Free Agent in a Land of Devastation

April 1, 2014 at 4:56 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

Hemant Divate’s Struggles with Imagined Gods, has been translated from the Marathi by Mustansir Dalvi, and published by Poetrywala (the indie-press that has been regularly bringing out contemporary Indian and, more recently, international poetry with a kind of joyous élan). The poems it contains originally appeared in two different collections, Thambtach yet naahi (Abhidanantar, 2006) and Hya room madhye aale ki life suru hote (Poetrywala, 2012).

 

For those familiar with A Depressingly Monotonous Landscape (Poetrywala, 2011, translated by Sarabjeet Garcha), Struggles with Imagined Gods may, at first glance, seem like a replay. There are the same obsessions with a consumerist society; the presence of the all-pervasive “brand god” we encountered earlier; the omniscient flickering, dehumanizing light of TV and computer screens; the bombardment of advertising messages; the noise of the city; the banality of everyday dilemmas; the almost-casual “live telecast” of a person slowly going mad.  But what makes Struggles more than Part 2 in an ongoing conversation with this poet’s private demons is a vivid new ferocity, a killer-instinct for the line that will twist the knife just so. (Perhaps what seems new to me is simply the effect of a new translator who goes for the jugular in a way Divate’s earlier translator didn’t?) In any case, this is poetry as nightmare, poetry as record of the terrifying onslaught of minutes, poetry as rant addressed to a multitude of one. Foul-mouthed, dispensing gaalis with the liberality of vending machines, the poems cut loose, cut through the veneer of gentility, cut swathes through “This whole bloody world … / stuck in the labyrinth of superficiality.” In a world where “A man may die” but whose email id lives on forever, the poet envisions “A vast mob/ thirty-three crore fickle souls” preparing for the ultimate “festival of caprice”. In a demented show of solidarity, they “applaud the superficial./ It’s a sham hallelujah! It’s a sham! It’s a sham!” The sense of a heartless machine grinding one down, the automaton replacing the human, pre-programmed, with “no means of escape/ from traffucked thoughts/ spawning like viruses”—a unique claustrophobia exists within, and is evoked by, Hemant Divate’s poems. It is the claustrophobia of a single body, trapped between its orifices, bleeding, pissing, shitting, ejaculating, like some monstrous baby on the rampage, horrible, helpless and dependent, while its mind—all-too alert, intelligent, aware, overwhelmed—multiplies, regenerates, metamorphoses, escapes, a free agent in a land of devastation.

 

In A Depressingly Monotonous Landscape there is a poem in which the ‘I’ metamorphoses into a chicken about to be slaughtered. It is a brutal, even ugly poem, so close to reality it makes you sick, and yet, it is the essential sickness of a poet whose malady is the world, the fabric of his existence, from which he cannot tear himself apart without ripping his own guts out, slitting his own throat. As Adil Jussawalla says on the jacket of Struggles, this poetry is “not for weak stomachs”! But more than the ingestive-regurgitative properties that are common to both books, I’m interested in the recurrence of metamorphosis in Hemant Divate’s poetry. Metamorphosis into Godrej chicken, Whisper sanitary napkin and Jaguar shower, a sort of revolted (at moments even revolting) fascination with bedroom and bathroom intimacies; but also, on the cosmic scale, the metamorphosis that will save and condemn. In Struggles, Divate invokes (but of course) Kafka, as the poetourist roams the city of Prague, wolfing it down “like a glutton”; seeing, then becoming, the man in the long Kafka coat, eating chickpeas under the Charles Bridge with sinister ease; Kafka that old ghost, prophet, fucker, sissy tea-drinker, with whom the poet has a wager: “the one who pisses first wins, the other/ will have to run, micturating all over Prague.” Towards the end of this long poem, as the poet “Slowly, without fuss” transforms (but of course) into a “two-inch cockroach” (oh the diminishment of that giant dread), we return to the question almost cavalierly asked earlier on: “how many writers need to suffer and die/ to bring one insect to life”. Who knows. Who cares. “I cannot see the numbers.”

 

Simultaneously grim and hilarious, ‘praha: i’ll be back’ has a section that deserves to be quoted at length:

let me tell you a story:

not one that you should not repeat

nor one that no one knows, but

metamorphosis means the transformation

of a city into an installation in an exhibition hall,

a human artwork to be regarded by insects,

an insect artwork to be regarded by humans,

where a dim light metamorphosed over the installation

is the one that bathes the poet’s composition

in a soft, linguistic, biographical sheen

while the city, as it is now

is the detritus of screaming, blood-soaked geography

or of raw imperialism that, like a half-done omelette

is left to sizzle in the frying-pan of history.

 

 

The relentless surge of this line seems to me typical of Hemant Divate’s relentless anger and angst. And it is in Mustansir Dalvi’s translation that (what I suspect must be) the charge of the original Marathi crackles into an electricity that powers the lines in English. There is great confidence here, the confidence of a poet (Dalvi’s Brouhaha of Cocks is another book I hope to write about soon) with access to multiple spoken fluencies, solidly grounded in the language that he writes in. Marathi words pepper the English with no self-consciousness as the translator chews the “fresh, juicy meat” of the poems with an appetite equal to the task. On the flip side, the poem titled ‘fuck me if you can’ felt dated and adolescent; and ‘dreams while shopping’ was exactly the kind of male fantasy that leaves me cold! In fact, while reading the poems about “today’s Indian consumerist society” (the Italian poet Zingonia Zingone’s blurb) I felt strangely impatient. In the world of consumer trends today very swiftly becomes yesterday, and so the poems turn passé, losing the bite of their critique. It is in the longer meditations that depend less on the barrage of brand names and more on the horror of a dissipating selfhood (“who am I?”) that the poet’s participation in and resistance to conspicuous consumption gains a lasting moral and poetic valency. In an otherwise smartly produced book, occasional typo errors and inelegant punctuation jarred a bit, as did some of the weaker poems (‘new age 123’, ‘tell me when my number is called’); and one false note: “Perchance”! But overall, this book reaffirms my belief that poets make the best translators of poetry, and it is a delight to see that both Divate and Dalvi get equal weightage on the cover, rightly (and all-too rarely) claiming co-authorship of the text.

 

Oh, and before I close—what mortal blows struck by Hemant Divate against organised religion! In A Depressingly Monotonous Landscape there is a poem titled ‘Stories within Stories’ in which the poet writes: “Then and even now/ we never had need for religion./ All faiths were ours/ all demons, fairies, princesses, princes, dwarves/ the magic lamp, Vikram Vetal, Ali Baba/ They never belonged to a religion/ Now even stories are beginning to feel the need for religion/ and have started becoming cruel.” In Struggles, the poet’s imagined god “searches for humanity/ in this vast dung-heap of rags.” Lost faith, lost childhood, lost language, mourned, but never surrendered to saccharine nostalgia.  Read this book and be disturbed. You may dislike the full-frontal assault in its pages, but you cannot fail to be affected by the “jingle of life/ that slowly scrapes across the surface of dreams.”

 

 

– Sampurna Chattarji

 

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Why, when I am done?

