Category Archives: Indian Poetry

The Reverse Tree

3 Stars

The-Reverse-TreeThe Reverse Tree is a thin volume of six personal essays by Bengali poet and translator Kiriti Sengupta.  There are poems scattered throughout the book, maybe ten or fifteen of them, which serve to enhance the commentary, but to say this is a book of poetry is erroneous. Sengupta tackles simple everyday topics such as Internet use as well heavier ones such as transgender issues and today’s relevance of the Bhagavad Gita, The essays do not connect, nor are they supposed to.  The book’s title comes from the idea that a human being is a reverse tree — the roots (brain) is at the top and the branches (limbs) are below. The image is very similar to that of the banyan tree, a very important tree in Hindu scripture.

The poems are fun reads, but not necessarily something that stays with you. This may be fine, because they play a supporting role in the collection, and take up very little real estate in the book overall.

Sengupta’s style is very informal. He addresses his readers directly, and does not end his essays with any conclusion — the readers are left to take from the essay what they will. It creates almost a dialogue between author and reader, and I get the feeling Sengupta wouldn’t want it any other way.

Three out of five stars.

The Reverse Tree is published by Moments Publication, is 48pp, and can be ordered from Amazon.


Indo-Anglican Lamentation

W.B. Yeats once wrote in an introduction to a Rabindranath Tagore book written in English, “These prose translations from Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has for years.” Tagore is Bengali, one of India’s most famous poet, if not the most famous poet; he wrote the Indian National Anthem. He wrote mostly in Bengali, but not always.

However, Yeats comment was mere public relations; he would admit later in a letter, “Damn Tagore…because he thought it was more important to see and know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation.” His attack was not personal, however. It was prejudice, as he continued, “Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English. Nobody can write music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought.”

Yeats wrote in English, but his childhood language was Gaelic.

In The Concise Encyclopaedia of English and American Poets, edited by Donald Hall and Stephen Spender, there is an entry for Indian poet Buddhadeva Bose, who once wrote, “As for present-day Indo-Anglicans…it is difficult to see how they can develop as poets in a language which they have learnt from books  and seldom heard spoken in the streets or even in their own homes.”

And so the stage is set for Jeet Thayil, editor of 60 Indian Poets. This book, sold only in the Indian subcontinent, is a nice collection of sixty Indian poets writing exclusively in English. I am only a third of the way through the book, each poet three to ten pages each; as with all anthologies, I have found poets whose style suit my tastes and others I don’t care for.

Vijay Nambisan’s “Dirge” is one nice poem. I read a lot at night before the lights go out; I was too tired to understand the subject matter behind the poem, but when I am that tired, I know a good poem when I read one because it is the music that speaks to me when the brain can’t focus on topic and theme. I turned the lights out after reading it, and when I was alert and awake, read it again.

Nambisan writes about the struggles, if you will, of his own profession, and where he stands in it. He uses a beautiful combination of end and internal rhymes, and the long lines mirror the emotion felt. He ends the first stanza, which reads like a symbol for the entire book, by saying there’s more to life than fame.

The poets die like flies but I am lying slightly to one side,
Contented in my Spain or Siam, content too to keep my hide.
How well they wrote, those friends now fettered, how the Indo-Anglican tongue
Allowed them to be lovely-lettered, their lives lived when the world was young.
I’ll live and hold my word in, for I am wearied of hypothesis;
And, in place of getting glory, kisses take from my missis.

The first line is chock full of I’s: die, flies, I, lying, slightly, side. In line two, we have Siam rhyming with any one of those words, but the true rhyme of I am/Siam can’t escape the ear. We also have the internal rhyme of  fettered/lettered as well as the internal/end rhyme in the final line of kisses/missis. And don’t forget all the L’s in the entire stanza: like, flies, lying, slightly,well, (Anglican), allowed, lovely-lettered, lives lived, world, I’ll, hold, glory. I think I got them all.

At first I thought the poem was written with iambic feet: the POets DIE like FLIES but I am LYing SLIGHTly to one SIDE, but when I scanned it I decided the poet merely seems to put seven accents on each line: alLOWED them to be LOVEly-LETTered, their LIVES LIVED when the WORLD was YOUNG.

My own Indo-Anglican offspring

And yet, fame can come, as seen in stanza two:

Then the world shone, by their showing; then publishers seem to care;
Then calls for cheques of last year’s owing did not fall on empty air.
Then newspapers asked them for pieces; and printed them unchanged; and paid;
But now there are so many wheezes which make the craft a thrifty trade.
In a wilder whirl of weeklies, tabloids titting on page threes,
I will shirk my duty meekly and kisses take from my missis.

Here again are the internal rhymes of showing/owing, pieces/wheezes, weeklies/meekly; and also the end rhymes, including the near rhyme threes/missis. Of course, now we also see a pattern forming in the last line of each stanza: “kisses take from my missis,” and in both stanzas “missis” is only a near-rhyme. There is also the alliteration, such as: “pieces/printed/paid” and the more obvious “wilder/whirl/weeklies.” Using punctuation instead of enjambment at the end of a line is a technique for slowing down a poem, add to that long lines and lots punctuation marks within the line, where all those cadences are, really provide a nice slow read. Sure, you could speed it up anyway, but it doesn’t sound right.

They did not care much what the world said: they taught it instead how to speak.
They did not, when a poem pleaded, to meetings go in Mozambique.
But I will stay my poems, spending strength now with a shriller pen.
My theme and language both defending, to live fourscore years and ten.
And if it prove my time is over, if I’ve no chance at worldly bliss,
Why I will spurn so false a lover and kisses take from my missis.

