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Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing, Ed. Andrew Schelling

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

 

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

 

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,


Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion. They questioned, complained to and even castigated the deity who had their undivided attention. Mirabai, the 16th-century Rajput princess-queen who left her life of royal luxury for the “only man” she knew, the dark-complexioned Krishna, echoes the candid spiritual eroticism of 12th-century Mahādēviyakka from Karnataka, when she says,


Dark One,
how can I sleep?
Since you left my bed
the seconds drag past like epochs,
each moment
a new torrent of pain.

— Mirabai (16thcentury), Tr. Andrew Schelling

Nearly two hundred years since Mirabai, Ramprasad Sen takes issue with his mother deity, goddess Kali, in a manner of ninda-stuti, which, as the annotation following his section in the book, defines as “praise in the form of abusive reproach”. Ramprasad approaches Kali as an errant child who, despite all his wrongdoing, must be comforted by the Mother. He doesn’t stop there but goes on to remind the goddess that she must deliver him for the sake of her own reputation. For there could be many


Bad children, but who ever heard
Of a bad mother?

— Ramprasad Sen (18thcentury), Tr. Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely

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How do you define ‘Home’?

Our roundtable with authors from “Go Home!,” an Asian diasporic anthology of fiction, essays, and poetry grappling with the true meaning of “home.”

“Is home a real place? Is it a memory?” asks Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, editor of the new anthology “Go Home!” (out from Feminist Press, in collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop). “Who gets to decide when you’re at home? What does it mean when you lose a home? How do you respond when someone tells you to go home? What if you don’t know where that is?”

In “Go Home!” — a collection that feels particularly timely in the midst of attacks on immigrant families and communities — Asian diasporic writers are both thoughtful and generous in their reflections about who they are, where they have been, and where they belong. Their stories will provide illumination and hope to readers grappling with their own questions about family, identity, and belonging. Shondaland reached out to Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (editor of “Go Home!” and author of the novel “Harmless Like You”), Viet Thanh Nguyen (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” who wrote the foreword to “Go Home!”), and contributors Alexander Chee (author of the national bestseller “The Queen of the Night” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”), Karissa Chen (editor-in-chief of Hyphen and author of the chapbook “Of Birds and Lovers”), T Kira Madden (editor-in-chief of No Tokens and author of the forthcoming “Long Live the Tribe of the Fatherless Girls”), and Esmé Weijun Wang (author of “The Border of Paradise” and the forthcoming “The Collected Schizophrenias”) to discuss this powerful and timely new anthology.

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Book Excerpt: Love and the Turning Seasons: India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing

Love and the Turning Seasons

Jayadeva

The twelfth-century Gīta-govinda of Jayadeva has a reputation as the last great poem in the Sanskrit language. It holds two other distinctions. First, it appears to be the first full account in poetry of Radha as Krishna’s favorite among the gopis or cowgirls of Vrindavana. Secondly, it seems to be the first historical instance of poetry written with specified ragas or musical modes assigned to its lyrics. The poem-cycle occurs in twelve cantos with twenty-four songs distributed among them, about 280 stanzas in total. It presents the love affair of Krishna and Radha as an acutely human love affair, from initial “secret desires” and urgent lovemaking to separation — nights of betrayal, mistrust, longing, feverish anguish, strange Imaginings — and finally to a consummation as spiritual as it is carnal. Jayadeva’s birthplace is uncertain — some think Orissa, some Mithila, some Bengal. Accounts make it clear he had carefully trained himself as a poet in the Sanskrit tradition, learnéd and in command of classical metrics, when he took a vow to wander as a homeless mendicant, to sleep no more than one night under any tree. On this endless pilgrimage he passed through the coastal city of Puri in Orissa State, one of India’s cardinal pilgrim destinations and home to the huge Jagannath Temple. There in Puri, the chief priest and administrator of the Jagannath Temple had a vision. In it Krishna told him that Jayadeva should marry his daughter Padmāvatī, a dancer dedicated to the temple, settle down, and compose a devotional poem of unprecedented beauty to Krishna. The result was the Gīta-govinda. At one point while composing his poem, overwhelmed that he had to write words that belonged to Krishna, Jayadeva, unable to continue, put down his stylus and went to the river to bathe. When he returned he asked for his meal. Padmāvatī exclaimed that she had already fed him. Confused, Jayadeva looked at his manuscript; the words he had felt unable to compose sat inked onto the palm-leaf page. Krishna had visited in Jayadeva’s absence and taken a hand in his own poem—then, mischievously disguised as the poet, stayed on to eat Jayadeva’s lunch. Meeting Padmāvatī wakened in Jayadeva the bedrock emotion, the rasa, of love. What had been distant accounts of spiritual grace, a familiar theme for poetry, or even a set of metaphysical abstractions, came alive in his own body: the merging of spiritual and erotic ecstasy. Under Padmāvatī’s hands Jayadeva learnt that the old tales, the yogic teachings, and the cycles of loss and longing were no far-off vision. They are tasted through one’s senses. You could say that all the metaphysics and yoga practices of India—heady, magnificent, intricate, contradictory—return in the end to a single imperative: love. I think it the genius of Radha-Krishna poetry to take the hair-splitting metaphysics of India, lift them from our easily bewildered minds, and relocate them in the glands of the human body. Krishna devotees say that in our current dark era, the Kali Yuga, not everyone can practice meditation; few can wrap their minds around subtle doctrine or follow the eight stages of yoga. Everyone can taste the desolations and ecstasies of love, though; this is where one finds Krishna. Some centuries after Jayadeva’s death, the Jagannatha Temple instituted the Gīta-govinda as its sole liturgy, with Padmāvatī’s dances performed in the sanctuary. All day and into the evening loudspeakers mounted on poles around the temple send the poem in loud song across courtyard and roof top, out to the cashew groves and semi-arid scrublands threaded by jackal and cobras.