June 20, 2013 at 8:58 am (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

Why do I sometimes feel that the best way to destroy a book one loves/respects/admires/is enthralled-intrigued-challenged by is to write about it? I’ve felt this after writing long personal essays on key works by authors that meant a great deal to me, or even after writing the more pedestrian book reviews commissioned by magazines or papers. I have loved doing the latter simply because I invariably refuse books that I know I will be bored/appalled/annoyed by. I don’t have that kind of time to waste. But the ones that I choose knowing I will love the experience of reading and writing about them, why, when I am done, do I feel a crushing sense of loss, even anger? It’s as if I have done something excruciatingly senseless—to produce a piece of text about a piece of text. Knowing that I have written it with care, precision, intelligence, and I hope a modicum of insight should soothe me. Instead I feel gnawed by all the things I could have said if only I had more space. Or when I have more space, I am haunted by all the other arguments that might have been equally valid. Or say, I am—as was the case when I wrote, for this very column, my essay on two books by Saramago—say I am actually quite pleased with the result. Even then, there is a loss. I feel I have sucked out everything that the books had to offer, mutated them via my attentive and detailed appreciation, and now can never return to the originals, because hell, I’ve sucked all the juice out, I’ve nourished myself like a voracious parasite, leaving the host bodies dry and empty. Engorged and replete, my essay sits, a repository of all I ever felt-thought-dreamt about and around it, and then…? And then I feel I have effectively destroyed the source of that love, despite the love being present in the writing about that source.

At other times, I look at the myriad poetry books on my shelves, books by friends from many countries, books I have bought at readings, loving what I heard, books I have wanted for years, and finally ordered and relished their arrival with a kind of demented joy, each book with a history behind it, a series of conversations, a string of associations, personal, professional, again, that rogue word nosing in where it has no business—love—books I love even without having yet read them in entirety, just revelled in their nearness, knowing they are at hand, waiting to be read as soon as I am ready. At times, when I look at them, I feel inside me the delicious bubbling impulse to sit down with any one of them, and write about it. I feel impatient and anticipatory (predatory?)—so many essays waiting to be written! And besides, don’t I know that’s the only way I will read them with that detailed, attentive appreciation? That’s the only way I will be able to mark the moment of that book’s entry into my life as a reader, not an accumulator? Without that act of writing, how will I remember that I read? I tell myself I’m saving it, this glorious indulgence, to slake my thirst for words on a day of otherwise-drought, when my own writing has sputtered and gone out, when my mind feels bleak and empty, there, I tell myself—the light. Sit, and read these books and write about them, rekindle that ‘something’ that seems to be dying. And then I remember what happens once I emerge from the focused room of my reading-with-intent-to-write-about-what-I’m-reading. I remember the gutted sensation that follows and I veer my thoughts away, I fritter my energy online or elsewhere, I willfully waste myself, time, attention, all.

Tomaž Šalamun once said that a friend advised him to stop writing all kinds of things, essays, articles, poetry and concentrate just on the poetry. He took that advice, and, as a result—he said, with an expressive gesture of his hands—as a result, all his discursive language “flew away”. I’ve never forgotten that statement, or that gesture, twinned they come back to me when I am disappointed by what I do with my critical writing, the time it takes, the energy it saps, the weird insidious destruction of it all. On the other hand, Joy Goswami has said that when he is unable to write poetry he is still with poetry as he writes about poetry, what he’s reading, contemporary work, classical work. It’s a conversation with the poems, the poets, it’s a life-giving act. I sometimes feel I prefer writing poetry reviews (over fiction) for that very reason. It’s a way of breathing when one is choked, it eases, comforts, it sharpens those edges that may have begun to feel dulled. And then I think how wonderful it would be to lose the discursive-analytic, to have it all fly away, leaving me speechless only in that realm of critical writing, but wonderfully eloquent in the realm of creative writing. Which is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, I have read—very rarely but I have read—breathtakingly original and creative critical writing. But to lose that part of the brain, to lose its vocabulary, its jargon, its tools, and to feel a kind of muteness, how must that be? And yet, when I read someone else’s critical writing on my creative work that gets it—gets it all, all my hidden intentions (what Italo Calvino called “the murmuring effect”), form-language-meaning—with a kind of brilliant almost-shattering insight, how then can I not want to be able to return that gift occasionally?

More questions than answers. Why not, instead of this piece of nothing-really, turn to Neruda’s The Book of Questions and open at any page and ask:

Why was I not born mysterious?

Where do the things in dreams go?

How long do others speak

if we have already spoken?

 

Sampurna Chattarji

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Quoting. Questioning.

August 9, 2010 at 9:02 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

Editors Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam introduce Indivisible, their anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry with three words: Divisions. Articulations. Allegiances. In essence, this is what one can hope to find in the work of forty-nine American poets “whose ancestral roots lie in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka”. Divisions of individual/tradition. Articulations of identity/politics. Allegiances to land/language.

Anthologies with detailed subheads seem to be the new and natural home for poets with ‘multiplicity’ as their middle name. Several of the poets here are familiar from earlier anthologies, such as the compendious Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (my review of which first appeared in Biblio, and can be read here http://sampurnachattarji.wordpress.com/book-reviews/) edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar [W.W. Norton, 2008]; The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil [Bloodaxe, 2008]; or even Unmapped, The Literary Review Indian Poetry Issue [Spring 2009] devoted to ‘new work by Indian poets from around the world’, guest edited by Sudeep Sen. Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Kazim Ali, Meena Alexander, Monica Ferrell, Prageeta Sharma, Ravi Shankar, Aryanil Mukherjee, Srikanth Reddy, Vijay Seshadri are some of those familiar voices. Indivisible brings us a host of less familiar ones—Mohammad Faisal Hadi, Minal Hajratwala, Amarnath Ravva, Shailja Patel, Ravi Chandra, Reena Narayan, Homraj Acharya, Swati Rana, Mona Ali … this list could go on.

As with any anthology, one could take issue with exclusions, find fault with editorial assertions of intent, quarrel with the idea of ‘multiplicity’ itself. But I shall do none of that, this time. This time, I shall ask myself, and the prospective reader of Indivisible, a host of questions. How does one clear a space in the mind for a fresh reception of what may seem like yet another anthology? How can one renew one’s faith that one will make exciting new discoveries, be struck, impressed, even overwhelmed, or not? Can the clustering of poets under specifically determined parameters yield delights that transcend those parameters? What makes some poets, and some poems, repeatedly anthologizable? Is an anthology the beginning of a journey, or the culmination of one? What do we hear, and remember, in such a crowded space? What do we return to?

I return, momentarily, to the word ‘reception’. Can an anthology be seen as an old-fashioned radio, the kind I grew up with, fiddling with the knobs till the reception grew clearer, voices from faraway places so close, I imagined all those mini-people lived in the box, silent until I turned the dial, found the frequency, tuned in to a clarity given resonance by the underlying crackle of transmission? It is a tempting analogy, but I shall urge you to find your own. Read Indivisible. Question it. Then read it again. Meanwhile, for a taste of the themes, tones and textures in this anthology, I give you a cento stitched together with lines, titles, phrases from the book, an indivisible act of poetry.

It’s a Young Country. I’m Not Home.

You’re good with maps. Find me

a mantra called home.

You walk backwards / into a new land.

Turn what you can into wings.

I substitute images for events, my humanimal prerogative

Which he ate quickly and / sloppily, like a dog.

Angerfish

Every word when leaving / has direction.

I am filled with admiration and autobiography.

I am Burning a Pig in my Room, Apollinaire.

It’s worth a try.

Naming only fixes you as one or the other,

no going back for any one of you.

Before you claim a word / you have to sweat and curse it / crawl and bleed it /

you have to earn / its / meaning

to pour questions about people who bend.

