what churns within her loins? Do you know if milk streams through her breast? Do you know what it is to be childless? (And if you do, more shame on you.) Her womb is womb no less than womb that bore you, her breasts no less that those you milked; nor she more cursed than those of you most blessed.
So don’t waste your breath to simply say that’s she’s a barren field. Go back instead and wield the malice of your tongue upon your unfortunate child. Go now, for I stand here as her shield.
(written in 2015)
I wrote this poem in 2015, during the most prolific creative spell I’ve experienced. However, as quick as the poem’s emergence (on the computer’s screen) was, it was really the culmination of thoughts and ideas I had been pondering – and even writing about – for some three years previously. Not a woman myself, I’ve no doubt this poem was influenced by women’s stories; by various things I’d heard and read and been told about and that had permeated my consciousness in ways too intricate to pinpoint.
Childless women among my relatives; an observation by a relative about how her’s uncle’s childless marriage had been unquestioningly attributed to his wife’s infertility (though she thought it more likely that a year-long sickness that left her uncle bedridden was the reason); a woman’s direct, personal perspective who felt having a child helped a woman ‘feel complete’ (she had a child); a true story told by a well-known Kannada writer in Kannada about a woman who, unable to conceive herself, had thrown her ōragitti‘s (ಓರಗಿತ್ತಿ), i.e. co-sister’s newborn down a well; the idea – universal in its scope – of the ‘woman as field‘, who, like a field, could expect nothing less than indifference and disdain if she was ‘unproductive’; stories of the subtle and unsubtle jabs a woman could face from her in-laws for not being able to conceive; the story of a friend – only 25 or so at the time but already married for over a year – who, upon asking her mother what she wanted for her birthday, was told that a ‘grandchild’ would be best possible gift; stories about men choosing (or being told to) make a second marriage because their wife couldn’t conceive; the account by a childless woman – who’d taken years to come to terms with her childlessness – about the impending arrival of her friends’ grandchildren and her helplessness regarding the feeling of loss that (she feared) was bound to return.
Note: The ‘quarantine’ mentioned in the poem is a practice followed to this day in parts of India (and, very likely, in several other places where science is forced to genuflect before tradition). It is the practice of ‘social distancing’, of banishing a menstruating woman (or several menstruating women) to an “outhouse” until they are done bleeding and are no longer considered ‘undefiled’ or ‘impure’ or ‘dirty’. Not surprisingly, the conditions in this “outhouse” are unsanitary and dangerous. Rising female education and awareness campaigns are helping the situation improve, but I remember a newspaper report from about a year or two ago that spoke of the death of one such banished woman. It’s past time such atrocity was stopped.
By the way, I think it worth noting that such vilification and ostracization of women is not in any way peculiar to India. Like I say here, woman has been discriminated against by man – in some way or the other – in every culture around the world. Within the present context, it is illuminating to note the origin of the word hysteria or even the original meaning of the word menstruate. (‘A Brief History of Misogyny’ by Jack Holland offers more detail.)
P.S: This is one of my favourites among the poems I’ve written. It’s also one I’m proud of.
I first listened to a Leonard Cohen song at home – when my mother sang ‘Suzanne’. She sang it as she moved around the house, in that soft melodious voice that so wonderfully suits those English songs she first heard when she was young and now sings from memory — and I can still see Amma emerging from the half-darkness of the passageway (that led to the two rooms at the back) into the bright light of the drawing room, singing “and the sun poured down like honey | on our lady of the harbour…” as I sat on one of the sofas in the room, continuing to do what I was doing even as I listened to those lovely words with half an ear.
Some time later, I would go on to listen to Cohen himself singing ‘Suzanne’, his deep, distinctive, scratchy voice made even scratchier by the dust that had settled in the grooves of the old LP my mother owned. A couple of years later, Cohen would become part of my routine at college — his husky voice now emerging from the laptop on my desk as I drifted off to sleep. Later still, I would travel alone (for want of a like-minded companion) to listen to him sing live in Minneapolis, one of the venues he played as part of his long and final tour, a tour forced on him by his dire financial situation but one he learned to love and embrace as it went on and he witnessed the many rapturous and heartfelt receptions he was given.
