nederlandse taal
english language

Poetry International Web
en/nl
dutch news

Looking at the Body of a Poem

The Journey of a Hindi Poet
 

 

In which Teji Grover reflects on poetry as “the pleasure of the thing not understood”, language vagabondage, the Bhopal School and the craft of absence.

I’d like to begin with something I am often asked. It’s a question that used to annoy me a lot in the beginning. The question sounds more like an indictment than anything else: “How come you never wrote in your mother tongue, Punjabi?” I haven’t given this question much conscious thought, as I have a rather weird relationship with Punjabi, avoiding speaking it anywhere except in the immediate family circle of my parents. If forced to speak the language with outsiders I begin to feel compromised, exposed, I don’t really know why. I need to take a closer look at the child who became estranged from her immediate surroundings by processes she never understood. I mean in Amritsar, where she spent her early years steeped in poverty of a kind that was illumined by glowing riches from the inside, and which is still wrapped in mystery for me. The instinct, as always, is to talk about her in the third person. Let me change it for once and see what happens: We were poor, but we had style. We had books, we had music, and I had an artistic upbringing, so to speak. The families, my ancestors, had moved twice: once from Burma and then from Pakistan. Had been reduced to indigence from extreme prosperity, twice in their lifetime. The third time everyone, especially my father, just gave up. And we settled down with a split in our wildly beating hearts. Even though our generation came later, the split came streaming into us from a violent and unforgettable past.

I replay a few images for myself: A kite flying off after snatching the roti from my hand, for instance. The hunger that day, and the fear. The thrashing immediately afterward for having lost my roti. And in later years the guilt burdening the person who thrashed me regularly, and my bitterness, eventually turning into compassion. Her countless vain efforts at rearing us and the feeling my brother and I had every morning, that we were born anew from her body, hungrier and needier than before. I was more reckless and I got beaten more.

All this, this ‘split’ poverty didn’t seem unreal in those days; it does now. A sizable library my father had in the house, a telephone, five newspapers every morning and journals of various kinds. But our next meal was always uncertain. If some money came to Mother from her stitching work, we got our food, not otherwise. I studied in an English medium school, and put up with humiliation every day for wearing torn shoes and not paying the fee on time. The fear that a peon would materialise from the office to inform my class teacher that there were two or three culprits in the class who hadn’t paid up their dues is still the subject of my nightmares. The poverty seemed unreal for this reason too, that right below our crumbling barsati* my grandfather kept a considerable house . . . But for some reason, my father, my mother and my brother were not entitled to any share in his prosperity. Breadwinning did not occupy any place in my father’s make-up, and his health was mostly bad. Given to the vices of reading and writing, he sought the company of poets. For months on end he would be away on monk-like treks. For my brother and me, his life was wrapped in mystery. It still is for me.

Many poets and raconteurs of Pakistan often came to our house. And with many Urdu writers my father had a deep friendship. He edited a literary magazine, the title of which was Nigarish. I was often requested by my father to recite the poems written by his visiting friends, especially Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who wasn’t yet the legend he has now become. The pleasure of the thing not understood was the first thing about poetry that I understood. I don’t know why but I never felt the urge to go to the meanings of incomprehensible words. The demand for meaning was something I never made from poetry. Hindi, in particular, had earned the immunity to exist beyond the realm of meaning for me, and Hindi writers who had no place in our Urdu-English-Punjabi household acquired the magnetic pull of intimate strangers. Perhaps it is still the same. Writing in Hindi, I still don’t belong to the ‘scene’.

If an impression deeper than poetry was made on me by anything, it was the life of Abraham Lincoln. I wolfed down books in the same voracious way as I had read about in Lincoln’s life. The same stark poverty and the same unquenchable thirst for reading and writing. I would say to Father, what was I but Lincoln in my previous birth? He would roar with laughter and say, if you were Lincoln in your last birth, what was I?