I’m a Scrambled Egg Burrito … with a side of Bitter Melon,

I’m good with tongues.

The sun has done its worst: / skimmed a language, / worn it to a shadow.

The eyes ache from feeding too much

on the ripe fruits of temples.

I mispronounce myself.

All I have left behind

In the Binary Alleys of the Lion’s Virus

treeforms :: the touch of language

memory writings :: picnic

A girl could hang / herself from such a night

Thirty Years Ago, in a Suburb of Bombay

Bombay no longer.

I am a fool to want you.

Is desire confined to language?

The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic—

and my nation is the Republic of English.

We were headed / home, but home wasn’t where we’d left it.

– Sampurna Chattarji

Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry

Edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam

(The University of Arkansas Press, 2010, 254 pp. ISBN-10:1-55728-931-X)

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On How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

June 28, 2008 at 3:36 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

The title of this book is, to my mind, misleading. What in the original French was posed as a question (Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?) becomes, in it’s English translation, a statement, and that too, one that seems to slot the book into a category I abhor – namely ‘How to…’ manuals. Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is anything but a dummies guide to talking intelligently about books you haven’t read. It is not, as a quote on the back cover says, “A survivor’s guide to life in the chattering classes” (though it could be, if that’s all you wanted out of it!), but rather a meditation on what it might mean to read or not-read. It brought to my mind the following exchange from Godard’s Liberte et Patrie:

 

– Father, what’s the best way of knowing if someone is trustworthy?

– You ask him, “What have you read?” If he answers, “Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac,” then he is not trustworthy. But if he answers, “Depends what you mean by ‘reading’,” then there’s hope. 

 

Bayard, who could have simply entertained us with clever tips on how to conduct witty, erudite conversations, instead employs both wit and erudition to talk about this taboo subject. It is bad form to admit you haven’t read the books that everyone is talking about; it is worse form to talk about them as if you had actually read them. Cultural constraints, he feels, are behind this taboo. The “obligation to read”, “the obligation to read thoroughly”, and “the tacit understanding … that one must read a book in order to talk about it with any precision”. The result, he says, “of this repressive system of obligations and prohibitions” is “widespread hypocrisy”, comparable only to the mendacity with which we talk about sex and personal finance. Because reading is seen as a virtue, lies abound, especially among specialists – academics, critics, lecturers. Lies, Bayard says, are “a logical consequence of the stigma attached to non-reading” and he claims that this book will analyze the unconscious guilt that non-reading can bring about. But, most interestingly, he says he will “consider just what is meant by reading” and the ways in which we interact with books – unknown, skimmed through, heard of but not read, and lastly, books we have read and then forgotten.

 

The most ‘radical’ non-reader is the one who hasn’t even opened the book in question. Before this makes the reader of this book (and this review) gasp with horror – Bayard provides the perfect example of such a non-reader, a character from Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities (a book I have been planning to, yearning to, and failing to read over the last nine years). The genius of his strategy is impeccable. Rather than provide examples from social life or chaterati, Bayard accesses the high temple of literature, and plunders it for the riches that will make his thesis grow out of the very same hallowed ground that makes non-reading such a sacrilegious act. Laughing at his audacity, and wondering how he plans to use his loot, one reads on.

 

The character is the librarian of the imperial library of Kakania, who is paid a visit by a General Stumm. General Stumm wishes to raid the library for the big “redemptive idea” that the patriots are seeking. Faced with three and a half million books, the General is stumped, especially when he realises that even if he reads one book a day it will take him ten thousand years to read them all. And here is when Bayard makes an important point, namely, “Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.” And just when General Stumm (and this passionate lifelong reader) is ready to despair, the librarian provides hope in the form of his own personal method of dealing with the “infinity of available books”. He says he knows about every one of the three and a half million books in his library simply because he has never read them. The General is horrified. “You never read a single book?” he asks. “Never,” the librarian answers. “Only the catalogs.”  And he leads the General into the catalog room, where he feels like he’s “inside an enormous brain … the concentrate of all knowledge … and not one sensible book to read, only books about books.”

 

The point – made by Musil’s librarian, and by appropriation, Bayard – is the importance of maintaining perspective, of not losing oneself in the labyrinth of books, to be able to locate a book, rather than necessarily know its contents. “As cultivated people know,” Bayard says, mischievously, “culture is above all a matter of orientation.” To understand where a book stands within a cultural system is possible by understanding its relations with other books. This is, according to Bayard, not a passive attitude, but an active one. If a person who has actively decided not to read a particular book does so with the awareness, love and respect of Musil’s librarian, he is adopting a stance that will help him “grasp the essence of the book, which is how it fits into the library as a whole.”

 

And so Bayard proceeds, quoting in his second chapter Paul Valéry, “that master of non-reading” who, after Proust’s death in 1923, began his tribute with the words, “Although I have scarcely read a single volume of Marcel Proust’s great work … I am nevertheless well aware … what an exceptionally heavy loss literature has just suffered.” And instead of being ashamed of not having read Proust,  Valéry cleverly makes a case for reading Proust in fragments, opening In Search of Lost Time at random, and making this approach seem to emerge directly from the author’s intention. This way of non-reading, he suggests, is “the greatest compliment he can give him” and is in keeping with his “poetics of distance”, where a work is best perceived not through the details of a text, but the idea of it. And this idea may best be gleaned “by a critic who closes his eyes in the presence of the work and thinks, instead, about what it may be.” And thus, Bayard suggests, Valéry provides “rational grounds for one of our most common ways of interacting with books: skimming.” If Musil’s librarian offered us a way of situating ourselves vis-à-vis the “collective library”, Valéry’s method enables one to situate oneself vis-à-vis a particular book.

 

And then Umberto Eco enters the picture to help Bayard tell us about our relationship to books we have heard of, but perhaps never even encountered, except through what other people have told us about it, or written about it (much as I am doing by writing about How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read!). Bayard uses the hidden book in Eco’s The Name of the Rose to do so. The book that the monk-detective Baskerville realises (or maybe falsely deduces) is the reason for the murder of several monks by Jorge, the blind librarian, is none other than the second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics. In this book, Baskerville surmises – based on his knowledge of the first volume of Aristotle’s Poetics which talks about tragedy – Aristotle defends the virtue of comedy, laughter, which, to Jorge, is antithetical enough to Christian doctrine to justify killing the monks who want to read it.  Both Jorge (who is blind and mad) and Baskerville, while ostensibly talking of the same book, have created what Bayard calls two different “screen books”, projecting on an imaginary object – the book in question – “his own personal agenda”. So books then, are “all reconstructions of originals that lie … deeply buried beneath our words and the words of others”.

 

It is the fourth category of books we have read and forgotten that is most poignantly illustrated through Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne, who says in his essay on reading, “if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retentiveness.” The problem of memory is so real and so painful that Montaigne apparently made notes at the end of each book he had read, marking the date on which he finished it and what his “judgement” on the book was. “I leaf through books,” he writes, “I do not study them. What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else’s. It is only the material from which my judgement has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.” Oddly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, Montaigne remembered books that he disliked more than those he liked. But for him the anguish of forgetting extended to the books he himself had written, an amnesia which led to the terror of repeating himself. As Bayard says, “While reading is enriching in the moment it occurs, it is at the same time a source of depersonalization, since, in our inability to stabilize the smallest snippet of text, it leaves us incapable of coinciding with ourselves.”

