Sunday, December 4, 2011

A poem by Khalil Gibran

Read this very interesting prose poem by Khalil Gibran.
It seems to set up a fascinating contrast between sanity and insanity, conformity and dissent, submission and rebellion, and belonging and alienation. 




"THE PERFECT WORLD" 

                                      From: the Madman 

God of lost souls, thou who art lost amongst the gods, hear me: 
Gentle Destiny that watchest over us, mad, wandering spirits, hear me: 
I dwell in the midst of a perfect race, I the most imperfect. 
I, a human chaos, a nebula of confused elements, I move amongst finished worlds -- peoples of complete laws and pure order, whose thoughts are assorted, whose dreams are arranged, and whose visions are enrolled and registered. 
Their virtues, O God, are measured, their sins are weighed, and even the countless things that pass in the dim twilight of neither sin nor virtue are recorded and catalogued. 
Here days and nights are divided into seasons of conduct and governed by rules of blameless accuracy. 
To eat, to drink, to sleep, to cover one's nudity, and then to be weary in due time. 
To work, to play, to sing, to dance, and then to lie still when the clock strikes the hour. 
To think thus, to feel thus much, and then to cease thinking and feeling when a certain star rises above yonder horizon. 
To rob a neighbour with a smile, to bestow gifts with a graceful wave of the hand, to praise prudently, to blame cautiously, to destroy a soul with a word, to burn a body with a breath, and then to wash the hands when the day's work is done. 
To love according to an established order, to entertain one's best self in a pre-conceived manner, to worship the gods becomingly, to intrigue the devils artfully -- and then to forget all as though memory were dead. 
To fancy with a motive, to contemplate with consideration, to be happy sweetly, to suffer nobly -- and then to empty the cup so that tomorrow may fill it again. 
All these things, O God, are conceived with forethought, born with determination, nursed with exactness, governed by rules, directed by reason, and then slain and buried after a prescribed method. And even their silent graves that lie within the human soul are marked and numbered. 
It is a perfect world, a world of consummate excellence, a world of supreme wonders, the ripest fruit in God's garden, the master-thought of the universe. 
But why should I be here, O God, I a green seed of unfulfilled passion, a mad tempest that seeketh neither east nor west, a bewildered fragment from a burnt planet? 
Why am I here, O God of lost souls, thou who art lost amongst the gods? 

                                                     ----

Although Khalil Gibran is a world famous poet, the following brief information might be in place.

Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was a Lebanese-American poet, artist and writer.
Gibran was born to a Maronite Catholic family from the historical town of Bshari in northern Lebnon. He migrated to USA in 1895. And as he grew up, he drew and painted and wrote both in Arabic and English.

Much of Gibran's writings deal with Christianity, especially on the topic of spiritual love. But his mysticism is a convergence of several different influences : Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Hinduism and theosophy. He wrote : "You are my brother and I love you. I love you when you prostrate yourself in your mosque, and kneel in your church and pray in your synagogue. You and I are sons of one faith - the Spirit.”

Gibran's best-known work is The Prophet, which is a book of 26 poetic essays written in English originally published in 1923 . It has been translated into over forty different languages and is one of the best-selling books of all time. Over 100 million copies have been sold since its publication.

The prophet in the book is Al-Mustafa, who has lived in the foreign city of Orphalese for 12 years and is about to board a ship which will carry him home. He is stopped by a group of people, with whom he discusses issues of life and the human condition. The book is divided into poetic essays dealing with love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death.

Gibran died in 1931 at the age of forty-eight in a New York hospital of cancer of the liver.

Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.

The poem above is from his work "the Madman", a collection of parables, which was illustrated by Gibran himself, and revealed the influence of Nietzsche, Jung and Tagore.
                                                   ---


                                                                   
     
    





Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lal Singh Dil's 'Dastaan'



Lal Singh Dils’ Dastaan: An Autobiography of Absences  
Chetna Prakashan, Ludhiana, 1998

World literature is full of autobiographical writings that include regular full-fledged autobiographies and genres such as personal diaries,  journals, and memoirs; for many great, famous and successful men - generals, statesmen,  revolutionaries and politicians, diplomats, business and industry tycoons, victims of personal violence, social or political injustice, sportspersons,  showbiz stars, poets, -   have written their  life histories to narrate their struggles and success stories, along with their failures, the role they have played  in shaping certain historical events in the lives of nations or organizations, for  self expression or self glorification or money or whatever other reasons; and those who can’t write  have engaged ghost writers or commissioned biographers to do it for them. How truthful and honest these are depends on each individual, his character and personality, and his motive.

Where does Lal Singh Dil’s  autobiography, ‘Dastaan’, fit in the rough map of the genre I have drawn? Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007) belongs to none of these categories of intellectually and spiritually, educationally, professionally, financially, politically and socially distinguished people. He was a revolutionary and a poet but never became famous, for he is not known much beyond the confines of Punjabi poetry and there too he has suffered neglect; although he is counted among the four foremost Revolutionary  poets in Punjabi and enjoys some status but no real patronage or great readership. He was also  a revolutionary in the Naxalite mould but never in a position of leadership in the movement, and participated only in one or two minor and unsuccessful Naxalite operations; one of them an attack by a handful of Naxalites on a police station, after which he was arrested, tortured and jailed, and after his release he remained on the run from the police. Like a very large number of Punjabi Naxalites and like the three other foremost poets (Avatar Singh Sandhu Pash, Amarjit Chandan and Sant Ram Udasi) thrown up by the Naxalite movement in Punjab, he too became disillusioned with the movement; at least two of them – Amarjit Chandan and Sant Ram Udasi - renouncing the Marxist ideology altogether, the former claiming to have become a ‘non-ideological’ (Vichardharamukt) poet, and the latter adopting the other extreme, of  Khalistani ideology. Pash  remained faithful to the Marxist ideology, but when he was beginning to  reshape his intellectual position his life was cut short by Khalistani terrorists. Lal Singh Dil did the strangest of twists; he converted to Islam without renouncing his Maoist ideology, and put forward a  strange theory that one had to be a Muslim before one could be a Maoist. He died both a Muslim and a Maoist, but was cremated as a Hindu or a Sikh.

