A Taste of the ‘Figs’

The first time I came across her words were actually in a collection of quotes – I forget now, on what subject. But the haunting simplicity and quiet intensity of the words had me hooked:

“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But oh my foes and ah my friends

It sheds a lovely light.”

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I dug deeper and found out that this was actually an entire poem titled ‘First Fig’ by American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St Vincent Millay who was famed as much as for transforming the sonnet with a new sensibility as for her independent sexuality. Her life and art are filled with instances of standing up to sexual and social norms of the time and one such anecdote that caught my interest was her struggle to claim her own name early in life. Apparently despite being named Edna, she wanted to be called ‘Vincent’ and even crossed swords with her school principal on the matter.

This biographical anecdote lent a fresh perspective to yet another favourite piece of mine from Figs from Thistles, titled ‘Prisoner’:

“All Right,

Go Ahead!

What’s in a name?

I guess I’ll be locked into

As much as I am locked out of!”

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Cry for Nature

It had been quite some time since I had read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. So when I came across another title by the Lebanese poet, at a friend’s place, I asked if I could borrow it. The Storm turned out to be a modern translation of Gibran’s prose poems as well as a couple of short stories. Narrated in his distinct style – soaked in mysticism and lyricism – so many of his central themes reached out to me : like the essential isolation of the human condition, the shackles of organized religion, the hollow materialism of the world and so on. The one theme however that spoke to me with the greatest urgency was the beauty of Nature and its inevitable degradation by humans.

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Aurore, ‘The Dawn’ by Kahlil Gibran

‘ ” Sweet Brook,” I asked, “why do you mourn?”

“Because I go unwillingly toward the City”, it answered, “where Man will spurn me. Instead of me, he will drink the juice of the grape and use me to carry away his filth. How shall I not weep when soon my purity become foul?” ‘

– From ‘A Lamentation in the Field’

Recently back from a trek through the Niligiris, I could not but help obsessing over the muck and mess human habitation spawns all around it. Towns looking like an ugly heap of tin roofs, sewage drains spilling on roads, traffic forced to a stand-still by reckless parking, vehicles belching out black fumes despite ban on unclean fuel – I could go on…

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As we climbed higher into the hills, the air became purer and the surroundings cleaner. But then, we hardly saw any people around – slopes of tea plantations eventually gave way to forests and then to steep slippery narrow paths to the summit, known here as the Bakasura-malai. Why should one have to compromise on human company if one wishes to live amidst beautiful natural surroundings? How do other countries, societies manage to retain picture-postcard appearances despite having thriving communities?

I am aware these questions lead me deeper into issues of population, poverty, exploitation, corruption and many deeply inextricable civic matters. At this moment, however, I rue my limited time in this corner of paradise here and dread going back down to the madding crowds!

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Bakasura-malai peak

This House of Wine

“Here I am, within the House of Wine, holding a cup

Which in turn holds the nectar, reflecting this place.

Such is the mystery I have spent my life working out –

Am I within the tavern or is it within my soul?”

-Translated from Madhushala by Harivansh Rai Bachhan

After a long while, today I played my CD of award-winning Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachhan’s classic verse collection, Madhushala, rendered in famous singer Manna Dey’s finely nuanced voice. The title loosely translates to a tavern, a place where lovers of wine gather, drink, sing and love. Indeed it functions as a rich, multi-faceted symbol – sometimes standing for the final destination of the earthly journey and at other times, representing the ideal universe that celebrates equality, humanity, creativity and love.

 

“The one whose inner fire has burnt away all books of religion,

The one who has broken down the walls of all temples, mosques and churches

The one who has left behind the calls of all priests and pundits,

Only such a one can be welcomed in this house of Wine”

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A central figure in the poem and the Tavern is the ‘Saki’ – the Pourer of Wine. Usually an idealized feminine figure, she is also the Beloved and represents beauty and creativity. But not always. The complexity of the symbol is evident in a stanza where the poet says,

The God of Death will come one day as the Pourer of Wine, bearing a black cup;

Drink now this pure nectar, for then my friend, you will never regain your senses.