 

Is a book that we have forgotten one we have read? Is it a form of not-reading or rather “unreading”? If all the books we have read are indeed “no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion”, why persist?

 

Bayard does not answer this question. Instead he moves his argument into the territory of social behaviour – interactions, confrontations, misunderstandings around books we have not read. An interesting concept is that of the “inner library” – books that have made us who we are. It is when two different inner libraries confront each other that conflict and misinterpretation arises.  Often, and this is so true, “the books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to assume a role.” Wanting a person we love to have read (or non-read) the same books is a way of coming close to the loved one, of  “making him or her sense the proximity of our inner libraries.” And though it rarely happens, “perhaps an ideal and deeply shared love should indeed give each lover access to the secret texts of which the other is composed.”

 

From the “collective library” to the “inner library” to the “virtual library” which Bayard defines as “a mobile sector of every culture’s collective library … located at the point of intersection of the various inner libraries of each participant in the discussion.” The virtual library exists in the “realm of communication about books”. It is in this realm that shame enters, and a concomitant violence if our non-reading is expressed in a way not congruent with the rules of what is essentially a game. When one’s image (particularly in intellectual circles) depends on the books we have read, telling the truth may expose that facet of our image we would rather keep hidden. To do this without shame, with flair and self-belief and a truthfulness to ourselves rather than others’ expectations of us, is an art Bayard believes well worth honing. 

 

There is much more in the book one could talk about, but I’d like to end with what Oscar Wilde says in ‘The Critic as Artist’:

 

“Criticism is itself an art. And just as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent.”

[…]

“This is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul.”

 

To not be tied down by the content of the book or work of art, to use it merely as a starting point for creating another work of beauty, of subtlety, to see the critical text as a text that is “no more about the work than the novel, according to Flaubert, is about reality” – how refreshing that sounds in the context of dull summarisations that most critical writing tends towards. Just as this approach to criticism restores it “to its solitude” and “its capacity for invention”, so too, Bayard holds, non-reading enables the “reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, (to) find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself.”

 

As this book already slides towards oblivion, perhaps I should see that as a blessing. Out of the fragments that remain, detached from the specificity of the book now in my hand, I may be able to come up with a parallel text that is truly creative, where Bayard’s text will be, simply, a pre-text for mine. I look forward to that moment, if it should come.

 

– Sampurna Chattarji

 

[How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, translated from the French by Jeffrey Mehlman, Granta Books, London, 2008. With thanks to Pauline for lending it to me!]

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Between Blindness and Seeing

May 23, 2008 at 3:04 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

 

“The blind and the seeing are not equal.”

– Koran, “The Creator,” 19

 

 

By the strange powers of suggestion that readers are all too-familiar with, it was this quotation, which prefaces Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, that made me want to revisit José Saramago’s devastatingly searing Blindness (1995) and its companion piece Seeing (2004).

 

When an entire unnamed city is struck by an inexplicable “white blindness”, one woman, a doctor’s wife, is the only person who, equally inexplicably, retains her sight. Consequently she turns guide, protector, avenger of and witness to the brutalities that the blind wreak upon the blind. In lesser hands than Saramago’s, the weight of allegory might have effectively crushed and flattened both the narrative and our response to it. In Blindness, however, our responses are sharpened to the point of revulsion and an all-too wounding awareness of how real it all is, how probable – this allegory of a morally unseeing people. As we pass our seeing eyes over the print that tells us the story, we feel, like the doctor’s wife, the dread of witnessing the physical degradation that a blind body succumbs to, the squalor it is reduced to, and the violence it becomes a victim to. The doctor says, “no one’s to blame in an epidemic, everyone’s a victim”, but that quickly becomes a falsity with the blind gun-toting thugs extracting payment in kind – first gold and money, then the bodies of the women in the quarantine wards – in return for food. “Forget sayings”, one of the blind internees says. If, as the saying tells us, “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, why is it that the only woman who can see must make a secret of her seeing, must feel guilty for having to do so, and, most hauntingly, must feel the awful responsibility of being blessed – or cursed – with sight? “I am not a queen, no, I am simply the one who was born to see this horror”, she says. “I have no right to look, if the others cannot see me.” To her it seems “contemptible and obscene” to be able to see the furtive couplings in the wards, the pools of urine, the floors slimy with excreta, the signs of a world where each human has lost the right to (and more shockingly, the desire to strive for) his or her dignity. The blind and the seeing are not equal, for the former are helpless and the latter privileged, and out of that divide is born the cruel irony of the human condition.

 

The sociological, psychological, political resonances of the book are as powerful as they are relevant, and need no explication for anyone who has (or will) read it. What interests me here is the way in which Saramago uses language, in all its elusiveness, to break the habitual ways in which we use language to comprehend our world. Repeatedly, the newly-blind have to reorient themselves to the way they speak in their new world, where ordinary phrases like ‘seeing in the dark’, ‘watch where you’re going’, ‘so easy I could do it with my eyes shut’, are in turn, pitifully inapt, and horribly facile. As the doctor’s wife realises, if she is to keep her secret, “she could move like someone who has eyes, But my words must be those of a blind person”. This blindness, Saramago tells us, “did not mean being plunged into a banal darkness, but living inside a luminous halo.” Drenched in this milky sea, it is not darkness that plagues the sufferers, but a perpetual blinding light. It is the internal “illusion of light” and yet it illuminates nothing. ‘Turning a blind eye’, ‘casting the evil eye’, ‘opening the third eye’ – none of these phrases make any sense in this universe. ‘Seeing eye to eye’, ‘an eye for detail’, ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’ – all ring as hollow as the pieties surrounding the blind. “A blind man is sacred, you don’t steal from a blind man” someone says, but right at the beginning the first man to go blind is robbed of his car by a thief in the guise of a Good Samaritan. The first blind man’s wife curses the car-thief, hoping he goes blind too, and he does, landing up, unknown to them, in the same ward in which they are interned. It is a kind of justice, but even that phrase ‘Justice is blind’ has lost its ballast of grave and reassuring meaning, and is shipwrecked, like all the blind people. As the doctor’s wife says in a moment of all-too bitter clarity, “the charitable, picturesque world of the little blind orphans is finished, we are now in the harsh, cruel, implacable kingdom of the blind”.

 

‘The eyes are the mirror of the soul’, we say in a seeing world. And yet, if that soul is depraved, rapacious, evil, would we still want to look?

 

“If you can see, look.

If you can look, observe.”

 – From The Book of Exhortations

 

This quote, which prefaces Blindness, is a challenge thrown to every living being, the challenge of being able to look – and not shy away, to be able to peer into the depths of inhumanity and still hold on to one’s humaneness. The doctor’s wife, who becomes, for her little group and in the landscape of the novel, just such a person, is no simplistic symbol. She is a person capable equally of great compassion and great violence (it is she who kills the gang-leader of the rapists by plunging a scissor into his neck) and when she finally leaves the asylum in which they had been quarantined, she is overwhelmed by “some infinite weariness, a longing to curl up inside herself, her eyes, especially her eyes, turning inwards, more, more, more, until they could reach and observe inside her own brain, there where the difference between seeing and not seeing is invisible to the naked eye.”