It’s been a number of years now since we moved out of our house on the IISc campus. We live now in our “own house”, which is a lot larger and has both an upstairs and a downstairs. My room is upstairs, and is where I spend most of my time. Amma, on the other hand, spends most of her time downstairs. Things have changed: we now have a cook (who also plays housekeeper and with whom and whose family we’ve formed a bond) and Amma spends most of her time doing the Sudoku and the crossword, reading her Kindle, indulging in the odd game of Mahjong or Solitaire, and playing the piano. She moves about the house less these days – there is no reason to – and while she may occasionally recall an old favourite song, it is very rare to hear her singing like she used to. Very occasionally, my father brings her a thesis that needs to be copyedited, a task she devotes herself to with a conscientious diligence that comes naturally to her. Her evening routine has also changed. She now goes for a walk with her “new” friends, friends from the IISc she has got to know better upon moving here. It is a daily ritual she revels in – and one that gives her the opportunity and luxury to eat the several snacks and sweets she enjoys. (To be fair, the singing hasn’t stopped completely, but if she sings nowadays, it is as part of her ‘music class’ – a session where she and some friends spend an hour learning some ‘devi stuti’ or the other and about an hour-and-a-half savouring each other’s cooking and chatting about mundane matters.) To tell the truth, I cannot remember the last time Amma sang ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Tambourine Man’ – a most favourite song and one I first heard because Amma sang it – or ‘Five Hundred Miles’, another old favourite and my introduction to the wonderful music of Peter, Paul and Mary. However, I occasionally hear her humming and singing one of her old tunes and once in a while, I sit down on the end of the sofa (her sofa really) whose other end she’s at and play a song on my phone, one I know she’ll enjoy – and am suitably pleased when she responds to the cue, looking up from her crossword or Kindle with a smile and often singing along. I know if I asked her why she’s stopped singing or pester her to start again, she would say ‘I’m old, Madhava’; and I would contest the matter and a needless argument might break out. So I won’t. After all, one can sing only when one feels like singing – and perhaps Amma just isn’t inclined to these days. Also, old or not, she is certainly growing older and her enthusiasm has switched gears and moved towards other things – like the piano, an instrument she’d always wanted to learn and first began learning almost twenty years ago; that she gave up (for reasons I don’t remember) after some three or four years; that she returned to some three years ago after a prolonged break; that she got better at again in those three years, even venturing to learn “Für Elise” upon my request; and that she has just recently been forced to stop playing because of a minor dislocation in her thumb, the result of a freak fall. In this time of COVID-19, Amma is waiting on two operations. One for her thumb – which isn’t mandatory but that is likely help in the long run – and the second for a cataract in her left eye (the right one already being done), an operation that was to have happened yesterday but has now been postponed indefinitely. When during my bath today, I suddenly remembered the essay I wrote after Cohen’s passing in 2016 and thought of sharing it, I hadn’t thought to write all this much. It occurred to me to simply write an introductory line or two and then share that essay. But I began – and this is what came of it. And perhaps it is only fitting, because, really, without Amma there would likely be no Leonard Cohen – nor a concert and a remembrance.
“And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers…”
Leonard Cohen — A Remembrance
(written on November 13, 2016)
It seems like so long ago, but there was a time in college when I looked forward to doing the laundry so I could come back to my room (on 4th Burton) and listen to my collection of Leonard Cohen’s songs as I folded a couple-of-weeks worth of clothes. In fact, there were times I wouldn’t have to even “turn on” the playlist – for it was to that very playlist that I’d have fallen asleep the last night (and the night before and perhaps the night before that too…).
It was a comforting, pleasant feeling – meticulously folding my clothes in the mellow, yellow light of the lamp by my bed as Cohen’s voice sang his songs in the sequence that had become so familiar. (It’s been years now since I listened to that collection, but I seem to remember that the first song was “Suzanne,” the second “Take This Waltz” and the third “The Stranger Song”; each having played some 400-odd times.)
