Tag Archives: poets

The Venus Flytrap: Incarcerated Poets

Standard

Sometimes, copying American observances isn’t a bad thing (this is never going to be true for Thanksgiving, though). As National Poetry Month comes to a close in the USA – and everywhere online, especially thanks to the popular daily writing practice of NaPoWriMo – news of a young Somaliland poet who has been imprisoned is on my mind. Those defending Naima Abwaan Qorane, whose poetry is said to reference Somaliland’s former unity with Somalia, say that she has been suffering rape and murder threats in custody.

This isn’t the time to go reading Qorane’s poetry – frankly, it is the poet and not the poetry we should be concerned about. Hers is not a unique case. As PEN International, Amnesty International and other organisations track and try to make known to a wider audience, writers around the world have always been targeted by draconian measures when their work does not suit the agenda of those in power.

From a single PEN International press release alone, I know of Aron Atabek in Kazahstan, Amanuel Asrat in Eritrea (detained incommunicado for 16 years), Dareen Tatour in occupied Palestine and Liu Xia in China, whose Nobel prize-winner husband Liu Xiaobo died in police custody last year. Closer to home, Kovan finds himself arrested with alarming frequency for his protest songs. Does he get released? That’s not the point. The point is that we don’t even know the names of most languishing behind bars. Please note that I have only named poets here, and that too just a few. A comprehensive list of authors, journalists and other kinds of writers who are facing or have recently faced persecution for subversive or seditious work would be very long.

I remember someone naively, and with great entitlement, telling me not very long ago: “I totally love doing activism, but I just don’t think poetry should be political”. That person then went on to cite Subramania Bharati as a favourite (preceded by, “Oh cool, you have heard of him” – oh you young ‘uns, have a little grace!). The irony that Bharati had been a great dissident, also incarcerated, was perfectly lost on them.

There is nothing romantic about being a poet, or anyone, with radical ideas. There is nothing sexy about exile, arrest, imprisonment, ostracism, punishment, murder or any of the consequences that come with having radical ideas. But I see a false correlation between these things, and this is dangerous: it means we celebrate people after they have suffered, instead of raising the level of safety for everyone.

As readers, we owe it to our love of literature – whether in the form of pamphlets with a cause, hashtagged posts, printed books or protest songs – to keep ourselves informed about what is happening to those who produce it. And all readers are writers, even if only in their hearts. So as writers, our responsibility to stand up for one another – even for those names never heard of, writing in languages never translated – is even greater. A sense of community isn’t about liking one another’s posts on social media. It’s about this – holding a larger vision of interconnectedness that goes far beyond what words can do.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 26th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Take Them At Their Word

Standard

Last week, a young male spoken word poet based in Mumbai was alleged to have sexually harassed teenage girls. Two things happened in the immediate aftermath: in an act of concerted schadenfreude, another poet, a young woman formerly associated with him, became the target of a smear campaign that completely detracted from the accused himself. Less visibly, a detailed, anonymously sourced list of predators in the poetry scene was created.

When the first such List was created in India last year by Raya Sarkar, exposing academics, it brought a backlash from several established feminist thinkers, most of whom hypocritically showed how they enable their associates’ exploitations by obstructing disclosure. The jargon used was “due process”, without acknowledgment of how due process has historically failed those who do not have structural privileges. But there were also many people who felt a deep discomfort about such exposure, but who did not resort to victim-blaming to articulate it. I personally wasn’t made uncomfortable, but I did note something significant in my own response: I would not expand such a list, even though I could. Each of us could probably come up with a whole List ourselves (and some have).

It’s worth making a distinction between those who think these Lists are unethical and those whose feelings about them are more imprecise. There’s a reason why the methodology seems so shocking, even if one doesn’t disagree with it. Older or more experienced women (me included) have a mixture of higher thresholds, thanks to being forced to grit our teeth, and complex trauma that keep us from divulging what we know. It hurts terribly to have come so far but be unable to move beyond certain incidents, or to realise that one had been in love with a perpetrator, or to jeopardise one’s career by outing power players.

It’s very telling that this short list of sexually predatory Indian poets is full of young men, presumably being reported by young women. A comprehensive list, especially if it includes all artistic genres, will topple so many giants off their pedestals. That list doesn’t exist because we haven’t made it. We’ve stuck to our whispers. Let’s not even get as far as physical assault or artistic erasure, itself a form of violence. I haven’t even named the misogynist who came to an open mic with a theme of violence against women, told the host to introduce him as my friend, and took the stage as though he didn’t harass women. I haven’t named the many sleazebags who’ve asked me to have a drink in their hotel rooms instead of meeting me at the restaurant downstairs. I haven’t named those who’ve met me in the restaurant but took no interest in my writing, yet thought it acceptable to ask prurient questions about my private life.