 

Between the biological fact of the eye as the instrument of sight and the brain that makes sense of what it sees, lies the frightening expanse of the moral universe. As the doctor, ironically an ophthalmologist, says, “in truth the eyes are nothing more than lenses, it is the brain that actually does the seeing”. When the brain fails to ‘see’ anymore, is that when blindness strikes? “Blindness,” the doctor also says, at a moment when humour still seemed possible, “is a private matter between a person and the eyes with which he or she was born.” Just as every action, morally laudable or reprehensible, is a private matter between an individual and his conscience? Saramago seeds his apocalyptic tale with aphoristic, gnomic, biblical utterances, each a pointer in a landscape where the signs are still standing, but no one – except the doctor’s wife – has eyes to read them.

 

“it sounds like an allegory,” an unknown voice declares, “the eye that refuses to acknowledge its own absence”.

 

“sounds like another allegory,” the same voice pipes up a little later, “if you want to be blind, then blind you will be”.

 

“we were already blind the moment we turned blind, fear struck us blind, fear will keep us blind”, the girl with the dark glasses says, with more wisdom than we would have thought her capable of.

 

“fighting has always been, more or less, a form of blindness” says the doctor, and towards the end of the book, “the worst blind person was the one who did not want to see”

 

And, because Saramago delights in language, he touches on the question of naming things, the noun that will fix this collective problem, with the words, “Then the old man with the black eyepatch asked, How many blind persons are needed to make a blindness, No one could provide the answer.”

 

‘Blindness’ as a collective noun, not ‘the blindness of people’ but ‘a blindness of people’. Like a murder of crows, a phrase as inventive as it is chilling. The semantics of a situation come up often, as when the doctor says,

 

“If I ever regain my sight, I shall look carefully at the eyes of others, as if I were looking into their souls, Their souls, asked the old man with the eyepatch, Or their minds, the name does not matter, it was then that, surprisingly, if we consider that we are dealing with a person without much education, the girl with the dark glasses said, Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”

 

Between the named and the unnameable, the quest of the writer. When the first blind man returns to his flat, he finds a writer living there. The first blind man is flattered and wants to ask who he is, the all-too human desire to meet somebody famous, but is embarrassed to. It is his wife who initiates the following conversation:

 

“What is your name, Blind people do not need a name, I am my voice, nothing else matters, But you wrote books and those books carry your name, said the doctor’s wife, Now nobody can read them, it is as if they did not exist.”

 

Without readers, all the works of literature in the world would only be so much waste paper, or worse – as if they had never been written. It is perhaps the statement by the blind writer that leads the doctor’s wife to start reading aloud every evening to her little group – each as anonymous as her, but each, tellingly, identified by the ophthalmological
 problem that brought them to the doctor’s clinic in the first place – the girl with dark glasses who had conjunctivitis, the young boy with the squint, the old man with the black eyepatch covering one dead eye and a growing cataract in the other, the first blind man, the first blind man’s wife. A microcosm of the seeing-impaired, as if Saramago wanted to put under the bell jar of his narrative the whole spectrum from the congenital to the contagious, the very young to the very old.

 

The blind writer asks the doctor’s wife what it was like to be quarantined in the mental asylum,

 

“Was it hard, Worse than that, How horrible, You are a writer, you have, as you said a moment ago, an obligation to know words, therefore you know that adjectives are of no use to us, if a person kills another, for example, it would be better to state this fact openly, directly, and to trust that the horror of the act, in itself, is so shocking that there is no need for us to say it was horrible, Do you mean that we have more words than we need, I mean that we have too few feelings, Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express, And so we lose them.”           

 

Here is the doctor’s wife including herself in the writerly community with the use of the word ‘us’ – “adjectives are of no use to us”. She and the blind writer are both grappling with the same problem. And what is that problem if not the essential failure of language to articulate the unspeakable – a problem that can be resolved only by choices made with precision and responsibility. But the conversation continues:

 

“I’d like you tell me how you lived during quarantine, Why, I am a writer, You would have to have been there, A writer is just like anyone else, he cannot know everything, nor can he experience everything, he must ask and imagine, One day I may tell you what it was like, then you can write a book, Yes, I am writing it, How, if you are blind, The blind too can write, You mean that you had time to learn the Braille alphabet, I do not know Braille, How can you write, then, asked the first blind man, Let me show you.”

 

And he brings them the last page he has been writing, which none of them, including the writer, can see. “Then how can you write,” she asks. “By touch, the writer answered, smiling … A ball-point pen is an excellent tool for blind writers, it does not permit them to read what they have written, but it tells them where they have written, they only have to follow with their fingers the impression left by the last written line…” In the dimly lit room with a tiny table next to the window, the doctor’s wife “passed her eye over the tiny handwriting … over the words inscribed on the whiteness of the page, recorded in blindness”.

 

It is a genuinely poignant moment, yet also tinged with a lunacy that would strike us as laughable if the world in which it existed were not so grim. Here is the writer’s obsessive quest to inscribe reality, to face the blankness of the white page, to overcome the “white blindness” of the blank page with words gathered from asking, experiencing, imagining. Here then, is the only rational act in a completely irrational world. Naming the unnameable, expressing the inexpressible. And in this act of preservation, memory becomes crucial, the memory of the woman who experienced it and others like her. In such a project, the blankness of memory would be as frightening as the vividness of it. And it is the word ‘blank’ that becomes in the novel Seeing the crux of a crisis, bearing in its one innocent syllable the sudden sting of obscenity.

 

In an unnamed city in an unnamed country – though Saramago wickedly slides in the word ‘Portugal’ and then equally wickedly denies it – a government is faced with an unprecedented phenomenon. Seventy percent of the votes in the national election are cast, not as abstentions (that would still be bearable), but as blank votes. A re-election is held eight days later, but the results are even worse – eighty-three percent of the votes are now blank. Rattled by what this means to the survival of the administration, the government declares an emergency and withdraws from the capital, taking the ministers, civil servants, bureaucrats, defence forces and the police with them, hoping through this exodus, to teach the subversives a lesson as they watch their own city dwindle into anarchy in the absence of the paternalistic authorities. Imagine their horror when nothing of the sort happens. No more robberies, traffic accidents or murders occur than would have with the city functioning as normal. Determined to find the leader of what they are convinced is a well-planned Machiavellian campaign of de-stabilisation, the absentee ministers begin to plant terror where there is none. Their enemy is hidden, invisible, not an identifiable group or faction, but seemingly the entire city, working in tandem with  the silent grace of a body that is at harmony with itself. And this enemy earns the appellation of the ‘blankers’, the loathsome anarchists who put in blank votes unlike the more civic-minded (though numerically negligible) citizens who voted for the left, the right or the middle. And just in case there should be objections from punctilious readers (those creatures he loves baiting!), Saramago explains that the term ‘blanker’

 

“was neither accidental nor fortuitous, nor was it a slip of the fingers on the computer keyboard, and it certainly isn’t a neologism that the narrator has hastily invented in order to fill a gap. The term exists, it really does, you can find it in any up-to-date dictionary, the problem, if it is a problem,, lies in the fact that people are convinced that they know the meaning of the word blank and all its derivatives, and therefore won’t waste their time going back to the source to check, or else they suffer from chronic intellectual lazyitis and stay right where they are, refusing to take even one step towards making a possibly beautiful discovery.”

 

Saramago is having fun with us, hooting gently at the pseudo know-it-all as much as the pedant. And though no one knows which “inquisitive researcher or chance discoverer” came up with the word, it spreads like wildfire until even the state-controlled media starts using it, giving it the velocity and the pungency of a choice expletive.