Cohen was also why I put out my first (and only) public announcement in the NNB (Noon News Bulletin) – where I asked if there was anybody else who’d bought tickets to his Minnesota concert on the 2nd of May, 2009. (Two people responded, but were unfortunate enough to miscalculate the date.) I, however, was lucky enough to go and see him perform. While the experience was a little underwhelming (for one, it would have been nice to have had a fellow-fan; for another, I didn’t care so much for the orchestra-versions of his solo songs), his enthusiasm on stage belied his age; his voice had its famous husk; and his fedora beautifully capped his wise, impish, bejowled face. (I bought a fedora, of sorts, in the markets of Delhi some two years ago. It remains a prized possession.)
I haven’t, in recent years, listened to him like I used to, but I still remember those college days fondly – and the frissons of happiness that I felt sometimes as I sailed on the waves of his music and poetry. He was, with Yeats, one of my first-favourite English-language poets.
So – since it’s hard to pick a Cohen-favourite, I’ll offer two. The first one is “Take This Waltz“, a musical rendering of Cohen’s magnificent “transcreation” of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Spanish poem. The second is “If It Be Your Will“, a genuine masterpiece, a lyrically-charged hymn for the ages.
P.S: For the interested, here is a playlist (that I mean to continue updating) of Cohen’s songs.
Because – is it not enough if poetry can make you happy and push the borders of the heart a líttle further apart so that the joy that grips the soul, (a joy that cannot be told), turns the rhythm of the breath into a hum ming bird, that shooting like a charge throughout the blood both fills and floods the being with a boundless surge.
And let me dánce, Natarāja* to the rhythm of your drum; and let me flów, Natarāja, like Gangé* from your locks; and let my límbs spread smóothly and my waíst slide shyly and my ánklets tinkle and my brácelets jingle and my sáree rustle to the echóes of your drum*.
(written in 2015)
1. naṭarāja — literally, king of dance but perhaps better translated as ‘Lord of Dance’. An appellation of Shiva’s, one of Hinduism’s major gods. His dance – the cosmic tāṇḍava – can be various and can signal both creation and destruction. The joyful form of his dance is the ānanda tāṇḍava.
2. gangé — the way Gangā, Hindu culture’s most sacred river, is written and pronounced in Kannada. Here’s some more detail about the mythology concerning Shiva and Gangé.
3. drum — the ḍamaru is Shiva’s “drum”, one he uses to keep time during his cosmic tāṇḍava. A mythological story tells of how the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are the sounds that emerged from Shiva’s drum as he danced his dance of creation.
My words of verse are not like ráin stréaming from a water-burdened cloud; nor like the blossom on the vine-tip that fálls and reaches the ground despite the absence of a wind. Nor like the green ringlet that peeps out from the seed-born stem; nor even like the little bird whose wings outspread of their own accórd. I seek instead for similes, search nature with deliberate eyes, (wearing a poet’s disguise), to find and praise what must be praised; what does not rust (with words that I to rhyme entrust). Yet all the while I wish so much to write like I were heaven-touched.
I wrote this “essay”, as it were, in late 2015. (It is perhaps better considered an extrapolative “musing” that grew out of the conversation I had.) I’ve been considering posting this for a while – and while I don’t care too much for the (commercial) idea of ‘Women’s Day’, I think it a good time to put this out.
Some portions of this were in Kannada (especially the conversation and cultural references), but I’ve translated those parts into English so everybody can read it. However, I have kept a few cultural words – for which I’ve provided a glossary at the end of the essay.