He also does not  qualify to be included among the great autobiographers because his life is not marked by any great events or personal achievements, if  for the moment one leaves aside his poetry. If anything, it is a life filled with the most pedestrian and common place occurrences in the life of an almost completely marginalized individual, who, for all his aspirations and dreams, remained largely unemployed, or fitfully employed as a daily wager, manual worker, a cook, a watchman in a mango orchard,   a street vendor  of trinkets,  and  could never through out  his life manage to get a sustained meaningful employment; and could not marry, or even cohabit with a woman because no girl or woman who got interested in him was willing to become his companion, so we get the impression. However, as a poet he published  three  collections of poetry,  in addition to his autobiography.  

So why should Dil have written his life story, and why should we read it? There are no great confessions for him to make, no sinful acts to show for which a man should feel remorse and or harbour a sense of guilt, no acts of exemplary, Bhagat Singh like, courage or bravery or defiance, for which a man should feel proud, no great  and original intellectual formulations or ideas of national or international, military or civilian, political or economic or social interest or importance for which a man could be admired and remembered for. 

And from the purely literary point of view too Dastaan has not much to offer. The prose style is not great, the narrative is lose and meandering, and not very distinguished unless I am a very poor judge of Punjabi prose style. The form is anecdotal,  events are  narrated in short spurts and often remain incomplete,  lacking in any sustained and conclusive treatment. There are no dates to pin point important land marks in Dil’s life.

Yet he wrote his life story, though only after being urged upon by his friends, particularly Amarjit Chandan.  I can find only one justification  for Dil to have written it and for us to read it.

As I can see, Dil’s ‘Dastaan’ deserves to be read even by non-Punjabi readers not for what is present in it but what is absent. To put it differently, it is an autobiography of absences. The very things for which someone writes an autobiography are absent in Dil’s Dastaan, and it is these absences that make his autobiography a remarkable reading  and worth reflecting upon. Lal Singh Dil through out his life harboured one dream, one illusion, that  a Maoist revolution will solve all his problems. 

But who was Lal Singh Dil and what were his problems?

Lal Singh Dil was born in a ‘chamar’ (an ‘outcaste’ community of tanners ) family in Ghungrali Sikhan near Samrala a small town in Punjab, a family without money, without land, without property, without education, without any useful traditional skills of the caste to which it belonged (at least this is not reflected anywhere in the Autobiography), in fact,  without any financial, intellectual and even cultural and spiritual resources that could give Lal Singh a kind of start for upward social or economic mobility. The family was fitted to perform only manual and menial agricultural labour,  and Lal Singh’s father almost through out his life worked as an agricultural labourer on someone’s land. Most probably the family formally subscribed to Sikhism but it is no where mentioned in Dastaan. Nowhere in the book do we read about any member of his family going to a Gurudwara, or following any of the prescribed rituals, code or customs in the Sikh religion.  One  of Dil’s friends  refers to an occasion on which Dil’s  father talks of Guru Nanak  as an ‘incomparable person’; and  in Dastaan Dil’s refers to a letter that his uncle wrote to Shiromani Gurdwara Committee threatening that he along with a hundred Sikhs of his caste would convert to Islam if the discrimination against them was not ended. However, after Dil had converted to Islam there are many references to Islam, Allah, the mosque and namaaz and other aspects of Islam. 

So what is special about Dastaan? A few things. First, through out his life Dil remained an ‘outcaste’. This is how he begins his life story: ‘To keep pushing me into the same fire again and again and yet to keep me unscathed, well it  was no less than a Godly miracle’. What that fire was he illustrates with an example in the next few lines of the  same opening paragraph. While as a small boy of  five or six, out of innocence, he dares to bathe at  a jat farmer’s well. He is immediately  whiplashed thrice, dragged and driven out by the farmer’s son. As   a ‘chamar’ he is not permitted to bathe at the well of an upper caste, in this case a Jat. He is pushed into this fire again and again while at school, at college where he dares to fall in love with an upper caste girl, and even while he becomes a part of the egalitarian Naxalite revolutionary movement and the poetic fraternity; and, of course, by the police who, being mostly upper caste, singled out Dil (and others of lower caste) for ‘special treatment’. Everywhere he is reminded  of his caste. His conversion to Islam later, he says, gave him relief from the heat of this fire, but here too it seems that the  female poet who fell in love with him for his poetry (for so Dil believes) also backs out for reasons Dil does not spell out, or does not want to share with his readers, but they may have something to do with the fact that he was a convert from a low caste, or a mere wage labourer. Finally, by and large neglected though occasionally patronized,  he ended up as a tea vendor  at a bus stop close to his native town, and died  in penury, a sick man and an addict. How far his own temperament and behaviour or ‘flaws’ in his character contributed to this alienation is not recorded, though it is hinted at here and there by some commentators; but never frankly stated or specified by anyone. But I don’t think these so called ‘flaws’ matter at all. But if they matter they do  only to show the petty mindedness of  those who talk of these flaws and make them an excuse for the kind of treatment that was given to Dil by the fellow poets and revolutionaries, leaving aside a few well-wishers.

Another something special about Dil is that a person so completely marginalized, alienated and cast out should have at all pursued the vocation of a poet. His published output is not voluminous – just about 150 short poems, and two long poems – but that he was stung by the bugbear of the Muse is extremely remarkable. If we go  and look out  for a poet who economically perhaps never rose above the level of a wage labourer, we are unlikely to find many anywhere in the world. His training as a poet has many gaps. Yet his poetry is remarkable because  it brings out the nothingness of the lives of people he was familiar with  and lived with because he was one of them—the landless labourers and daily wagers, and street hawkers and nomads of all varieties (bazigars, sikligars, sansis, bawariyas, sepelas…) moving from place to place like animals foraging for food,  men and women toiling in others’ fields for almost nothing, cooking, washing dirty linen and dishes, sweeping floors, collecting animal dung, performing so many tasks reserved  for the ‘menials’ in the Indian socio-economic context; in fact the most ordinary even among the ordinary, the people about whom no one wants to write because there is nothing ‘worthwhile’ to write about them; the people who are called ‘extras’ in the cinema parlance and are hired for a shot for  a pittance to form the anonymous crowd to foreground some great personage or his heroic act. May be even less than them.  Lal Singh calls many of them the ‘naglok’, as opposed to the upper caste ‘aryans’ who usurped their land and country and everything else.