 

“When you see it written down, you don’t notice it so much, but as soon as you hear it spoken with that angry curl of the lips and in that snide tone of voice, you would have to have the moral armour of a knight of the round table not to put a noose around your neck, don a penitent’s tunic and walk along beating your chest and renouncing all your old principles and precepts, A blanker I was, a blanker no more, forgive me, my country, forgive me, my lord.”

 

And,

 

“As the days passed, it became noticeable, in a way that was, at first, imperceptible, that the word blank, as if it had suddenly become obscene or rude, was falling into disuse, that people would employ all kind of evasions and periphrases to replace it. A blank piece of paper, for example, would be described instead as virgin, a blank on a form that had all its life been a blank became the space provided, blank looks all became vacant instead, students stopped saying that their minds had gone blank, and owned up to the fact that they simply knew nothing about the subject, but the most interesting case of all was the sudden disappearance of the riddle with which, for generations and generations, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbours had sought to stimulate the intelligence and deductive powers of children. You can fill me in, draw me and fire me, what am I, and people, reluctant to elicit the word blank from innocent children, justified this by saying that the riddle was far too difficult for those with limited experience of the world.”

 

It is hilarious and it is appalling. This is how censorship begins, by circumscribing the limits of the sayable. In Seeing Saramago talks not of the novelist but of other kinds of writers, with acerbity. There are the official speech writers whose rhetorical and lexical strengths are at the service of the government, summoned like lackeys to placate, manipulate, obfuscate. There are the journalists, raving for moments of violence, puzzled – and in a sense, weakened – by the demonstrators who throw not a single stone, shout not a single slogan as they march to the presidential palace after a bomb attack at the metro station. The city council leader refuses to play the game that requires him to offer the journalist useable sound-bytes, and finally, switching off the camera, the journalist shudders at the “threatening silence that sends shivers down your spine.” “Forget the horror movie language,” the city council leader says, “perhaps people are just tired of words, If people get tired of words, then I’ll be out of a job, You won’t say a truer word all day.”

 

It is no accident that silence is the war cry of the demonstrators, just as white is the colour of the flags they bear. The white of surrender is now the white of insurgency, it is the blankness that declares no political symbol, that expresses at once the exhaustion of gestures, and the triumph of a solidarity that needs no words. But behind the closed doors of the ministerial meetings, another kind of silence is brewing.

 

Unable to find a solution to the problem of an intransigent people, the president of the nation says, “I suppose we’ll just have to continue groping our way blindly forwards.”

 

“The silence that fell was thick enough to blunt the blade of even the sharpest of knives. Yes, blindly, he repeated, unaware of the general embarrassment. From the back of the room came the minister of culture’s calm voice, Just as we did four years ago. The minister of defence rose, red-faced, to his feet, as if he had been the object of a brutal, unforgivable obscenity, and pointing an accusing finger, he said, You have just shamefully broken a national pact of silence to which we all agreed, As far as I know, there was no pact, far less a national one, … You’re right, said the prime minister, … but we all thought … that the dreadful test we had been through would be best thought of as a terrible nightmare … All I said was that four years ago we were blind and … that we probably still are.”

  

What the defence minister refers to is the conspiracy of a silence that cloaks shame. A ‘blanking out’ of the past, a willed amnesia that will make a dreadful ‘episode’ seem like it never happened. The contrast between the blind writer’s need to write even in blindness, and the all-seeing minister’s need to deliberately erase and silence couldn’t be more glaring. By erasing what cannot be understood, the minister hopes to maintain some sort of control over it. But in the way that words have of being misused, misread, the prime minister makes a leap into new territory, comparing “the plague currently afflicting us to a new kind of blindness.”

 

“Either that, or a form of clear-sightedness, said the minister of justice, What, asked the interior minister who thought he must have misheard, I said that the blank vote could be seen as a sign of clear-sightedness on the part of those who used it. How dare you … utter such antidemocratic garbage, cried the minister of defence.”

 

And Babel erupts. But the damage is done, and the propaganda machine now goes all out to “draw people’s attention to the parallel between the blankness of that blindness of four years ago and the blind casting of blank papers now”. This new “blank plague” can only be explained by tracing it back to the only woman who was not affected by the “white evil” – and so begins the horrifying downward spiral as the doctor’s wife becomes the object of a witch-hunt. The superintendent in charge of the investigation, whose emergence as a deeply moral, immensely courageous man is one of the most beautiful things about the book, dreams that “the interior minister had asked him for the photograph so that he could stick a pin through the eyes of the doctor’s wife, all the while singing a wizard’s spell, Blind you were not, blind you will be, white you wore, black you will see, with this pin I prick you, from behind and before.” He is terrified by the dream and as we reach the end of the book, so are we, speechless with the horror of what a government can do, blinded by its lust for power.

 

And as I closed the book, Saramago provoked in my mind a new phrase that rose slowly like a dreamer awakening from a nightmare – and the phrase was not ‘Justice is blind’ but ‘Justice is blindness’. It was a moment of profound loss, and profound understanding, and it came from the vision of the same author who wrote, “it is not only the voice of blood that needs no eyes, love, which people say is blind, also has a voice of its own.”

 

And it is that voice, that naming voice, that sees clearest, and does not flinch at what it sees.

 

Sampurna Chattarji

 

 

[Quotes from Blindness by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, Harcourt, Brace & Company, and Seeing by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Secker]

 

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Four Poems

April 30, 2008 at 7:06 pm (Poetry, Sampurna Chattarji)

AGE  

(or when did she grow so old?)

 

Can you feel her bones under your fingers?

My arms hold a smaller bundle of flesh

than they did before.

Once, she held me bundled in her arms.

Now, she barely fills the space

between my body

and her embrace.

 

© Sampurna Chattarji

 

 

RIGOR MORTIFICATION

 

There is a corpse in the room.

We brought it here ourselves.

Mama said, isn’t it heavier than it ought.

We were too sad to pay attention.

They were all coming to see the body.

All of them.

Some from as far away as home.

No, we were too sad to listen.

And too busy making tea.

Such a rainy morning.

The sewers had burst.

The plank outside our door was wobbling.

Mausi couldn’t find the house.

Ravi found her, sari hitched above her knees.

 

If only we had a telephone.

Ramabai next door is making calls for us.

The rest are coming by instinct.

This death is no surprise.

My mother, killed by her self.

Being eaten up, the doctor said.

First the breast, then the liver.

Then the lung.

Her body ate her up alive.

And now she’s dead, under that sheet.

Come, fold it back.

Whoever’s here is here.

One last look before

 

The corpse in the room is a stranger.

Not my mother but a man.

Heavy, tall and thickly bearded.

I told you, Mama said, but.

It was dark, and they were rude.

Take your dead and don’t argue.

A quick flick of crisp notes.

 

That’s what they wanted to see.

In exchange, a quick look at the corpse.

Instead, empty hands and unshed tears.

The body, thrown like a sack.

We cry out loud.

 

Are strangers burning our dead?

 

© Sampurna Chattarji

 

EVIL EYE

 

What’s Evil Eye doing squinting on the glint of a smile like that why is Evil Eye jealous of the fellows looking at me I grew a mole on my cheek to tweak Evil Eye away but why does Evil Eye keep looking what does he see Does he see a dark blue mountain lashed with light a serpent growing scales at the base of my spine does he see a fang glittering with stones or does he see a pang of fear made flesh in the hollow of my bones Does he see the inside of my skin turning purple and gentle then furious and gold does he see fever and madness evil or sadness does he see tenderness turning old does he see skies in my eyes or lies in my thighs does he see a faint shadow on the side of a wall does he see me

 

at all?

