Monthly Archives: September 2012

Book Review: Selected Poems by Subramania Bharati (trans. Usha Rajagopalan)


There must be poets all over the world whose work thrives only in their native tongues, the quality of whose writing we must take on the word of those who are proficient in those languages. The politics and reasons as to why some make it into the English language, arguably the one with the most far-reaching sphere of influence in the modern world, while other don’t are worth lengthy discussion. But the truly exasperating travesty is when a poet whose work has undeniable eminence is insulted not by being ignored, but worse, through poor translations.

Subramania Bharati, the 20th century’s preeminent Tamil writer, is one such poet. Born in 1882 and living only till the age of 38, he pioneered a renaissance in Tamil poetry and fought through his life against colonialism, caste and the oppression of women. To date, no significant English translation of his poetry has done justice to either his persona – romantic, radical, a genius who in the manner of the true artist engaged completely in his own context while being far ahead of it – or the writing itself. Usha Rajagopalan’s new collection of translations makes only slight inroads of improvement: while the book fortunately lacks the cringe-worthiness of prior efforts, Selected Poems, right from its very titling lacks inspiration and imagination – keywords that the very mention of Bharati ordinarily summons among those familiar with the poet.

These translations suffer most of all from a sense of restraint. Bharati was the quintessential fiery artist, prone to being overcome by fits of grandeur, tormented by personal demons, and always redeemed by a profound oneness with the world as a theatre of triumph. This is not mythologizing: all of these attributes are evident in his original writings. Line by line conversion, without fluidity, cannot achieve this effect. Selected Poems, while rarely clumsy, often lacks inventiveness. Words like “Alas!” are used; there is no attempt to contemporarise the sentiment. But the worst offense would be the reduction in “A Baby Fire” of the culminating line, “thath tharikitta thath tharikitta thith thom” – a stunning onomatopoeic flourish that captures both a spitting fire and a visceral rhythm also found in classical dance and music – to “Whoosh, crackle, snap, sizzle.” Elsewhere, these flourishes are retained in translation – an inconsistence that isn’t justified.

This happens not infrequently. In “Aspirations” (which also takes Bharati’s “Om Om Om Om!” and turns it into a decidedly meeker “Om… Om… Om… Om…”), the word “viduthalai”, which can be interpreted straightforwardly as “liberation”, is instead rendered as “unfettered” – imagery that sabotages the original’s spirit. In “In Search of Answers”, a modernist hymn in which he addresses the deity Sivashakti, he uses the demand “solladi”. The nuanced Tamil conversational suffix “di” indicates an entitlement complicit in the relationship with the female other being spoken to. It is an entitlement that is by turns intimate and insolent; Rajagopalan’s explanation of “solladi” as “pray tell me” is stripped entirely of these subtleties.

A handsome bilingual edition, this book would serve beginner and comparative purposes well, but for any reader seeking sheer beauty, it falls short. For the next translator, who picks up the torch from Rajagopalan, one suggests greater license with syntax, less liberal usage of exclamation points (which have fallen out of favour in the language of translation), an academically sound set of footnotes and a more variegated vocabulary.

A volume of selected writings cannot possibly include everything unless the writer in question is one of limited prolificacy. Still, that Bharati’s most iconic poem, “Suttum Vizhichudadar”, is not represented in this collection is baffling. Once again, the idea of a translator as an executor comes into play: to what extent are they obligated to the author’s estate, which includes facets of character and legacy, at large? Absences, sometimes more than inclusions, raise questions.

In this regard, the introductory note is expected to shed light. Rajagopalan’s is mild, almost taking for granted that the reader is familiar with the poet, and taking no pains to introduce him and the ethos of his work to a new audience. The poet who comes through in this introduction as well as in these poems is anachronistic rather than maverick, religious rather than spiritual, perhaps even over-rated – the antithesis of the reasons for which he is beloved to this day. Rajagopalan’s translations are cleaner, less bombastic, and generally better than what has been available in English of Subramania Bharati so far. But, unlike the poet, they are deeply inhibited. An inhibited Bharati, as anyone who has ever been moved by his originals on the page or in song knows, is no Bharati at all.

An edited version appeared in DNA.




Review: The Akram Khan Company’s Gnosis


In Gnosis, the first production by The Akram Khan Company to be performed in India in eleven years, the eponymous principal dancer appears in two distinct incarnations: Akram Khan as purveyor of beauty, and Akram Khan as perpetrator of violence. In each mode, he exudes power in completely different, but equally riveting, ways.

We are introduced to the former incarnation during the first half of the show, consisting of three pieces: Polaroid Feet, Tarana and Unplugged. Here, the choreography doesn’t stray far from Khan’s kathak roots; it is the music that modernizes. His movements are informed and counterparted by cello and western percussion in addition to tabla and classical vocals. The result is extraordinary, so stunning a sonic and visual experience that dichotomized ideas of tradition versus experimentation lose their relevance. The synthesis is so perfect as to allow their being forgotten.

In Unplugged, an improvisational section, Khan has a certain ease in the shoulders and a wordless amity with his musicians that give one the impression that above all, he is having fun – like someone in a club, who can’t help but groove. His feet, meanwhile, could be instruments of evisceration in their precision.

