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Categorized | Essays, Reviews

Reformulating Forms 

A Close Reading of Two Contemporary Indian Poets

As Reviewed By: Ravi Shankar

The world’s largest secular democracy has been exporting its letters in English for a few literary generations, but in the wake of a few luminaries—Rabindranath Tagore or more recently, Arundhati Roy—many strident, lyrical voices have gone unrecognized (after all, this wave of Indian poets and novelists, for all the hype, is still but a ripple in publishing in terms of sheer numbers). To remedy that travesty, however partially, here are two poems by two important contemporary poets to hold up to the light, keeping in mind that the very hybridity that constitutes the relationship between culture and tongue is sundry, testament to the vastness of India as a country and English as a language, and that there is commensurate innovation in poetry abroad as there is at home. Form itself, content’s bone and ligament, the pendulum of the breath, is put under intense pressure and transformed in these poems into something truly new.

Rukmini Bhaya Nair is Professor of Linguistics and English at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and she has published two books of poetry: The Hyoid Bone and The Ayodhya Cantos (Viking Penguin, 1992 and 1999). She has been translated into languages ranging from Swedish to Bangla, and was selected as a ‘Face of the Millennium’ in a national survey of writers by India Today. Here’s her poem “Genderole”:

Considerthefemalebodyyourmost
Basictextanddontforgetitsslokas I

Whatpalmleafmscandoforusitdoes
Therealgapsremainforwomentoclose I

Spacesbetweenwordspreservesenses
Intactbutweneedtomeetineverysense I

Comingtogetherisnoverbalmatter
Howeveroursagespraisepativrata I

Katavkantakasteputrasamsaroyam
Ativavichitrawaswrittenformenbyaman I

Theworlddoesnotseemsostrangeseen
Throughgentlereyesnorwomensoalien I

Nalinidalagatajalamatataralamtadvat
Jivanamatishayachapalamchangeability I

Isinthenatureofthingsandespecially
Femalesbutsankarayouoldmysogynisttellme I

Whatssocontemptibleaboutfleeting
Splendour?andwhileyouareaboutitthink I

Wehavewrungpoemsfromhouseholdtasks
Carryingwaterchildsorrowcanyoudoasmuch? I

Itmaybebeneathyoutopriseapartthisgimmick
Butrememberthethingawomanchangesbestishersex I

Opposingyouischildsplaybecauseyoufail
Torealizethisandwecanbeatyouatyourowngame I

Muchhardertoconvertourselveshaving
Labouredlongatbeingmenwepossessnothing I

MyworstfearissankarathathadIindeedbeenyou
Imightnotafterallhaveconceivedanythingnew I

This poem is written in the run-on graphemic style of Sanskrit and is addressed to the famous monist philosopher of the eighth century, Shankara. Just as when we look at E.E. Cummings’ unhinged porticoes of text, the initial effect of Nair’s poem is visual. The eye is not trained to parse out pauses from a run of letter, and without spaces between constituent words, a sentence is nearly unreadable. The words here literally bleed together— telling phenomena in a poem titled “Genderole”—and in our attempts to untangle syntax and connotation, we’re called to reconsider the reading process, to look anew at the materiality of language. More gradually then, inserting spaces as we go forward, the first stanza reads:

Consider the female body your most
Basic text and don’t forget its slokas I

There’s analogy between the process through which a body is gendered and the act of textual representation, and in fact, a body in many ways is written on by preexistent notions of what it means to be female (or male) in any given culture. Every time a young girl is told to act “ladylike” or given a Barbie playhouse, another few clauses have been jotted in her subconscious mind and on her physical body, and it’s been the work of feminist theory to bring these texts to light. Questions of how the body is written on and into discourse have never been asked as much as in our moment, when films like Peter Greenaway’s “The Pillow Book,” novels like Jeanette Winterson’s “Written on the Body,” and anthologies like “Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory” abound.

Counterpoised to this relatively new mode of looking at bodies and gender through the lens of writing, the second line of the first couplet ends in the rejoinder not to forget the female body’s slokas. A sloka is a Sanskrit word that denotes a prayerful verse written in accordance with certain grammatical rules. In this use, the idea of body as text is deepened, given historicity, syntax, and the intimation of a sacral space. We might imagine the well-known Judeo-Christian formulation from John 1:1-3 reconstrued by the speaker as: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Body, and the Word was Body.” In self-referential words pressed together, the first stanza reveals the female body as conflated with both textuality and spirituality.

