In this seemingly innocent address, Hoskote is doing something remarkable – like a good usher, he is showing us where the vacant seats of history are. But he does not leave it at that – Grandmother Lal is not just a historical figure he will turn the spotlight on. Grandmother Lal, so long “crystallised into an archetypal narrative of the misunderstood young woman with spiritual ambitions” in our consciousness, becomes a product of history in Hoskote’s introduction.
Born somewhere between 1301 and 1320 either in Sempore near Pampore, or in Pandrenthan nea Srinagar to a Brahmin family and married at the age of twelve, “she was given a new name, Padmavati, but remained Lalla in her own eyes”. Her marriage was unhappy, she was treated cruelly by her husband and starved by her mother-in-law, and at the age of twenty six, Grandmother Lal renounced the worldly life. She became a parivrajika, a wandering mendicant.
Hoskote notes that “this was not an easy choice for a Brahmin woman to make in the Kashmir of the fourteenth century.” He traces her journey from this confused young girl tortured by the shackles of domesticity to the “questor and teacher” whose poems draw their energy from their author’s experience of being a yogini and the devotional practices of Kashmi Saivite mysticism.
A knotted blur
Why Grandmother Lal and why is “herstory” such a knotted blur in our public history of literature and religion? It is easy to guess the first reason: she was a woman. Hoskote attributes the misrepresentation and occlusion of this aberrational woman to Kashmiri historians, all of whom “concerned themselves with the documentation of dynastic fortunes and shifting political alliances, with accounts of the economy and the climate; with the transformation of religious life through political change.” It becomes easier to spot Hoskote’s agenda now. The rejection of patriarchal historiography and its safe places is one, of course, but the other I find even more energising: he invites and invokes an interiority in our understanding of history, one missing from grand narratives.
Poem 96 from his translations is a good instructive illustration:
Want a kingdom? Raise a sabre.
Want heaven? Burn in penance, give to the poor.
Want knowledge of the Self? Listen to the Master.
Want your current balance of sin and virtue?
Better consult the Self.
The privileging of the “kingdom” over the “Self” that we notice in Lal Ded’s poetry is one that Hoskote challenges in his intellectual biography about the poet.
History has reserved only one role for the grandmother: she is to be a storyteller, not a historian. The most popular book of Bangla children’s stories, for instance, is called Thakumar Jhooli, literally “grandmother’s bag”. What kind of stories can Grandmother Lal tell?
Hoskote is pointing a finger here again, for in Grandmother Lal’s stories, kings and queens don’t live in palaces; hers is a history of the trials of the self, and when has a child – or a historiographer – been interested in the invisible? It is only the male who is allowed his banwas, his voluntary exile; a male renouncer will become a saint. But the grandmother? Do grandmothers find mention in the books of lives of saints?
“Teri nani mari toh mein kya karu ...” goes a popular Hindi film song. What am I to do if your grandmother is dead? Says something, doesn’t it?
This is a good time to ask: who are Ranjit Hoskote’s grandmothers?
“I do not envy you this brief, biographer.” So wrote Hoskote in the poem Questions for a Biographer (Vanishing Acts: New and Selected Poems 1985-2005). A good instruction.
Nevertheless, Hoskote’s grandsonhood is a good perch from which to look upon his nearly quarter of a century of writing.
The massive output, if one can borrow that term from industrial production to describe a writer's insect-like life of collection and deposition, with five collections of poems, Zones of Assault, The Cartographer’s Apprentice, The Sleepwalker’s Archive, Vanishing Acts: New and Selected Poems 1985-2005, and the recently published Central Time, along with his art criticism and work as an editor of an anthology of poetry, Reasons for Belonging, and the outstanding Dom Moraes: Collected Poems, might make us forget that Ranjit Hoskote is only 45 years old. Born in 1969, he began writing poems when he was still a student at Bombay Scottish School.
What Hoskote writes about Moraes, one of the few Indian poets he has confessed to sharing a literary ancestry with, in his Introduction to Dom Moraes: Selected Poems, holds true for him too.