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Call for Submission: The Best Asian Short Stories Anthology, 2018

Kitaab is seeking high quality short stories for The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 anthology to be published in 2018. Well-crafted stories with innovative characters, gripping plots, diverse voices.  Contemporary or historical, realist or fantasy, serious or humorous. Women-centered stories and social justice themes also very welcome. Give us mind-blowing originals.

The best three stories (decided by the editor) will get cash prizes or Amazon vouchers (worth $50 each)! All selected contributors will each receive 2 complimentary copies of the final publication.

The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 anthology will be edited by Dr. Debotri Dhar on behalf of Kitaab, Singapore. Debotri is an academic, essayist, novelist, editor, and columnist. She obtained a Bachelors degree from Delhi University, a Masters with Distinction from Oxford University, Ph.D from Rutgers University, and teaches at the University of Michigan, USA. Debotri’s curated and edited a book on Education and Gender that was published by Bloomsbury Academic (London, New York) in 2014. A curated collection of essays is forthcoming. Her novel The Courtesans of Karim Street (New Delhi, 2015) was praised in a slew of newspapers and shortlisted for a Young Writers’ Award. Her work has been published in journals and anthologies worldwide. In 2017, Debotri founded the Hummingbird Global Writers’ Circle, a travelling literary series to promote books, cultural exchange and global understanding.

Rules and regulations

Submissions between 3000-5000 words should be e-mailed to debotri_kitaab@outlook.com and kitaab.sg@gmail.com. Submissions must be made to both ids to qualify.

Asians of all nationalities living anywhere in the world are eligible. By ‘Asian writers’, we mean all writers who belong to the continent of Asia. Non-Asian authors who have resided in and written extensively about an Asian country will also be considered.

Submissions must be MSWORD (.doc/.docx) attachments, typed double spaced in legible fonts, preferably Times New Roman 12. The submission should also be pasted within the body of the covering mail. The subject line of the email should read as: Submission/TBASS/author’s name. Please include an author bio note of 100 words. Up to two submissions will be considered from each writer.

Previously published work in print or online (including blogs, magazines or other online fora) will not be accepted. Translations are welcome, provided prior permissions are taken by translators from original authors. Simultaneous submissions will be considered. Please intimate us immediately if the story is accepted elsewhere.

Deadline: April 30, 2018


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Book Excerpt: Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet

Burning the Sun's Braids

A Dog And A Cat
By Chen Metak

On the road
A dog and a cat are playing
A game of love and affection like man,
As they play and caress
As they run and gambol
The dog gently sinks his fangs
On the cat’s neck, and
The cat makes
Soft affectionate meows.

I don’t believe there is anything
Going on between the two animals,
Like there is no special relationship
Between an elephant and an ant
Between a man and a gorilla.

Nevertheless,
I did not create any obstacles
Between the two beings,
I know this is all performance, and yet
I do wish to believe
There is something between
The two.

To tell you the truth
In this affection-deprived age,
Even a simple performance
Has immense value.

 

Monologues In Hell
By Theurang

One

If the radiant hands scratch the face of darkness today,
Will the world of dawn be lifted from amidst the shadows tomorrow?

Two

If some ready-to-gallop horses
Have gone missing along with their saddles and bridles
Which horse-owner can point out who is the thief?

Three

If a scheming wolf leaps onto a flock of sheep
The unarmed shepherd can, of course, shout out from the mountains.

Four

Don’t tell lies when the ears are seeking for truth,
Do not create disharmony right before our eager eyes,
The people are watching you, the natural world is sighing at you.

Five

I may not have ownership over my five physical senses,
You may have stolen the five organs and six vessels,
But I have permanent ownership over my pure inner vision.

