Column

Geographies of imagination

Print edition : August 09, 2013

Adil Jussawalla. Photo: Charles Kollanoor

Shrikant Verma. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Sharmistha Mohanty. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

INDIA has a vibrant publishing scene, thanks to not only the big publishers but also a lot of quality-conscious little publishing houses that keep it going. One recent addition to the fairly long list of such publishers is Almost Island. It has been around for some time now as an online literary journal founded by Sharmistha Mohanty—the author of Book One and New Life—and edited by her and the poet Vivek Narayanan—the author of Universal Beach and Life and Times of Mr. S.—exclusively meant for avant-garde writing in and translations from Indian languages into English. Almost Island conceives itself as a “space for literature that threatens, confronts or bypasses the marketplace” and believes that “geography lends a direction to writing, without limiting it”. It is “committed to the multiple inheritances available in India” and “seeks that which is vital in literature anywhere in the world”. The journal has been true to this ideal and has published a lot of interestingly fresh writers from India and abroad.

Sharmistha is also the initiator of Almost Island Dialogues, an exclusive international writers’ meet held annually, mostly in New Delhi, which has hosted several important writers from India and abroad. It has so far held five writers’ dialogues besides two India-China Dialogues, one in Mumbai and the other in Beijing and Shanghai. These closed-door dialogues on different aspects of literature—forms of imagination, style, autobiographies, the nature of narration in poetry and fiction, the scope and limitations of dissent, Tagore’s aesthetic impact and classical Chinese literature—accompanied by public readings by the participating creative writers have brought into conversation several writers, film-makers, critics, artists and thinkers like Kunwar Narain, Vinod Kumar Shukla (Hindi), Joy Goswami, Anita Agnihotri (Bengali), Charu Nivedita (Tamil), Ashis Nandy, Allan Sealy, Adil Jussawalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Vivek Narayanan, Sharmistha Mohanty, (the late) Mani Kaul, Bahauddin Daggar, Giriraj Kiradoo (editor, Pratilipi) and Rahul Soni (translator) from India and many from abroad like the British poet and translator George Szirtes, the Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun, the Italian writer-scholar Claudio Magris, the Caribbean Indian poet Vahni Capildeo, Forrest Gander and Eliot Weinberger (poets from the United States), and 12 avant-garde Chinese writers and critics, including Bei Dao, Xi Chuan, Ge Fei, Ouyang Jinghe, and Li Tuo. These informal yet structured dialogues, of which I too was privileged to be a part, have delved deep into serious concerns of language, literature and culture, and of the encounters between tradition and modernity.

We cannot but take note when a collective with such a rich background enters the Indian publishing scene. Going by its first three publications, Almost Island has proved worthy of our expectations. The collective entered publishing in 2011, with a collection of poems by Adil Jussawalla titled Trying to Say Goodbye that followed his Missing Persons after a gap of 35 years. Jussawalla’s poems, as the publisher’s note rightly points out, are sharp, intimate, fearless and often gloomy, but with a bustling rhyme, wily syntax and original prosody, dealing with personal and public histories and exploring the inner life of objects and materials and often paying homage not only to poets and artists but to eccentrics and vagabonds. I am only dealing here briefly with the second and third books published recently: Magadh, an intriguing cycle of poems by Shrikant Verma, translated from Hindi by Rahul Soni, and Five Movements in Praise, a work of experimental fiction, the author’s third, by Sharmistha Mohanty.



A civilisation in crisis

Magadh was originally published in 1984. It carries poems written between 1979 and 1984, but they reveal an astonishing continuity of theme and idiom. I recall choosing to translate a few of these poems and ending up translating the whole book in 1989 (published February 1990): such is the spell that the sequence casts on one’s poetic imagination. The late Shrikant Verma (1931-1986) completed the poem in his last years when he was in the grip of cancer. Verma had emerged in the 1960s as an important new poet who believed in a direct if sparse idiom that would bluntly and honestly articulate his confrontations with the unwholesome realities of his time. Here was a new poetics that shunned lyrical opulence and deliberate poeticisms and was forthright in its interrogation of the state of things.

During the 30 years of his poetic career, which was in strange conflict with his political career that saw him as the general secretary of the Congress Party and later a member of the Rajya Sabha, he travelled the distance between two poles, moving from indifference to commitment, from melancholy to meditation, from extremist radicalism to a quiet balance, from negation of life to a critical acceptance of it. There certainly was a man in him who enjoyed the glamour power gave him, but the poet within went on laughing at and being embarrassed by the hollowness of it all, the banality, the ultimate lie. He also was a witness to, and even a collaborator in, the Emergency whose aftermath seems to have left a deep scar on his conscience, seeing it as a sin he needed to expiate—and he finds that expiation in Magadh into which he throws all the shame, guilt, doubt, sarcasm and despair born of a decadent system that he was sure would crumble one day as centralised power has always done. In fact, it is this conflict that makes the whole sequence interesting.