I haven’t named anyone, not even the young spoken word poets mentioned above. That’s my own conditioning. And look again: I’ve chosen to mention only the most negligible of stories. That doesn’t give me the higher ground; it only means I’m maintaining my own territory. More power to the young, who are risking theirs in service of justice.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Three Poets In Agra

Standard

The holes didn’t make the leaves look any less beautiful, and that’s what caught my eye. When you live with and look after plants you learn to ignore natural wilting and discolouration, understanding that all things have their moments and their messes, just like you. But the crisp semi-circles that began to appear along the edges of the greenest of my bougainvillea’s leaves were so perfect that I could not regard them as decay. They looked like bites out of an apple logo, or lunar incurvations. They were lovely – but what was causing them? I enjoyed a whimsy about caterpillars dreaming their butterfly selves at a near distance from my own dreaming, but worried that the pigeon terrors had developed a taste for them.

I asked my friend Nitoo Das, the poet who waters her plants at midnight, and she told me that the culprit, or more accurately, the artist, behind the geometric mystery was the leaf-cutter bee.

I hadn’t considered that bees would deign to grace my modest balcony garden, and so regarded this as the highest compliment. Leaf-cutters were new to me, so I looked them up. What I learned was that they are solitary creatures. Hives are social entities, created with the labour of many. But leaf-cutters do everything themselves: from pollination to home-building to protecting her eggs. As Nitoo told me, they bite green leaves not to consume them, but to use the material to build their nests, which themselves are holes.

I sighed with joy. I could live with leaf-cutter bees, who live in a way I already lean toward.

Just a few days later, Nitoo and I met at a Delhi station and took the train to Agra with a third poet, the brilliant young Urvashi Bahuguna.

Many reams have already been written about the beauty of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. On that overcast and uncrowded day, the serenity of the first washed my cynicism clean. There really was love imbued there. I imagined being able to go there to read or contemplate, to be something other than a sleepless tourist collecting proof of experience.

We noticed how parakeets loved red sandstone but were unenthused by marble. Their colour brought to mind the leaf-cutter bee’s alcoves lined with green leaves, and I wondered where my neighbour made hers. It was close by, I was sure, but either out of sight or else I hadn’t known how or where to look.

In a shop in Agra, we were shown sarees made of banana stems and leaves. They were exquisitely soft, and had been made by prisoners serving life sentences. The proceeds from them would go towards supporting the prisoners’ families. I choose one made from banana stems in a gentle red, with a print that reminded me of georgette and chiffon sarees of the 80s, the kind my mother was always wearing when my sister and I would lift our chins to kiss her bare waist.

I hadn’t known that the banana plant, with all its versatility, could also be worn. I thought of my leaf-cutter co-habitant then too, and hoped for a long and gentle co-existence.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 28th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

Standard

If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Damsel In Dangerlok

Standard

Being of a consummately indolent species, and what more, having recently crossed into the zone of being over a quarter of a century old (and therefore prone to, and hopefully excused for, senility and imperiousness), I consider it a bit of an achievement to finish reading two books in a day. The two I read on that particular day were both autobiographical to some degree – one was candidly subtitled as a memoir, while the other carried all the markings of thinly-disguised non-fiction – but were diametrically opposed in the domestic lives of the women protagonists in question.

Isabel Allende, in The Sum Of Our Days, offered a relatively vanilla account of her matronly interference in bringing her “tribe”, her “people”, together over the course of a decade or so. Eunice De Souza, on the other hand – or more accurately, her alter-ego, Rina Ferreira – went about with parrots sitting on her head (there is proof of this elsewhere – a glorious photo of De Souza doing just this while smoking in her kitchen in her bathrobe exists) in Dangerlok, her scrumptious novel about a lecturing poet, single and past middle age, enjoying her solitude and flexing its margins as and when she pleases. There may have been some vanilla in this book, but it was probably infused in vodka.

I know who my tribe are, and I know them to be both a very small group and one that is widely dispersed. This is how I prefer it, although it helps to have a few dear ones within a reasonable radius. I feel the same way about my “people”, and by this I mean (see the earlier point about imperiousness first) my readers. Recently, I had to count the publications my stories and poems have appeared in and noted there were two dozen – half of which featured my work in the past fifteen months alone.  What made me happiest was that if I made only one new reader as a result of each of those journals, that tallied up to enough. How many true readers can a poet have in her lifetime anyway? A colleague – or a comrade if you will – once told me that he placed the agreeable number at around twenty. That night, having taken my estimate (and a nightcap for good measure), I slept contentedly, assured my work in the world was plodding along as it should.