Six

Long live freedom, long live mankind
Long live truth, long live democracy
Long live the blood that runs in my veins!
Long live! Long live!

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100 Great Indian Poems — Editor’s Note and 8 poems

EDITOR’S NOTE

–Abhay K

100 Great Indian Poems

On 10 December 1950, William Faulkner began his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with these words, “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit…” As art transcends the artist, poetry transcends the poet. Faulkner further elaborated upon the importance of artwork over the artist in an interview with The Paris Review in 1956. Referring to the futility of conflict over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, he contends, “…what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.”

This is what I had in mind when I started editing 100 Great Indian Poems and its companion volume 100 More Great Indian Poems. The poetry anthologies I have come across have a clear emphasis on ‘the poets,’ illustrated in the titles such as Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, Twelve Modern Indian Poets, Nine Indian Women Poets or 60 Indian Poets. These My Words, edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, which could be otherwise daunting and inaccessible to common people, may be an exception. These lines from De Souza’s poem ‘Meeting Poets’ are telling –

I am disconcerted sometimes
by the colour of their socks
the suspicion of a wig
the wasp in the voice
and an air, sometimes, of dankness.
Best to meet in poems:
cool speckled shells
in which one hears
a sad but distant sea

A general reader does not need to know which prizes a poet has won, how many books has s/he published or which festivals has s/he attended; the charm and force of an individual poem is sufficient to move the reader. Poetry survives the poets because of its timeless and intrinsic value. Therefore, I don’t understand the obsession of the 20th century anthologists of Indian poetry with the poets.

I was fascinated with Rashmirathi by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar while growing up as a child in Bihar. I chanced upon my father’s worn-out copy of this book at home when I was in class four. The magic that I had felt in the sound and energy of words in Rashmirathi stays with me till date. This Hindi epic tells the story of Karna, Krishna, Pandavas and Kauravas. It was my first lesson in literature as well as in politics and diplomacy. I memorised the third canto by heart as I often read it. I still do. I have unsuccessfully tried to translate this work into English. The magic of native words is lost in translation; and therefore, verses from Rashmirathi do not find a place in the anthology of great Indian poems. For the similar reason of untranslatability, several other great poems could not fit into this anthology.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Charles Adès Fishman and Smita Sahay, editors of Veils, Halos & Shackles

By Shikhandin

16th December 2017 came and went. With barely a murmured remembrance. That’s five whole years since Nirbhaya, the name this brave girl, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was hailed by, the one who fought her attackers and then fought to survive in hospital. Ultimately she could not overcome her grievous injuries. So what happened? Why are we still not enraged? Have we slipped into our usual drugged sleep of forgetfulness?

Sometimes protest becomes still. We lose heart and start to despair. I like to believe that it is during times of stillness that protest gathers steam. During that still period, we need poetry. The poetry of protest. That is why I dare to visualise Veils Halos & Shackles in the hands of not just random or selective readers but anyone who wishes to become more conscious across societies, across the world. Even those who are not diehard fans of poetry; yes, even them. I visualise this book as reading material in classrooms, and not just for literature or liberal arts students. It is no longer enough to be outraged by newspaper and television reports. Poetry must outrage us. Oppression fears poetry. The winds of change feed on poetry. Hence the need for Veils Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, published by Kasva Press, 2016.

Here we get behind the scenes regarding the making of this volume and also try to get an understanding of what the editors – Smita Sahay and Charles Fishman – experienced.

Shikhandin: Tell us about the beginning, that little seedling from which this book grew, apart from the accounts of the horrific crimes that sowed the original seed. And why the name/inspiration behind it – Veils, Halos & Shackles?

Charles Fishman: Thank you for this opening question, Shikhandin, and for the others that follow. I’m delighted that Smita has agreed to respond to your questions, whenever possible; wrestling with complex issues effectively and persuasively is one of her many gifts as a poet and thinker.

Smita Sahay: Charles and I were in conversation about his last book of poetry, In the Path of Lightning, and I found sanity in his justice-demanding yet hope-and-love-filled verses in the days after Jyoti Singh Pandey was assaulted and later passed away. There was no way to come to terms with what had happened and I was mute within my fury and grief. The violence with which Jyoti’s life had been snuffed out had left Charles, thousands of miles away from India, as horrified. As we tried to find comfort in each other’s emails, our intent to give artistic expression to this fury led us to conceptualise Veils, Halos & Shackles. We first contemplated co-writing a book, but then we were convinced that there were multiple voices that needed to be united and decided to go ahead with an Indo-American anthology. This initial version of the anthology grew organically into the international volume of Veils, Halos & Shackles that eventually came out, and this expansion is proof that sexual violence is more universal than we admit, that survivors are caged unspeakably within their own suffering and that uniting in the face of sexual violence is possibly the only way to fight it.