In the show’s latter segment, consisting only of the titular Gnosis, he takes off his ghugroos and joins Fang-Yi Sheu in a piece that takes its ethos from the contemporary and its sense of drama from the classical. Here, Gandhari and Duryodhana – who in literal or figurative ways chose darkness – are the crux of this exploration of greed, violence and transformation. A powerful dancer, Sheu has a deadly, almost martial, presence juxtaposed with the vulnerability of blindness. Together, the duo evinces a chilling performance.

Pure evil emerges in one surprising moment. Sheu is at centrestage. A pinpoint of white emerges in the darkness behind her, grows larger and larger, until Khan himself steps forward – that eerie looming light was the one reflected off his bald head. If the body in dance is inseparable from narrative, this innovative detail – the use of even the top of the dancer’s head to create mood – strikes an extraordinary note.

In the final minutes, Sheu’s mastery of technique is evidenced in a sequence in which she appears to lose control. Here there are no cheap ruses emulating chaos. Her body behaves as though it has been possessed, as though she is a doll being manipulated. The effect is astounding.

Something inexplicably seamless exists between the kathak-based and contemporary segments of this show, and it’s difficult to place one’s finger on what that is. Perhaps it is a lack of pretension. The emphasis is not on philosophy but on sheer performance. Gnosis is spellbinding: a feast that stirs. Don’t think. Just watch.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.




Breaking The Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired By The Ramayana


Breaking The Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired By The Ramayana, edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, is out now from Zubaan Books. It contains 24 stories, from authors including Kuzhali Manickavel, Tabish Khair and Manjula Padmanabhan. I have a short story in it called “Petrichor” (not to be confused with my poem of the same name).

In India, you can purchase it from the Zubaan Books website, as well as retailers including Homeshop18 and Flipkart.

Book Review: The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy


Rare is the book that can make an adult feel – in the most delightful, magical way possible – like a child. Rarer still is the book that can pull this off without the slightest condescension – incidentally, the same trait that is often, quite wrongly, ascribed to the feline species. Felines, as anyone ought to know, are regal. The felines who populate the pages of Nilanjana Roy’s debut novel, The Wildings, are certainly regal – bravely, protectively, powerfully so, with just a splash of the imperiousness that any creature (human or otherwise) who is all those things is due.

The wildings are a clan of “outside cats” – what the less-enlightened might call “strays” – in Delhi’s Nizamuddin. They prowl, play and hunt prey by the rules: adhering by a strict ethical code that allows them to co-exist with other clans and creatures. Amongst themselves, they communicate through their whiskers in a psychic process known as “linking”. With non-cats, they speak Junglee. And to Bigfeet, or humans if you prefer, if they interact with them at all, they miaow.

Very early one morning, at an hour when only ferals or the weak wander or hunt, a new voice interrupts the link – tiny yet authoritative, petulant, and in deep distress. The wildings gather in alarm and their leaders – Miao, the grave Siamese with the intense eyes, the fierce toms Hulo and Katar and the beautiful and lethal Beraal – agree that a powerful foreign element must surely be dangerous. But when Beraal, dispatched to kill, discovers that the voice belongs to an ingenuous newborn who isn’t even aware that she is linking, she convinces the clan to accept the kitten into their fold. Although Mara of the orange fur and monsoon-green eyes is too frightened to leave the Bigfeet house where she lives, she is capable of tremendous astral projection, going as far as befriending a family of tigers at the zoo during her “walks”. Knowing that a Sender – a cat of preternatural telepathic intensity – is born only in times of great need, Beraal begins to train the kitten for something that none of them can name yet but all their whiskers can sense.

Roy’s cats are not anthropomorphized humans; but if this novel does take after preceding literature with animal casts, it is only in its directions on how to live better.  The Wildings, like only the best morality tales do, dispenses of its wisdom with an elegant sense of discretion. Its lessons in harmonious co-existence, duty to self and to others, responsibility, trusting one’s intuition, compassion and the dangers of a closed existence are never forceful. Most importantly, these lessons do not take away from the core of the action: like all epic narratives, it is taut with suspense and culminates in a climactic, vividly-described battle. The wildings must fight the ferals of the Shuttered House, who never having seen the sky do not know how much they fear it. The ferals’ only pleasures are derived from senseless killings, and their release could spell doom for the Nizamuddin ecosystem.

Punctuated often with beautiful, but never overwhelming, illustrations by Prabha Mallya, The Wildings is a superlative achievement that cuts across genres and far exceeds its own hype. The author is the country’s foremost book critic; this book cements her position as one of its foremost storytellers. Roy’s style has the even, unfaltering omniscience of a master narrator with a deliberately underscored presence, and the book should appeal equally to adults, older children, and readers of fantasy and adventure and well as the category known as literary fiction.

Shining through, however, is her wonderment at her subjects, a wonderment lovingly conveyed in the way they are etched. The Wildings is above all a love paean to cats; that it also happens to be a marvelously-spun  novel that could well become a classic in its own time is almost secondary. One cannot read, let alone leave, this book without a childlike wish for a furry orange apparition to stroll across one’s line of vision and demand to be cuddled. Mara captures the heart; the other wildings seize the imagination. A sequel has been promised, and it cannot come soon enough.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.