The ambiguity of Lincoln’s personality, its rough-hewnness, and the capacity he had of transforming by wit and belly laughs the solemnest occasions beyond recognition, fascinated me immeasurably. Such a sense of oneness I had not got until then from membership of the family to which I belonged. But the feel of the large family which I have in me now has the same heat, the same sense of oneness. And the same laughter. At the core of this family is a bunch of fine painters and poets. In this hurricane-wild intimacy, this clasp of a love-like high fever (in which now are also the peacocks of Ujjain, their fledglings, tamarind trees and human children, thirsty for stories), I feel like an unformed and fragile vessel breakable any moment.

But I go back for a while to the violence from which a world all my own fiercely came into being. A world that could never have been formed if my brother and I had had a conventional childhood. The bloody household wars pushed me into opening worlds for myself in nineteenth century Russian fiction, into secret loves not necessarily amorous, into a precocious vagabondage. Ammi and Abbu, it seemed, belonged to two different planets. A home built of screams, crashing of porcelain and glass, the telephone smashed again and again, and inconsolable sobbing – a home that was perhaps fit only for poetry. Trembling with fear my brother and I would go to school and return home trembling with fear. Who knew what the scene would be on return! Would people again be thronging the lane, enjoying the spectacle? Later I lost all shame about such compulsive onlookers, about being part of a tamasha* I lost my fear forever. My grandmother’s threatening voice addressing my grandfather. My friend, the Hindi writer Udayan Vajpeyi, has been reading the Granth Saheb for many years now. Even when he pauses and engages me in talk about this text, I can’t forget this image – Grandfather being shouted at to swear with his hand on the Granth Saheb that he hadn’t given us any money. He would swear false oaths, after having given us a one anna* coin now and then. Later he even began giving us four anna coins and more false oaths followed. False oaths should definitely be taken. They have the pleasure of writing. Or writing has the pleasure of false oaths.

In such surroundings, can I try to remember how poetry came and transformed the morbid atmosphere into duende? When despair became joyful and as if a kernel inside was prised open with bleak and violent events lined up in day-to-day life without any let or respite. I’m not surprised that my mother tongue revolted me, in which all domestic battles were fought and shameless bargaining took place with people who seemed even poorer than we were. And the choice of language? I remember with bitter joy the big fire I made out of my diaries filled with verses written in English! The point was to get as far as possible from the stifling world created by the mother tongue, but English wasn’t the way out for me. It had to be a sibling language, which could breathe itself on the surface of the linguistic world into which I was born. Later I was to go and plant myself in the so called Hindi-speaking areas, in small towns and villages, and discover time and again that ‘Hindi’ was a myth I had barely understood. It had far too many fantastic mother languages that had fed into ‘khari boli’, the dialect with which modern Hindi is equated. And so I allowed Bundeli in particular, and Malwi to a little extent, to intertwine their distinct world-views into the voice I was constantly weaving for myself.

What I remember is that thoughts about language kept rising and fading in my mind. Urdu was a language of the oral tradition for me, a tongue made of voices very near and interesting to me. I never thought of writing or reading it. I could only hear it. The magic of my father’s voice filled it and the hypnotic voices of his poet friends. English had no cultural warmth in the context of my writing. I have felt strongly drawn to an Indian poet writing in English, an anonymous contemporary poet who chooses to remain in hiding. His assumed name is Miranhshah and he is distinctly in the tradition of Paul Eluard or Mallarmé, if you could imagine such a thing. English has always been for me the language of my very dear poets – Keats, Eliot, Yeats, and later Ted Hughes. Punjabi had no stupor to stupefy me, no word of it had range, no call of the unknown. Belongingness, yes, a lot of warmth, no dearth of meanness either, but altogether lacking in enigma. In that language I could be face-to-face with neither death nor lover. And nor could I kill myself for the love of a word, a single word. Just as even a thousand miracles by your mother do not make you miracle-struck, and make you only a miracle habituate, something of the same relationship I had with my mother language. Of the languages I had learnt the only one left now was Hindi, with which my literary contacts were nil. The void one day was suddenly filled by Nirala’s poems which I read in school: then Mahadevi Verma’s story, Gheesa, and, as if descended from the sky, my first Hindi novel Ve Din, by Nirmal Verma. The very fact of an initial strangeness with Hindi filled me with longing for it. For me, poetry meant running madly behind words. In a Nirala poem words like ‘pulin, trin, nirjhar’ haunted me incessantly, but I was not the least bit interested in knowing their meaning. For me the delirium of sound was meaning enough. In this delirium I began to write. I wrote in English too, but in my last days of college I burnt all my diaries written in that language.