It is this exclusion from everything that civilization provides to its fortunate children that Lal Singh’s story pre-eminently highlights. It showcases what it means to be treated as the last dregs of a society, to be stigmatised, excluded and disinherited from the sweet fruits of civilisation, and possess almost nothing except what nature provides. But Lal Singh faced all this with great dignity, without cringing, with  his head held high. He remained an outcaste, and a rebel. 
All this makes Dastaan worth reading.

                                                       ---    
            
for more on Lal Singh Dil click on:
DIL






Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Michael Jackson

Here is a poem I wrote on Michael Jackson a few days after his death.


 MJ: Wacko Jacko

The King of Pop
Child prodigy
Songster-Singer-Dancer
The Pied Piper
America’s Orpheus                                                 
Divine voice
Noble lyrics
Mesmeric dance

A wonder all his own

Idolized by millions

750 million albums sold
13 Grammy Awards
Multiple Guinness Records
Record-breaking charities

Then demonized

A black turned white
Surrogate father
Secret love child
Collapsed marriages
Child abuse
Bizarre personal life
Hyperbaric oxygen chamber
Hypochondriac
Physical and mental wreck
A fantasy figure
Bubble the champ his best friend
Owner of 2600-acre Neverland

Forced to live in oblivion
On the verge of bankruptcy
Preparing for a comeback

Suddenly dead!
Poisoned?
Murdered for money?
A medical mistake ?
Overdose of drugs?

The spirit has flown out

The body in a golden coffin
Draped in a cascade of red roses
A plastic face
Prosthetic nose, missing
A stomach
Devoid of food
Saturated with drugs
Painkillers
Sleeping pills
Body punctured with needle marks
Rumours of skin cancer
Ruined lung

Ghost sightings

An image empty of content

Yet
When he came on to the stage
The audience rocked in a trance
Became one with him
There was no MJ
No audience
Nothing but a two-way flow of energy
A seamless chaos
Of frenzy
Of forgetfulness
         --- 

---

Monday, August 15, 2011

M K Gandhi's Relics

On March 6, 2009 five personal articles belonging to Gandhiji were bought by India’s liquor baron V J Mallaya for about 1.8 million dollars at an auction in New York by Antiquorum Auctioneers.


Here is a poem I wrote on that occasion. The poem may interest the readers. 







GANDHI’S RELICS

A brass bowl and a plate
A pocket watch
A pair of leather chappals
A pair of spectacles:
The Father of the Nation’s mementos
The Mahatma’s legacy
The essential Gandhi  -
Being put to auction!

How can they do it?
Commercialize Gandhi
Put him on sale 
His simplicity
His non-violence
His message of peace
His sainthood
His quintessential humanity!

But they did it
In spite of our best efforts

But at least
We did not let anyone else
Usurp his legacy
We bought it
And brought it home
Through a playboy liquor baron
Paying two million dollars

Now through these relics
We shall keep
Bapu’s legacy
Embalmed and entombed in glass
Museumized
To be reverenced
To be looked upon with awe
To be shown to our children
To be preserved for posterity
Against time’s corrosion
---


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A War Poem

I wrote this poem  a few years ago when India and Pakistan were once again itching to go  for another war, post Kargil. I hope it will interest the readers. 



AN ARGUMENT AGAINST GOING TO WAR

Honestly, do we need a war
To court a man-made death?
There’re so many ways to die
Without going to war!

No, I’m not talking
Of the classy developed-world inventions:
Heart failures, cancers, air crashes
Though we have these too.
Not of the less fancied but equally deadly ones;
Malaria, Tuberculosis, AIDS …
Though we have these too.
Not even of Nature’s periodic visitations:
Floods, earthquakes, cyclones
Though we have these too.

No. I’m talking
Of our own Swadeshi innovations.

There’s the death by fire:
In which your body will melt like plastic
In a kitchen
In a jhuggi cluster
In a fireworks factory
In a cinema hall
In a marriage pandal.

Then, there’s the death on the road:
Your bus can descend into a gorge
Like a surface-to-surface missile, and explode.
It can hurtle on the highway and ram into another
Head on for maximum impact.
It can mow you down like a three-ton lawn mower
While you’re sleeping, waiting or walking on the pavement.

You can die on the rail:
Your train may derail and nosedive from a bridge
To become a spectacular heap of twisted metal and men.
It may telescope into another
To leave as many wounded and dead
As in the month-long Kargil bloodshed.

You can die by water:
Your rescue boat may capsize midstream.

You can die in high spirits
By drinking hooch.

You can die feasting
On infected food.

You can die in a hospital
Of a fake drug or of sheer neglect.

You can die
In a police station
Of mere interrogation.

And you can die for so many causes:
You can be stabbed or hacked
In the name of your caste.
You can be shot through
In the name of your class.
You can be blown into shreds
In the name of your state.
You can be roasted alive
In the name of your faith.
In short, you can achieve martyrization
In the name of any hallucination.

Oh dear,
When there’re so many ways to die here
And everyday
In peaceful times
Do we really need a war?
Do we really need a holocaust?
---




Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lal Singh Dil - A Punjabi Revolutionary Poet


                     Lal Singh Dil  photo by Amarjit Chandan 
                                  
Here are eight poems of Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007) , translated from Punjabi by me.
I am planning to translate  a selection of Lal Singh Dil's poetry  into English. As my basic text, I am using 'Naglok' (2007),  published by Chetna Prakashan Ludhiana, its publication made possible with the efforts of Prem Prakash. It was published sometime before Dil's death on 14 August 2007. 'Naglok' seems a collection of almost all of Dil's  poetry. It certainly contains all the three collections of poetry - Setluj Di Hawa (1971), Bahut Saare Suraj (1982) and Satthar (1997) - published by Lal Singh Dil. 