What occupies me more and more is not the question of whether to live alone or not, but how. I think my needs are relatively simple. A room to sleep in, a room to work in, a well-stocked fridge, some plants, unobtrusive neighbours (if any), and some sort of animal – either a cat with a sanguine personality or a small dog (I didn’t grow up with dogs and want one thanks to both an acquired affection and a need to compensate). Friends are always welcome but can’t borrow my books or trinkets. Nobody ever wakes me unless explicitly requested to.

How soon can I do this and how far away can I get? 25 and already a curmudgeon (but I will tell you this: I was never young). You can rest assured, though, there will be no parrots in my hair. Owls in a tree, though, if I can have that. And butterflies.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Review: “60 Indian Poets” edited by Jeet Thayil

Standard

There is no doubt about it: English poetry by Indians – even by Jeet Thayil’s broadened definition that includes the likes of David Dabydeen, Jane Bhandari and Sudesh Mishra – is a minority genre.

Unlike their counterparts in prose or vernacular languages, its littérateurs are easily the country’s least known and least celebrated – readers are usually also writers, a second edition is a miracle, and profit is a laughable concept. Bookstores carry Dr. Abdul Kalam’s collections in quantities as embarrassing as the books themselves, but the award-winning Tishani Doshi’s is unavailable. When someone asked recently if the large cheque my publisher had entrusted briefly in my care was my advance, I scoffed, “What do you think I am, a novelist?”

This collection, therefore, is not just a risk, it’s a bit of marvel. Sixty poets and fifty-five years of work are here, traipsing the breadth of experience – love, sex, exile, the city, existential angst, the body, gender, death, and family. There are some exceptional choices, including Mamang Dai, G. S Sharat Chandra, Srikanth Reddy and Vivek Narayanan, who deserve greater local acclaim.

And there are notable exceptions, in spite of influence (Agha Shahid Ali), fame (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Reetika Vazirani) or recent notability (Meena Kandasamy, Temsula Ao, Sridala Swami). Alongside most of the other usual suspects, names largely unknown or unremembered take their place, among them Gopal Honnalgere, Subhashini Kaligotla, Karthika Nair, and Kersy Katrak.

In some cases, this recognition is posthumous or out-of-print, and could bring the work to greater attention. In others, the springboard provided by inclusion may portend some promising careers.

Either way, Thayil has taken some gambles, and this is commendable, for doing so augments the canon. In the past, anthologies (including two Oxford University Press ones edited by R. Parthasarathy and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra) have stayed loyal to a tested fifteen or so names. Even Ranjit Hoskote’s Reasons For Belonging, with a meagre fourteen poets, encountered criticism for being filled out with “mediocre” choices. If nothing else, 60 Indian Poets will serve to detonate the perception that only a handful of English-writing Indian poets are worth attention.

But there is more to savour in this book than just the poems. Thayil’s introduction is so precise in contextualizing the place(s, as it were) of the Indian poet writing in English that it holds the attention more than some of the poems within. Two essays by Bruce King and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra are also included – King’s on the Holy Trinity of Bombay poetry in its heyday, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar and Nissim Ezekiel, all of whom died in 2004, and Mehrotra’s on “the Indian poem”, using Kolatkar as a base. All three essays are a pleasure, and a few more would certainly have added perspective to a collection that in its ambition clearly intends to encapsulate not just the poetry but also its milieu.

The introductions to each poet also speak volumes, such as the subtle suggestion that Kamala Das’ scandalous reputation may be no more than the effect of various personae, or when Thayil says of Bibhu Padhi, “His poems have the numbed conversational tone of someone who has been so long in mourning that he has forgotten the origin of his grief”.

And there are the photographs of the Bombay poets, a wonderful touch that discreetly but too infrequently punctuate the collection. One in particular, of Eunice de Souza in a caftan with a bird on her head, is delightfully candid.

The question remains: is this a definitive anthology? Indian poetry in English has some way left to go, and this book appears at a significant junction; its publication may in fact be the most visible harbinger of an upcoming revival. A fresh interest in poetry, as evidenced by mainly low-key efforts in cities including Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai (Bombay is exempted here for its headstart and iconic status as the country’s capital of verse), suggests that in a decade, 60 Indian Poets could well be no longer representative. And this, if this minority genre meets its potential, is as it should be.

An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.