Tagore’s bust at his ancestral home at Joransankho, Kolkata
Debendranath, Rabindranath’s father’s bust
On May 7 th, 1861, was born a man who left an indelible mark in the world of literature, philosophy, music, education and on the lives of many people. He wrote the national anthem for at least two countries, India and Bangladesh, and influenced the writer of the national anthem of a third country, Sri Lanka.
Rabindranath Tagore, the first non- European Nobel prize winner, was a remarkable man. Despite having his songs picked for national anthems and providing inspiration to other national anthem writers, he was critical of a system that drew borders among men and created hatred or intolerance. He withdrew from the politics of nationalism. He wrote: “…my conviction (is) that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
Vital Possessions is a collection of poems, haikus, monologues and photographs by award winning Singaporean poet and photographer Marc Nair. The content reflects the tussle between city life and nature.
Marc Nair takes us on a journey through ASEAN countries — Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and of course Singapore. He finds nature pushing its way through the crevices of city life. In one of his haikus, accompanied by a photograph of a worn out wall with grass growing out of the gaps, he writes,
“Nature never fails
to push against the grain
of forgotten cities.”
When I see the picture and read the lines, what springs to my mind is the St Paul’s church in Malacca, built in 1521, a forgotten church of a bygone era. The monument has vegetation growing out of crevices, which many old buildings would have. However, a sense unique hopefulness is brought to the fore by Marc Nair’s brevity of words to create a picture perfect perspective.
Title: Shillong Times: A Story of Friendship and Fear Author: Nilanjan P. Choudhury Publisher: Speaking Tiger (2018) Pages: 237
Nilanjan Choudhury’s novel Shillong Times, as the subtitle suggests, is a ‘story of friendship and fear’. Friendship’s association with ‘fear’, then, seems to be a thematic focus.
Set against the backdrop of Shillong in the volatile times of the 1980s, the novel is an addition to what is now turning out to be a fairly long list of fiction, including short stories which revolve around this town. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head, Siddartha Deb’s The Point of Return and Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land come readily to mind.
Choudhury, however, builds a more conscious landscape than the others to take us to the world of his fourteen year old protagonist Debojit Dutta, who in Blakeian terms leaves his ‘innocence’ behind to ‘experience’ his new found world, thanks to his friendship with two other teenagers, Clint Eastwood Lyngdoh and the empathetic Audrey Pariat. It is the former who introduces Debojit Dutta, when they meet in mathematics tuition classes, to the world of Pink Floyd and the out-of-bounds restaurant Kalsang.
I mentioned the volatile times of the eighties that forms the backdrop of the novel. Choudhury poignantly interfuses community relations (tribal and non tribal, the Bengali superiority syndrome, the Sylheti speaking Bengalis and the Calcutta Bengalis, etc.) with personal ones. Yet these personal friendships are among teenagers, which their adult counterparts or forebears seem to look askance at. Debojit’s mother reprimands him for this, so does his school teacher (lampooned effectively) Mr. Chakravarty. Clint’s father refuses to help in getting the trading licence of Debojit’s father renewed, although he saves him in a potentially violent squabble.
As ethnic tensions rise in the town of Shillong, resulting also in conflict of relations between Debojit and Clint (thanks also to the meddlesome Mr. Chakravarty), Debojit’s parents contemplate shifting to Calcutta and remove him to a school in Calcutta despite his protestations. Debojit also suffers taunts from his locality members for befriending a tribal, a Khasi. All this while, the petite Audrey plays a quiet mediating role, playing across the broken friendship of Debojit and Clint and building bridges.
‘Like Earth to Stars’: Forthcoming from Poetrywala, Mumbai
Heracleion and the City of Shiva Prakash
Thank you, archaeologists, for excavating
the great ancient city
hidden in the depths of the Mediterranean
for one thousand and two hundred years.
Our stone children,
gods and goddesses,
still lie there
dreamy-eyed and smiling
though heads and limbs are broken
and eroded by sea salt.
Why did this city drown?
It stood on the foundation of sand
that could not bear and support
its ever increasing weight of buildings
and statues of gods and people,
poor sand gave way…
But a lot of the city’s glory still survives poignantly
hidden in water and surrounded by unmindful fish
waiting to be discovered and admired…
My heart too is a city
bursting with palaces, temples and gardens
I built for you.
