Surrounded by the grandeur of the Himalayas in the Doon valley, it strikes me that the mountains only serve to unite with their allure of serene remoteness. People find the aloofness of mountains attractive and set about exploring and conquering them as they do the raging seas; thus, advancing the human race not just by exposure to geographic or cultural novelties but also intellectually, by challenging their own comfort zones. Words do similar things for writers. Writers get drawn out of their comfort zones to generate ideas that stimulate.

In a world connected by clouds and birds that do not accept geo-political barriers, thoughts and ideas waft from region to region, sometimes gaining local colour but always creating a sense of interconnectedness. To harness these ideas into a stream, writers need an easy access to a forum that reaches out to the rest of the world. This forum would have to be a confluence where words from writers reach out to unite, probe, create, describe and move all mankind.

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By Archana Pai Kulkarni

Anees Salim

Acclaimed as one of our most gifted raconteurs, Anees Salim won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2018 for his novel, The Blind Lady’s Descendants. The book also won the Raymond Crossword Book Award for Best Fiction in 2015.

His other books include The Vicks Mango Tree (2012), Tales from a Vending Machine (2013), Vanity Bagh (Winner of the Hindu Prize for Best Fiction, 2013), and The Small-town Sea that won the Atta Galatta Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize for Best Fiction, 2017, and was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize as well as the Tata Literature Live! Award, the same year.

Salim is Creative Director, FCB Ulka, Kochi, and an avid traveller.


Archana
: Anees, welcome to Kitaab! Congratulations on winning the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Blind Lady’s Descendants.

You are known to be a literary hermit and have mentioned that these recognitions have made you unnecessarily wary and self-conscious. Do you worry that the baggage of expectations that comes with awards, coupled with a surge in readers’ interest in you, may be too invasive and affect your writing? What makes you shy away from social interaction and literary platforms, when being out there could mean better sales and a larger readership?

Anees: Thank you. Yes, recognitions have put extra load on me and I have started discarding more story ideas than I used to do in the past. I don’t know if readers’ interest in my books has affected my writing because I haven’t written a book since The Small-town Sea was published.

Coming to my lack of social interaction, it has always been like this. All my books were released without official launches or book tours. And most of them have done reasonably well. But you are right, a few public appearances could have helped the books do better. The truth is I find it extremely hard to change myself.

Archana: The characters in your novels are consummate storytellers, be it the unnamed protagonist of The Small-town Sea or Amar Hamsa in The Blind Lady’s Descendants. Stories are also told from the perspective of a fish or a bird, narrators buoyed up by the protagonist who presumes what they are witnessing. ‘What did they see?’ is a recurring adjunct, a narrative device you use to offer an unusual overview, which cannot be relied upon entirely. Could you elaborate upon the choice and use of this tool?

Anees: Well, I believe children are the most imaginative and fearless storytellers. They have a unique way of looking at mundane things and their points of view can sometimes make you feel liberated. As a child, I used to imagine how birds would see my home, how my school would appear to earthworms, how chickens would heave a sigh of relief when we demanded lamb biriyani.  Since The Small-town Sea is narrated by a thirteen-year-old – my youngest ever protagonist – I thought of using my favourite childhood pastime as a tool.

Archana: Death arrives early in some of your books. Your characters seem accepting of it, including their own. While there is a sense of melancholy and foreboding that shadows their rumination upon death, the characters succumb to it willingly, as if this cessation of their lives, however premature, is elemental and not so unpleasant, an inspiration even. They seem to meet death halfway, walk towards it, so to say. You also juxtapose a death with a birth. Amar in The Bind Lady’s Descendants is born on the very day that Javi, his doppelganger, dies. Vappa in The Small-town Sea dies three days after the unnamed protagonist’s thirteenth birthday. Why this preoccupation with death, and the mention of birth and death days alongside? What does the subject do for you as a writer?

There is something about the autumn air in India, a general sense of leisureliness. The slow air touches you in a fashion that launches and fills festivity in your senses. No doubt there are so many festivals that queue up in the Indian calendar during this season.