The fascination with Hindi writers often drove me to making pilgrimages to Delhi, often without my mother’s permission, after my father had died an untimely tragic death. Perhaps I began looking for him in novel ways by pursuing writers who were writing and getting published. Not like my father writing only for drawers filled with termites. The first such person I wanted to be able to just set my eyes on, just steal a glimpse of, was the man who had written the first real book I had read in Hindi. It was for me a deliriously dreamy narrative (Ve Din) based in Prague. The youth in the novel who scratched this existentially charged sentence in a public place: “Ruda Prague aaya tha” (Ruda came to Prague). When I grew up I no longer had to sneak a look at Nirmal Verma. Earlier it was only a glimpse from behind the latticework of a book-café, or an entry made to the fancy tea-shop in Daryaganj where he used to sit with his beloved. No question of introducing oneself. Just being in the presence – this encounter with an alchemy that was going to work magic on a base metal gaping in wonder. At someone who had given the Hindi language the touch of the soul craving for the unknown. This had never been done before.

***

If Hindi was an intimate stranger, Urdu was a more melodious presence that sang its way into our ears when we had visitors who wrote in that language. But even without them we heard several poets recited, practically every day, by my father, who had made himself a home with the poets he loved. Mir and Ghalib too were presences like these other poets who visited my father. Sitting at the sessions, it used to seem that these two poets for some reason had not been able to come, but were present. The Urdu we heard as children bore some resemblance to Hindi, and would have been indistinguishable from it had it not been for my father’s love for Persian, my father who sometimes deliberately chose verses for my ears that were really hard to understand. Urdu poems with a lot of Persian words. At times even without explaining a word to me he made me memorise poetry written in Persian. When I look back on those days, it strikes me that Nirala’s Hindi poems (that had a lot of Sanskrit) made a similar impact on me. And the same goes for the Punjabi poetry of Bhai Vir Singh, the Sikh mystic, who graced our home in special ways. His poems and the lives of the Sikh gurus were read out to me by my grandmother who had a deep bonding with this saintly man before I was born. Yes, the same grandmother who would not let Grandfather give us a one anna coin. Of that period I remember very well the days when there was no food in the house, and my mother flitting around in the hope of money turning up somehow, any minute, for her to go and get the rations from the shop opposite. She had even begun to have recurrent dreams of coming upon a fiver or a tenner somehow. I remember it was on one of these days of starvation that my father (whose face now seems to me very similar to Nirala’s) read out Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. In the absence of water the travellers yearn for just the sound of water: “O for the sound of water . . . ” Or the lines: “Come under the shadow of this red rock . . .  / I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” The sounds of ‘The Waste Land’ created an  upheaval within me. Those tones tore me apart, entering me with turbulence, as they do even today.

Eliot became special to me because of this – his poetry was a miraculous sound-world, to describe the magnetic effect of which is as difficult for me today as it was then. I also realised that my childhood hunch – that “poetry can be communicated before it is understood” – was after all his.

***

What strengthened in me the belief that I should choose the life of a poet was more than anything else the circumstance of my father’s death which seemed to have transformed me from a wishy-washy rhyme lover into someone for whom nothing else mattered so much as the desire to write. When my father died I was seventeen. That he too wrote,  I came to know only after his death. Many of his manuscripts were discovered, ridden with termite and fungus. He never published anything he wrote. What fell into our hands was impossible to read and crumbled into dust beneath our grieving fingers. I could only make out that one of the destroyed manuscripts was a novel called Rusa. The same cluelessness there was in them, which began to haunt me in my later years . . .  There were no clues in love, in love that grows in the absence of parting, no clues to separation, and no clues to the love that arose from a heart that was dead. Who knows, the clues were there perhaps, the whole thing was sequenced in clues and signs perhaps, only I was not given to read them!

