The grey snow was crisp beneath my shoes.
From within the penultimate pages of a book
I had strayed into a cold world beyond
this side of life.
I watched the characters whom I’d followed
fight off the ghosts who closed upon them
I watched them both return to the story,
vanish in a haze of fog
while the sound of words on the page
subsided into silence.
A poet once sang, that when
pain finally finds a voice,
at that moment, art is born
Benumbed beyond the reach of pain,
I flailed my arms against the vacuum
within the bell jar which held me, for a decade.
Words were the window through which I
Caught glimpses beyond the dark
Words that kept my heart thawed, if not warm.
On a day when the words shone
bright enough to see, I opened the window
and walked out into life. With a fifteen year old
Mind, in a decade older body. Free
At last, from the darkness that had fed upon
Many of those whose words freed me.
While my wings were tied, I had still dared
to dream of the skies. But once free, I could barely
walk and fell many times before I found my voice.
The detour from regular paths of life that I may
have walked otherwise turned the lost years into a voice
strengthened by a decade of singing in the dark.
A voice that now colours each moment gold.
Each breath a swig of light, each word a blessing.
I had assumed that words would bring
Catharsis – an uncomfortable word
But I sing, and find with unexpected joy
That it is alchemy that goes into making a voice.
(4 September, 2015)
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another, such as how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Vikram Seth’s poem ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards – Shakespeare and Seth through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
‘To be, or not to be: that is the question:’
Hamlet ponders whether to live or to die, thereby ending the suffering caused by ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and listing ‘the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ such as ‘the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s ‘contumely, The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurn’ he fervently wishes to end it all.
But uncertainty of the afterlife stops him.
‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause:’
‘But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;’
In the poem ‘Switching Off’ by Vikram Seth, the poet-narrator believes that ‘this life is all there is’ and chooses to be not so much for fear of the afterlife, than the hope that things may get better someday, concern for his family and idle curiosity about the happenings on earth, among other things.
‘There are no fears of undiscovered countries
Or bournes from which no traveller returns
To one who knows this life is all there is;
So when he feels it has become oppressive,
The effort of drawing breath exhausts and strains him
And dispriz’d love, and whips and scorns etcetera
Have mangled him, why does he not switch off?
Perhaps the thought that, having once been happy
(and stirred by the analogy of life
Being a wheel) he will be again be so;
Or some imagined, as yet unseen sight,
Like Halley’s Comet lighting up the sky
For which he’d have to wait till ’86;
Or else objective curiosity:
Who will be President in ten years’ time?
Who’ll win the hockey in the Olympic Games?
And then his family: although he knows
When dead there’s no remorse, he cannot bear
` That they, remaining, feel he did not love them –
It is such things that hold him to the earth
And not the dread of something after death.’
From Mappings by Vikram Seth
In an earlier version of The Reengineers, the character Siddharth responds to both the bards in his poem ‘Inertia’.
What prevents one from switching off –
Reluctance to leave the entities that’ one
Has grown to know and love?
Or fear of the unknown after death?
So the bards sang. But the flowing breath
Surely might continue to remain
Dynamic owing to inertia
Than any fear of physical, mental or spiritual pain?
For a depressed person neither cares about the world in which he lives in, nor is he worried about the afterlife. Most of the time, all he wants to do is to keep breathing to stop his body from going as numb as his mind.
Inertia kept Siddharth alive when he was depressed. That was until he found A. Chatterjee’s poems, which kept him alive for a while before he finally woke up from the darkness of depression to the light and warmth of life. The Reengineers narrates the story of how he did it, crossing over from the cold, dark country of depression to a fulfilling life.
In one of the poetry groups that I follow on Facebook, a fellow member made a comment that poetry is best read out aloud or listened to, especially when the poets read from their own work.
I have been writing poetry since I first started to write and I used to read a considerable amount of poetry until a few years ago. I stopped writing poetry a few years ago, when I realised that I needed a lot more study and knowledge of the art form if I were to do it properly. Reading poetry seemed more appropriate in a state of stillness, which seemed to be becoming scarce in the frenzy of the corporate world.
For the past few weekends, I have been reading poetry again. Have been addicted to the Poetry archive website for the past few weekends.
I was drenched in the quiet, elegant poems of Jane Draycott.
I wandered through the words and worlds of new poets and listened to old favourites, the images thrown up by the lines coming back home to the mind like dear old friends. Helen Dunmore, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Mimi Khalvati…
And for fun, replayed once again Dahl’s deliciously revolting rhyme
All of which brought the realisation that just as stillness is becoming to the pleasure of reading verse, so does reading poetry confer a deep sense of stillness in the mind.
