Through my Window

No end to hope

Print edition : January 24, 2014

Bengali poets Angshuman Kar and Mandakranta Sen (middle) at the Hyderabad Literary Festival in January 2012. Photo: NAGARA GOPAL

J.P. Das. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Kunwar Narain. Photo: PTI

Mamang Dai. Photo: Sandeep_Saxena

Keshav Malik. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Jean Arasanayagam of Sri Lanka. Photo: P_V_SIVAKUMAR

Ramakanth Rath. Photo: LINGARAJ PANDA

DOES poetry make anything happen? W.H. Auden had once answered: no. And added: it is a way of happening, a mouth: today he would have qualified his statement: a mouth no one can force shut. Recently, at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair I was listening to the Tunisian poet Moncef Mezghanni reading a poem on the Jasmine Revolution that once again reminded me of Czeslaw Milosz’s words: poetry which does not address the destiny of nations is useless. Poetry has always played its often invisible yet important role in sensitising human minds to the suffering of others, to the beauty of nature and love and the need in critical times like ours to take our destiny in our own hands. Theodor Adorno had spoken of the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz; but we also know that poetry survived Auschwitz, taking on new forms to meet the challenge of our cruel times. Perhaps Bertolt Brecht was more right in asserting that in bad times too there will be poetry, about bad times.

Yet we know no time is completely a bad time. If there were concentration camps, there was also resistance that led to the defeat of fascist forces; if imperialism flourished in the world, a small nation like Vietnam exposed its fragility; if there were wars, there were also revolutions, and when revolutions soured and led to totalitarian rules, again people articulated their democratic aspirations through freedom charters, the Orange, Rose and Tulip revolutions.

We also found another series of uprisings sweeping across North Africa and West Asia, what Antonio Negri and Michel Hardt would call the revolution of the multitude that, without a specific ideology and a permanent leader, pursue a biopolitics oriented towards a systemic transformation through direct democracy cutting across classes, sects and professions. They too are facing their crises as can be seen in the recent developments in Egypt or Syria, but there is no end to our hope in the people. We also witnessed the Occupy Wall Street demonstration as well as the spontaneous mass uprisings against rape and corruption in our own capital. What matters perhaps is the originary moment of all these movements which in the words of Tony Chakar—the Lebanese architect and thinker, whose show “A Hundred Thousand Solitudes” focusses on the essential spirit of the Arab Spring—gives us a glimpse of the future through a tear in the sky. And the hope in poetry is an extension of that hope; even when poetry is dark and angst-ridden, it remains the scream of the agonised mind full of concern for the future or for humankind. Poetry cannot but take sides even if in a way different from politics: it speaks for the victims of all kinds of oppression whatever its source and the hue and is, by nature, oppositional.

Foes of poetry

Admittedly, poetry has more foes today than ever before: the market that is eager to turn everything into a commodity; the corporates whose loud bidding drowns the tender voice of poetry; the warmongers and terrorists across the world who do not know that violence will only lead to greater violence; patriarchy, which torments women at home and on the street; racial hierarchies and religious fundamentalisms that spread inequality and sustain the status quo; blind jingoism that refuses to accept the sovereignty of other nations; globalisation, which leads to cultural amnesia, mono-acculturation and the monologue of power; capitalist greed that destroys the environment and dislocates tribal people and the poor; cultural and linguistic chauvinisms that marginalise smaller cultures and languages: in fact every enemy of humankind is also the enemy of poetry as they all distort language and fill its marrow with untruth.

South Asia is not free from these ills. Its poets are trying to speak up against the enemies of their unity and uphold the freedom and dignity of man and woman and the sanctity of nature and the outer and inner environment. This part of the world has had a rich tradition of poetry right from the centuries before Christ when its first civilisations began to flourish. Its rich diversity of landscape, languages and cultures is amply reflected even in its contemporary poetry as can be deduced from many recent anthologies of South Asian poetry, like Gestures (Sahitya Akademi), The Songs We Share (Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature) or Poems from the SAARC Region (SAARC Cultural Centre, Sri Lanka), in the editing of all of which this writer has been involved. The poets gathered in these anthologies, even while having their own individual styles, attitudes and perceptions, seem to share a certain common ethos, common concerns, interests and insights. Here I am looking at some of these common tendencies.