Attempting to lineate the next couplet with its requisite spaces and punctuation marks, the meaning proves to be a little more slippery. It appears that Nair intends us to read the lines as:

What palm leafs can do for us it does
The real gaps remain for women to close I

Yet in, “Whatpalmleafscandoforusitdoes” there’s scan, and, and of, the conjunction and preposition left unmoored without clauses to help coordinate, calling attention to the paradoxical fragmentation that jamming words together causes. Scan is a fortuitous construction as well, because these couplets exist precisely in that they cannot scan or be accounted for by any normal mechanisms of prosody. Without spaces or punctuation, meter and patterns of stresses break down, leaving chaos. Also, in ancient India, manuscripts were often preserved on palm leaf (in illustrations of the Ramayana, for example, there’s often iconography of someone reading from such leafs), so the line also engages with the incipient process of codification. Finally, the gaps have literally been closed by a woman in this invented form and as readers, we reopen the gaps in order to interpret the poem, showing that meaning is established by violence, and that by extension, such violence is a form of phallocentrism and patriarchy, i.e. gendered male. This suggestion also subliminally responds to the Derridean idea that words only have meanings by virtue of their differences from other words, and that this differentiation takes places in the gaps or spaces between them. To close those gaps, then, is to short-circuit meaning.

The third and fourth stanzas eroticize the act of closing a gap while reintroducing a Sanskrit ideal:

Spaces between words preserve senses
Intact but we need to meet in every sense I

Coming together is no verbal matter
However our sages praise pativrata I

There’s a nice play on the word sense here, as both manifestation of the rational mind and the faculty through which the external world (or a lover) might be apprehended. The former is contained in the spaces between words necessary to interpret the meaning of a sentence; the latter is preverbal, voluptuous, aromatic and textured, something to be experienced and not interpreted. The senses, after all, make a different kind of sense than good sense. The phrase “coming together” embodies a similar double entendre between the sexual and the lexical.

In Sanskrit, Pativrata (or as it’s alternately spelled, pativratya) is the injunction given to many Hindu women to “be like Sita,” the heroine of the Ramayana most known for her devoted service to her husband Rama. This ideal includes performing wifely duties such as cooking for her husband and producing many sons. As Robin Roland writes,

Pativratya is an oppressing idea that has been justified by three theological misconceptions. The first is that women are inherently sinful thus inferior to men which warrants servitude to them. The second justification used in the concept of Pativratya is the idea that the wife should see her husband as a god. The third and final justification that will be discussed is the idea that men should lead and women should follow because that is the natural order of things.

This ideal, as antiquated as it might sound, is still upheld in many Indian communities as the paradigm of femininity.

At the end of each couplet, there’s also a bar, or as I choose to read it, the pronoun “I.” The insistence on the first person, over and over again, is the reclamation of femininity as vaster than any notion of pativratya can circumscribe. Visually, this is reminiscent of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool,” which ends each line, except for the last, with the pronoun “we.” Here, the pronoun “I” partitions each couplet so that it exists discretely, even when in relation to the rest of the piece; also, the identity of the speaker is stressed as standing apart from the flow of text that composes each line. Acknowledging oneself through language was seen as a requisite first step in the woman’s liberation movements and the speaker in “Genderole,” literally writes herself into the cosmos of her poem.

The remainder of the poem proceeds as a challenge to Sri Shankara (or Sankara), the eight-century philosopher and grammarian, widely known as a prodigy who had mastered Sanskrit by the age of eight, and who later in life created the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, or non-dualism of mind and body, which synthesizes the Upanishads into a coherent principle of being and remains one of the key ideas at the root of yoga. In the eight and ninth stanzas, the speaker demands an answer from him: “Sankara, you old misogynist, tell me/ what’s so contemptible about fleeting/ splendour?” and the unstated contention is that the quest for the changeless state of enlightenment, or Atman in Sanskrit, is a masculine process, that by virtue of its rules and rituals keeps out women—who are changeable, non-discursive, and capable of limitless transformation as “the thing a woman changes best is her sex.” The distinction between mind and body that arises from maya, or illusion, can be seen as commensurate with the phallocentric representation that the speaker of “Genderole” critiques. Implicit in the challenge issued to Shankara is an acknowledgment that perhaps, paradoxically, the multiplicity manifest in women has already been prefigured by the monism preached by Advaita Vedanta.