A journal from Lahore published some two hundred or so letters he wrote to his literary friends, published them after his death. My own writing might have something to do with the fact that I missed Abbu deeply, even more so on rediscovering that his letters were cherished by friends who never had the opportunity to read his work. And I kept feeling that I had to live his passions, live his life from his place in this world. I had no sphere of my own, I felt. There were two other members of the family, my mother and my brother. I never gave them an inkling of my inner world. My mother tells me that her anxiety was that I too would turnout self-destructing like Abbu. I began playing truant from the house soon after Abbu’s death, and till now my mother has seen me only as a runaway girl, not a daughter. It’s good for me. How fortunate that this runaway girl never uprooted any kinship or intimacy. In this running away there is no alienation – living in my numerous homes I’m forever in a state of finding connections between them, forever unearthing continuum.

***

However, the home most conducive to my poetry was the one I had perhaps imagined, or fashioned, from a live-wire chancing-upon my truest literary family since my father’s death. For the sake of brevity, I’ll call it the ‘Bhopal School’.

What Milan Kundera has said about the novel is relevant to poetry too: ‘If a novelist is more intelligent than his novel he’d better quit writing novels and take to something else.’ Within what you call camps and what are for me something other than camps, are many who are more intelligent than their poems. For this reason I would like to put myself in the camp of the less intelligent, or, if you like, I would gladly agree to be the representative of a camp of fools. It’s a different thing that I do not yet consider myself fit for this honour.

The subject drifts into an unpleasant corner now, talking of camps. In the Hindi literary scene, I wonder who it is who feels like an insider as missiles are always and forever ready for those who don’t mouth the cause of social reality, whatever that is supposed to mean. Is reality confined to what the humans have created? I remember how a critic rubbished a collection of my poems with a readymade litmus test. The collection (Ant ki Kucch aur Kavitayen) could be regarded as an elegy written for the various life-forms on earth, as they are at the mercy of us humans who make too much of our own grief even while we decimate the beauty of this fragile and magical planet. If it had been an ideological bunch of poems, I would still have been forgiven. The poems celebrate what could legitimately be called the “more than human” rather than the ‘non-human’, the latter still being an anthropocentric term.

Reality is, even otherwise, not a one-dimensional form that washes everybody indiscriminately in the light that falls on it. A gunny bag on the road always looks to me like a corpse from a distance. On coming nearer, it does change into a gunny bag, but not entirely. Everything fallen on the road is dredged, bled white, and it is always too late. Every block of ice for me is the same block on which Abbu was laid. Then what is reality? What is the reality of a snail or the sense of reality that peacock babies have? There is no cracking open a code, none at all in a lost love. For me, reality is only and always that which is always without clue, which remains enigmatic no matter how many times you batter your head against the wall. Enigmatic, even if it is only a pile of garbage. You will find almost a documentary realism about the lack of clues in Marguerite Duras’ writings. So transparent and so radiant is the syntax in them that you lose grip over yourself, and from the spaces within the composition rises a foaming lack of clues. The shoes that the fifteen-year-old girl had on while crossing the Mekong river have become something else in memory, and reality is just that: it is only the shoes in memory. Duras pushes into the light one detail, one paragraph, and entire books get lit around the paragraph. You just keep feeling you have her now in your ambit as a reader. But no, you stay fluttering like a butterfly in unattainable love.