Poetry had announced its claim on Moraes very early. Like many children destined to become writers, especially if they happen to be their parents’ only child, he was a reclusive non-athlete and a misfit at school. Both Campion and St Mary’s, in Bombay, were Catholic institutions that emphasises sport alongside their academic curricula; Moraes did not defy so much as he sidestepped his teachers’ expectations, withdrawing easily into the domain of his own richly populated imagination.
At Bombay’s Elphinstone College, Hoskote studied Politics, Sociology and Economics, later taking an MA in Literature & Aesthetics. Elphinstone would bring two things into his life: the energy of art; the other was the woman who would eventually become his wife. Hoskote’s wife, Nancy Adajania, is a cultural theorist and curator who has, among other things, researched India's craft traditions and the contemporary forms emerging from them.
Here is Hoskote in an email to me: “Nancy and I met in college – Elphinstone College, Bombay – in 1988. We were both students of the social sciences. Elphinstone was then in the last phase of a particularly inspired period in its history, 1960s-1990s, during which it had been variously a hotbed for Left-wing uprising, a stage for intellectual debate, a site of resistance during the Emergency, and a crucible for the emergence of new forms of thought and expression. ... Also, the Jehangir Art Gallery was just across the road, as was Max Mueller Bhavan and the Centre for Education & Documentation, a broadly Left-liberal library and research centre – and for Nancy and me, these became integral components of our growing up.”
But to return to Hoskote’s grandmothers. “Both my grandmothers passed away before I was born. The presence and narrative of my paternal grandmother, Chandrabhaga Hoskote, informs some of my poems . . . ; my maternal grandmother, Radha Nagarkatti, does not appear quite as manifestly in my poems, but I do have a cycle of poems in draft form that draw on stories about her. All that I know of my grandmothers is put together from circulating family folklore, photographs, and the stories my parents told me about them; so, in some profound sense, my knowledge of them is based on an archaeological exploration.” Family folklore, archaeological exploration, photographs, poems – this is the archive from which grandmothers and their histories need to be excavated .
Hoskote’s paternal grandmother belonged to a family that had transited from landowning to entrepreneurship; she was multilingual, “an integral aspect of Saraswat culture, given our diasporic history”, the Saraswat Brahmins traced their origin to the Indus-Saraswati civilisation, and her languages were Konkani, English, Kannada, Tamil, and Sanskrit. His maternal grandmother’s father was a doctor who had returned to look after the family's lands and committed himself to the people of the region, the Andle region in North Kanara. Her languages were Konkani, English, Marathi and Hindi, as well as Sanskrit.
What personal history has contributed
It was this polyglossia, both linguistic and cultural, one inherited from his family, the other coming to him from Bombay’s peculiarly rich environment that was collected like essence in a bottle in Elphinstone that shaped him. Why is this knowledge of Hoskote’s histories important to our understanding of his work?
The first of those reasons would be obvious to attentive observers of English poetry in India – Hoskote is perhaps the only one of this generation of poets who has written diligently and astutely about poets he considers owing intellectual debts to. He called an anthology of poetry that he edited, by fourteen Indian poets writing in English , Reasons for Belonging (2002). That phrase holds in it his commitment to the concept of “tradition” in literary history. In his essays – intellectual homages – on Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, and Dom Moraes, whose poems he edited and collected for the Penguin Modern Classics Series, or the painstaking labour of collecting and interpreting Lalla’s work, we see a man who is acutely aware of where his shadow falls, and where the light is.
From his literary homages to these writers, it is possible to glean an idea about the kind of writer Hoskote was aiming to be. In Ezekiel, he admires the poet’s “sustained meditation on the act of poetry, its ability to testify to experience, but much more vitally, to act as a mode of knowledge”; Arun Kolatkar, he finds “nourished ... by his private engagements with literature, painting, design and society. ... Unlike many other poets, who struggle to sustain their sensibilities against the grain of their day-jobs, Mr Kolatkar profited from his involvement in visualisation and design.”
About Dom Moraes, he writes, “Although already in the grip of cancer, he left for Ahmedabad as soon as the post-Godhra pogrom launched by Hindu right-wing goon squads against the Muslim minority erupted in late February 2002. The former war correspondent was traumatised by the evil he saw there, regarding it as worse than any he had seen in Algeria, Vietnam and Indonesia.”