The sequence is allegorical as it embodies the concerns and anxieties of the present through a passage into ancient Indian history. It is a series of riddles, like those posed by a Vetal or a Sphinx (here there is actually a Vetal that appears in the invocation), at the end of which we realise the evanescence of power and the collapse of its ridiculous vanity. A reality that is growing more and more monstrous every day and an insensitive politics that stands lost and speechless before this worsening social scenario: these poems try to go beyond these polarities. There is no ready-made solution, nor a well-made philosophy here; it just raises some ethical questions from the battlefield of the present. That is what makes Magadh open-ended. The characters here are individuals and also representatives of the society we live in. Each of the cities being alluded to—Magadh, Kosala, Takshashila, Nalanda, Vaishali, Mathura, Mithila, Kashi, Pataliputra, Hastinapur, Kosambi, Kannauj, Kapilavastu, Ujjaini, Avanti, Amaravati, Sravasthi—is specific, but they also together represent civilisation itself and its profound crisis, just as these poems can be read individually but are also part of a continuous sequence. The incidents here belong to the legend, but they also suggest the happenings around us today. The characters—Ambapali, Buddha, Malati, Vasavadatta, Vasantasena, the Licchavis, the kings and the horseman, the stoker, the seductress —come from myth and history, but their dilemmas are ours and the death of individuals suggest the death of a civilisation.

The sense of the past that informs these poems is not meant to invoke sentimental nostalgia; nor a revivalist desire; it is the product of a civilisation’s introspection at a time when the paths to utopia lie sunk in the sand, and power, money and material pleasures have seduced the guides. All the lost lands lamented by the Vetal become symbols of a nation being eaten away by greed, dishonesty, lack of collective ambition and sheer intellectual vacuity. People who are either playing chess or nodding away in a fit of forgetful slumber, the parliamentarians who meet only to decide not to call a meeting of the parliament, rulers who are steeped in indifference and corruption, the unclaimed dead bodies filling the streets, cities of sin that resist thought like the plague: the poet seems to bear on his shoulders not the glory of tradition, but the growing corpse of the forgotten past.

I remember watching a visual presentation of these poems at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, which brought out the intense drama within these classical and quiet-seeming poems full of contemporary resonances. Magadh, where people are sorting bones of the dead; Kashi, where corpses come and go and the councillors meet to dismiss the council; Hastinapur, where thought spreads like the plague even when people turn a deaf ear to the preacher of dharma; Kapilavastu, where the days are an eyesore and the nights are drowned in wine and whores; Ujjaini, where pity and shame have ceased to exist; Takshashila, where only a pile of rubble curious about its genesis remains; Mathura and Avanti that have turned into memories; Mithila, where no single poet or sculptor or singer has survived, and only the Ministers and the armies remain; Pataliputra, where the night deepens…. Time rubs out every name and the poet can only say about an year of poems: “What I wrote, useless/ What I did not,/ meaningless.” It is an elegy, not for the past but for the present: “Often/ the roads/ that you’re shown/ don’t take you/ where/ you want to go.”

Eminent Hindi poet Kedarnath Singh looks at these poems as the product of a deep introspection that Shrikant Verma did following the Emergency. Verma’s poem “Process” sums it up succinctly: “What was I doing when everyone was shouting, jai, jai? I too was repeating jai jai. I too was scared like the others. What was I doing when everyone was saying ‘Aziz is my enemy’? I too said: ‘Hold your tongue and repeat what others are shouting’. Now the shouts of victory have ceased; Aziz has been murdered. All the tongues have fallen silent. Everyone is embarrassed and asks: ‘How did this happen?’” As the poet-critic Ashok Vajpeyi points out in his introduction, the poems in Magadh “do not try to put the blame for the banality or vacuity of power on any single entity. Magadh makes all of us complicit with that which eventually drives all power to certain failure, to vainglory.” Rahul Soni has spared no efforts to capture the deceptive simplicity, the odd rhythm, the quaint irony and the informality that mark the style of the original.



Journey through an enchanting world

Reading Sharmistha Mohanty’s Five Movements in Praise is a deep, half-mundane, half-metaphysical, experience where what matters is not where the narrative leads, but the process of narration itself. It is like a journey where the sights on the way are more important than the place the traveller arrives at. Rather, it says there is no destination at all, that the pleasure is in the journey, the quest, itself. Creative prose is at its most beautiful meticulousness here, turning every little detail into a lasting image and every encounter with men, women and objects into a moment of epiphany. There is little narrative urgency here; the rhythm is as slow as that of life in our villages or in a film, say, by Tarkovsky, Satyajit Ray or Mani Kaul. Reality and myth flow into each other in this semi-real space as do man and nature. The prose is intensely lyrical and contemplative and cultures and systems—Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism symbolised by the temple and the dargah—pass seamlessly into one another and so do the present and the past.