One of the many pleasures of reading poetry is to recognise the echo of a poet’s voice in another poet’s work. A reflection of ideas, an influenced style or similar references to things, places or events. It is a joy to discover such connections between books and authors.
Two poems by Rupert Brooke and Elizabeth Jennings, written several decades apart reflect the same thought, in two unique voices.
‘Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.’
From Delay, Elizabeth Jennings
‘And yonder star that burns so white,
May have died to dust and night
Ten, or maybe, fifteen year,
Before it shines upon my dear.’
From Fafaia, by Rupert Brooke
Vikram Seth conveys a similar thought in his poem Time Zones when he says,
‘I dreamed of her but she could not alas humour my will;
it struck me suddenly that where she was was daylight still’
Though all three poems are unique and charming in their own way, I like Rupert’s version best –
“Heart from heart is all as far,
Fafaia, as star from star.”
Love may have eluded these beloved poets when they penned these lines, but their songs and thereby their thoughts continue to flow across time and space and find responding echoes in many a reader’s mind.
As Rabindranath Tagore wrote in ‘The Gardener’, evoking a spring morning perhaps a hundred years ago,
‘Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence? I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds. Open your doors and look abroad.From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across a hundred years.’
A poet reaches out to the reader with a greater level of intimacy than any other kind of writer.
Today I am grateful for poets, for the gift of their poetry. For Rupert and Jennings and Seth and Tagore, and also for Bharati and T.S.Eliot and W.H.Auden and Tennyson and Pushkin and Rumi and Kabir and Maya Angelou and Gillian Clarke and Sylvia Plath and Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope and many, many other blessed songbirds of language.
Bards who belong to all the world like air, and sunlight, and springtime, and stars in the sky. They belong to all, and they are mine.
At the onset of spring, here is a suitable poem for the season by Rupert Brooke.
“Oh! Love,” they said, “is King of Kings,
And Triumph is his crown.
Earth fades in flame before his wings,
And Sun and Moon bow down.” —
But that, I knew, would never do;
And Heaven is all too high.
So whenever I meet a Queen, I said,
I will not catch her eye.
“Oh! Love,” they said, and “Love,” they said,
“The gift of Love is this;
A crown of thorns about thy head,
And vinegar to thy kiss!” —
But Tragedy is not for me;
And I’m content to be gay.
So whenever I spied a Tragic Lady,
I went another way.
And so I never feared to see
You wander down the street,
Or come across the fields to me
On ordinary feet.
For what they’d never told me of,
And what I never knew;
It was that all the time, my love,
Love would be merely you.
I like Rupert Brooke’s regular poems, a young man’s poems full of ardent emotions and ideals and dreams such as only a young man can have, poems that are as full of life as their author. (Brooke’s oeuvre of verse composed over his short lifetime of twenty eight years still make him sound more alive than many young men who walk the earth today).
But it is his satirical poems that I love – poems like A Channel passage, Wagner, Menelaus and Helen, all of which hold a mirror to the grim realities of the world. And Sonnet reversed, what a heartbreaking, cynical ode to life.
Poems that reveal how Rupert Brooke was aware of the truth behind the illusions of the world, even as he celebrated those very illusions in his verse.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
On November 12th, I suddenly remembered that it was exactly three years since the momentous Hay Festival. So grateful for the blessings of books and poetry and the vibrant, beautiful memories.
Last night your faded memory came to me
As in the wilderness spring comes quietly,
As, slowly, in the desert moves the breeze,
As to a sick man, without cause, comes peace
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Translated by Vikram Seth
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
A few months ago,, I was delighted to read about a new translation from Subramaniya Bharati’s poetry in the Caravan magazine. The excerpts of the poems translated by Usha Rajagopalan are strictly faithful to the original, and fleetingly evoke shades of the beauty of Bharati’s original verse.
Like most children growing up in Chennai, I was force-fed Bharati’s poetry from the time I was about five years old, both in terms of verse and song. Exposed to so much of his poetry that was sung at school functions, taught in classical music classes, heard often over the Television and quoted in course of everyday conversations, I almost took his presence in my life for granted. It was only in my late teens while on vacation from Engineering College that I began to seriously read his poetry. I bought myself a compact version of his complete works and would dip into it from time to time, feeling inspired and soothed, pleased and enriched. This little book has since then remained on my desk, just within reach.