Bidyut had joined the Durga Puja mass celebration near his ancestral home in his lane in Cuttack. There is a distinct trait to how people in old cities celebrate their festivals. The thousand-year-old city, where he had spent his childhood, was draped in a shawl dotted with countless lights. There was none in the city who was left untouched by the thrill. Everyone was soaked in the mood of the festival.  But Bidyut was one who liked time alone. He preferred sombre darkness over light, which doesn’t let you hide. He knew many people in the city and was not really a shy person, but given a chance he liked to keep a distance. He enjoyed watching people celebrate but could never be a part of the party.

He moved away from the luminous surrounding to a hazy corner and lit a cigarette. The smoke that swirled up from his mouth formed different shapes. He raised his head, at an obtuse angle, to recognize the shapes – a human female without a head, very slender at the waist, followed by a broad exclamation mark, and then an irregular circle. Nothing finite, a figment of his imagination.  He loved the moment.

“Got a light?” a female voice intruded into his zone of seclusion.

He passed the matchbox to the lady without a word.  She was about the same height as he was. Maybe an inch smaller, but she had an erect posture and that, combined with her slim body, made her appear taller. Her hair was short and her head was a lovely egg shape. She must have been no older than twenty-five. She wore a pale yellow dress with a sapphire blue cotton jacket with lots of embroidery on it. She didn’t wear lipstick and her lips clearly indicated that she smoked a lot. She exuded confidence and freedom. An astonishing buoyant character. The first impression.

“Mind if I stand next to you?” she asked.

“Not at all.”

A minute or two of silence. Then a shrill alloy sound of conch shells, bells and hulahuli cries of women from near the Durga pandal, tore the stillness into hundreds of pieces. Both of them turned behind to the dissonance. Reflex action.

They nodded and smiled together. Bidyut folded his hands together as an obeisance to the goddess of divine Shakti, an old habit since his childhood.  Though he was not religious, he loved the fun element of following a harmless tradition.

Bidyut made it a point to be in his hometown with his brother’s family during Puja. In this big world, they were the only ones he could call his own. His mother had succumbed to cancer while he was studying in Cincinnati and his father died a couple of years back. There was no way he would break his connection with his blood. His brother had a seven-year-old daughter and Bidyut was extremely fond of her. She was the main reason he kept coming back to Cuttack frequently, at least once in three months.

Reviewed by Soni Somarajan

That's How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate

 

Title: That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate
Author: Namrata Pathak
Publisher: Red River (2018)
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Mirai is a riddle.

The title of Namrata Pathak’s book of verse ― That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate ― sets you off on a wild-goose chase. The question is, where do you eventually reach?

Along the way, you travel a new world of sweeping sights. Instantly you fall back on experience, your memory, to grasp the world you just found. Restless you are ― to consign what’s new to the realm of understanding, the mind’s habitual neediness to own everything in its path. But that’s not easy here. You are urged to open up to the stranger, and evolve a syntax of understanding beyond what’s known so far.

Pathak’s poetry marks a fresh voice ― mysterious, mystical, sometimes cryptic, inexplicable. It draws you out, with not a polestar in sight to find your bearing, an invite to a terrain not your comfort zone. In a world that hinges on hurry, time slows down in her verse ― you must look around, beyond you, a world lost long ago.

The verse rides on memory as its motor, I wonder if it’s autobiographical, the clue being the vigour, the lustiness in every line, too original to be imaginary. It is a miracle how things of the ordinary, the daily horror of living as well, how all those years of meanderings, the personal journey of coming into one’s own turns into a language at once original, yet unsettling.

Mirai is a trope that’s phantasmic. A likeness of what? It is the poet; no, it’s also the woman. One segues into the other. You know for sure, but you can’t pin it down. But isn’t it the language of all things that matter to this world yet are inexplicable, the things difficult to render in everyday conversation, the imagination of what moves and what doesn’t in a dim, murky wildscape, the eerie domination of the elements, the fear of the unknown.