Comments on the poems and my translations are welcome. I have written a small note on Lal Singh Dil in my earlier  blog post (December 2010) on him which contains  one of the most remarkable poems  Dil wrote: The Women of Kudali Village. I have nothing more to add to that note at the moment.











From SETLUJ DI HAWA (1971)
            (The Breeze from the Setluj)


1. THE UNEMPLOYED 

You have learnt to hide the worn-out edges of your shirt sleeves
And the skill to walk in beggarly shoes
You have trained your tongue to say sweet things
Learnt to smile through eyes hiding corpses under the eyelids …

But your dress and skin are transparent like glass
And I can see your blood coursing through your body
Because we have met so often
In third class compartments
At the tea dhabas and kabaadi shops
I too have gathered together so often
My papers the babu at the employment exchange
Tossed out through the barred window.
          ---

2. NADEEN    

I have fallen in love
With this flower smelling of the earth
With the colour of this trowel
With its handle’s smoothness
That has come through a repeated clasp of the hand:
It is more beautiful than any work of art.
The hand that remained
The trowel’s friend through the rainy season
Looks like a warrior’s brow furrowed with lines.
And this warm and stale smell
Rising from the fading flowers!
I feel like bursting into song
For these fading colours.
Even though the sun has shone for them
The great rains have washed
The winds have kissed their faces
What if the trowel worked against the sun
Insulted the winds
Rebuked the soft heart of the rain!


I may be a wheat stalk
Or this flower that grows between the water channels
I would love the sharp sweep of the trowel.
And all the pain within these flowers,
Expressing which this heartless trowel too
Is crying with these weeping colours.
Don’t let its tears fall to the ground
The girl’s back will break with their weight.
---


3. MY COUNTRY

My country has yet another name
I have yet another kinship
Where ever there is even one hamlet
Half hungry
Half asleep
Wherever drudgery
Counts the stars
To comfort its aching limbs
Away from my country
Wherever it is
It is my own country, my brotherhood.
Whenever I pick up my sitar
To play a tune for this fraternity
Hordes flock towards me from across the seas.
But who’s there to welcome them?
Who are they that shed rivers of blood
Across these boundaries every year?
My country has yet another name
I have yet another kinship.
---

 4.  CIVILIZATION

What are you?
Why have you covered your face?
Why do you walk, so disguised?
Why are you hiding your claws?
But who are you?
Just watch that man
Who day and night
Pulls a heavy chariot
He is wearing Manu’s leaden rings in his ears
His body is striped with
The rulers’ whiplashes -
He will surely recognize you.
Sometimes, when during the nights,
He lets out sighs
As big as the skies
The stars drop their heads.
He says: ‘This earth is my first love.’
And casually adds: ‘It is I
Who have bejewelled the sky with these stars.’
He has travelled through Jesus lands
He has travelled through Gautam lands
Wearing Manu’s leaden rings in his ears.
---


5. THE WORD

The word has been spoken
Much before us
And even after us
You may cut off our tongues
If you can
But the word has been broadcast
---


6. THE  FOOTPRINTS

Can't you see!
Each tree is dancing
The dust on the pathways is breathing
The water from the wells is spilling out
The waves in the canal are agitated
The peasants have come out
And the pathways are stamped
With the fighters' footprints
The moon is no longer on the wane
   ---

From  BAHUT SARE SURAJ (1982)
           (So Many Suns)

7. PUNJAB  

It’s Punjab everywhere
Everywhere
Villages besieged by trees
Dresses camouflaged
Under the bundles of grass
The dirty towel
The unkempt beard
The shirt blackened with sweat and dust
Bare legs
Cracked heels
Whether in Bengal
Or in Kerala
Herdsmen driving their cattle,
Covered in the dust they kick up
Look like Punjabis
On the way
The peepal trees
The date palms
The clouds
It’s Machchiwada on all sides.
---

from    SATTHAR (1997)
            ( A Harvest of Sorrow) ?

8. TEA SHOP

The glasses are out from their cases
Early in the morning
Two and a half dozen glasses
They drive me mad the whole day
‘No sugar…chillis in tea leaves…the milk you use?
You do not know how to run a tea shop.’
Occasionally a lawyer reels out a calculation:
‘You can make one thousand cups of tea from ten kilos of milk.’
This awakens the memories of the pub
And the eyes fill up with inebriation.
‘Adjust this against the rent.’
‘For this I have already paid.’
‘For yesterday, you owed me that much.’
Even then some one pays up
The rich guy’s counterfeit coin
Looks sweet
To an untrusting man like me.
The glasses return to their cases,
Like the pigeons to their pigeon holes
A few of them have been pinched by some for their drink
The pub…the intoxication rises in my eyes again
What is this, friends,
If one can’t earn enough
For a drink?
--- 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A POEM ON MUMBAI

MUMBAI is thick, dense and viscous with people, automobiles, high rise buildings, slums and indeed with emotions and so much else - all jostling, wrestling, shoving, bumping, colliding against one another. With very sparse vegetation the only relief from the feeling of  great besiegement in this mega swamp of modernity is provided by the distant sea  when one overlooks any of the beaches here. At least that's  the impression an outsider like me gets on the first contacts with this great metropolis. Delhi, which is my forced hometown, is equally crowded but here, with far fewer high rise buildings and broader roads, the spaces and skies look more open,  and many of its beautiful parks with their ample greenery provide  great relief from Delhi's own peculiar oppressions. 

But read this poem I wrote on Mumbai after  a few contacts with this megacity, before 26/11 happened. 





