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.)
I have chosen, for this Thursday’s presentation, a poem I composed sometime around the middle of 2015 – a year that was, as far as my poetry is concerned, an annus mirabilis, a period of both unprecedented creative ferment and fecundity.
I have deliberately chosen the word “composed” – to better describe a poem whose creation was simultaneously oral, aural, and written. As far as I am concerned, this poem is meant to be read out loud.
I would like to draw your attention to the diacritics, (´) and (`), throughout the poem. They are respectively the accent acute, (´) and the accent grave (`). I have used them to indicate where to stretch (´) or emphasize (`) the indicated syllable; or sometimes, the consonant-sound next to the accented vowel. An experiment of my own (inspired by the phonetic rhythm of Kannada poetry in particular), the primary purpose of these diacritics is to suggest the rhythm of the recitation. I hope my own recital will make more clear what I mean.
[Note: The conceit of a spider weaving its web “out of itself” goes back to the Muṇḍaka Upanishat (ಮುಂಡಕೋಪನಿಷತ್). It is also found in one of Bendre’s most famous poems. It is possible that my use of it here was influenced by my reading of Bendre.]
On Seeing A Spider Weave Its Web
Your geometry’s beyond compare, Weave, wéave your web in the evening air.
We who do not know your art, We who cannot see your heart Spèak of the cobwebs of the mind; Márk the wisdom of mankind. Your geometry’s beyond compare, Weave, wéave your web in the evening air.
God’s own gymnast you are Who tumbles through the air To forge your web from out The milky-spittle of your breast With pause for neither breath nor rest. Eight-needled spinner of your nest! So dexterous and sedulous and fast, Is every web you build your best? Your geometry’s beyond compare, Weave, wéave your web in the evening air.
Born architect of your own home, You spiral ceaselessly into the placid Centre of your snare – With warp fìner than fìnest hair, With weft so slight it’s barely there, It seems no different from the air. Your geometry’s beyond compare, Weave, wéave your web in the evening air.
Your threaded, convex, ribbèd home Is like invèrted geodèsic dome, Woven by instinct, and instinct alóne; And in this hanging home you sit – Wàiting – wàiting – wàiting. Your geometry’s beyond compare, Weave, wéave your web in the evening air.
I see you there upon your height, I see you now in the fading light, Your pincers motionless and tight, And in this evening light that’s going, In this fragrant wind that’s flowing, Among these butterflies’ flying, Within your breast there must be growing, Within you must be self-renewing Another milky-spittled webbed delight.
This is, in several ways, a sentimental-nostalgic post. I wrote this essay almost eleven years ago, in the summer of 2008. Written soon after I returned from a fortnight-long trip to the “Himalayas” (as a way to loosely refer to a journey that took us through Delhi, Manali, Leh, Khardung La, Sarchu, Ladakh, and Pahalgam), I like to think of this as my earliest piece of “real” writing—in that it was the first creation that gave me a sense of both pride and satisfaction. The lead-up to the essay was written in 2016.
Note: A casual remark my mother just made got me to sit up. “A lot of big words”, she said, after rereading the original essay. I have to agree. The lead-up, in contrast, appears to me much more compact. I’d like to think of this difference as a maturing.
In the summer of 2008, I was part of a group that travelled to North India on a tour of the “Himalayas,” as it were. After unforeseen circumstances turned the itinerary on its head, we spent four days in Leh by the banks of the Sindhu river. Our residence was an open field (bayalau: ಬಯಲು), with some ruminating cows and a group of donkeys for companions. Food was limited to dāl and chapāti, and sweet tea served the purpose of a snack. On one side of this field were mountains dry with the dust of summer; on the other the Sindhu river, beyond which stretched a vast, soundless, empty plain. On the banks of the river were some four stūpas, put up by the Vajpayee goverment. Besides venturing out to a nearby palace and to the nearest village for provisions, the group spent most of its time by the river—ruminating, chatting, reading, and playing some games of football at a height of 13,000 ft. above sea level. The darkness of the night was wholly unlike a city’s; a single oil-lamp oversaw dinner before it extinguished itself into the darkness around. While some of us went straight to our tents after dinner, some of us (I among them) went up to the stūpas on the riverbank, not saying much but listening to the darkness and the flowing river.
On The Banks Of The Sindhu
There is something very restful about the gentle rhythmic sound of waves lapping along a river bank on a quiet night. It may be that the body, tired after the day’s toil and eagerly seeking a draught of “nature’s sweet restorative,” is charitably captive to the soporific lull of the lightly flowing river; or it may just be that the rushing river of the afternoon has bowed—like all else of nature’s creation—to the sanctity of the night; and shed its apparent urgency of the afternoon to rest under nature’s welcoming nightgown.
What is unmistakeable, however, is the tranquility of the occasion; the gently stretching soundless calm of the darkening night—a calm that induces contemplation and drowsiness in equal measure, each tempering the other just enough to leave one in a pleasant state of limbo between the two.
Sindhu, Sinnn-dhhu; the word enunciated slowly captures some of the intangible beauty of the Sanskrit language—its melodic rhythm that rolls so gracefully off the practised tongue the consequence of over three millennia of faithful oral transmission. Adding to the word’s fineness is the subtle impression of grandeur that is hid in its cadences—its sense as “the ocean”; “the great river” endowing it a fitting felicity.
To stand, therefore, on the banks of the flowing Sindhu seems to carry an importance; a consequence that lends the action a certain dignity. While perhaps not as revered as the Ganga and the Yamuna—and accordingly, not as dirty—it possesses a rich history that is unmatched by even the Ganga: for what it might lack in holiness, it makes up for through the grandeur of its presence.
For it is not only its place as one of our oldest rivers—old and vast and majestic enough to have lent its name to this land—that gives it an ineffable gracefulness; nor is it just its largely unsullied waters—immortal quivering remnants of some magnificent Himalayan glacier—that is its distinguishing feature. It is its quiet stateliness that is its hallmark.
Not for it the trifling sins of a hundred million Hindus; not for it a historic confluence with the hallowed river pair of the Ganga and the Saraswati. Wending and meandering its way down the imposing ridges of the higher Himalayas, past the evergreen valleys of Ladakh and through the Sindh province, it abides timelessly in its solitude; as transcendent in spirit as an ascetic who has seen the light.
I wrote this poem sometime around the middle of 2015.
This time, I asked my mother to recite the poem.
Song of the Young Girl
I dance because I want to,
I dance because I can.
I dance because my heart swells.
I dance because the birds sing,
I dance for the butterfly.
I dance because the flower fades,
I dance to be grandmother’s aid.
I dance for the cripple without his crutch,
I dance for the painted prostitute.
I dance because my feet are tied,
I dance because my brother cries,
I dance because I’m shy.
I dance because my words cannot,
I dance because I cannot fly.
I dance upon the thorns of life.
I dance for the sea I have never seen,
I dance for the song that has never been.
I dance because the world is round,
I dance for all the boats that drown.
I dance because I am not bold,
I dance for the women who are weary and old.
I dance because my mother can’t.
I dance that Shiva may be lured,
I dance that grandfather may be cured.
I dance for the brides whose breasts are burned,
I dance for the lesson never learned.
I dance because it is not right or wrong.
I dance to the wandering poet’s song:
‘Dancing is living, dancing is dying.’