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Book Review: Review in Perspective of Veils, Halos & Shackles

Five years ago, in January 2013, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay conceived of Veils, Halos & Shackles, dedicated to ‘Jyoti Singh Pandey, Nadia Anjuman and the uncountable number of other women and girls who have been victims of gender violence’. 

This is a two-part feature consisting of the book review and an interview with Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay. Today we carry the review to be followed by the interview tomorrow.

By Shikhandin

Veils, Halos & Shackles

 

Title: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women
Edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay
Publisher: Kasva Press, 2016
Buy 

 

On the night of 16th December 2012, in New Delhi, Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped and tortured – which included the removal of her intestines with a metal rod – in a moving bus, and thrown out. She and her friend lay on the road for a long time before anyone stopped to help. She died in Singapore a few days after. For those who would like to know the details, it is here in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Delhi_gang_rape.

New Delhi is a city notorious for its treatment of women, where assault of all kinds occur with alarming regularity, with percentages being somewhat more than in the rest of India. This time, there was such brutality involved that it shook a nation which is normally in a state of extreme torpor with regard to women’s dignity and safety. India erupted into nationwide protests and not just through marches and candle lit vigils. In the hearts of Indian women and sane Indian men, a single voice seemed to rise – ‘Enough!’ The world too, took note, with horror. That was five years ago.

Since then, newspapers, television channels and other media, including social, have regularly reported similar outrages meted out to women and children, both girls and boys. At times it seems like the number of incidents has increased, and that instead of a nation trying to become better, India has regressed into perversion and misogyny. A number of cases have been reported of foreign objects being inserted into girls as young as two. The crime rate seems to be spiking. Women and survivors from other genders braving social media with their protests and stories are being trolled regularly. Parents are still worried sick for their daughters when they come home late or are unreachable on their phones.

Did Nirbhaya die in vain?

The rumble went deeper than imagined. It created fissures at depths where visibility is near non-existent. Nirbhaya was the turning point.

Now people are increasingly open. They refuse to be intimidated into silence. We hear of more cases because more people are reporting them. There is greater support and understanding for survivors and victims not just in India, but across the world, for while India may have a terrible reputation with regard to all those who identify as women, the situation is far from good even in developed and apparently liberal societies.

Across the world, much needs to be done. In India, we are a long way away from being a safe and respectful society towards girls and women and gay men. The change, unfurling all around us, often so quietly we barely note its presence, is shaking the core of our society. However slowly, however timidly. There is protest through vigils and media outcries. Much of it is inner dissent. A lot of it is quiet. Some of it pours out in artistic expressions.

The shape of protest is protean. The colours of its pain and beauty are myriad. Protest’s life span is longer than that of placards, and the decibel level of its call is higher than that of individual angry voices. The storm brewing, gathering and collecting force has a language. One of the languages of this protest is poetry.

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Book Excerpt: An Unsuitable Woman by Shinie Antony

An Unsuitable Woman

 

BIRDSONG

Jahnavi Barua

So, what have you decided?’

Directly above her is a scarlet minivet; he is a striking bird, with his scarlet and black plumage, and is sitting patiently, as if presenting himself to her. She tries to find the best angle for the picture. The branches of the tree are bare—it is almost winter—and the bird is flamboyant against the stark skeleton.

‘Are you going to answer?’

Her foot snags on a jutting root as she presses on the button and the bird flies away, casually, as if judging that enough time has been given and now he must move on.

On the viewing screen, she is left with a red blur, the exact colour and ferocity of anger. His voice is tinged with that colour, now, and every so often.

Beyond the small waterhole, a scarlet flash in a jackfruit tree.

She makes her way swiftly to the foot of the tree. The bird is perched, motionless, above her, his long tail balancing him just so. She raises her head, peering through the viewfinder trying to position the bird.

Warm breath against her neck. ‘What the hell do you think you are playing at?’ He tugs at her shoulder; she loses her balance and throws an arm out, gripping the tree trunk. The bird flies away soundlessly.

‘Listen, you have to decide one way or the other.’ His voice is now jagged with fury.

She is keeping him from the cricket match on TV; even on a holiday, in the middle of the forest, he remains glued to the screen. But he too is keeping her from her birds. Her jaw assumes a stubborn set. She thinks of all the times he has remained wedded to the television: when she lay ill in bed with dengue fever, shivering and frightened; when she walked their newborn son to sleep at night, frantic with pain from the C-section incision and worry; when she wanted to watch the birds on a late night programme.

‘Excuse me,’ she says and pushes past him, to the steps at the base of the small hill. She runs up the steps easily. He follows—she can hear him cursing—as he pants his way up slowly.

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