      A  FLEETING  LOOK  AT  BOMBAY,  NAY  MUMBAI

Mega metropolis, once Bom Bahia, then Bombay, or Bumbai, now Mumbai
Perched on the eastern edge of the Arabian Sea, financial capital, Maya Nagari,
Arch temptress beckoning, beguiling, seducing, swallowing millions, day after day
Towers sprouting everywhere, jostling, growing upwards, aspiring to touch the skies
Trampling upon multitudes stranded in the grounded overcrowded hovels
Roads, looking more like streets, crammed, choked, bursting with automobiles
Streams of black-hooded auto-rickshaws, obsolete, moribund yellow roofed cabs
Red BEST buses too big for the roads, and the newest Lexus cars shaming all else
Local trains flying, thundering, roaring past one another stuffed with commuters
Hanging at the entrances like weightless spacemen readying for a take-off into space
Railway platforms full with people waiting to assault the trains like storm troopers
Church Gate, Victoria Terminus, now CST, the prime loading and unloading bays
The imperial Gateway of India, with the majestic Hotel Taj in the background,
Teeming with visitors, overlooking the sea crowded with steamers and motor boats
Marine Drive, the arc of honeycombed mansions bordering the wide-breasted sea
Seaside promenades, Chowpati, Worli, Bandra Band Stand, Carter Road, Colaba, Jhu,
Filled with people, Marathis, Gujaratis, Parsis, Sindhis, Tamils, Christians, Bhayyas
Dressed in saris, skirts, sleeveless or half sleeve blouses, jeans, tea shirts, pants, shorts,
Bermudas, salwar-kameezes, burqa covered bodies peering out from slit-like openings
A good sprinkling of young lovers, walking hand in hand, or nestling into each other,
The boys feeling the unprotesting waistlines, the relentless waves urging them on
BSE, the pulse and heartbeat of the corporate India, its mercurial systolic and diastolic 
Colaba, Nariman Point, - convergence of wealth, politics, arts, fashion, fun, food, crime
Siddhi Vinyak, Mahalakshmi, Haji Ali, St Peters, St Andrews, Mount Mary, the Agiary
Ever ready to receive the devotees with their prayers, pleadings, confessions, offerings
Flowers, garlands, sweets, fruits, coconuts, chadders, candles, hymns, qawalis, donations
The success stories on display on glamorous billboards – Bollywood stars, corpogiants,  Politicos, godmen, cricketers, real estate kings and dons – for awe, envy, emulation…
Shivaji Park, the playing field for politicians to promise, appeal, provoke, threaten…
The Wankhede Stadium, for mass glorification of the newly raised pantheon of gods
Hospitals - Nanavati, Lilavati, Hinduja, Jaslok - where money alone may cure ailments
Dharavi, mere two hectares, seething with a million humans, Mumbai’s pride and shame
Kolis, the fishing people and their boats, once the unchallenged lords of this coast land.
And, invisible underneath, the passions wrestling and contending in millions of hearts...
                                                      ---
 



Saturday, March 5, 2011

A POEM ON PASH, THE PUNJABI REVOLUTIONARY POET


                                     from the back cover: Pash a Poet of Impossible Dreams

Read the following poem on Pash, the Punjabi revolutionary poet, which I wrote while I was in Mumbai residing for a short while in a flat close to Worli Seaface,  and from where I had an almost 180 degree view of the Arabian Sea  and could watch, fascinated, the continuous rush of waves towards the seashore. The original English version is followed by my own Punjabi translation written in my bad Punjabi handwriting. Hope the poem will interest readers and admirers of Pash. 
My poem is followed by my translation of a beautiful poem by Pash: Face to Face with the Present.(Vartman De Rhu-b-Rhu)

READING PASH AT THE SEASIDE

The waves keep coming, keep coming
Towards the shore, relentlessly,
Like moths towards light.

The sea changes its colours
With the changes in the sunlight that falls
Or stops falling
But the waves keep coming, keep coming…

Reading Pash,
That country lad turned revolutionary poet,
In revolt against the idea of civilization,
I also see the human habitations along the seaside:
The ever- rising high rise towers of the rich,
The earth-embedded lowly hutments of the poor
Both irreconcilably mismatched

The waves are indifferent
To these hierarchies in the human world.
They don’t tell me why Pash’s revolt against them
Was as ineffectual as their own breaking against the rocks.
They keep coming, keep coming…
They don’t tell me anything.
----


























































FACE TO FACE WITH THE PRESENT


These days I am scared of newspapers
They must have published somewhere the news
That nothing happened today.
You may not know, or you may
How terrifying it is for nothing to happen
For the eyes to become breathless
And for things to stay still, like a frigid woman.
  
These days, even the conversation at the village gatherings
Looks as if a tree, longing to rock and swing,
Were caught in the coils of a python gone to sleep.
I wonder how this world,
Seeming forlorn like empty chairs, views us?
Centuries have gone past, and even today
Bread, toil and crematoriums might still think
We live only for them.

I’m at a loss – how should I convince
These shy mornings
These nights and beautiful twilights
We haven’t come here to be saluted by them!
Where is that someone, like us,
Whom we can take into our embrace
With open arms? 

These days the events, when they happen,
Are like the old man gone breathless
Climbing the stairs to a brothel.
Why something like the first meeting of lovers
Does not happen here?
How long shall this country
Founded by Mahatmas
Let itself be chased by a one-horned grave!  
After all, when shall we, exiled from the din of living,
Return to our homes that are alive
With things that happen
And when shall we sit around the fire
And listen to her overweening tales?

One day surely we shall imprint our kisses
On the cheeks of a season
And the whole earth shall turn
Into a wondrous newspaper
That will publish news after news
Of things happening.
---













Wednesday, January 19, 2011

IS PREM CHAND STILL RELEVANT?






Here below is a write-up on Prem Chand which  I wrote for a magazine in 1980 on the Birth Centenary of Prem Chand, the Hindi  novelist, short story writer, and much more.

I am posting it on my blog to see how  far my write-up hasdated, but, more than that, to find from viewers how far they think Prem Chand is still relevant and how since his times the issues that he took up in his writings have been transformed, over-ridden or become more or less relvant in Indian literature. In 1980, when I wrote the article, I was  firmly of the view that Prem Chand was forcefully relevant . Since 1980  the political and socio-economic environment in the countrty has undergone a sea change as a result liberalisation and globalization and the emrgence of  new political forces and gradual empowerment of many communties of whose spokesperson Prem Chand was. To a certain extent these communities have become their own spokespersons. Have the new voices drowned or added greater intensity to the issues raised in Prem Chand's writings Has Prem Chand become dated or do his writings still move and entertain us, and trouble our conscience?