Only this is realism for me. Those who think realism is only the depiction of poverty ought to have a look at the poverty which is unbelievably rich, depicted in a Marguerite Duras novel. Children are being served garbage on the dining table, but it is being served formally, in all style. To slap down the heap of garbage, scrap for scrap, on the pages of the book is not art. Nor is it being true to reality. It is a deception, a pathetic attempt to sell it, and believe me, there are no buyers for this deception . . .  Art lies in serving with taste, with style, even garbage, as Duras has served it in her novel The Lover. She has served it in a way that illumines all the violence and compassion of the family. The dirt that is hidden in the garbage is not shown.

Reality, thus, is only those ‘mountains of thirst’ on which we have laid our Shamsher, on which he longs to be laid in one of his poems. Hindi poet Shamsher Bahadur Singh, for whom the ideals of Marxism were irresistibly alluring, wrote the most ambiguous poetry, impeccably crafted and effortlessly experimental. Setting ideals for oneself is not problematic in poetry, especially if your imagination is constantly going to undermine them. Incidentally, Shamsher also happens to be the most erotic of modern Hindi poets, though the Hindi scene is ridden with taboos and unwritten injunctions, all set to nip such evil in the bud. Shamsher, however, for reasons hard to explain, has survived the attacks and is held in high esteem across the camps.

The gift for the erotic is also a matter of having passion for poetry per se. I can’t really judge the Hindi scene in this respect. But if your love does not transform into love of the poem coursing through your fingers, you can’t write an erotic poem. I quote a little critical exchange between two Hindi critics over the erotic element in Ashok Vajpeyi’s poetry. Sudhish Pachauri, who defends the taboos, writes in the context of Vajpeyi’s poetry: “The Hindi reader does not see the body with full open eyes – he has taboos.” Madan Soni gives the sentence a twist by interpreting the word ‘body’ as the body of poetry, and this gives the most amazing dimensions to the word ‘taboos’. So, the readers and the poets who have taboos about the ‘body’ of a poem mercilessly censor the eros. Among those who don’t, the two poets who have made a deep impression on me are Shamsher and Kamlesh. Kamlesh, in particular, with his two poems ‘Devapriya’ and ‘Vishnupriya’ takes the erotic out of the realm of merely human, and locates the human longing in a pagan world of compelling and breathless beauty.

Translating his poems into English I feel the same sense of enigma, the same lack of clues. Kamlesh’s personality is also the same, has the same lack of reference or context. I have read his poems times without number, and each reading locates me in a different geoscape. All the readings seem intertwined and from their coiled mass a hum rises and stays, which makes the readings toss about within you. To read Kamlesh is to begin to live in those readings. If you lose your breath in the rhythms of it, you have to find another way of breathing. A new way of staying alive has to be discovered . . .  To read Kamlesh is harmful to the health, to the degree it ought to be for a poet.

From the point of view of tradition (if you don’t consider it presumptuous) I would like my poetry to be placed in the creative landscape of Shamsher and Trilochan. I set the sounds of my sentences from the sound of many of Trilochan’s poems. Trilochan, who managed to teach Allen Ginsberg a couple of very unconventional things about psychedelics, and who mastered many languages and wove them into his sonnets written in Hindi, began as a child with Bhojpuri and Avadhi as his mother and father tongues. And the fact that his playmates made fun of him for not speaking one of them with the right prosody might have turned him early in life into a language vagabond. Trilochan and Shamsher, both of whom were born in the second decade of the last century, have inspired two generations of aspiring poets. To accommodate prose in poetry, in fact to discover the beauty of prose in poetry, and “completing a sentence”, to resist the temptation of inverting the syntax, and not to get nervous at the incursion of indigenous tones, syntaxes and words, but to make room for them – all this I try to learn from Trilochan. From Shamsher the pure eros of poetry itself, the rasas,* so to speak.

And along with all this is the study of Shamsher’s impeccably good taste. Your stitches fall apart from his weaves so intricate. Whenever he walks into my poems as they set out calling to him, I can see my sentences sway. If someone asks me to choose a poem of mine it would be the one in which Shamsher makes an appearance – the context is of course the sorrow of separation. But the poem is supremely happy. It is his presence there that is happiness.