I was talking to a friend yesterday when he mentioned his interest in a girl in his office. The girl, he said, was from Mangalore and a complete ingénue—with no idea whatsoever of the world. ‘She’s like a child, man,’ he said, using his hands to cocoon an imaginary child, ‘a real doll.’ I, of course, took the opportunity to rag him a little and ask the customary question of when they were going to get married; a jest he took well and shrugged off with a laugh. The matter took a turn when I probed him a little more about her. Was she a Kannadiga or was she Tulu? Was she … ? ‘Tuḷu*,’ he said, ‘she’s a Tulu…a Shetty* from Mangalore.’ His voice turned contemplative as he returned unconsciously to the jest I’d made about marriage – ‘And that’s just it, Madhava…you know how it with us. If she were a brahmin*, it would have been different, but now…not a chance, man. In fact, I myself don’t know that I’d marry outside… ” Why not, I asked? What was the matter? Surely his parents weren’t that strict? ‘O they are, kaṇo, they are, extremely so.’ What about him? Did he believe in such tradition mores too? He hesitated before saying that, no – no, he really didn’t, but what was the use when he couldn’t make his parents understand? Well then, what about your sister, I asked, referring to his sister who’s only a few years older than him. ‘Ayyo!’, he exclaimed, ‘she’s the worst of the lot! As maḍi* as can be! At least my father if I pestered him long enough would tell me to go to hell—in other words, to do what I wanted to! But she, no way, not a chance!’ And your mother I asked him, couldn’t you bring her round to seeing things your way, especially in this day and age? ‘My mother…she’s very emotional, kaṇo…’ he replied, without elaborating, for both of us knew what he meant. The next ten minutes revolved around a discussion of the merits and faults of such traditional ideas. With no stake in the matter, I continued to urge him to shake off boldly the shackles of tradition—blind tradition. ‘You can’t go on like this, man, you have to say what you think before it’s too late. Especially when it has to do with you yourself. And all this idea of caste-purity that’s being held on to, no wonder there’s so much hatred shown to the brahmin…this behaviour is essentially untouchability.’ He nodded in agreement, then mumbled that he had told the girl that he couldn’t commit himself at the moment; that they should wait for three months, etc. He seemed abashed about it. ‘At least her family believes,’ he said hopefully, ‘and worship those bhūtas* or whatever…’ Yes, I said, I’d heard about the bhūta worship that happens in the region around Mangalore and the Karavaḷi region. We parted soon after. Our chat had taken a more serious turn than I’d expected. While I am quite certain that my friend is not considering marriage at the moment—he is only 22—I think that the knowledge of the various tangles associated with the matter have begun to gnaw at him. In this, he is representative of a certain type in society—the savarṇa* middle-class youth whose aspirations are moulded by western culture and whose ideals are shaped by the Hindu values that have been bequeathed him or her. The urban gloss of such lives is obvious—but just as obvious to the keen eye is the thinness of this gloss. Rooted nowhere, yet not entirely deracinated, the phenomenon is that of a trishaṅku*, a creature caught in limbo, less glamorous than it is pathetic.
Reviewing our conversation later on, what struck me was my friend’s assessment of his mother and his sister, the two women closest to him. It served to remind me of my private notion that the continuance of societal mores is much more the responsibility of its womenfolk than its menfolk. In the context of patriarchal society, the irony of this is poignant. Just think of it! A woman upholding the absurdly rigid idea of maḍi in rituals that she is not even allowed to participate in; a woman teaching her daughter-in-law to be a dutiful wife and to be sure to bear male children; a woman speaking of the kanyādāna* of her own daughter as though she were simply chattel, just like her mother must have spoken of her. It sounds incredible, masochistic, even unnatural—which in many ways it is. But just as clear and just as natural is the reason that drives this behaviour—the ineluctable conditioning force of history. It is a force created by man, controlled by man, dominated by man, turned and twisted by man, and finally, driven forward by man.