Many of the poems convey the angst, pain and embarrassment of living in the countries of South Asia. “In every today I see remains of yesterday/Do not speak to me of mornings and morrows,” laments Abdolbari Jahani from Afghanistan. “Do not hope for the sky in the begging bowl; / the Cup Bearer of Eternity has placed your bowl upside down.” There is a feeling of loss and emptiness here that comes partly from the guilty feeling of having betrayed one’s friends: “Fearing the hunter, I have left many a flock” ( The End). The Pakistani poet Abrar Ahamed’s “What Don’t I have” is an ironic statement of all that he has: a past to return to, flowers blossoming in sleep, dancing peacocks, many voices in his voice, lakes where birds bathe, clouds, rains, songs, paradoxical experiences, a lover’s ecstasy and freedom; but he laments one thing: lack of time and power over those who rule the world. Anamika, the Hindi poet, wonders which bird’s name is Desire and is embarrassed to think her two hands are two flintstones ( Unemployed). Angshuman Kar, the Bengali poet, asks God not to show his muscles, but be with men in their troubles ( Who is God?). Badri Narayan, again writing in Hindi, just wants a sad song against creation as he can never find the rules of justice that govern the world ( Song of Sorrow). Habibullah Siraji from Bangladesh sees the heat of gunpowder obliterating the footprints of fidelity ( Memorial).

Many poets invoke myths and legends from racial memory. Imojit Ningombam goes back to a folk legend to comment on the present plight of Manipur and hopes for the return of the lost brothers from the battlefield ( Thabaton), while Ispita Sarangi, the Oriya poet, dreams of a new era that is born of the archery of Jara ( Quest). J.P. Das looks at Pokhran—the place where India tested its nuclear bomb —as the burning cavern of Krishna’s mouth in his world-image ruled by killer-Time; he sees Hiroshima and Kargil on the way that leads to Pokhran. The poor man of India stands stunned before the carnival of blazing lights (Pokhran). Jean Arasanayagam from Sri Lanka tries to imagine the last thoughts of a suicide bomber. She would be telling herself: “My heart cold, dead already, stinking/Centuries-old unwrapped mummy-heart./My body peels off like strips of posters/ Clawed off the hurtling globe/ I am my own avatar/ Of destruction, burning, burning” ( Detonations).

Jyoti Jungle, the Nepali poet, asks dreams not to come looking for her eyes. She has no vision, no address; she is a leaf in the wind, an aching breath, a thirsty refugee, a coward unable to live her life ( Refugee). Oriya poet Kedar Mishra warns: “What you hear from me as a song/is nothing but my smouldering soul” ( Summer Song). Beauty and truth are no more for Keshav Malik, the Indian poet writing in English; there is only the prayer for a moment of reunion ( Now No Beauty, No Truth). Kunwar Narain, eminent Hindi poet, understands those condemned as inhuman, for it is hard to remain human in evil times; it is when we abandon people they turn into beasts ( Remaining Human). He sums up the whole history of Delhi in a single intense image of the vanquished, his hands tied together, dragged behind victorious horsemen ( Delhi). Mandakranta Sen from West Bengal prescribes a menu for the desperate women of the world: with sour dreams, sweet envy, cooked with tears. And finally offer him your own head on a platter so that the man does not run off to taste the God’s dish ( Offering). Manglesh Dabral, the Hindi poet, epitomises the human condition today: “We’ve become wordless, and all but lost our speech. We go on tearing the paper. It’s our only hope” ( Poems of Paper). Manju Nath, the Kannada poet, thinks of a day when the living will have to answer the questions of the dead ( The Manifesto of Dying), while Quazi Rosy, Bengali poet, tries to define that little anguish inside her lying like a little bird in its cosy nest ( That Pain). Rahmat Shah Sayel, writing in Pushtu, compares herself to a book on a shelf in a ruined house that no one has read ( A Book Unread). Ramakant Rath’s tender Oriya poem is a sharp comment on our time when people die and kill in the name of God ( Where are They?). Rubana Huq from Bangladesh turns ironical when she says she feels raw and raped like a peeled apple; she feels herself to be a freshly packaged commodity in the market in the season of low retailing ( Retailing at…?). Surjit Patar, distinguished Punjabi poet, speaks of the angst of alienation a revolutionary feels while returning home after the struggle gets dissipated. His forehead carries Death’s signature and his face, friends’ footprints. The mirror reflects someone else ( The Return Home).