Having quoted from Moraes’s powerful poem, A Day in Ayodhya, Hoskote writes, “In this last phase ... he ... saw himself as a self-among-others, his and their destinies bound inextricably together. The mythopoeic nature of his poetry now acquired a dimension of urgent historicity. ... he was now a contributor to the unfolding scenarios of its collective life. He embraced that responsibility”. The responsibility of the poet to poetry, the relationship between visual art and poetry, the “urgent historicity”, the things he admires in Ezekiel, Kolatkar and Moraes respectively, are to be found in his own.
Man of letters
Hoskote’s emails are often as full of the eye’s pulse as his poems, and so when I ask him about the letters he wrote and received from these writers he admired, he says, “Nissim famously communicated through postcards; I have most of the ones he wrote me, but would have to trawl through the so-called archives (essentially, several trunks, some overstuffed drawers, and bags). Dom would call. From Adil, I have some cover letters for texts, archival material or photocopies that he would share, as well as notes on index-card-shaped notepaper... again, scattered and to be pulled together someday, I hope.” Even in this informal conversation, it is impossible not to notice Hoskote’s instinct for preservation, for maintaining records. Does that explain why the “archive” must be one of the most important metaphors in his body of work, both prose and poetry?
This understanding of time, as an invisible agent that is responsible for “history”, explains why “Time”, as word and concept in Central Time, his most recent collection of poems, is there for a good reason. “My general logic for Central Time was to develop an architecture of one hundred poems, to celebrate forms such as the sataka and the century, and to have it unfold as a cycle in five phases. Each phase or section would have 20 poems, and would articulate, so to speak, the mind-space of a particular character or temperament. Somewhere near the completion of the book – and this was triggered off by a re-reading of Bachelard (the French philosopher who wrote extensively on poetics of space and the philosophy of science) – I thought I could detect the presence, in each section, of a dominant element, or combination of elements, which made compelling sense, albeit retrospectively (remember that all this is subtext, my own private coding – and if it breaks surface and comes across or signals its presence, that's great!).”
Time, Sataka, Century – time’s calibrations, the clockwork of history, here in five sections. The first is Zoetrope, a cylinder used to create the illusion of motion in pre-cinema times – the stage is the mind of a man with a magic lantern. Every time he needs the new, he twirls his magic lantern and a fresh relay of images appear – buildings, bridges, houses, cathedrals, plans, earthworks. Earth, with air, is the prevailing element. “The graves are numbered, without verses or seasons to ground them” (“Numbers”, Central Time), a zoetrope of numbers, begging for history.
This is history’s new discourse, where the day is too anorexic to hold the names of those who die every day, and so numbers. And so the graveyard as archive. In this marvellous first section, we see glimpses of the Hoskote of The Cartographer’s Apprentice (2000), a collaborative project that the poet worked on with the painter Laxman Shreshtha, a dialogue between text and image that foreshadows the poems in the Zoetrope section. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that Hoskote is one of India’s best art historians, having spent more than two decades curating, collaborating and writing about the country’s artists, on Atul Dodiya, Manu Parekh, Sudhir Patwardhan, Ganesh Pyne, Jehangir Sabavala, among others.
When I asked him whether he was a closet painter, he said, “I began, in some sense, as a painter. I loved to paint, and was immersed in the history of art, and was thought rather good at painting. Alas, that was my undoing. I became the sort of lad that's trundled out by the school for every inter-school competition, and is expected to return bearing prizes. This I duly did for a number of years, until at length the whole business began to pall on me. I retreated into painting for myself, at home. Midway through my BA, I was appointed art critic to The Times of India, Bombay – after which, as the years passed, the more I wrote on visual art the less I was inclined to produce any of it myself. The last thing I painted was a collaborative mural in the quadrangle of Elphinstone in 1989. In any case, my career as a poet had taken off by then.” Only a painter could write these lines: “The sliced apple/has elephants’ eyes for pips:/they stare up at the knife/that has brought them to life.” (Still Life); “The door’s frozen/like a stag in the glare of a headlight” (Coda); “A gash of sunlight on a lemon door” (Freehold); and my favourite: “The water is crumpling in your hands” (The Strange Case of Mr Narrative’s Reluctance).