Much harder to convert ourselves having
Laboured long at being men we possess nothing I

My worst fear is sankara that had I indeed been you
I might not after all have conceived anything new I

When the mood throughout has been a revelation of liberation, from the ideals of pativratya and the confines of conferred grammar, to end on fear problematizes what we thought we knew. The fear is at not knowing how something that never could have been in the first place—the speaker incarnate as Shankara—would have affected the speaker’s ability to create something other than the totalizing consolidation of the Vedas and extant Sanskrit accomplished by Shankara, no matter what sexism might have been inherent in it. This disclosure closes the loop between yoni and lingam, between the speaker and Shankara, and between modern English and ancient Sanskrit.

We know the graphemic quality of Sanksrit by the bar that connects the characters, and the pressed words of “Genderole” allude to and evoke the language in which Shankara was perhaps its most brilliant practitioner. The reference to Sanskrit is also an invocation to breath, the natural medium of the poem. Though we identify the language with the Devanagari script (like in Hindi), we also find it expressed in Roman letters because Sanskirt is not known in any particular written form and can be transliterated into other scripts. As a result it’s a language that has not been modulated in time: its form has been preserved from generation to generation through fastidious memorization and oral recitation. Sanskrit is a language with one spoken form and a number of written forms—contrasted with classical Chinese, which has a single written form spoken in many different ways, or with English, which is a permeable, amorphous organism into which new words, written and spoken, are always entering. Nair’s poem draws a bar from Sanskrit to English, from the masculine inclination for ordered preservation to the female embodiment of mutability—inventing, in the process, both commentary and new poetic form.

Keki N. Daruwalla is both a prose writer and a poet, living in Delhi, and he has published nine volumes of poetry, the last being The Map-maker (2002). He won the Indian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, the Academy of Letters (Sahitya Akademi) prize in 1984 for his volume The Keeper of the Dead, and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1987 for his book Landscapes. He is one of the few poets of his generation who have stayed relevant and produced, like Yeats or Stevens, some of his strongest work late in life. In the face of the imperial march of visual culture and the attendant shrinkage of the attention span, he remains undeterred in his pursuit of poetry, as this comment in the English-language Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star, indicates:

One shouldn’t move away from poetry—for much of our aesthetics come from poetry; religion started with poetry, thought started with poetry; the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata, Iliad. If you believe in the occult, when the Devi descends, she descends on the shaman (who) has also been reciting slokas. I have written essays on science and poetry and religion and poetry. There must have been a time when science or knowledge was all combined in one man or one lady. Poetry is literally god-given. It can’t be put aside because people have taken to the TV or computer or magazines.

For Daruwalla, as a matter of course, poetry has a political aspect (as he says later in the interview, “social comment is absolutely necessary. Otherwise you write in your own prostrate world”), something he engages overtly with in the following poem, ”Gujarat 2002″—

There’s blood on the streets, so many dying and the dead,
that dark-grained newspapers squint with red.

Fire and skin turn into one blinding sheet, and in any weather
life and charred skin will peel together.

Boards are warped, the steel blackened. Inside
there’s a mother in travail, there could be a bride.

Killer and killed are one—they speak the same language.
The vocabulary of guilt has a circumference and a centre.

Gasoline alights with a splash everywhere.
Knives hiss with the same silence where they enter.

Gujarat is not just the corruption of an absolute.
It has manufactured its own corrupt absolutes:

“If night fell on Godhra, we are within our rights
to unload night on innocence elsewhere.”

There is no place here for the lyre and the lute.
In such times is lockjaw the best—to be dumb, to be mute?