Moods of love

There are among these also poems on the different aspects and moods of love. Adyasha Das, Oriya poet, thanks her lover for turning her into liquid wax to be recrafted ( The Colour of Love). Angshuman Kar discovers the lost smell of earth in the lovers’ breath, birdsongs in their hearts on the brink of separation ( A Couple: Before Moving to the Court). It has been said that man is the only animal that continues to make love any time until death. Kaiser Haq of Bangladesh asks man to look for Kama’s arrows before the spine grows brittle and every hair is grey. The poem is full of the sensations of love. If love dies, he exhorts, imagine a poem, and like Lazarus it rises again ( Speaking of Kama). Monikuntala warns in her Bengali voice that the one you love is not yours; “he is the farmer’s harvest” ( Love). To Packiyanathan Ahilan, the Sri Lankan Tamil poet, the beloved is “the floating cool moon” who drives him into himself (Untitled Love Poem). Preetidhara Samal of Oriya remembers a rainy day, a tumultuous morning, when her dead beloved seemed to stand at the door attired in clouds with a crown of fog, his body like flowing water: the diary told her it was his birthday ( Birthday). Quazi Rosy asks the river not to get physical: she refuses to touch the river in her moonlit verse. ( Won’t Touch You). Suniti Mund has this to tell the Oriya lover: “Do not wind up/the aroma of words/so close to your hand” ( The Last Letter).

Fascination of mystery

The East has always been looked upon as the land of mystery from where all the religions of the world had their origins; mystery has not ceased to fascinate contemporary poets. Abrar Ahmad lists diverse kinds of experiences from a telephone conversation to a dead body on a stretcher, from the swaying lamp in the street corner to “this unreal being which once had unbearable weight”, all of which turn into memory and stay there until the vehicle of memory itself turns into a memory ( Part of our Memory). Anjali Sahoo in the Oriya poem An Anonymous Star encounters her ultimate loneliness: her namelessness, her inability to burn to ash, her refusal to seek others’ mercy. Ashok Vajpeyi, the well-known Hindi poet, meditates over the end: there will be nothing after the end except the end itself. “No astonished moonrise of the body/no bleak anguish of the soul/no sun-remembrance of love” ( After the End). Everything then will survive only for those who have no end. Kanji Patel’s Gujarati poem is like a Rigvedic hymn about creation. “God arrived on the wings of wind/He fetched the world along with;/ the world consumes fire” ( God and the World). Kinga Choden from Bhutan speaks of the mysterious man in Red Robes, a Buddha-like presence, who led him along the passage of life and truth. But he was lured by a temptress and got lost in a desert of mirage. He had shielded the poet, but forgot to shield himself ( That Man in Red Robes). Kushal Dutta from Assam is inspired by a Chinese film to write a symbolic poem on the golden eagle that sits hatching in the cold expanse of his heart (The Golden Eagle). Mamang Dai delves deep into the mythology of her Arunachal Pradesh to come up with fresh images like “the striped summer of the tiger”.

Manglesh Dabral writes of dreams where “we see ourselves as righteous men. We see an old cracked mirror. We see blood coming out of our nose” ( Poem of Dreams). Nitupurna, Bengali poet, sees the plant of wonder emerging above the riverbank filling the shore of language with fragrance ( The Plant of Wonder). Hindi poet Pankaj Singh’s Night Poem weaves together the growing flowers, ripening fruits and pangs of desire to create a passionate pattern in the darkness. Saleem Pasha wonders in his Urdu verse: “Who is this third that passes by? Time, or Man? Or is it just me?” ( Tell-tale Bottom Line of the Tale). Sarmad Sehbai, again from Urdu, articulates “the common sorcery of daily genesis” by references to the story of Satan and the fall of Man in the Bible. Will–O’-the Wisp grows into the very emblem of mystery in Saurav Saikia’s Assamese poem of that name. Sirpi Balasubramanian, the senior Tamil poet, hides a great truth behind his play with the names of directions: that if we banish those distinctions, the sun will rise in the human world. Sitakant Mahapatra’s famous Oriya poem Death of Krishna is a powerful and dramatic piece describing the death of Krishna in the hands of Jara, the hunter. The poet brings the episode to the present by bringing in newspapers that carry Krishna’s obituaries and the declaration of a public holiday. Sitanshu Yashaschandra in his Gujarati poem Under Stones depicts the mystery of world and nature by repeatedly asking and trying to find out what lies beneath the stones. Thana Vishnu from Sri Lanka finds a blind cat in his mind even when the real blind cat vacates his chair ( The Dark Shadow above My Self).