Intensity is the word that comes to mind on reading Bharatiyar. His total absorption with nature, his fiery idealism, his deep sense of humanity, his love of the country, his vision for a free Nation, his philosophical musings on the concept of God and his exposition of the epics through his own verse – every word of it conveyed a passion and strength of the kind that perhaps is born only out of divine inspiration. Reading his love poems addressed to God as imagined as a friend, lover, husband, child, servant or teacher, one could feel how agape – the highest form of divine love flowed down into its various other expressions.
I tried to watch the film on Bharati’s life four times over a period of several years before I was able to see it completely. For the first three times, I was unable to sit through it to the end. I did not think that I could bear to see the great poet pass away at the age of thirty eight, after he was attacked by an elephant in a temple. Finally I braced myself to watch it and to my surprise, I did not cry when he passed. For it is poets who pass away. How can poetry die? And Bharatiyar was not just a poet, he was and remains poetry personified.
The film is a work of art and beautifully showcases the life of the poet, bringing out his idealistic, progressive and unconventional life and his genius which sometimes bordered on the edge of madness.
I do not plan to read the translation anytime soon, having access to the original work written in my native Tamil. But in this early morning hour as soon as I finish writing this, I will reach out for my book of Bharati’s original verse in sweet Tamil, and dip into it again for a few minutes as one does into a cool stream of thoughts, and rise refreshed and re-inspired.
This song from the movie which is one of the popular philosophical poems of the poet gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it.
My translation of the first two stanzas, quoted in my novel.
“All you who stand still, you that walk, you that fly above,
Are you all dreams, deceptions that within the mind abound?
All that I have learned, that I have heard, that I think I know,
Are those illusions too, can their real meaning be found?
The spreading skies, the trees, the soft sun beams,
Are these tangible or fragments of thought streams?
The past is buried, gone like a dream, does that make me a dream too?
Is the illusion of this world false, or is it true?”
Conversation with Dr. Rati Saxena
“I am not a consciously spiritual person, neither in life nor in art”, says Dr. Rati Saxena. Yet a deep sense of spirituality pervades her poetry and reflects in her dedication to the art and the tireless work that she continues to undertake towards the cause of art, only for art’s sake. “To write a poem / you have to / walk on fire”, she says in one of her poems, implying that the very act of writing a poem is like meditation, a spiritual practice.
We are sitting in the study of her Trivandrum home on a quiet Sunday evening. Books and poetry journals from around the world fill the shelves lining the walls. Switching on her computer, Dr. Saxena shows me the latest issue of the online poetry magazine Kritya, her naturally quiet voice turning high in enthusiasm as she talks about the forthcoming Kritya festival of poetry.
Born in Rajasthan, India in 1954, Dr. Rati Saxena is an eminent Hindi poet, translator and Sanskrit scholar. She has more than fourteen books of poetry and translations to her credit, as well as several articles on Vedic studies and Indology. Her poems have been translated into several languages and published around the world. She has received a number of awards including the Kendra Sahitya Academy Award for Translation in 2000 and the Indira Gandhi National Culture and Arts Fellowship.
Dr. Saxena is perhaps best known as the founder, editor and visionary behind the poetry journal Kritya that showcases some of the finest poetry from around the world on the internet. What started as one woman’s vision for a monthly bilingual poetry journal in English and Hindi has grown quietly over seven years into a formidable chain linking several poets writing in various languages from across India and the world.
The Poet as Creator, Philosopher and Storyteller
Dr Saxena’s research on the Atharva Veda from the perspective of folk culture analysing the Vedic hymns by reading them as folk poems led her to interpret the art of poetry through her philosophical background. “Poetry is not just words. There is something which gives life to poetry, something more than words. Vedic philosophy equates the Kavi (Poet) to Brahma. Thus the Kavi could be the creator of this universe”, she says in one of her editorials in Kritya.
Many of her poems raise key existential questions on the concept of time and the meaning of truth. Several references to Vedic terms and ideas can be found in her poems, about which the late poet Dr. Ayyappa Panicker commented that ‘the charm and spell of the suktas of the fourth Veda may be heard or overheard in these poems too, especially those about the earth-coloured trees, which constitute the upward thrust of an otherwise flat earth.’ There are philosophical implications in many of her poems, such as the dream of the sea which transcends everything including water, the need for the moon to wax and wane, for waves to have crests and troughs to express the nature of beauty, etc. Did she choose poetry as a medium to express her reflections on philosophy? I am curious.