These eight couplets explicitly reference the most recent outbreak of violence between Hindus and Muslim in the state that comprises the northern extremity of India’s western coast. The town of Godhra in Gujarat is akin to Jerusalem, contested holy land, and the region has been racked by riots and brutal carnage a number of times (in 1969, 1985, 1990, 1992, 1993). Hindu activists Visha Hindu Parishad (VHP) were returning from Gujarat’s Temple Mount (or al-Haram ash-Sharif, depending on one’s particular fervor), Ayodhya, hypothesized birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the chief deities in the Hindu pantheon. Militant Hindus tore down a 16th century Babri mosque on the site in 1992, vowing to replace it with a temple dedicated to Lord Rama. That act set off a renewed chain of violence that threatens to erupt at any time, even today.

On February 27th, 2002, a train carrying members of VHP returning from Ayodhya was attacked by a mob wielding petrol and acid bombs, and 59 people were burned to death, a number of others maimed or otherwise injured. The Sabarmati Express was completely gutted in sections, charred flesh and steel incinerated beyond recognition, which in turn caused some of the worst riots India has seen since gaining independence, perhaps most notoriously in the mostly Muslim town of Ahmedabad, where mobs estimated over 5,000 strong set fire to anything in sight, gang-raping women and girls, and killing at least 79 people. For days afterwards, it was reported that gangs of Hindu youths were roaming parts of Gujarat, wearing khaki shorts and saffron scarves, the uniform of Hindu nationalists, while chanting, “Jai Shree Ram!” (Hail Lord Ram!) and wielding shivs, axes, trishulas (the three-pronged spears associated with Hindu mythology), iron rods and more sophisticated explosives. According to Human Rights Watch, they used computer printouts listing the names and addresses of Muslim families as a guide, and in some instances were escorted by police officers who would open fire on anyone impeding the mob’s progress. The resulting death toll, all told, has been estimated anywhere from 800 to 2,000, with some reporting that it’s actually much higher.

Daruwalla’s “Gujarat 2002” begins:

There’s blood on the streets, so many dying and the dead,
that dark-grained newspapers squint with red.

Besides the metonymic evocation (“blood on the streets”) of the casualties, this opening couplet also makes the media complicit in what has taken place. The newspapers, (which in the West, according to some commentators, carried a distinctly pro-Muslim bias), are soaked through. The choice of the verb “squint” anthropomorphizes these newspapers, so that with respect to the countless victims and perpetrators, they are the only remaining sentience. These newspapers have eyes, they see, they allow the rest of the world to see what has taken place in Gujarat, and yet what they see, by virtue of the squinting, is distorted and innately biased. The poem continues:

Fire and skin turn into one blinding sheet, and in any weather
life and charred skin will peel together.

Boards are warped, the steel blackened. Inside
there’s a mother in travail, there could be a bride.

Here, the visceral, grisly results of the violence are precisely evoked and the noun “weather,” gets at the fact that however the climate, atmospherically or politically, might fluctuate, these lives cannot be brought back. The connotation of the pronoun “whether” is also present—whether things change or stay the same, “life and charred skin will peel together.” The mother and bride are both literal (there were a number of mothers and brides slaughtered in the violence) and symbolic of the fertility, the positive forces of renewal that this barbarism has attempted to negate. Also, the use of passive voice in these lines is both ironic—since when “boards are warped, the steel blackened,” we can’t help but feel the presence of the unnamed people who have caused these horrors—and appropriate, since a mob cannot be seen as an active subject in any healthy psychological sense (studies have shown mobs cause deindividuation—or the loss of one’s sense of individuality—sometimes leading to behavior that, under normal circumstances, would be abhorrent). The poem continues:

Killer and killed are one—they speak the same language.
The vocabulary of guilt has a circumference and a centre.

Gasoline alights with a splash everywhere.
Knives hiss with the same silence where they enter.

Gujarat is not just the corruption of an absolute.
It has manufactured its own corrupt absolutes:

“If night fell on Godhra, we are within our rights
to unload night on innocence elsewhere.”

Muslims and Hindus have coexisted in Gujarat for centuries and they both primarily speak Gujarti; indeed Indian culture itself has integrated many disparate influences over time (as Muslim politician Maulana Azad has said, “the innumerable happenings of our [Hindus and Muslims both] daily life bear the stamp of our joint endeavor”). So in a very real sense, the violent strife in Gujarat belies the actuality of community. This is not an indigenous people fighting against the oppression of a colonizer, but neighbor bearing arms against neighbor. The line, “the vocabulary of guilt has a circumference and a centre,” alludes to St. Augustine’s description of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. This violence, undertaken in the name of religion, is categorically unlike St. Augustine’s description of God, because both circumference and center can be pointed to on a map. On the stage of Gujarat, the larger tensions between India and Pakistan are played out, to devastating ends.

