For these (covid) times

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?
Think –
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.

Glossary:

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

Myth and the World

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.

Bendre, English, Kannada, Poetry, and Me

A brief introduction:

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).

+++++

1

trētāyuga rāmanna, dvāparada kṛshṇanna
kaliyugada kalkīna kanḍāna


This bear’d seen Rama in the trēta age
dvapara’s Krishna and kali’s Kalki he had seen

(from “The Dance of the Bear“; “sūryapāna” collection; pub. 1956)

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.

2

enna pāḍenagirali adara hāḍanashṭe
nīḍuvenu rasika! ninage
kallusakkareyantha ninnedeyu karagidare
ā saviya haṇisu nanage!


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.

3

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 represent a 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 goalthat 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.

4

kavana kōshadī kamala garbhadali
parāgavoragihudu.
ninna mukhasparshavū sāku; hosa
sṛshṭiye barabahudu. | bā bhṛngave bā… |


(“parāga“; “sakhīgīta” collection; pub. 1937)

In the poem’s heart, in the lotus’s womb,
the pollen waits on tiptoe;
your slightest kiss itself’s enough
fór a new creation to show. | Come, dear bee, come… |

(‘The Pollen Calls‘; “sakhīgīta” collection; pub. 1937)

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.

5

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.

6

mātu mātu mathisi banda nādada navanītā
higga bīri higgalittu tanna tāne prītā
arthavilla svārthavilla bariya bhāvagītā


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 modern lyric 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.

7

āḍutāḍuta bandu siṅgārasoḷḷī hāṅga
hāḍile kivigalla kaḍidyēna


You came sporting and cavorting – like a love-mosquito darting
and, singing, nipped my earlobe in parting

(from “The Enchanted Lute” ಕವನ; “sakhīgīta” collection; pub. 1937)

akkara chandavu sāngatyā–samskāra
hondilli bandide hosahosadu
akkareyadāyitu akkarigarigella
akkumikkenuvante konevaregu


(from the 40th and last canto of “sakhīgīta“; “sakhīgīta” collection; pub. 1937)

svādada nādada mōdada oḷabasirane bagedu
huṅkārada oḷanūlanu mellane horadegedu
shabdake hāsigeyāgiha tanimaunadi mugidu | ēlāvana…


(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.)

To Her Tormentors

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)

Afterword:

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.

Lines Begun After Sundown

All sadness does not lead to song,
all gloom cànnot make a poem;
there is too much sadness in the world
for that, and too much gloom.

Most misery cannot be told,
most torment cannot shed a tear;
they lie simply in the breast:
wordless, soundless, unremarked.

Let them live there if they must,
do not mine them for a song;
there is sorrow beyond reach —
to speak of it would be wrong.

Sing, instead, some happy song
you listened to when you were young;
let all immured sorrow know —
outside there is delighting.


(written ca. late 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

When The Heart Blooms (or Why Poetry?)

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.


(written ca. 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

The Dancer Asks

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)

Glossary:

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.

Lament

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.


(written ca. September 2015)

For more about the poem, see notes.

Happiness

happiness’s
a gulmòhar flower
cáught in the crosshairs of the sun
guarded by drawn-leaves of green
shaded by the blue of sky
within a wreath of wind;
happiness’s
the rising wave
crested by a froth of white
washing onto watered-shore
mágicked by the purple shell of sea;
happiness’s
the sunset-sky
coloured by the spilling bow of rain
mòving asymptotically;
happiness’s
a wickly-flame
casting shadows of its warmly light
into a halfly dark;
happiness’s
the koeling bird
rousing the pitchness of the night
into the daying light;
happiness’s
the well of words
flowing over heartly kerbs
to flood the paging white


(written on June 9, 2019)

I want my poetry

to be as real as the fight between hot-headed boys
who are really truly angry;

to speak the language of the street
and the music of the flute
(and even mix them cleverly);

to learn to walk before it learns to run;

to run with the rhythm
and hunt with the rhyme –
idiomatically;

to echo – sound – resound
and then move on rather than wait
until a rhyming word comes by;

to look around and see
the tree – the dog – the smoking man – the fly
(and simply smile and let them be);

to play with English like a favourite toy –
(wind it up and send it forth
then leap in front and change its path
because it wants a rhyme for bath);

to see the world through others’ eyes –
then, opening its own, seek originality;

to be best friends with the dictionary;

to learn to wait,
to learn that it need not hurry;

to metaphor and simile
(but if it can’t, then just to say
the sky is blue and blood is red);

to sign a clause of non-compete
with other poetry
(like so many different ships upon a plural sea);

to feel it’s free to turn to prose
when it wants a break or clarity;

to skip article –
unironically
(because that’s how English
is often spoken really);

to (also) be Indian in its samskriti* –
to view this ancient land with sympathy
(but not ignore the blatant cacophony
of each traffic-tormented city)

to go out in the sun and feel its warmth
and simply stretch all lazily;

to try its best to find
its way to self-express
and when it’s done (or hasn’t done) –
sleep happily;

to be simple and straight and free
(and shun the comfort of trickery);

to know that it’s all right to
watch the moon’s light silently;

to find a way to make Kannada Englishy –
and English a kannaḍi*

to make sure to think for itself –
and not just jump into chaḷuvaḷis*;

to know that poetry, like knowledge,
is replenished
by giving and by taking;

to speak the truth it knows,
to feel lucky to be free;

to be and being make me
be.


(written in Feb 2020)

Glossary:

1. kannaḍi — the word for “mirror” in Kannada

2. chaḷuvaḷi — a Kannada word with meanings like agitation, movement, etc.

3. samskriti — broadly, a Sanskrit (and Kannada) word that means “culture” (though it has several shades of meaning)