Here too, there are imaginary maps as in Magadh: ruined cities, valleys that invite you to climb up to see the hidden mystery at the top, caves that surprise you and sacred spaces that convince you that every place is sanctified and everything is illuminated (to recall the title of the enchanting first novel of Jonathan Safran Foer, whose faint shades, along with those of Allan Sealy, one may detect to one’s excitement in Sharmistha’s method), besides docile people and innocent-looking children who can suddenly turn violent and tear your hands off from your friend’s and even manhandle you, strangers who give you unexpected moments of care and tenderness, dogs brown as the gravel that do not run away even when tortured and sweepers who speak philosophy, birds and marigolds that are waiting to turn insubstantial. It is an enchanted world where winter light gets harvested from months of indiscriminate blazing, the unstable replies to the stable, a long balcony lies suspended on a body, a dead mother appears in the mirror in the woman’s body, the light is a serene vigilance and unceasing attention that can never be wounded or seized, time in a cave has a raw muscular poise, the land’s end is alert with a dilated silence, lovers confirm that an awkward gesture comes from fecund emotions, objects resist consolidation, the Bodhisattva waits for the rock to crack and give way, silver mackerel and pink lady fish wait on broken plywood boards to be sold with a patience that comes only after death, night is made from primary principles woven into a deep blue Bengal neelambari sari filled with stars painted for centuries as a night of love, a white peacock opens its luminous ivory fan against the night under a rain tree of an irrelevant zoo, the wind plays the strings of a tanpura, producing a random, atonal, originary sound, the forest is a cautious place of rest and not languor, a musical note is but a longing, Tansen waits to travel the distance in his teacher Swami Haridas’ eyes, Tara’s father appears as a cripple in the traveller’s dream and the sun burns Saleem’s patience to ashes.

The sentences in Five Movements have an unmistakable cadence; the painter and the musician are always awake in her capturing colours and sounds with a special sensitivity. The episodes and the encounters are held together by the figure of the traveller, whose gender is inconstant, like the language of the work that moves between poetry and prose, flying at times to the tender heights of a sexless love that revels in no more than a touch or a caress and then being pulled down by verbal or physical violence. The traveller keeps on thinking how and why should one be confined to the given reality and not dream of other possibilities. It takes her into the midst of adventure and a depravity that she witnesses as well as experiences herself.



Unusual continuity

The narration is not confined to a single place, but stretches all the way from Ellora to a museum in Zurich. But there is, too, an unusual continuity to the whole journey, like life itself where even sudden leaps and violent breaks get finally absorbed into the ceaseless flow of existence. Histories and cultures too get linked together in this quest: the miniatures of Nainsukh getting connected to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The traveller here is no different from Padmapani, that incarnation of Bodhisattva where he holds a lotus and is looking at it, while also looking into himself and also the turbid flow of earthly life around him. There are moments of meditation as also of revelation: examining the traveller who is hurt in an attack, her doctor says, “Your life is a line of light inside a transparent, thin cylinder stretched out on the ground, over a vast distance.” In the caves, the traveller experiences the force of a ruin as well as the inevitability of its decay. Even an imagined hand stroking a head becomes a subject of detailed contemplation about its travel to the head, the roots of hair, thus turning itself into a hand of extreme, unconditional, personal attachment and freeing him from the stillness of the landscape, and its extension, the stillness of his soul. “But there is no such hand.”

Several visions and lines like Basava’s “things standing shall fall, but the moving forever stay” or Safran Foer’s “Everything is illuminated” get absorbed anonymously into the expression of the writers’ vision. There are revelatory statements: “There is the deepest rest in the other’s breath in the darkness of dawn”, “as long as the light lasts, it refracts the human into an equal consciousness” or “there can be no equivalence between these things, between us, except the most elemental, for which we first have to be broken and excavated”, “in this gray, empty cave, time assumes its rightful dimensions”, “In the dark, objects assume more than their function… in the darkness objects reveal their ethics. They reveal everything they live by”, “When an object sets, the metaphor that came from it is the light it leaves behind. To surrender to the fire in which it is shaped, afterwards never to give in, but always able to contain. In the universe of every extinct object, its implications are in orbit. Not in the objective light of museums, but in the darkness of individual memories”, “The research into human misery, they say, has hardly begun. But the homeostatic mechanisms of unhappiness bequeathed by evolution can be dismantled and replaced as research grows.”

The plates—paintings and photographs in colour—strewn across the text are not illustrations but part of the text itself, and they too enrich the experience of the book as also enhance the beauty of its production. This is a book for the initiated, patient, open and thoughtful readers who are ready to suspend their conventional expectations about fictional narratives.

Email: satchida@gmail.com

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