He slowly drifted into wakefulness with the smell of wood fire burning and its muted crackling. Then the touch of her hand on his ankles, and her husky voice calling, “Kunje?”1. Smiling, he turned over and reached out for her, eyes half open. She smelled fresh and her skin felt cool. The fine droplets of water from her hair fell on his face and shoulders, bringing him awake, his body fully aroused.

A few minutes later, he climbed over her body, off the creaking woven bed, and walked out into the still dark, early dawn. Drawing water from the well, he cleansed himself and his sacred thread while chanting his prayers. Back in his little kitchen, he helped himself to the black coffee still in a pot on the fire, drank it hot and steaming and looked over at Bhadra and smiled.

‘It’s good and strong,’ he told her. ‘Drink some before you leave.’

‘I will, Thirumeni’ she replied.

Of pure body. That was the literal meaning of the word. She addressed him knowingly, because after his ritual bath, he was now a priest. Unsullied and deserving of the right to go into the sanctum to worship the Goddess.

Now, she could no longer touch him.

She stood in the doorway watching him leave, while Easwaran Kunju, the tall lanky Namboothiri made his way to the little temple, about a furlong away through the winding path in the woods. The eastern sky had just taken on a light pink hue as he opened the heavy bronze lock more by feel than sight as he had done almost every day for the past five years. Those chapters in the story of his life lived as a priest in this small hamlet on the foothills of the Western Ghats.

 

It was a Friday and likely to be busy, bringing in the villagers who believed it to be auspicious for their Goddess, and a good day to pray to her. Today was also the annaprasanam, the first rice feeding ceremony of the village officer’s granddaughter. Easwaran cleaned out the fireplace, lit up the hearth and into a bronze vessel, measured out the raw rice to be cooked for the payasam2. While it cooked, he made his way to the sanctum sanctorum and parted open the heavy wooden door. As his eyes rested on the Goddess he felt his soul lighten up and all the burden of his insignificant life seep away, leaving serenity in its wake. This was his favourite time of the day – just he and his Devi, in a wordless commune. He cleared out yesterday’s wilted offerings, bathed her carved figure, draped her in her rich red satin and lit the lamps, all the while chanting verses in a song as ageless as time. Soon the business of the temple would start, bringing in the others, but for now, he was alone in her presence. Enveloped in light from the oil lamps and her benevolence, he looked upon the shiny ebony contours of her stone form with reverence. This was his time to offer her his worship and his adoration; his penance and his devotion.

The first one to arrive was Maraathi Thankamma, the only other staff at the temple. Although employed by the temple committee, hers was a hereditary position. Thankamma, and others of her family, were Maraars, whose job it was to keep the temple clean – sweeping and scrubbing twice a day. So also were most of the other chores that went into the running of the temple – like fetching flowers and fashioning them into garlands for the deities. Fortunately for Thankamma, the neighbourhood homes had generous Tulasi bushes and Hibiscus, laden with scarlet flowers that the Goddess favoured, and these, she gathered on her way to the temple. She set the basket of flowers inside the forecourt of the temple and straightened her stiff back. A bird-like woman of uncertain years, she had a weathered face marked by penury and a bright smile that shone with the acceptance of it all. Thankamma and Easwaran shared a fondness that was inevitable given the time they spent together in the midst of conversations and silences. She kept him abreast of the happenings in the countryside, which he found useful since he did not venture out much into the village square. Easwaran brought out the greasy bronze lamps and placed them on the verandah for her to scrub. Thankamma looked up at him and asked, ‘Did Bhadra make you something to eat?’

‘No, I told her not to. I will eat only after the naivedyam.’3

‘Why do you bother with it anyway?’ she continued, not even pausing to listen to him. ‘It’s only some rice and chilli paste in a banana leaf. I told you I can make you some nice hot rice and sambhar right here.’

