Tuesday, December 15, 2009

An afternoon affair

A space;
a long winding staircase,
up and beyond-
over the terrace
tucked to the left- a room;
inside- on the right
A single bed
standing on many rugs
-on the other shore
a brown table
shouldering a wardrobe.
-in between, a mass of books
and a chair
-tucked in, while perched
a television.
Facing the big window
On the other side
Covering the wall.
Moving still further
you will find, further left
The same door we came in through
but the one we never quite left behind.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Untitled- A collage of distortions.

“You will listen to me.”

Her voice was echoing along the deserted corridor. The windows that were supposed to let the outside breeze come into these dingy caverns were bolted shut many years ago. The damp reverberations of her voice are all that I have to keep me warm. I am staring into the emptiness of everything. I really have little else to do but to listen. And I listen.

“You will listen to me.”

I am not entirely unaware of what she is saying. Me and her, she and I- we have a similar sense of humour. She is speaking of Irom Sharmila and the blood splattered streets of Manipur. She is waving her hands frantically- trying to point at the place where there had been voices. The rumble of a passing jeep, a flash of light and the screech of braking tyres. She smells death and laughs and her body shrivels in cold sweat as a peculiar silence is restored to the night. But she is still laughing- telling me to look at the walls- the blood splattered walls. How do I tell her that I can’t? Is it now that I must tell her of my blindness? I see the shadows dancing on the wall making patterns too hideous for the eyes. But she only sees red.

“You will listen to me.”

I cannot listen to her. I cannot. She is speaking of too many things and I am speaking of nothing. I am a mirror reflecting her voice and she is a mirror reflecting my silence. We are entangled in a web of lies and deceit and they are coming to take me away as I know I have sinned. There can be no forgiveness for me; I know. And I know that they are coming.

“You will listen to me.”

Her voice is growing fainter by the second. She is drifting away into that numbness that comes with the fever of amnesia in which the horrors of all genocides are but a smile painted on a counterfeit Mona Lisa. Her voice carries no distinct words. A sublime emotion of pain is all that she conveys in her song about love and death. Words are becoming harder to find, and still harder to put with other words which are of course just that much harder to find.

“You will listen to me.”

I am perhaps only just waking from a nightmare. But mornings never come without conditions and contracts –without promises of good behaviour and nutritious diets. I wish only to wake up and find her someday. She is waving her hands frantically and pointing at the place where there had been voices. But then again, she only ever sees red.

Décollage, in art, is the opposite of collage; instead of an image being built up of all or parts of existing images, it is created by cutting, tearing away or otherwise removing, pieces of an original image. [Wikipedia]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Untitled [A prelude to the Hymn of Creation]

I was sitting by the window one evening, with a cup of coffee in one hand and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in the other, trying to bridge the gap between prose and poetry.

I am trying to imagine that I am in a movie. I wouldn’t, of course, have liked to be the protagonist, or anything at all like that. You see, I don’t really like being in focus, and I had much rather have the –lets see– yes, I would much rather have this vase some six feet away from me be the focus than have the fuss over me. That is unusual, but of course it wouldn’t very much be any other way than that…

I should perhaps tell you at the very beginning that this window isn’t mine. Oh well, its mine as much as I am sitting on it and looking through it, but it still remains a borrowed piece of imagination. It belongs to my mother and she had quite careless given it to me along with a whole host of odd little trinkets that are scattered all around this room. Flashes of memory and a blue wall are my most treasured inheritances. I don’t need the rest. I am quite horribly choosy but I think a jumbled montage of disjointed plots interspersed with elaborate song-and-dance sequences will do just perfectly well for my movie; the one I am supposed to be in.

He was walking up the stairs in the rain, with an unopened umbrella in hand. The alley was lit by a single light bulb dangling over the clothesline and he was so far away from it that I couldn’t catch a glimpse of his face. He was moving away from the tea-stall; he was in a hurry and he could have broken into a run any minute. Now he was right under my window; now two feet towards the left, now four, six, ten, a million… He was storming through the alleyway; he was barely a specter in a soaking wet shirt, and I was an invisible gust of wind following his trail; gliding right besides him. It came effortlessly. But soon, he would be gone, as he has now, having travelled so deep in the parched landscape of my mind.