Here is the write-up.


PREM CHAND’S RELEVANCE TODAY

Writing on the birth or death anniversary of a writer one can easily slip into sentimentality or a meaningless verbal eulogy. Fortunately, in Prem Chand’s case this danger can be easily avoided, there being so much that is still forcefully meaningful in all that he did and wrote.

As a man he was one of the most remarkable Indians of his time. All those who knew him talk of his simple, self-effacing, cheerful, unassuming nature, of his uncompromising honesty, freedom from malice, his sense of humour, his open ringing laughter. Shunning publicity he is a man who easily merges into the crowd – both as a man and a writer he remained a man of the people, identifying himself completely with the unfulfilled aspirations of the Indian masses. He was not one of the greatest Indians, yet he was one of the so many loveable, humane yet rebellious ones – a non-believing saint, as Jainendra has affectionately called him. It is not surprising that Dr Ram Vilas Sharma should have likened him to Kabir.

As a writer, his contribution to Hindi literature is so substantial that it is impossible to imagine Hindi prose fiction of the first forty years of the 20th century without Prem Chand. By switching over from Urdu to Hindi he hastened the process of modernization of Hindi literature, inducting into it the realism and social concern of his teacher, Sarshar. He weaned away the Hindi reading public from the crude sensationalism and infantile escapism of Chandrakanta and Bhootnath and brought it face to face the contemporary social reality. Through a dozen or so novels and a few hundred short stories and scores of essays spread over two decades he made Hindi literature a faithful mirror of the renascent consciousness and the awakened aspirations of the Indian people. And he was the first writer to have brought to the centre of Hindi literature the lowliest Indian and to have passionately pleaded that his life was as important as anyone else’s, and that the central issue before the Indian civilization was to rescue him from the abyss of poverty and inhuman degradation, not out of mercy, not out of pity, but because social justice demanded it.

All this is enough to make Prem Chand an immortal figure in Indian literature. But there is a tendency to underplay this achievement and to dismiss Prem Chand as a second rate writer, a propagandist and a social reformer whose work has dated and become stale. That he was a propagandist and a social reformer, that he thought literature as utilitarian and wanted to use it as an instrument of social change and education Prem Chand openly proclaimed. In his writings he made it repeatedly clear that for him the attainment of political independence, to raise his voice against social injustice, to champion the cause of the poor and the repressed, the liberation of Hindi literature from eroticism and the mood and tone of abject devotion and self-surrender, to give an altogether new content and to enlarge the concept of the beautiful in literature were the most important aims.

Whether or not we approve, we must remember that Prem Chand regarded literature not as a profession but a selfless devotion, and the writer as a man who owed his responsibility to the society; and for him the greatness of a literature lay in the greatness of its message, and he had no regard for pure aestheticism. This view of literature was particularly relevant to the times in which he lived. In a letter to one Mr. Sabharwal in Japan he wrote:
     
 You may not have liked the didactic element in my (those) stories; but so long India is under the foreign rule she cannot touch the peaks of great art. It is here that the difference between the literature of a free and a subject country lies: social and political realities force us to be didactic…

The statement unambiguously reveals where Prem Chand’s mind and heart lay. He believed that a sensitive writer, in the revolutionary phase such as India was passing through then, became of necessity, a handmaid of the revolutionary urge. As such the serenity and calm detachment that is the gift of stable periods of history and give rise to the greatest works of art is denied to the writer.

This, of course, cannot justify Prem Chand’s recourse to idealistic solutions to the problems he raised in his novels, and one must confess that Prem Chand, Dickens like, could not completely shed his mechanical approach to plot and character. It is perhaps only in Godan that Hori’s tale moves to its inexorable end through its inner dialectic. Prem Chand’s idealism generally leaves us cold, but when that idealism survives in the doomed world of Hori’s, it cannot be lightly dismissed. That Prem Chand should have clung to his idealism even where he found it tottering and even when he had become completely disillusioned with ‘this Mahajani Sabhyata’, is not a sign of weakness, but of strength and vitality drawn from the same sources as Gandhi drew from.

 What then is Prem Chand’s relevance today? We do not know what will happen in the 21st century, but the issues that he raised in Indian life and literature remain alive today, in fact have become more urgent, and are likely to remain urgent at least till the end of the century. National freedom was won a long time ago, but the common man with whom Prem Chand had identified himself and made the focus of his writings still remains on the fringe of our social, political and literary concerns. Hindi literature under the impact of the West as well through its own experience has become technically more accomplished, more sophisticated, its language more precise and less verbose and its mode more introvert and introspective. But along with this superior technique it has also borrowed Western man’s despair --- the kind of despair quite unknown to the vast majority of Indians. As contrasted to this Prem Chand had known the characteristically Indian despair, born not out of the consequences of an unbridled pursuit of power but of the crushing burden of the tyranny of the powerful, not out of a surfeit of material goods but out of an unfulfilment of even the minimum human needs; and he gave expression to it in his writings without succumbing to the negativism of the West. This is his greatest strength.

Prem Chand’s idealism often distorts reality and makes his plots and characters mechanical, but he never pretended to be a thoroughgoing realist. For him the function of literature was both to reveal life and to ‘make men better’ and the Indian models before him were the authors of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. He was quite aware that both the great Indian epics had not only entertained millions of Indians for centuries but had also molded the lives and thoughts of so many men and women; and he continued to create characters who were truthful, courageous, dedicated to a life of selfless service in the image of our own ideal heroes whom many Indians, big and small, have for ages tried to emulate in real life.