That will be the final Bearer, the final cup and the final oblivion;

Thus traveller, drink now with love, for you may not pass again by this House of Wine

 

What a deeply humane and richly poetic vision!

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Poet Harishvansh Rai Bachhan. Photo Courtesy: Amar Ujala

An Uninvited guest

Apparently my dog and I are not the only ones that like basking in the Nilgiris afternoon sun that streams into our front garden. As I headed out today for my usual post-lunch newspaper perusal I was arrested in my tracks by the sight of an uninvited guest. Though I have known them to reside in the neighbourhood and even spotted by the odd passer-by, this was the first time one had dropped in to share my patch of green and the sun.

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Painting by Otto Marseus van Schriek

 

My afternoon siesta had gone for a six and the whole time – with my dog securely under my blanket now – I kept wondering how D H Lawrence divined their beauty and mystique as evident in the famous poem, Snake…how it

“…looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face…”

Lawrence was known for his intuitive understanding of the primal beauty of the creatures of Nature. This poem in particular reveals how men goaded by the voices of their “accursed human education” have not only failed to recognize this beauty but indeed done their very best to stamp it out of the face of the earth.

But tonight when my dog wakes me up to be taken out, will I have the heart to step forth in the dark…knowing that somewhere around, quite near, resides my black, serpentine neighbour?!

A Prayer for India…

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On the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of India’s freedom from British colonial government – celebrated as Independence Day in the country – no other poem feels more relevant today, than this one from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning anthology, Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

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A Beginning…

Amidst the misty environs of the Nilgiris, few pursuits can be more fulfilling than reading. With a book in hand and a steaming cup of Darjeeling tea, one could easily get lost in winding, twisting lanes of Imagination or get transported to faraway times and places.

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And so, a long-held dream was given shape when our very own book club met for the first time. It included members from fields as diverse as pure sciences, management and literature. We began talking about the kind of books we read and subjects that interest us.  What a myriad colours went up to make the palette – travel, fiction, poetry, philosophy, biography and so much more. We discussed the perplexing plot of The Time Traveller’s Wife which is nevertheless made relatable by its charming comedy. Also up for discussion was the philosophy of spiritual leader J Krishnamurti and the challenges involved in its comprehension. Far more engaging was the digression to Rishi Valley School, based on Krishnamurti’s vision of education and its relevance to present-day educational system. Scattered mention of Oprah Winfrey’s new biography as well as Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet added variety to our discussions.

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Eventually we got down to the business of choosing a book and headed for the library’s biography section. After a good deal of rifling through shelves and badgering the assistant librarian about book titles, we decided to go with four different biographies of the first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. With her being at the helm of several controversial and decisive moments of the country’s history, the texts promise to be interesting!

Of Paddy and a Silly Bro-in-law!

So many of these posts are about the rains – not consciously though!

Monsoons are a big part of India’s natural, cultural and emotional calendar, like I mentioned in one of my previous posts. And it is that time of the year now!

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Besides, presently living in the Nilgiris, I love these gentle drizzles – just enough to moisten the air and the earth but with none of the ferocity or the resultant muck typically of heavy rains on the plains.

As I was listening to old Bangla songs on rains, I came across a few lines which in turn took me back to folk rhymes of my childhood. These would be traditionally short stanzas – lively and colloquial. One goes thus:

“Aaye brishti jhenpe,

dhaan debo mepe,

dhaaner bhetor poka,

Jamai-babu boka!”

The above may be loosely translated as:

“O Rains, come down hard

so that we can plant paddy

but insects have spoiled the grains

and guess what – brother-in-law is a duffer!”

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I completely understand the befuddlement of readers unfamiliar with Bangla language or folk culture. What on earth does paddy have to do with one’s bro-in-law!

Maybe because ‘poka’ (insects) and ‘boka’ (silly) rhyme well!

Seriously though, all I can think of, is that the arrival of monsoons ushers in relief and merriment among the village women folk and thus, in spirit of the season, a brother-in-law ends up as a convenient object of ridicule. Indeed the relation between a shaalika and jamai-babu – a young girl and her elder sister’s husband – is traditionally a fun bond involving gentle teasing and at times mild flirtation too!

More on Bangla folk rhymes next time…