***

The bunch of poets who, like me, owe a lot to Shamsher, are the poets of the Bhopal School of which I consider myself a part, though with great humility.

I heard the term ‘Bhopal School’ only here (in Bhopal), when someone reported that certain writers had been pejoratively bunched together on grounds of being ‘socially irresponsible’ and subscribing to an ‘elitist aesthetic’. I soon discovered that I had come to the right place, where the thought of being outside the mainstream was no longer going to hurt. Like the term ‘Impressionist painters’, ‘Bhopal’ was going to stay, though with a clandestinity to which each person brought different thumbprints. Now you could never pronounce ‘Bhopal’ in a socially irresponsible way, as the societal impulse itself redefined itself in this school of compelling affinities. It’s only in times of extreme stress that it’s pronounced by name, never just for the sake of saying it, not by just anyone. Yet, the loudest sound emerging from this school is that of laughter. Schools ought to be like this, don’t you think?

Then there are some words, ‘love’, ‘separation’, ‘death’ . . .  Believe me, there are some among us, or perhaps it’s all (for nobody can say precisely who are the writers of the Bhopal School), whose calling it is to try and live out death in a way, to keep refining and sculpting it, and that’s what informs the writing too. I don’t know exactly what the meaning of death here is, because it’s related to a way of writing and also to the lightness of touch, or what Maurice Blanchot would call ‘lack’. Bhopal was the house of death, which, in December 1984, positioned my heart fully in Bhopal. (The tragedy of the gas-leak in the city made me quit northern India, and I came in contact with a large number of young activists who rallied to Bhopal from all over the world. Since 1984, I have been more at home in this troubled state [Madhya Pradesh] than anywhere else, and now more and more at home close to the river Narmada in Hoshangabad.) Without our knowledge, the passing away of our dear ones is being written out all on its own in our poems. The passing away of whole species on account of human folly. In Bhopal, death is no romantic fancy. The dead are touching us continually. However much written about, our dead have not really died. Quite possibly, these books we are writing are being written only for their reading. One thing more: our dear ones, who have left – some had very young deaths – have created a family of their own. In it are many unborn babies too. In a school whose dead are living with the living, and also with one another, there is no room for alienation.

And then the question of this way of writing. They are not the way they were, our dear ones are not with us in the form they were. They are a picture on our table. Or they are elsewhere, on a mountain, and have raised another family (which is ours too), or somebody has stopped us from meeting them, but we meet them by reading them. Or they’ve gone to an unlovely city to earn a living. Or have been shot dead by someone and brought close to us. So close that it becomes unbearable. They are always changing into unattainable love. The people of this school must have come closer to each other through such means.

The sentences are not concrete because they are not present to us in the form our dear ones were. This is the craft of the absent in literature. It’s a breeze-like attempt at touch. Possibly we are not yet, or I am not yet, fit for this writing. As yet I am not fit to read the thinker Wagish Shukla, but he does not intimidate me. I keep trying, will keep trying. Madan Soni’s writing also demands a similar poetic alertness, and one’s ways of reading so far will not help in reading Madan’s brilliant essays on various writers, and his theoretical essays. I cannot recall Shirish Dhoble’s face. His poems are prescribed every year in this school, since despite being so prolific he is indifferent to getting published. He is one of the leading heart surgeons in the country, and his poetry has all the blood and gore that he must wade through every day, except that when you read the poems, somehow the source of it seems utterly Pauranic*. He is by and large indifferent to the contemporary Hindi literary scene and his own reading is mostly confined to ancient Indian texts.