“You are far too apologetic”, she said, and that was that. The immense anguish of poesy had collapsed into a heap of rubble; into some scattered dust, and from it emerged a pair of eyes that beckoned the universe to stillness for all eternity. I was quivering with amnesia and she was shivering with fever. A distant snap of twigs and some secretive whispering amongst birds had alarmed her soul and I saw the fear in her eyes mingle with the melody of her gaze. But between us had fallen a veil. A blast of narcotic memories had inflamed my mind and yet she was dousing my soul with doses of sleeping pills.

I was dreaming of Ghalib,
in a sun-sheltered sky.
He had left the door open
and left me to die,
so I was dreaming of Ghalib,
in a sun-sheltered sky.

The lights are out. In the dark the silhouette of my beloved is a tantalizing mass of transmission lines and graying skyscrapers. She is basking naked under the moonlit bridge over the river and I am waiting for the old man to come looking for his lost letter in these waters beneath the invisible bridge. The sun and the moon are arched over the voluptuous hemisphere of my words and I am wooing them with my ungainly offering of aesthetics. Lopamudra is dancing in my balcony and I am waiting for the night train from Dehradun to carry me home. The rush of the wind brings to me the tinkling music of her anklets and I am mesmerized by the vacant expectation of this night, and it is then, in that moment suspended by the creaking of the door that it dawns on me that the power-cut tonight is her frivolous conspiracy. I am at once her enemy, her lover, her playmate, and the confidant of gossip-loving crickets. They are watching me from the window, and I am once more a specter of their imagination. I am restless with the weight of everything unwritten; chaos around me is a swirling storm of desire and I turn over to the other side and surrender to the moonlight singing.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?
There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose from the power of heat.
Desire came upon that one in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence.
Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was surrender above.
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen- perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not- the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.

(10.129; the Rig Veda)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ode to dreams forgotten

The ebb and flow of words
within the silence of time;
heavy-headed, I sleep
in yellow dreams
At nine.

A space,
a kaleidoscopic sea;
as a passive smoker shrugs,
inhaling monotonic hours,
sweeping down with cartoon prophecy.

I am of course still sleeping,
rolling over ever-stifling time;
steady-footed, I sink,
in tender amnesia
At nine.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What is Indian Literature?

The attempt at categorization

Our relentless effort to establish order cannot be better illustrated than by our peculiar yet untiring attempts to categorize the world around us. Disorder puts us in a very tricky situation, for if nothing is fixed and nothing determinable then our egotistic assumptions on the knowable world –and our possession of that ‘knowledge’- hangs precariously, since the universal and the general –upon which knowledge is structured- is replaced by the chaotic- manifest in arbitrary individualism and defiant subjectivity. We like to organize things into neat little boxes that make us feel good about ourselves and reassure us that we know what is where; we like to think by categorizing them we have conquered them and subdued them into those neat little boxes we find in biology books and anthropological studies.

Academics and Scholars, naturally, have therefore an even greater zeal in categorizing and then theorizing such categories. In Universities teaching Literature you are likely to encounter whole Papers and Blocks like ‘Australian Literature’, ‘African Literature’ and the new arrival ‘Indian Literature’. Deeply political as it is to define ‘Literature’, for present purposes let us say it is the mass of all literary work within the category imposed upon it; hence ‘Indian Literature’ is representative of all literary work that may be termed ‘Indian’. The complexity of defining the second word, for once, pales in comparison to that of the first. What is ‘Indian’, and what constitutes its literature? The category seems to defy categorization. So how do you do it?