“I do not consciously use poetry as a vehicle to express philosophical ideas,” says Dr. Saxena. “I see myself more as a storyteller. There were these stories that lay within me about my perceptions of life, art and the world. I had always wanted to write them down. I started writing seriously only after I was well into my forties. When I started writing, I found that my stories came out in the form of verse. Writing fiction is easier as one can lie while writing fiction, but to write poetry one should have the courage to speak the truth of the heart. I did not choose to become a poet, rather the form chose me.”
On Words and Language
The meaning of home and language is explored time and again in her poems, in one of which she says that ‘she has many tongues, but amidst a number of tongues, there is none that she calls her own’.
It is not only translation that changes the flavour of a poem. A poem written in the same language may be interpreted differently by a reader, says Dr. Saxena. “I wrote the words of the letters / on black papers / using black ink /will my beloved be able to read them / in red; I wrote in the languages of love / Sanskrit the only one I know / but what do I know not / will he read my letters in love”, she reflects. The objective of a poem is then, to communicate from one mind to another, beyond the boundaries of language.
Many of her poems invoke vivid images from nature. Her poems on the sea bring forth strong and sensual images such as the rock on the sea which takes a life of its own, a tree growing old, a jungle of words and ‘The Aesthetics of the Spider’ in which she says that ‘Every net of a spider / Is a complete poem.’ Poems such as these and her mystic poem on the union of purush and prakrithi in ‘Among the earth-coloured trees’ seem to convey that words and all other human means of expression are inadequate to describe the perfection that is found in nature.
Some of her most acclaimed poems have feminist overtones such as “The Serpent quailing woman body”, “The girl fighting with the bloody points” and “I, In Udaipur” in which she talks about the fourth, unwanted daughter of a middle class family being born, not amidst drumbeats and applause but in a shadow of silence. Like Gillian Clarke in ‘Notes from a far-off country’, she celebrates domesticity in the poem ‘Washing Clothes’ in which the housewife finds poetry in the mundane act of washing clothes. Turning this stereotype around in the poem ‘Time Near to me’, she portrays an empowering image of a woman who chooses to neglect the household chores in favour of writing, as time ‘wanders around her like a tame dog’. I ask if feminism is an important theme to her.
“I am not a conscious feminist either, I believe in humanism and the empowerment of women. But having experienced the pain that comes as part of playing the many roles of an Indian woman, I cannot help the feminist overtones that creep into my work”
Not all her poems are reflective or dark. Some of them have an element of humour such as ‘the hymn of the slippers’, in which she says, ‘My journey is about to start and I am in search of slippers / My flight is ready; I am in search of slippers…/ Slippers are my Mantra, slippers are my Dharma / Are they missing, or am I? / O Indra, Varun, Agni Dev! / All directions! / Earth and Sky! / I am searching for the slippers / Loosing my self”
“I love being funny”, she says, eyes twinkling. “I love to laugh and make people laugh. But my sense of humour has not reflected much in my poems, most of which deal with pain and suffering and how to overcome them.”
Kritya – Speaking the language of Poetry
Dr. Saxena has been running the online poetry magazine Kritya with great success for the past seven years. Kritya publishes contemporary Indian and world poetry, poetry in regional Indian languages in translation and also selections from classical poets. Kritya has brought together a number of poets from around the world and has brought out special editions such as the ones devoted to Polish and Italian poetry. Serious poets from around the world gravitate to Kritya. They write in different languages but understand each other very well as they all speak the same language of poetry.
The Kritya international poetry festivals conducted in a different part of the country each year are intimate, enriching events where the focus remains firmly on poetry – poetry in theatre, poetry in photography, musical poetry, performance poetry, poetry in dance, poetry in motion, poetry in translation and of course, the old fashioned poetry readings which invoke the serious Kavi Sammelans of yore. There are no distractions of any kind.
“Conducting an international poetry festival requires tremendous effort and resources. It is like getting a daughter married”, smiles Dr. Saxena. “Unlike many other literary festivals that are heavily sponsored by corporates and have a commercial angle to them, we can only afford bare minimum facilities to our visiting poets and the audience. But the ones who come are focused towards poetry, they come out of love for poetry and that is what makes the festival a success. Many young poets have used the platform of Kritya to promote themselves and their work. They have now moved on to bigger literary festivals where they get more exposure and fame. Good for them” she says philosophically.
“Somehow I find that the right people to conduct the festival join me in time every year. Things always fall into place at the last minute. Kritya has a life of its own. I feel that I am just a tool in the hands of the spirit of the muse that runs the entire show.”