So many pilgrims and merchants come here day and night
and most settle down
as they cannot say goodbye to a city so exquisite,
because of you and my art
but, alas, I have built all this
on the foundation of wet sands
of your ever dwindling faith in me.
So the City of Shiva Prakash too will collapse
due to a great error of the builder:
He never thought of the strength
of the foundation.
once it goes under the sands of the ever-changing world
will someone discover its wonders
when neither of us will be around?
Title: A Bombay in My Beat Author: Mrinalini Harchandrai Publisher: Bombaykala Books Buy
As I place a finger on my pulse, I realise that it cannot be isolated from the throb and rhythm of Bombay – Mrinalini Harchandrai
If we talk about a place that bounces up like a sweet cadence or a place conceived in scintillating music; if we talk about a sonorous treat to the ears, sounds dancing to life, leaping up in each page or a musicality that conjures up a place – Bombay. If we talk about a traveller’s languishing trails, the detour and the fleeting destinations, the hazy sights from the windows of trains, the slanting glasses in skyscrapers and beads of rain drops trickling by or a song sung in monsoon that is both sharp and intimate, delectable and whimsical, contemplative and jocular, then Mrinalini Harchandrai’s collection of poems is a feast for your senses. You cannot help wondering why the poet resorted to ‘Bombay’, a term that is obsolete now instead of the recent ‘Mumbai’. You cannot help but wonder whether it is an act that tells us a little more on ‘looking back’ or taking a ‘backward glance’ – are we ushered into a world of retracted footsteps, bittersweet memories of the poet or a past that is resuscitated in the present? Above all, it is a Bombay in her beat; the word ‘beat’ remarkable in its duality – Harchandrai points to a rhythmic presence, a city that thrives in each throb of her heart and also a city that is steeped in music. The word transports us to a world of experimentation by the Beat generation poets, especially Ginsberg and Snyder, best known for defying the norms of conventional literature, pivotal in seeking an elevated consciousness (through meditation, Eastern religion and hallucinogenic drugs) and are chiefly credited for battling against myriad manifestations of social conformity. The ‘inflected locution’ of the Beat generation poets is a serious inclination in Harchandrai’s collection, not to mention the heavy leanings on the jazz poetry of Langston Hughes. This not only stretches the exploratory potential of Harchandrai, but also creates a spectrum of emotional variance and experiential realities. If the poet wants to do what Hughes aspires to accomplish – ‘I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,’ then it is indeed necessary to mention that she sets forth a gargantuan challenge for herself, something as real as translating the blues emanating from a nightclub in Harlem and Washington D.C into a suite of poems mimicking the raw splendour of life and also its sheer hopelessness, something as fragile as replicating the improvisatory nature of jazz – a stance that requires a whole amount of self conscious regulatory principles. As we delve deep into A Bombay in My Beat, we detect Jazz poetry as one of the vital sources of inspiration. In Mrinalini Harchandrai’s words, ‘with a hat-tip to Langston Hughes,’ the poems seek refuge in ‘individual music’, a fact that is well detected even in the treatment of diverse worldviews and perspectives.
I write because I feel compelled to commemorate something that’s important to me, or communicate something that needs to be said, or grapple with some thorny issue that won’t otherwise let me rest. Making art of any kind (whether it’s poetry or paintings) is a way of creating order out of the chaos of human experience. That’s why it’s necessary.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I just recently published my first full-length collection of poems, titled Not Elegy, But Eros, which appeared simultaneously in the US (from NYQ Books) and in Bangladesh (from Bengal Lights Books). The book is in part about grief and loss, but also about moving beyond that and affirming life. It’s about the making and unmaking of the self, and the role of art and literature in helping us live.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I would say my writing is ‘traditional’ in T. S. Eliot’s sense — i.e., my aesthetic is informed by the poets of the past. At the same time, what I learn from past masters is, of course, refracted by the prism of my own individual personality and life experience. The work that results is, I hope, something that is both personal and universal at the same time.
Who are your favourite authors?
Well, there are many. In the 20th century: Stevens, Yeats, Eliot, Crane, Moore, Auden, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Donald Justice. In the 19th century and before: Keats, Tennyson, Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson, Donne, Milton, Shakespeare. Among living poets: certainly Frank Bidart, who was my first poetry teacher.