 

© Sampurna Chattarji

 

OBJECT LESSON: FOUR

 

Sometimes it looked like a man in a kayak, sometimes like a petrel.

– Sedna myth

 

 

It is the moment

before the harpoon flies

In a second the bone white spike

will strike flesh wave weed

Black lacquered wood poised

around that act that one detachable

point of departure from its frozen

sleekness that desire for violence

and survival

The man’s face gives nothing away

Anorak and fist and boat

joined at the hip by the fluid craft

that made this fluid craft

interchangeable

Man and boat

waiting and flight

 

Unmoved the paddle rests

dreaming of other rivers

 

© Sampurna Chattarji

 

 

All poems reprinted here with the permission of the author, from Sight May Strike You Blind, Sampurna Chattarji, New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi, 2007. ISBN 81-260-2420-8. Pages 94. Price Rs. 50. Queries: sahityaakademisales@vsnl.net

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“The discovery of poets”

April 29, 2008 at 5:35 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

Reading Borges is like entering a spell.

 

When you emerge, you hesitate to express what you have seen, imagined, experienced. It isn’t the hesitation of befuddlement, but rather the slow dawning of mystery. Short, matter of fact, unadorned, often distanced, what is it about his stories that makes me feel I have dreamed them, and that I will forget them if I wake too soon, too abruptly?

 

Re-reading Borges in Kolkata a few weeks ago, I found this astonishing passage in a story I have long loved and (so I thought) remembered. But here was this passage, crystalline, presenting itself to me as if for the first time:

 

“another of the tribe’s customs is the discovery of poets. Six or seven words, generally enigmatic, may come to a man’s mind. He cannot contain himself and shouts them out, standing in the centre of a circle formed by the witch doctors and the common people, who are stretched out on the ground. If the poem does not stir them, nothing comes to pass but if the poet’s words strike them they all draw away from him, without a sound, under the command of a holy dread. Feeling then that the spirit has touched him, nobody, not even his own mother, will either speak to him, or cast a glance at him. Now he is a man no longer but a god, and anyone has licence to kill him. The poet, if he has his wits about him, seeks refuge in the sand-dunes of the North.”

         From Doctor Brodie’s Report, Jorge Luis Borges, first published 7th August, 1970

 

I copied it out on a scrap of paper the day I left Kolkata, as if I didn’t have Borges’ Collected Fictions at home in Bombay, which I could look up any time. That didn’t seem immediate enough. I had to have these words, inscribed, in hand, on a piece of paper that could fit into the small notebook I carry in my bag. No pages blank in the notebook, no time to buy a new one, hence a hastily torn scrap of paper. A talisman, torn from the context in which it first exercised its power over me, now true, and terrifying, only in another, entirely new context – mine, my life as a poet, my attempt to speak, and my often, utter, failure.

 

Six or seven words, generally enigmatic, may come to a man’s mind.

 

I care nothing for the fact that in the story, in that tribe, the poets are always men. What matters is the number of words, six or seven, their enigma, the mind that they enter, like a visitation. This is how poetry begins.

 

He cannot contain himself and shouts them out

 

The aural, the oral. He hears them and then he speaks them. Poetry as utterance. I have always believed this, but never has it been this explicit, this bound to an action, the speed and weight of a shout.

 

standing in the centre of a circle formed by the witch doctors and the common people, who are stretched out on the ground.

 

The poet is the centre. He has an audience that is unaware that it is about to become an audience. It is an audience that is unaware of the presence of the poet until the moment that he shouts. They are a group of people, enjoying, perhaps, their leisure. Their silence. Perhaps (though I know it is not true, not true in the context of the story from which it is taken) they are enjoying the weather, the stillness, the calm, the sunshine, the breeze. Perhaps it is grass that they are lying on. Perhaps some of them were dozing and were rudely woken by the shout.

 

If the poem does not stir them, nothing comes to pass

 

I could take umbrage to the words ‘the common people’. The witch doctors are special, the poets are special, the people are common. I could, if I wished not to pursue, and stay with, the revelation that has – and is to come. Not all poems stir. However loud the shout, however enigmatic the words, not all poems stir. And without that stirring, without the quickening, the restlessness in the listener, it is as if the poem had never been spoken.

 

but if the poet’s words strike them they all draw away from him, without a sound, under the command of a holy dread.

 

Like a blow, a fist, a whip, a bolt of lightning, an idea – the word strike. The power of poetry to move, not to tears, but to fear. Not just emotionally but bodily, physically, move. What is it about the poet’s words that sent them away, the witch doctors and the common people alike? What were those seven fearful words? What is this ‘holy dread’? The audience shudders and moves away. They do this not of their own volition, but under the pressing authority of something bigger than them. And that authority is the feeling the poet’s words inspire, the feeling of awe, of something sacred. They appreciate the poem, that it is something bigger, stronger, darker than them. Then they fear it. Even hate it.

 

Feeling then that the spirit has touched him

 

Are they afraid of contagion? If enigma were to replace the language of the everyday, what kind of disease would it be? What kind of spirit is this that touches a man to shout in the middle of a circle of reclining, stretching, lazing people? What is this about ‘touch’? Does the spirit have fingers that it may touch?

 

nobody, not even his own mother, will either speak to him, or cast a glance at him.

 

It is the contagion of the leper. Give the poet a bell that we may mark his coming. These unfortunates were caught unawares, and so they flee.

 

Now he is a man no longer but a god, and anyone has licence to kill him.

 

The discovery of the poets is their death knell. “And their last disease is hope.” Elevated above the witches, the commoners, the poets become outcasts, disfigured by the power of a shout that has moved and shocked and sent away.

 

The poet, if he has his wits about him, seeks refuge in the sand-dunes of the North.

 

Will he be killed, for staying? Will the horror of those enigmatic words be enough for an act of extreme violence? It has been known to happen. And if he flees, will he write? Will he inscribe, on sand, the words that no one will be there to hear, and so live on, and on, until he grows deaf and mute, from solitude? What will the silence of the sand-dunes be like – where is this fabled north where one may flee?

 

“Though with time he becomes reconciled to his deformities … his sub-conscious mind, which continues to bear the mark of injury, brings about certain changes in his whole personality, making him suspicious of society.”

                                                            – R. V. Wardekar in a pamphlet on leprosy

 

And so suspicion grows, like a beautiful poisonous weed. Narcissistic, the poet saves himself, his right to shout, his access to enigma, his mystery, his mistrust. If he has his wits about him.

 

Embedded in a piece of Borgesian prose about, among other things, Swiftian strangeness, I discovered something essential, and intense, about what it might mean to really be a poet. This is the gift that Borges offers, with the same humility (or is it humour?) with which he wrote, in his preface to the first edition of A Universal History of Iniquity:

 

“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves … Reading….is an activity subsequent to writing – more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.”

 

Perhaps reading that one passage, over and over again, is my act of poetry for now. I cannot tell. All I know is that small piece of anthropological reporting, scalpel in its precision, is at once too close to the bone and too remote. It haunts me.

 

Sampurna Chattarji

 

[Quotes from Doctor Brodie’s Report, Jorge Luis Borges, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, and A Burnt-Out Case, Graham Greene, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics]

 

 

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How to Battle One-Book-Fatigue

April 24, 2008 at 2:50 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

‘It is the beginning of the end’.