Metonymy is again used to describe the extent to which human beings have been turned into weapons (“knives” and “gasoline”), and the silence surrounding this carnage is very telling. From participant to policeman, from newspaper to politician, there has been an interdiction on speaking the truth of what actually took place in Gujarat in 2002. Those who have had loved ones killed are afraid to come forth and those in power would rather turn a blind eye, which is why estimates for the number of dead so greatly vary from source to source. Gujarat, then, is not just the gross distortion of theology (“the corruption of an absolute”), it is also the propagation of a new code of behavior (“its own corrupt absolutes”) whereby each act of violence is revenged by even greater acts of violence that remain cloaked in silence, and, perhaps most terrifyingly, this vicious cycle is justified. As an unnamed speaker asserts: “If night fell on Godhra, we are within our rights/to unload night on innocence elsewhere.”

“Gujarat 2002” doesn’t come to any easy conclusion about these issues, but rather, ends on a question. In the face of this atavistic brutality, what is the poet’s role? The last couplet of the poem asserts:

There is no place here for the lyre and the lute.
In such times is lockjaw the best—to be dumb, to be mute?

This is a rhetorical question that is answered by the very fact of the poem. Because no matter how absurd the dulcet strains of a lute might seem when hundreds are dead in the streets, we—the poet, the reader—have a moral responsibility to speak out against atrocities. Sometimes, it’s all we can do. Daruwalla’s poem shows very clearly what the speaker thinks and the fact that it’s rendered in rhyming couplets (except briefly in the middle stanzas) reveals that there is a place and an even a need for music here, and that poetic form can help order the chaos of experience. In his introduction to Poetry as Survival, the poet Gregory Orr writes:

the human culture “invented” or evolved the personal lyric as a means of helping individuals survive the existential crises represented by extremities of subjectivity and also by such outer circumstances as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one. This survival begins when we “translate” our crisis into language—where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it. This same poem also arrays the ordering powers our shaping imagination has brought to bear on these disorderings.

In “Gujarat 2002,” the existential crisis doesn’t belong exclusively to an individual but rather to an entire region and Daruwalla orders a lyric response to the disorder found there. The end result is that an old form—rhyming couplets—often the provenance of romantic waxing or pastoral beatification, has been recast to encompass communal strife and rather incendiary political content.

For centuries, poetry in India was seen as commensurate with bhajans, or devotional songs, but both Keki N. Daruwalla and Rukmini Bhaya represent a new wave of Indian poetry that reformulates the possibilities of form and takes a strident, often critical, political stance. In an exceptionally adroit essay on the roots and effects of national anthems, Nair has written, “plurality, after all, is the logical obverse of the pugnacious call to unity so characteristic of the national anthem…the strenuous avowal of togetherness in an anthem is not accidental, it verbalizes the fundamental unease that cultures have always felt when faced with radical difference.” In their poetry, Nair and Daruwalla embody this plurality and radical difference by creating new forms, by endowing old forms with new content, by creating poems that would not have been possible even a century ago, and I intend this exegesis of two of their poems as testament to the powers of their respective shaping imaginations and as proof that Indian-English poetry (and therefore poetry in English itself) continues to evolve.

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Ravi Shankar is a poet, prose writer, and editor who has published work in Poets & Writers, Time Out New York, Paris Review, Massachusetts Review, Gulf Coast, Lit, Crowd, Descant, Indiana Review, Western Humanities Review, Mississippi Review, and Gulf Coast, among others. He has taught literature and writing at Columbia University, Queens College and will be teaching at Central Connecticut State University in the fall. He is the founding editor of the internationally renowned journal of the arts, Drunken Boat, and has participated in panels for the Electronic Literature Organization and Poet's House. He has held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Ragdale, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Recently he helped edit an anthology of Asian American writing for the monthly poetry journal, Big City Lit, in conjunction with the ten-year anniversary of the Asian American Writers Workshop.

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