Rustam, Miranhshah, and now the prolific genius of the entirely unpublished Shailendra Dubey. They are also here. Among them are three shades of silence. And they too are in no hurry, no anxiety on their part to get published, to gain currency. They are true poets and utterly untinged by the scene. Rustam writes philosophical essays, too, only to illumine very dark things, a bit for his own self and for a few close friends. Shailendra is prone to serious inner turbulence and turns his hallucinatory mode of looking at things into poetry that could well remind you of Rimbaud’s engagement with literature. These three are among the hidden unambitious writers of the modern day whose art is refined by the shyness and silence that sets them apart from many other poets. The beauty of the Bhopal School is that all are free to decide for themselves who are part of this school. I have added several unpublished poets to the school even without their knowledge. The contemporary Hindi poetry that gets under my skin as a poet comprises unpublished volumes of at least six or seven major anonymous poets, poets so awesomely gifted that it’s a bit of an embarrassment to introduce them. Miranhshah writes in English but is known only to a few Hindi poets who have read him in my translation. He has been an aspiring natural farmer inspired by the Japanese farmer Masanbou Fukuoka. Hardly anyone is aware that this great teacher of the French language, writing under an assumed name, jealously guards his solitary calling as poet from the world that bypasses poetry anyway. I’m deeply aware of the responsibility placed on me as the sole possessor of his unpublished manuscripts along with several precious handwritten notebooks of other reticent poets.

***

The Bhopal School is, however, not a school of names anyway, even if some of its poets are translated into many languages. Udayan Vajpeyi, I don’t know why, reminds me of Andre Breton (Udayan says Breton was an ideologue) of whom even Luis Buñuel was afraid. Buñuel was afraid that Breton might not consider a particular film of his in the surrealist tradition at all. The intensity of it all arises primarily from what one poet or artist expects from the other.

In Stefan Zweig’s Vienna the artists excelled for this reason too, that they were expected to excel. This expectation was so much part of the artistic scene that it was impossible for anyone not to feel its pull, its magnetic force. The essence of Bhopal lies in the fact that it has expected things from me higher than myself, and has acquainted me with my writer. I have just learned to respect this writer. She is not one bit like me. She is deeply disciplined, which I’m not at all. But it is as if we’ll hit it off somehow, and I’ll die only after learning something from her.

As a pupil of this school, I also learnt to tell two kinds of labours apart, the ones involved in the writing of fiction and the writing of poetry. Poetry means dance. The poet is free of the writer’s constraints. She is celebrative, bacchanalian. Tinkers around a bit and breaks out dancing. In her dancing is the fear that the next time there will be no magic. She forever considers herself a fluke. She is a dancing labourer, so is not burdened by work. Her burden is only that of fearing that it won’t happen again. This is an unbearable burden, of course. She cannot say with a straight face that she is a poet.

I don’t mean that a novelist can say with a straight face that he is a novelist. But he is less of a dancer and more of a worker. He cannot turn off the switch within the novel. He craves for a couple of minutes’ respite from the world of his words even if it is by doing something worthless. He may be the writer of a mere summer toy, but for the past five years he has been tied to his table. The poet is free of tables. (When I beat about to come out of the novel for a little rest, I see that the world too is just what I’ve written, from which I want to get away for a while. Death wish, would you say?) One day when poetry seemed too fragile to bear the sight of the gulmohar tree, the novel came. It got going with a sentence, the sentence spoken by someone standing at the window facing the gulmohar.

But writing the novel I was scared that poetry would not happen now. I have never heard it being said by anyone, while writing poetry, that the novel would not happen now.

Still, there have been writers, I know them, who have transfigured into the vapour of magic the difference between a novel and a poem, and liberated the novel from the table. If you stay tied, you should know that you are not, then, the writer of Blue Eyes Black Hair but of Parnam Nar (Leaf Man), even if the pain and joy of your novel is just this, that you are not able to be the writer of Blue Eyes . . . but could turn into her any moment now. If you have deserved this gift, she will soon leave you to your own devices. Through her own writing she will let you pass into your own, if you know how to walk on the edge. Marguerite Duras will dance through your first novel even if you have decided not to publish it, and she will leave without leaving a trace behind.