Because our first reaction – and record – of violence is the visual, the poet allows history its frames – how else does one tame time? “We’ve caught a trace of the moment’s passage: the stain spreading on this page, a twist of ink, machine oil or deer’s blood. You say you can record it? ... You’re writing the future’s memory” (Native Informant). Here is the domestic life of history – the “trace”, the “stain” “twist”, their visuals recorded by those who work at what Hoskote calls the “Institute of Silence”. This is how Hoskote spots the machinations of history, its blood and bodies on display in the world outside, but where it lives permanently is the interior, where “stain” and scar, “ink” and spillage, “oil” and grime are.
Flying and dropping
Section 2, The Pilot's Almanac, is the record of a pilot struggling to keep his calendar in order even as archetypal patterns impose themselves on history, while forward speed is resisted by the drag of memory. Weather and terror explode with equal force. And history doesn’t know where to hide. The title of the poem is annotation enough:
A bird sits on a branch
of the fury tree:
a bird as big as India.
It’s sleeping now.
You can see it
if you tilt your head.
It’s crouched inside
the amber paperweight
on my desk:
shrunken, waiting for release.
The Burden of History
My favourite section is the third – Gravity Leaps to the Eye is in the voice of narrators who struggle between nomadism and place, momentum and gravity; its tropes are sight, location, illusion, mirage, occasions missed and potential, self and proxy, inhabit these poems. In it is a poem that has become a personal favourite. It is called “Fossil Curator”; in it Hoskote takes familiar tropes from palaeontology, archaeology, geology and turns them inside out. The result is a Rene Magritte like teasing line: after the descriptions of the “fossil curator”, “his fingers drum on mahogany, a beat coded in the bone”, the survey of the “parchment landscape”, Hoskote writes – “These events are no less real for taking place inside a head”. Grandmother history again: our history is also the stories inside us, real and imagined, the latter fluid, n plus one. History’s surplus.
The fourth section is The Existence Certificate, and it is a catalogue of feints, sleights, exits, entries, passages between histories, between fictions, treading the ground of the museum of discarded identities and superseded affiliations, revisitations of childhood, intimate memory, ruin and retrieval. In it I found Hoskote’s childhood, moving between the mountains and the sea, Kashmir and Goa, both now memory, the sea crashing against the hills in a way it is only possible in a poet’s memory. Here is the history of the historian, the histories of the mountain and the sea, the geologies that produce different kinds of men and their literatures, the eye level of the mountains, the ground level of water, a geographical cosmopolitanism that can only give birth to the most fantastic poetry.
One such – another favourite – is Botany. “Clove and mandrake/open the mouths of your mind, all dialogue here/is rolling transcript for a police state.” You can see botany being infused with the apparatus of political history, and you pause for another fantastic thought to come your way. The poet doesn’t disappoint. This, said to the “prickly garden” – “give nothing away/except your deep-shelved archive of silences.”
“The idea of the archive has always been strong in my work, and that became intensified in The Sleepwalker’s Archive,” Hoskote tells the poet Arundhati Subramaniam in an interview in Poetry International on 1st June 2005. “I found myself confronted by the fear of the loss of memory, the loss of language. This fear was shaped by factors as diverse as friend and poet Nissim Ezekiel’s struggle with Alzheimer’s close at hand, as well as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in a more global context. There was also a sense of loss at the community of poets dispersing, after the strong feeling of connection that some of us had shared at the Poetry Circle in Bombay in the early ’90s. I think Sleepwalker also reveals an ability to move more comfortably through works of visual art.”
The archive is both reservoir and valve, one that allows, in Hoskote’s words, “the passage between histories”. In an interview with Nether magazine, for instance, he speaks passionately about how the ‘acts of retrieval’ of the archive should not be limited by personal ideology or interest but include things that disrupt our safe passages of thought. Particularly striking is his belief that such an archive, catholic and an embodiment of difference, would lead the poet to epiphany.