Most of the South Asian poets respond to our times with profound concern in diverse ways. Abrar Ahmed from Pakistan sums up the world’s tenderness in a single whisper that he hears when his head strikes against a wall: “Son-my son”. Ali Lemar Niazi hears the weeping of Kurds in Iraq while Anamika asks men to read women carefully like reading the torn pages of a child’s notebook, like reading a job advertisement after one’s B.A. ( Women). Angshuman Kar thinks of the missing village boy, ignorant of the agony of his parents, and the terrible changes in his village: is he washing cups and plates at a roadside dhaba?

Anitha Thampi, Malayalam poet, gazes alternately at the jackfruit and the pregnant woman to grasp the secret of the idea of the fruit ( Fruit, As it is). Anoop Kumar pays a tribute to the poor women of the village who are alike and do the same dull jobs all over the country, denied even the price of their labour. Still they laugh, so that the earth survives and the bread tastes so good ( That is Why the Earth...).

Ashok Kumar Rout speaks in Oriya of the misery of the sex worker using the metaphor of the abandoned jasmine garlands: “Hunger dances/ inside the buildings./The belly sings,/and sorrow listens” ( Darkness). Imojit Ningombam still dreams of a free motherland as a thousand mothers in Manipur continue to fight against the black night in front of every gate and scatter flowers around newly built tombs ( Motherland). Bhupeen Vyakul has the Nepalese revolution in mind when he speaks of the dethronement of the false god who had asked his subjects for unquestioned devotion and the journey towards a single light made up of all colours ( Invention).

Balbir Madhopuri, the Punjabi Dalit poet, expresses the frustration of all Dalits when he speaks of his father who takes a line drawn on water for a line on stone. His own body is like a dried rivulet while he has brought to the world a green revolution and his lean body burns in the heat of summer. His children inherit only slavery while his countrymen speak of their great traditions ( My Old Man). Kanji Patel wants the whole world to experience real hunger at least once so that they may understand those whose nerves are shredded into fibres with extreme starvation ( May such Hunger).

Muthukumaran, a Tamil poet, thinks of the poor women who embroidered two ducks on his pillow cover to represent their inability to fly high: they shuttle between the homes of their husbands and parents like ducks, between land and water ( Pillow Ducks).

Pir Mohamad Karwan from Afghanistan speaks of the despair of coming back to his city that has now turned alien for him, ravaged as it is by 20 years of war ( Wanderer). Quazi Rosy mourns the fate of man who can fly to Mars but has no place to stand upright on earth ( A Place to Stand). Rubana Haq bewails the lack of philosophy in her land where fears have grown bigger than men and asks the women of her class to defy their dull routine of complaining, blaming others and carrying their pets in the car, fight the preachers of intolerance and get arrested if necessary ( Wake up, Mrs. Bangladesh).

Sachin Ketkar’s is a postmodern voice from Marathi that uses the language of the computer and the Internet to speak of our cruel times in ironic tones: “I want to bombard thousands of unknown IDs / With my viruses of the Unbeing, Inauspicious and the Ugly/ Because in the loss of thousands of unknown people /Lies my gain!” ( Spam). Sarmad Sehbai speaks for the unfortunate of Pakistan asking Angelina Jolie, the goodwill ambassador, to gift them with amnesia, the asylum to oblivion ( Angelina).

Savita Singh, Hindi poet, wants the body to be freed from the body ( The Way a Woman Knows) and invites Sylvia Plath to reside in her spirit and feel her freedom so that no man can make her feel helpless nor kill her with love ( Of Love). Sebanti Ghosh, Bengali poet, tells us what happens to an independent woman in a conservative society: she is said to be promiscuous or called a flesh worker and is left with no support even from her friends ( Mrs. Promiscuity). Sithanthan from Sri Lanka shows a pungent sense of irony when he presents a Buddha tempted by angels ( On that Last Night) and a town where all roads end and mean, intoxicated and treacherous gods of various shapes wander looking for bombs under people’s clothes ( Living in the Towns of Gods).

The same sense of irony marks Subrat Jena’s Oriya poem Depositions where the poet confesses to his misdeeds without swearing by the Gita and asks the Lord to pronounce the verdict. Sukhvinder Amrit, Punjabi poet, asks his daughter to learn her alphabet and fight for the right meanings of words getting lost in our paradoxical times when anklet means shackles and bangles, handcuffs.

These random samples should be enough to reveal the inner strength and the huge diversity and range of the poetry being written in South Asia today and to persuade us to probe further looking at the country-wise scenario in greater detail.


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