Quite the odd stanza in some ways. Of course, we have the internal rhyming, the cadence, the last phrase and near rhyme “kisses take from my missis,” etc. However, there are also things like the not-very-often-used time measurement “fourscore years and ten”, and the inverted “to meetings go in Mozambique” — why not say “go to meetings in Mozambique?” A signifier of bad poetry is inverted lines to capture the rhyme, but this inverted line makes no difference to the rhyme. A signifier of good poetry is inverted lines to mirror the theme or topic of a poem, such as warped time or something. But then it comes as a poem’s constant, not a one-time deal.

The poem ends:

This hand once penned those poems; never shall I find so true a friend.
I’ve a thirst for all forever, but the lines come to an end.
So Arun and Dom and Nissim — I will shun their hard-earned grief
And much though I will always miss ’em, in softer shadows find relief.
And when I’m ninety and young writers ask why I wrote no more than this
I will answer, ‘But you blighters! I kisses took from my missis.’

I do not know who Arun and Dom and Nissim are, but I am guessing Arun Kolatkar, Dom Moraes and Nissim Ezekiel, elder popular Indo-Anglican poets, also featured in this anthology. I find the lines are not the only thing that comes to an end; he speaks of something higher, something more than that. As much as he loves to write, he is throwing in the towel.

Throughout the poem I would have made different choices had I written it — I would have said “miss them” instead of “miss ’em,” for example, and spared the forced true rhyme; however, all in all this poem speaks to me in many different ways, and truthfully, if I were the author I would not have written it to begin with.

I find it interesting that the title is “Dirge,” because a dirge is traditionally a mournful song; this is not mournful, though it starts out that way, and sort of finishes that way too, I personally would say mournful is too strong of a word. However, the fact that a dirge is a song, or a poetic lament, speaks to the poem: there is music in it everywhere, and why I read it a second time to begin with.

Revolution’s Habit

I was in one of those small intellectual bookstores about two months ago — you know, those small business ones where they shelve their books with natural history and economic reform and a customer can’t find a romance novel anywhere — when lo and behold I found a book of poetry in with other titles about regional affairs. (As an aside, I was in Nepal, and due to language barriers, when I asked for books on poetry, the clerk took me to the section on poverty. It wasn’t until I said “poems” instead of “poetry” that she understood my intentions.)

Kaifi Azmi was an Urdu poet who became so popular he wrote songs for Indian films as well. He was both a poet of love and a poet of revolution. He was a spokesman, and a member of the Communist party. He was all these things, but he was not an ideologue. His beliefs were fluid and he refused to be pigeonholed. Later on he left the Communist Party in part because of this.

His poems are all passionate. It was easy for Pavan K. Varma, who translated his poems in Penguin Poetry’s Selected Poems, to combine his love poems with his revolutionary ones because they all work; one subject is not better than the other. They are driven by passion, and so his political poems are never didactic. You can see love in his politics and politics in his love.

“Habit” is such a poem. It reads like it was a based on a dream; it is a metaphor of people’s rights and inequality, and one person’s own personal experience thereof. My father-in-law read this poem aloud in its Urdu form after I had remarked on its imagery. In its original composition, it’s a very haunting poem indeed.

The poem begins with an introductory quatrain of medium to long lines:

For aeons, I was imprisoned in a blind well
I kept beating my head, kept muttering to myself:
I want sunlight, I want moonlight, I want life itself
The sunlight of love, the moonlight of friends, the freedom of death.

Notice he wasn’t blindly imprisoned in a well, or blind and imprisoned in one, but imprisoned in a blind well. I’m not sure what that means. But in the fourth line, I find it interesting that it is the sunlight of love and the moonlight of friends, not the other way around. Moonlight of love is cliche, but cliche for a reason. So we have two images, one in the first line and one in the fourth, that seem to be opposite of what I’d expect.

“I want sunlight, I want moonlight, I want life itself”

He then goes on to expand on this in dramatic passion, leaving his emotions at bay for a bit. The entire middle of the poem is one long stanza.

Day and night I heard only my voice
And gradually I came to believe
In this lonesome world
In the disloyalty of friends
In the lap of the gallows
There is no sunlight
There is no moonlight
There is no life,
Life is one long night
The world an illusion
Man transient
People dwarfed
Towns, citadels of envy
Villages even worse.

These are not happy times. The narrator is sitting in a pool of bitterness; his world is depressing. Something has to change. Some force must catapult him into action. And something does — with it comes longer lines; emotion has returned, and drama remains.

When this darkness had completely crushed me
The well, suddenly, ejected me
From its depths it expelled me.
I saw before me a million Egyptians
There were a million bazaars
Not one aged Zulekha there was
God knows how many buyers there were
Yusuf’s price constantly rose
And people were willing to be sold.

Yusuf and Zulekha refers to an Islamic story I am not familiar with; however, its Biblical counterpart is that of Joseph (Yusuf) and his master’s wife (whose name is never mentioned). The master’s wife wants Joseph to lie with her, he refuses several times, and when he flees from the house, his garment drops into her hands. She claims foul play, and Joseph is imprisoned. The lines make reference to biblical slavery and injustice.

Suddenly, everyone’s luminous faces were unveiled
Their silken sheets were cast away
No eyes blinked, no glance was lowered
Fingers, marble-white, were cut aside
If a hand came close to a garment
The body was dismembered, scattered wide.

And then the stanza break, and the quatrain that finishes the poem. The narrator does not act, after all; the fight for justice does not happen, the revolution is silenced. Fear takes over.

Afraid, I jumped back into the well
Began to beat my head with the same agony
I began to grovel again with the same pleading:
I want the sunlight, I want the moonlight, I want life itself.

Varma in his translator’s note  believes the book would be a successful project if it inspired more readership of Azmi. Hopefully, this blog post will also help with that cause.

“Marvi well” photograph courtesy of Kash_if with some rights reserved.