It’s easy if you are Warwick or Oxford; you just need to mix Tagore with Shobha De, add a touch of Vikram Seth, a dash of Salman Rushdie, and you have made yourself the perfect Indian curry. Unsavory as that might sound, it is perhaps not as ‘wrong’ as it seems since a Cambridge definition of ‘Indian’ is purely their perception of the Indian and unsurprisingly the books selected are the books that have made the westward journey and got there. But the problem at hand is -if we must- then how does one define Indian Literature?

One can either look at ‘Indian’ as implying the political India, or the more elusive cultural ‘India’. Political India –as the geographical chunk encompassed by the international border- in terms of an Indian Literature would imply an aggregative approach where every literature within India – Hindi, Maithili, Marathi, Telegu, Bangla and the vast many language-literatures of India- together constitute Indian Literature. This statement itself makes obvious the lack of any unity in such an approach and, to put it as Aijaz Ahmad does “A ‘national’ literature… has to be more than the sum of its regional constituent parts, if we are to speak of its unity theoretically.” India, as a nation that never existed as unified entity till two centuries ago, and a nation that has never, till date, spoken one single language, has a culture that, if one follows the tourism brochures, revels in this diversity. But even in this complexity let us attempt to try and salvage if we may a unified culture that is Indian, and which may aid us in understanding what Indian Literature is or could be. It’s not just cliché humor to say that India exists in Cricket and Bollywood movies. To look for Indian culture –and subsequently Indian Literature- we must look at what surpasses the distinctions of demographics, ethnicity, religious groups and language clusters.

In terms of language it comes down to what language does an India think in, or rather in what language can one envision an India? Languages specific to certain regions are often limited in conceptualizing the vastness of this problem and are often geographically restricted in terms of market-audiences. Hindi, in spite of sixty years of aggressive (and expensive) state promotion and propaganda, has failed to become the medium of our national consciousness, severely restricted and loathed as it is in the South, the North-East and various other parts of the country. The most politically scandalous thing to do now would be to suggest English as a -if not the- language that can conceptualize an India and subsequently be the vehicle of Indian Literature.

We may shy from it but it isn’t incorrect to say that India is the product of colonialism, and that our colonizers, for better or worse, invented an India. English, therefore, was the first language to adopt ‘India’ into its vocabulary and even NCERT textbooks concede that the rise of English speakers in India not only united the country but gave rise to a sense of pan-Indian nationalism. But it is not as easy as saying Indian writing in English is what constitutes Indian Literature.

Indian Literature, if we must, has to be that literature which is able to recognize this India as a united entity, and speak of this unity. It is perhaps largely due to lack of alternatives that Indian writing in English constitutes a large bulk of what I may term ‘Indian’ Literature. It is also not to say that since India is a product of colonialism Indian literature cannot speak of anything else except our colonial experience. It is merely to state that Indian literature needs a broader scope of national understanding and at the moment only English seems to be doing that.

An interesting point to note is that the India that is producing, reading and theorizing this literature is hardly representative. An elite wealthy English-speaking minority is hardly the average Indian, but oddly, it is perhaps the only India that cuts across other religious and linguistic divides. For most of this country there simply exists no Indian Literature since there simply exists no one India. Every language group has its own India, one which cannot be translated into another language, which in turn has its own India. In that sense, the Indian literature which is in English is representative of only one of these many Indias that exists today, the only difference being that the audience –the readers, writers and scholars- of English are spread across the country and cut across all other language groups in this country, though limited nonetheless by economic barriers.

It is indeed tempting to jump to conclusions regarding this situation, but one needs to understand the latent complexities of this problem before branding it good or bad. The concept of an Indian literature is just as arbitrary as any other attempt at categorization. The need for this categorization perhaps arose out of the mere necessity of creating something new in the curriculum of a University, one possibly far removed from all such concerns of actually defining an Indian identity. Perhaps the real purpose was mere scholarly discourse and academic debate, where the emphasis is on posing questions, not on eliciting a single answer?

However, there really is no need for there to be a single answer to this question –and that precisely is my conclusion.