What has wandered across both history and imagined histories is the personality of violence. More than any contemporary writer that I know of, Hoskote’s work has been in creating an archive of our civilisation’s demons (an oxymoron, I am aware), a provenance of blood. In Zones of Assault (1991), he records the acrobatics of this violence of centuries. It is not Safdar Hashmi, for instance, who is memorialised in Assassination of an Artist, but his death: “dragged from his altar/the rebel priest”; “The bleached grass clotting a flood of wounds”.
In this early book, one can see Hoskote coming to violence as a visual artist might – it is the superstition of colour, a blood red. 1917, a poem whose title is itself a mass graveyard, has the colour “red” play out its different energies – “Red sickles sprang/From the snowbound soil” to “And the gauntlets went red/With dissident throats”. His poems document the long and interminable career of human violence. In Report of War: Kosala, 900 BC (Vanishing Acts: New and Selected Poems 1985-2005), “the river has choked on bodies, theirs and ours”, “the hills have flattened/at our conquering feet”.
What binds these poems together is the conviction that we are not less violent than the next person. So behind the veil of beauty, of sweetness and light, is blood, “theirs and ours”. His poem for Agha Shahid Ali uses that phrase that has now become colloquial in poetry circles, “country without a post office”, but as in the title where the word “Captive” turns the hollowness of “Colours for a Landscape” inside out, Hoskote purposely punctures the beauty, both of Ali’s lines and the terrible beauty they commemorate:
You never meant to trap us in that country
without a post office, where boatmen and saints
trade stories to while away the days
of khaki captivity. No, Beloved Witness,
these were signposts you’d sketched
at the lake’s treacherous edge, to break our fall
as we hurtled down the foothills of policy.
Colours for a Landscape Held Captive, in memoriam: Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)
In the “Introduction” to Reasons for Belonging, Hoskote catalogues the characteristics of the 14 Indian poets he is anthologising. In them we see a manifesto as it were, of his reasons to think of poetry as a collective archive – the poets are “playing witness, they bear testimony to society and its confusions; playing archaeologist, they investigate lost imprints of thought and expressiveness”; “they dwell on the persistences of historical memory; they fasten on events that course through the bloodstream or spark along the nervous system, to explode in the brain ... they counter the grand narratives of official history with dissident versions”.
Section 5 of Central Time, The Institute of Silence, does exactly the same. The poem Revolution is a great illustration of what I have been calling Grandmother History.
As the soldier’s sister, who saddled shadows,
she rode through the dark, grey dappled on grey,
ringing her bell.
As the farmer’s wife, who chopped garlic and diced carrots
against the clock, she had the best practice of all,
watching the guillotine fall.
As the priest’s mother, she hung up her laundry
on a line sagging between sand-pitted columns,
picking head after head from her basket.
As the swan girl, she polished the bronze horses
every summer till they sweated against the colonnade,
printing their heat on her baby’s cradle.
And her hand, this hand that is writing:
you can slip it off any time you like
and try on another silk glove.
The figures of these women, rehearsing their rituals of violence, are a parallel history that must enter our records and our archives. Central Time makes us aware, on every page, that violence does not live only on battlefields or in the nozzle of a gun. It is inside these women, incubating inside the seemingly satin surface of domesticity, it is also inside books and arguments, and more than everything else, it is inside the heart: ‘Heart ... Will the historians decorate you/for all the wars you fought?” (Evening Landscape).
And the grandmother still
As it turns out, neither the interviewer at Nether magazine nor I are alone to think of the grandmother trope as utterly significant in Hoskote’s work. Claus Telge, a German scholar, in his essay, “Re-imagining the notion of home: Metaphors of memory in the poetry of Ranjit Hoskote”, rightfully reads the Grandmother poem as an “archive” (that the poem is from The Sleepwalker’s Archive only reiterates his position), as a “building metaphor that represents the storage capacity of memory, i.e., an accumulation of, for example, texts, images and films, which form a collective material repository of shared cultural knowledge that shapes and sustains cultural identity”.