 

I have picked that line out at random from William Burroughs’ The Adding Machine. I am trying the exercise he mentions in one of the essays in this wonderful collection, titled ‘Creative Reading’. It’s the exercise he calls ‘intersection reading’. Say you’re reading on the train all the way home from Nariman Point to Andheri. You’re lucky, you’ve grabbed yourself the window seat, your bag is safely stashed on the rack, it isn’t raining (yet), so there are no drippy umbrellas to threaten your book with splotches, and you’re reading. Let’s say you’re reading The Adding Machine by William S. Burroughs. You read the line ‘It is the beginning of the end’ and just then the lights blink off and the train grinds to a halt.

 

Life has intersected with your place in the book, with that very sentence you picked out. Burroughs would have it that it’s all pre-programmed, what is seemingly random is really significant at that precise moment in your life, and no other.

 

I’m trying out a different sort of ‘intersection reading’. It comes out of the Must-I-Read-One-Book-At-A-Time Syndrome. So I read say four books at a time. But that’s also too linear. A chapter here, a verse there? Nah! Fortified by the knowledge that I am, after all, proceeding under a Burroughsian blessing, I intersect not life with lines, but lines with lines.

 

And this is what happens:

 

I saw the wild hawk-king this morning

Sacred: purdah-veils, halal meat, muezzin towers, prayer-mats;

Death of the author: whodunnit?

Doctor Bream read through the letter to parents then signed her name at the end.

 

I love it. (Is it nonsense?) I love it.

In and out I dip again, changing, at random, the order in which I pick up the books:

 

The black hole of the masses

and then on a whim went for Indian Nectar

Then you went home, all of you went home.

grandmother’s moles like witchnipples

 

It is a kind of mad poetry and I’m wondering if I will hit upon something truly sensational. (Before someone hits me for being a sensational waste of time.)

 

 

awake in the beached boat of the marital bed

Every Christmas we feed the poor.

One afternoon in June

L.A., New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong

 

You can lay your strategies as carefully as you like,

Every message is a verdict

You seem to move continually forward

been there

 

‘Every message is a verdict.’ Precisely what Burroughs would have said. It is almost seamless. Dare I ruin what could be a perfect example of fragmented wholeness? The books tempt me, taunt me.

 

This cushion or pillow takes the form of a narrative space

She was History

I heard it said

Racked by toothaches

 

The absurdity of absurdity.

 

The desire to be clever purely by chance. The desire to control the desire to be clever purely by chance. Will I start cheating, then? Will I turn and riffle the pages looking for a better line? I better not.

 

And so one last, grand, reckless show of nonchalance:

 

…a legend half-heard/in a train

a sort of baleful twilight

it was the end

an ice-cream van crying and hurrying on

 

‘the end’ has appeared twice in this little game, and that, surely, is a sign. Trains have appeared twice. They are telling me something. Get on with it. Move on. I do. I forget about switching tracks, and I read, linear-style, chapter and verse. I have just found the perfect way to battle one-book-fatigue. Thank you, William. Thank you, ice-cream van.

 

 

[Lines quoted from: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children, Carol Ann Duffy’s Feminine Gospels, Neville Wakefield’s Postmodernism: The Twilight of the Real and The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.]

 

Sampurna Chattarji

 

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A Rhyme and a Place

April 24, 2008 at 2:36 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

“There are places I remember, in my life, though some have changed

Some have changed, though not for better…”

 

Some places have an uncanny hold on that slippery terrain we call memory. For reasons unknown, such places live in our minds and hearts, untouched by reality.

 

Reality is a spoilsport in such matters. That’s when poetry comes in.

 

Take Kala Ghoda. My life in Bombay (after moving here from Calcutta) was almost totally centred on the Kala Ghoda area. I worked in an office on PM Road, and lunch-time would see me trotting out with friends to Rhythm House for a quick browse followed by a large and amicable lunch at Wayside Inn. Or else it would be Picolo’s (once, through driving rain, simply to devour a Parsi-bonu). Post-work, Max Mueller Bhavan, screenings, exhibitions. Outside Jehangir, on the sidewalk, the paintings, framed, or the prints, fingered. When I became a freelancer, Wayside Inn became the place where I would breakfast. I would sit with a pot of tea and a plate of eggs and regard the street for hours. No one hurried me. Or I would lunch, early, beginning with beer and ending with coffee, seeing as it was almost tea-time.

 

And then one day, it closed down. A new place came up, and with it, the only reality left was the one I found in my mind, and in the pages of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems. I read them greedily, again and again, marvelling at the precision and tenderness of this anthropologist of the streets. From now, nostalgia will be irrelevant. All I need is here.

 

Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda

 

7.

 

They’re serving khima pao at Olympia,

dal gosht at Baghdadi,

puri bhaji at Kailash Parbat,

 

aab gosht at Sarvi’s,

kebabs with sprigs of mint at Gulshan-e-Iran,

nali-nehari at Noor Mohamadi’s

 

baida gotala at the Oriental,

paya soup at Benazir,

brun maska at Military Café,

 

upma at Swagat,

shira at Anand Vihar,

and fried eggs and bacon at Wayside Inn.

 

For, yes, it’s breakfast time at Kala Ghoda

as elsewhere

in and around Bombay

 

– up and down

the whole hungry longitude, in fact;

the 73rd, if I’m not mistaken.

 

It isn’t just one breakfast that this section makes you hungry for, it’s the whole gamut of all-possible-breakfasts-you-might-ever-have, if you happen to be that side of town. From flitting across the world, from diving down south, from commentating and speculating, the poem dives down, to settle, here, on this place on earth that we know as Kala Ghoda.

 

Sometimes, poetry can show us the worlds we inhabit clearer than we ever could. Not just the place but the people in that world. Take this:

 

The Potato Peelers

 

1.

 

Backlit by their dreams,

they sit on three upended wooden crates,

 

outside the entrance of a garage

converted into a restaurant kitchen;

 

elbows on knees,

bare-chested above their shorts,

 

hunched over potatoes

rotating slowly in their hands,

and the dark side of each one’s mind

faintly visible in

 

the reflected light

of the others’ unspoken thoughts.

 

 

Or this:

 

 

Bon Appetit

 

1.

 

I wish bon appetite

to the frail old fisherwoman

 

 

who, on her way to the market,

has stopped

 

to have a quick breakfast

in a hole-in-the-wall teashop,

 

and is sitting hunched

over a plate of peas

 

 

and whose mouth is watering

at this very moment, I bet,

 

for I can almost taste

her saliva

 

in my mouth.

 

Try visiting Kala Ghoda after reading these poems, and not looking for the characters in them. You can’t. Through keen and loving attention, through the craft of wit and polish, the poet has brought the people we pass everyday with hurrying, averted eyes, out of their invisibility into light.

 

What Vikram Seth did for the Brooklyn Bridge in The Golden Gate, Arun Kolatkar has done for this little patch of Bombay, unrecognisable now with its large parking space, its new restaurants and fancy shops. It isn’t that one longs for landmarks to be immortalised in verse. It’s just that some places are lucky enough to be recorded, simply because someone who lived there, loved them.

 

And when that someone happens to be a poet, lucky us.

 

 

[Excerpts from: Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems, Pras Prakashan]

 

Sampurna Chattarji 

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