You go in for only those writers who keep you longing for the edge. This love, this two-way pull, grows beyond your powers of endurance hour by hour. (For love and death shouldn’t there be only one word . . . must be in some language!) And talking of solitude, one has to admit that Marguerite Duras wrote the novel The Malady of Death while her young gay lover, Yann Andrea Steiner, hurled china everywhere around her, reducing the house to rubble, and ended up unwittingly turning her table into a poem. That’s what I wish upon Hindi! To produce novels that could kick away the table and chair. That’s the desire that drove me to write my second novel Neela, a montage through which Bhopal and Kovalam and many beautiful lakes and trees of Sweden weave the story of an impossible love.

The Bhopal School, the way I see it, has a few poets, painters and film makers whose work sometimes happens to reveal unmistakable intertextuality. And the one writer who somehow seems to have brought this about with his ability to ‘only connect’ is Udayan Vajpeyi. I remember with gratitude the angry outbursts of the Hindi novelist Krishna Baldev Vaid when he tried to coax me in my younger days into writing instead of just fooling around with the idea of it. “Just imagine that you could die any minute,” he used to say. With Udayan I learnt that it’s possible to write as if you’re already dead, though it’s too tall a claim to make for my own writing. My writers are those for whom I can’t use the words ‘influence’ or ‘inspiration’. They happen to be the ones who continually educate you about things that you are not educated in, are practically illiterate. But they read within you, beating you to it. The slow change of temperature made possible by Udayan’s presence, the different fall of the spotlight!

Off and on my friend Udayan would peel away the insubstantial dross and abstract a true sentence. He has been doing this for years, now this sentence now that. Sometimes his silence plays this role. Reading his work is to discover a seismic instability. Between this instability and the almost comforting intimacy, there is no difference. You are restless, but the sky’s blue rains over you, and you can set out on transparent voyages, weaving in and out of the text before you.

***

On the banks of the river Narmada, where I now live, I’m back again to the Bundeli-speaking region I had chosen for myself in the eighties. The river beckoned and I just gave in. It’s an incredibly meagre body of water now, if the sluice gates of the big dams upstream don’t play havoc with it. People who have given their lives to the cause of the river say that the river is already dead, and they feel the same for themselves, at least some of them. As for me, I’m no longer clever enough to tell the difference between the life and death of this great river. I had a feeling I need to be there, where despite the tragedy looming over its flow, the meandering image of the river is still touchingly beautiful. I’ve witnessed some of the most moving rituals on the southern bank of the river where I live. Vegetation and fertility rituals: of the immersion of clay pots with growing wheat that colourfully dressed women carry on their heads. As they walk slowly with all this greenery to the riverbank you can hear them chanting Shiva hymns with such somnolent voices that they transport you into a world that has come to no harm at all.

The children who visit my household to write and paint river stories chase coconuts in the river after a festival, and fish out coins with a string of magnets. All the same, most things that go into the river are such that they shouldn’t even be written about in a text like this. I also wanted to say that I stopped making my paintings with colours bought in the market, because everything I do is in full view of the river from my window. I’m beginning to cook colours from hibiscus flowers, neem leaves, turmeric powder, pomegranate shells, barks of trees, and all kinds of berries, so that when I wash my brushes, the river won’t come to any serious harm.

In return she allows my eyes to be dazzled by her presence.

Glossary

barsati: small rooftop room or small apartment on the top floor of a house
tamasha:
in this context, the word denotes entertainment or spectacle
anna:
an anna was a currency unit formerly used in India, equal to 1/16 rupee
Pauranic:
of the Puranas, ancient Sanskrit texts containing stories of cosmogony and legends of gods and heroes
rasa:
literally, 'juice' or 'essence', denotes an essential mental state and is the dominant emotional theme of a work of art or the primary feeling evoked in the recipient of such a work

© Teji Grover. This essay has been reworked from an interview with the author by Gyanesh, in Hindi. (Translated by Raji Narasimhan.)

Source: This essay has been reworked from an interview with the author by Gyanesh.

 
 
 
• Links (India)
• Organisations (India)



facebook (nl)
twitter (nl)
newsletter (nl)

facebook (int)
twitter (int)
newsletter (int)