The Sleepwalker is ambidextrous in his relation to history – he remembers and he forgets; his memory is differently porous at different times, depending on the hour of the day. The title and the image is a remarkable one – Who is to decide what we should remember and how much? Are we good historians of our own selves? Or, how does one remember the dead? Do the dead remember the living? Hoskote’s homage poems to poets, artists, social activists, filmmakers, that are to be found in all his collections of poems – and there are many, dedicated to poets, writers, artists he admired – are meant to archive the lost moments (for that has been the nature of history, to slip and get lost), not as obituaries which hold only the straight lines of a person’s life, but as pointillist art, life as an aggregation of moments and objects.
These are the objects that make Grandmother History:
A door. A stair. ...
the straight-backed chair my grandmother sat in ...
a volume of stories
open at the flyleaf ...
A Poem for Grandmother
The next poem in that collection is Grandfather’s Estate and Hoskote posits the “Estate”, its bureaucratic history, against his grandmother’s “room”. She is “an empress delegating domestic chores”; “Empire was never her creed”. Against the colonial setting of “a city of merchant ships”, the poet-historian is representing two parallel histories – the one at home, the other in the world. The latter has entered history books; the grandmother wasn’t so fortunate – “she grew into the earth, then, a storied fig tree”.
Grandmothers would like to sneak into the historical consciousness – so the poet wakes “some nights to find her eyes/staring at me from the mirror”. The mirror, history’s oldest trope, and the eyes of a woman now dead. Hoskote's point of entry into the ageing subconscious is intimate, like a whisper into the ear that never finds its way out. “A principle of growth: as you age, your needs grow fewer and fewer. Or should. But I shouldn't moralize,” he writes in The Last Annal of Alamgir.
History, public memory, the intimacy of ambition, the difference between the two bearers of history's coffin, the grandmother and the emperor. Hence the epigraph to Central Time, which comes from the sociologist Richard Sennett: "The skilled restorer of porcelain will collect not only the visible chips of a broken pot but also the dust on the table where it rested...".
I’ll quote from the last poem in Central Time – it is, in the queer time-mix of its title, The First and Last Portrait, a piece of delicate irony about the elitism of those who can choose to live outside history.
This is the first and last portrait. After this
no questions, after this you can shed
the mantle of affection, the scarf of duty. ...
You can become a god.
Only for “god” is the equivalence of the first and the last, this history puncturing simultaneity, this dissolving of chronos, only for “god”.
When the saints go marching in
Hoskote’s interest in history takes him to institutionalised religion and how saint poets such as Lalla and Sant Tukaram have challenged it.
The saint maintains his piety through the graphic imagination of other people’s vices. We thank him for it.
The saint’s impossible perfection allows us to go on being gargoyles while keeping our faith alive. We admire him for it.
The saint’s silence covers far more than our interpretations of it.
The saint has stood in the cave of light. He has spoken to the spirits of trees. His poetry is the fan of the white peacock opening against the rough shrubbery of our speech.
In an essay titled A Climactic Condition called Tukaram, published in A Pilgrim’s India (2011), a collection of essays edited by Arundhati Subramaniam, Hoskote rejects the two poles of the ritualistic religion and the bureaucratic secular that have drawn the outlines of India’s religious life over the last sixty odd years. “For the devout, a pilgrimage begins in a statement of faith and culminates in an affirmation of faith. For those of us who are not blessed with uncritical devotion, it begins in conversation and curiosity, in the need to test the limits of our strength and our scepticism ... The urge to walk out of ourselves remains strong. ... It was in a spirit receptive both to experiment and epiphany that we set out for Dehu on an unusually rainy April morning in 1994, following the trail of Tukaram, the celebrated saint-poet of the bhagvatsampradaya.”