Easwaran turned away, silent, smiling to himself – he did not want to be pulled into another argument as routine as the temple rituals. For the next five hours or so, he was kept busy with a steady stream of devotees. Pujas, special prayers and flower offerings, dedication of lamps lit with ghee and the distribution of prasadam. The village officer brought his family for the annaprasanam, and this special ritual brought in a substantial income for Easwaran Kunju. He contemplated the money and wondered if it would get him a pair of ear studs to put into the empty holes on Bhadra’s shapely ear lobes. Around noon time, after the rituals and Devi’s lunch pooja were done, the temple closed its doors till evening.

By Runa Bandyopadhyay

What is a poem? “A poem is a constant transformation of itself and every poem is a model of a possible world that only comes into being when reading is active, activated,” will be Charles’s answer. What is the relation between poetry and poetics? “Poetics is an extension of the practise of poetry, and poetry is an extension of thinking with the poems and also the reflection of poetics,” will be his answer. Bernstein doesn’t believe in any conventional poeticism, but his own Pataquericalism, as he explains in this interview, taken during the creation of the anthology, Bridgeable Lines: an Anthology of Borderless World Poetry in Bengali with American poets.

Charles Bernstein’s poetic idea is similar to the “Notun Kobita (New Poetry)” movement of Bengal, which was started in the ’70s by a group of Kaurab poets – Barin Ghosal, Swadesh Sen, Kamal Chakraborty, etc. in Bengal.

Charles Bernstein lives in Brooklyn, New York and is the Donald T. Regan professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as co-editor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-1981), the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound and co-founder of SUNY- Buffalo poetics program. He was awarded both the Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry and the Muenster International Poetry Prize. Bernstein is the author of Pitch of Poetry (University of Chicago, 2016) and Recalculating (Chicago, 2013), among many other books.  In 2010, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. More information at writing.upenn.edu/authors/bernstein

Charles Bernstein
Charles Bernstein

Runa Bandyopadhyay: Tell us something about how you started your journey in poetry.

Charles Bernstein: The journey never started and so doesn’t end. It feels like it is an active presence. A river of words flowing through me, which I tap into, or perhaps which taps into me (which traps me).

Runa: Is there a relation between the poetic language and the body language of the word? Is a poetic idea revealed in the physical body of the poem?

Charles: Yes. Yes. I am interested in the body of the poem. This is not “material” body but as Blake says, “Spiritual Body”. That is to say, the poem is symbolic space, an imaginary space, where the value lies in not “representing” the world but exploring the “real” in and as language.

Runa: Poetry is form, or process, or [de-]construction or idol-making –– which one of these is closer to your way of writing and why?

Charles: I am interested in intensifying metonymy and iconicity. Not fragments but constellations of particulars. Not de-construction but re-constructions as a process without endpoint. In the Jewish tradition there is a prohibition of “graven images,” which is to say, images of idols. In my secular mutation of this idea, I would say –– in place of images are actions and processes that allow the readers/listeners a space to project their phantasies/desires/anxieties. But I do this not by minimalism or abstraction but by rhythm and association.

Runa: Poetry requires space, where the reader participates in the poem while at the same time remains outside it. What is your opinion on this dichotomy?

Charles: It’s possible to try to break down the divide between viewer/viewed, that is break down the voyeurism by eliding word and object. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is a key work in this respect, part of a “dialogic” space opened up also (in American poetry) by Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and H.D. and also such second-wave modernists as Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff. I explore this issue in Artifice of Absorption (http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/bernstein/books/artifice/), in particular the possibility for rhythmic oscillation between inside/outside.

Runa: Is poetry a search for “reality” and existence, or a search for mystery? Or none of those? Then what is it?

Charles: Poetry isn’t one thing, even for an individual poet. “Reality” is perhaps always at issue, but whose reality, what aspect of the real? I don’t accept the “realities” imposed upon me by family, state, literary history, and convention; but then I can’t fully reject them either. In poems, I explore these “controlling interests,” to use the title of an early book.

Runa: Is Poetry more than resonance of ideas in the mind? If so, if more, what is it? Is poetry to be understood?