Although he adapted the idealist-moralist function of the Indian epics, he, inspired by the West and the Russian Revolution, rejected  the prevalent fossilized , decadent, unjust and repressive social system and wanted it to be supplanted  by one that was just, humane and egalitarian. As a craftsman Prem Chand remained quite traditional, and may not mean much to us; as a thinker he was not original, but, I doubt, if since Prem Chand any Hindi novelist has displayed his passionate concern so comprehensive in its sympathies, and his ruthless rejection of all that was anti-man in the Indian civilization without alienating himself from the hard core of distinctively Indian humanism.
                                                                 ---

Saturday, January 1, 2011

PUNJABI POET PASH'S LONG POEM: A CONVERSATION WITH THE COMRADE

“A Conversation with the Comrade”  is Pash’s longest poem, autographical and in many ways a reflection of his dynamic and constantly evolving personality and poetic practice. Written sometime between 1974 and 1978, it is in one sense an attempt at stocktaking of his ideological position as well as an honest assessment of the movement of which he was a part. In that sense it is also a critique of his ideology, of the movement and an attempt not only to state his own position, his own reservations or hesitations, before his critics but also an understanding of the causes of the failure of the movement and flaws in the ideology, its theory and praxis.


But that would, one might say, make it didactic, more a treatise than a poem. This is partly true and Pash himself was not fully satisfied with the poem for he felt that it was a little too cerebral and doctrinaire and therefore less poetic. But in my view the poem is able to lift itself far above a mere doctrinal statement for one can sense a sustained undulating undercurrent of meditative sadness through out the poem which reaches a culmination at the end. 
  
One might say that the poem is  Pash’s dialogue with his comrades, with his ideology and with himself. So it is at once argumentative, ideological and meditative. And importantly it is an attempt by the poet to break out of the straightjacket of his ideology and move towards a more open ended position.
  
The poem is a testimony to the fact that Pash was constantly evolving as a poet, always looking to step into new territories but without compromising his basic revolutionary concerns. Read the poem in my translation extracted from my book of translations : Pash: A Poet of Impossible Dreams. Here is the poem.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE COMRADE 
 
                        I
O cold cauldron, I salute you
And the times seething within you!
O you limping bird, I salute you
And the sky petrified in you!
O yogi of the blazing forests, 
I salute your damp asceticism, and
Your god turned to ashes !

I salute the child who stood in the fair, unbudging,
Demanding the colourful lac toy-horse and the tuneless shehnai  
I salute the downy moustaches, and the manly hand
Habitually caressing them.
Dear comrade, I bow my head to the crematorium
Still active in both our bodies.
Comrade, this bourgeoisie – you know –
Has matured like the old wine
And we have rotted like a hunk of flesh.
Comrade, the middle class is fugitive even today -
Not from the struggle but from the mad house,
Like a criminal, and the ideology is chasing them
Sometimes like the family and sometimes like the police.
Excuse me, comrade, it is unfair to curse
The echoes of one’s own past.
It is a brutal coincidence, friend,
That we had together read
Engels’ ‘Property, Family and the State’. 
That day you spat on your tottering Property,
Said goodbye to your Family
And walked away to take on the State.
And I, fighting the woodworm
Eating into the beams of the roof, as if it were the State,
Kept denying the loss of meaning  
From the word Family.

It is a brutal coincidence, friend,
That day, while reading the great Engels
And about the role of chance,
Speculating on the role of tools
In the development of the brain and language,
You had quietly walked out into the open
Where night and day,  
Poised at the opposite poles of the earth,
Fought like adolescent lovers in their yearning to reconcile.

In a way everything was in order, in principle,
Right it was for you to leave me alone
To read about the role of chance
For you to plunge into the struggle
And for me to show my back
You do not know, comrade,
All this was in order.

                        II

The dry sticks we had planted and watered,
One by one, during our early days,
Had burgeoned in our daydreams into a lush jungle.
Occasionally the sound of your gunshots
Echoing through that jungle has reached my ears.
I have heard that sound
Mingling with mother’s dumb sighs
But that wretched gunfire has never been in tune
With our Guddo’s artless songs.

This Guddo, comrade, is a counter-revolutionary
A class enemy out and out!
She hides her set of five pebbles
Under my learned books
Even after repeated admonitions
She prefers to play a round of the game
Than worry about the fate of the society.
Just imagine, how painful it is
When she calls Lenin the smooth-pated child- abductor
And confuses Mao with Sharma, that shameless police inspector!


After you, I did not go anywhere
But I have been a co-traveller
In the journey towards extinction of the hapless home
You had, in your far-sightedness,
Abandoned on its last gasp.
After you, comrade, harbouring the illusion
That the break-up of a home is an expansion of the family
I have come down like rains
On the shrinking rooftops  
And the expanding courtyards.
I have been running about,
Thirsting for life, like the man
Who knows he will go blind the next moment.
Comrade, it is a bit convenient
To call such a runner a ‘sprinter’ or a ‘deserter’
But mere shuttling cannot be the manifesto for every race.

                       
III

Comrade, the State for you
Is just a manger built with five Roman bricks 
Where you see fattening a four-horned bull.
And look at me, a wild expression of theory,
For me the word ‘court’ has become undefinable now.
Each day of appearance there
Sprouts through my body like a bamboo spike -
Perhaps, I would still have believed myself
To be human, had I not heard
That deafening darkness inside a strange voice,
Like a message from an alien world in outer space:
P- A- S- H versus S -T- A- T- E.
Would you believe it, comrade,
After hearing that voice,
Both Pash and the State cease to exist.

I wish I had never seen that terrifying ultimate disdain
Radiating from that file-shuffling court assistant’s eyes
I wish I had never known that slumber
In which the judges swim before and after lunch.

Those who have seen what remained
Of the village Talwan after the riots in Doaba,
Would know how I, who wanted
To build a Chandigarh there, feel about it.
Dear comrade, your secret night training schools
Are now meaningless for me.
I have watched Machiavelli’s corpse
Burning under the earth’s hotplate
I have seen the State fighting, with the help of people,
Sometimes against people, sometimes for them.
I have seen Aristotles and Stalins
Fighting for centuries
Just to define the kind of animal man is.