The metaphor of the woman as a field for the man’s seed is an old one, prevalent I suspect in every culture. Its origin lies in the practice of equating woman to the earth, of equating her ability to bear children to the earth’s ability to transform a seed into plant. Her fertility is essential – just like the earth’s fertility is – but only so far as to help the seed within her womb germinate. She is absolutely necessary, but at the same time replaceable – barren soil may be discarded for soil that is fertile. She is the receptacle, the nurturer, the caregiver – but only after the seed has been sown and has germinated. Prior to this, she is a passive creature – her motherhood is bestowed upon her by man; it is he who drives creation, who drives the race forward. Woman both receives and gives, but only as a consequence of man’s agency. It is these sort of ideas that appear to have given rise to the patriarchal system of society the world over – with some exceptions, but none powerful enough to have made any difference to the course of history. Of course, the difference in stature and physical prowess, the primitive existence that made foraging necessary, woman’s congenital mothering nature were all important reasons for society to form as it did. In the particular case of post-vedic society – or equivalently, contemporary Hindu society – whose mores stretch back a few millenia, its most defining feature is perhaps the varṇa* system practised under the umbrella of a patriarchy. When the varṇa system began to be practised is uncertain, nor is it relevant here, but the grouping of woman with the shūdra*, the lowest varṇa of the four is, very likely, not simply the consequence of Manusmriti’s* directive but of society’s opinion of women at the time. Yet, despite all the surmises made above, it is difficult to say precisely why societies grew as patriarchies rather than as matriarchies. If, as is likely, a child’s upbringing was largely in the woman’s hands, what was a boy taught that allowed him to create a society that privileged a man over a woman; what was a girl taught that allowed her to accept – without opposition – her position as man’s inferior? Was woman – in her position as the child’s first teacher – not able to bring up both son and daughter as equals? Had she, already, been taught that man was her superior? Had she already come to see herself as the chattel of the men in society, whose duty it was to help man continue the race? Had she learnt already that to menstruate was somehow unclean? And if she had, how had she? For what reason? Was it because she lacked man’s strength? Was it because she had been made by man to submit to him? Was it because she had chosen to play the role she believed she had been assigned – that of nourisher and caregiver? Was it her knowledge of man’s agency in the reproductive process? Was it her nature – that chose motherhood above other things? Was it her sexuality – that drew her to man despite his behaviour? Was it her competitiveness – that made her align herself against her fellow woman rather than with her? Not being a woman, I do not know the answer to these. Nor do I believe that a woman does – though she may be able to go further towards answering them than me. But why a woman – uneducated perhaps, but capable of thinking for herself – should believe that menstruating women must be quarantined; should believe that she or another woman must not read the scriptures or be priests; should believe that to marry off her daughter is to donate her to her husband’s house, thereby severing ties; should choose to side with the man if another woman questions the authority he gives himself; should tell her daughter-in-law to bear a male child and chastise her if she doesn’t; should choose to think of her son’s children as the grandchildren of her house but her daughter’s as those of her son-in-law’s house; should fuss over rites and ceremonies that she is not even allowed to participate in; should choose to force other women to follow rather than question male injunctions that treat woman as impure – these seem like questions too knotted, too old, too misted by history for even the most able woman to unravel easily.
1. Tuḷu — one of the five Dravidian languages spoken in South India. The Mangalore region is home to a major portion of the Tulu speaking peoples of India. Here, Tulu refers to the girl being a speaker of the Tulu language.
2. Shetty — a “caste” group historically known for being traders or merchants
3. Brahmin — a member of the highest class in the varṇa hierarchy (that is said to have begun as a way of classifying people by their profession). As the stewards of cultural knowledge, they were deferred to by the remaining classes.
4. maḍi — extremely fussy about cleanliness and ritual purity
5. bhūta — a (usually maligant) spirit
6. savarṇa — a member of any one of the three higher varṇas, viz. a Brahmin, a Kshatriya or a Vaishya
7. trishaṅku — a mythological king of Hindu mythology who is said to exist in limbo between heaven and earth
8. kanyādāna — the dāna (“charitable giving”) of a post-pubescent woman by her father to her husband; or in other words, the transfer through marriage of a woman from her father’s house to her husband’s house
9. shūdra — a member of the lowest of the four varṇas in the hierarchy of post-vedic society
10. Manusmriti — a book supposed to have been written by the law-giver, Manu. It remained mostly inconsequential until resurrected by the British in their misbegotten attempt to create a ‘Hindu Law’. Today, it is reviled among the English-educated classes for its extreme views on varṇa and its misogny. (The rest of society mostly doesn’t know or care.)