Forget the animals, comrade,
Many things about which even the sky knows nothing
Are known only to the human blood.
The shadow of the gun is drowned in the human blood
Just as the tired peasant’s drunken songs
Are lost in the evening twilight
And to those who argue for the sake of arguing
About the earth, the stars, the oceans,
The energy waves and the moon -
Man’s heroic blood, surrounded by this rigmarole,
Is a very patient listener.
Your Stalin, comrade, was a braggart
He did not know that the alternative
To ‘true history' lies in the human blood.

What he called ‘true history’ was really
One of the blades of the revolving fan of chance
That whipped past him.
How would you feel, comrade, if someone
Held by its neck just one moment in any today
And declared he had ‘Time’ in his grasp?
Comrade, which T in the word State is your favourite?
Plato’s  Republic?
Aristotle’s  Monarchy?
Or Commintern’s axe lodged in Trotsky’s skull?
Do you find anything common among these three, comrade?
And, the hot human blood spilled on a cold floor?
And how do you react, comrade,
To the excuse to purge  the race? 

This four-horned bull has always
Fed on the greenery in the human soul
And mankind, in all ages,
Has felt the presence of this ghost.
I have seen ascetics trying to exorcise this ghost:
They get so lost in their austerities,
They forget to conjure up
As they have forgotten their deeds in the previous birth.
I don’t believe, comrade, this ghostly spirit,
So used to live like a ghost, will ever
Undergo rebirth.
I don’t know, comrade,
When your attempts to deliver this ghost
Shall end up as a pastime.

Comrade, what if one day
Our desire to capture state power
Should end up as something like an old couple’s longing
To recapture with their tired bodies
The vigour of their first love-making?


IV

You don’t know, comrade,
The havoc you have played with words
By draining out all their sensitiveness.
Why did you condemn them
To a destiny of State’s power brokers?
Why did you, comrade, let the stockpile
Of class hatred become their dowry?


You have learnt to trim words
To suit your own convenience
Like someone bribing the patwari
To alter the boundary of his land.
You have never looked at them
As if they were chicks
Lusting to come out of the eggs
As if they were the sunlight dissolved
In a rain-soaked silvery afternoon.
I have suffered these words,
Along with their sharp edges -
I have sheltered them in my blood
Against the harshness of seasons.
I’m not Guru Govind 
I have shed tears for long
After stringing them off in my poetry.
When words are scorched in the heat
Of your speeches, the shade of my poetry
Fighting to save them from death,
Loses its delicate poise. ?

By destroying the reed-pens I could have wielded
To breach the siege of monsters,
You provide a feast of fun to the cowardly critics.
Leave  it to the secret service intellectuals,
Why should the defeat of a poet
Become for you, comrade, the matter to brag about?
Comrade, you have learnt to hate the defeated
You really don’t know them -
They who have tasted defeat.


                       
                        V

Does the newspaper sometimes reach you, comrade?
Don’t you believe those beggarly reports.
The woman drowned in the village pond the day before
Was not mother.
It was just a brick that fell from the sky -
Mother had escaped during the very first raid,
Like the mother in Gorky’s novel,        
And fled beyond the reach of the police.
Even now at times she stares at the margins of the novel
And sometimes she begins to wear out like her own blessings.

And the news you heard
About the poet who had joined a party out of expedience!
I was not that poet: It was a ladder against the backyard wall
That evil spirits in the garb of policemen had learnt to scale.
Much before that news was published
When night was descending into words
And the serpents of darkness were coiling round names
I, stealing the residual essence of the word 'party',
Had slipped out amidst the din raised by people.
When my own footsteps were listening to me
As to love songs
I had thoughtfully picked up that dying essence
And deposited it among crows’ eggs.
I had even complained to Sadhu Singh and Zirwee
About such news.
They say the news, stricken with paralysis,
Cannot travel on its feet, and to reach me
It needed the crutches provided by their death.
If we had believed ,
We would have mourned your death many a time.
After reading any news about an encounter
I tell mother
It was not you but another warrior bearing your name.
In the cold innocence of her old age
She does not understand the finer points of grammar.
She can mistake a proper noun for a common noun
And a common noun for a collective noun.
Whenever a gunshot is fired on a name
She sees it as the murder of a community or a belief.
Comrade, mother is still as naïve as ever
We two and the news could not change her.
And whenever you come back
She will first thrash you for late-coming
With anything she can get hold of in the house
And then thrust her dry breast into your mouth.
                       
                         VI

Never mind the home or the news
I’m right before you, comrade
Like a nich that peeps through the debris of a house
Like words that survive on a burnt love letter
Like the body bag come home
Of one who had gone to a foreign land to make his fortune
Like the girdle, worn by a long lost son,
Suddenly discovered in the family chest
Like the feeling of virginity after an abortion
Like the tune of a song one fails to recollect.

This is how I managed to escape
The police dragnet of the wealthy
Using my middle class cunning.
Where is your red pistol, comrade,
Come and train it on my bourgeois detachment
I am a poet!
In my heart all roads lead west
Where all the bragging suns go down,
When they talk too much.
I never know when the sun of class hatred goes down, untimely,
And I feel like crushing the withered smile
On the face of time
And I begin to wish that Newton’s sage-like Diamond
Should come all of a sudden for a moment
And topple in my mind’s open drawer a lighted candle
And burn up all the half- truths lodged there 
Before they crystallize into theory.
Otherwise they may prove dangerous.

I am a poet!
My heart becomes sad without reason.
How does it matter!
The evening dissolving among dumb stones
The rattle-song of bricks 
In the pannier on a donkey’s back
Pale, dust-laden sunshine dangling
On the autumn leaves that still cling to the bows.
Or so what!
If this plump humanity, 
Spinning like the ring of spectators
In the eyes of the downed wrestler flat on his back,
Wets my barren eyes for no reason at all?

Why think about it, comrade?
Does it matter?
---
For more informaton on this Punjabi revolutionary poet see my previous blog on Pash and  also visit:

And visit Pash blog maintained by Pash Memorial International Trust