Hoskote’s interest is not only in Tukaram but the Tukaram industry, both devotee and desecrator, that keeps history alive. Here is living history, living religion: “Like Tukaram, we are cocooned beyond radar range of communal pieties and sectarian hostilities here, and (Dilip) Chitre begins to recite an abhanga in honour of the moment. The cadence is picked up immediately, and the verse completed, by a voice from inside the cave. He lives! It is a villager who works in the Cadbury chocolate factory on the plain below, and comes up to the cave to spend his lunch hour in contemplation. An archive in human form, this varkari needs only the opening line to zero in effortlessly on one poem from the more than 4,000 Tukaram compositions preserved in the oral tradition: most of them from the master’s quill, others later interpolations in the canon, all revered by the bhagvatsampradaya. No search engine could have performed better or faster, no iPod could possibly match his pithy wisdom.”
About this Hoskote is very clear – the archive is a living organism, and history is not to be found in dead bones and radio dating alone, but in places which record footfall and footprints, the place of worship, the school, the marketplace, the staircase. In this too, his agenda for history from below is evident – all these places are grandmother’s archives. Hoskote’s interest in Tukaram is allied with his commitment to the first gesture at historicising – record keeping. Hence the interest in the materiality of history, in “parchment”.
“Parchment was an expensive commodity in the 17th century, and the lines of careful black and red script are packed tightly together on the age-browned manuscript. But the text has been stained by more than age. The visible evidence suggests that it has spent a stretch of time under water at some point in its history. ... The scene is not a hushed, white-walled, centrally air-conditioned museum in Washington DC, Paris or Berlin, but the temple of Vithoba in Dehu; on this early summer day, we are surrounded, not by suave curators and gawking tourists, but by turbaned varkaris who pursue their traditional pilgrimage routes in a spirit of serene devotion, humming abhangas to themselves. Unlike the icon or folio that has been transplanted into the antiseptic environment of a museum – cut away from its natural and cultural ethos, the round of seasons and festivities – this manuscript carries a specific gravity, a deep resonance. By virtue of having remained in the physical context of its origin, a compellingly and visibly symptomatic presence, it prompts the visitor into a vivid awareness of events incised into the terrain around the temple: events that have never really been allowed to become the past, because they are retold and re-enacted in proverb and fable. If the 350-year-old pages of this manuscript record the beatitudes and revelations that their writer experienced, they also tell a sordid tale of the jealousy and fear that he aroused among those who held power in his society. For this is the bhijkivahi, the legendary ‘immersed book’ of Tukaram: the transcript of his abhangas, which he was forced to sink in the Indrayani at the behest of the regional Brahmin orthodoxy.”
Hoskote’s interest in the saint poets is not for their poetry alone, but the “collective model of authorship”, with “interpolation”, every voice a brick in the wall,, another “living archive”. And hence his attack on the dirty ‘authenticity’ word: “Authenticity, which demands that we demarcate a pure Ur-text and eliminate all later accretions ... Since the late 1980s, however, Kashmir’s confluential culture has frayed thin under the pressure of a prolonged conflict to which transnational terrorism, State repression and local militancy have all contributed” (I, Lalla).
Hoskote has, in numerous lectures and essays, and also through his association with the India chapter of P E N., critiqued this amnesiac interpretation of history. Is it Ranjit Hoskote’s belief in history being a happy hand me down then that makes him return to the image of the hand through his long career? The hand is the most potent political symbol in his work, an aphorism in itself, someone praying with folded hands, another casting votes, punching passwords, turning pages of books, making oneself unique with her fingerprints, blessing children and then holding guns. And then there is the historian’s hand, the “hand that is writing” (Revolution). One hand paints history: ‘I’m painting the numbers back on the clock” (Countdown). The other destroys it: “At night I dream I’m tearing up my letters” (The Poet in Exile).
That hand. Surely, sir, you saw it move?
Surely you saw it clench
like a hairclip clutching at vanished hair,
like a velvet crab scuttling out of water
on the way to its next victim.
The Memoirs of Don Quixote
Palmists see the future in the lines on a hand, a historian the past. The poet, always an in-between creature, is an archaeologist who does not wear sanitised gloves. Quite tellingly, an essay by Hoskote on the painter Mehlli Gobhai is titled The Resisting Hand. “Keys to epics, I hold these partisan details/that burn the writing hand/and pierce the eye’s complacencies” (Bearings). The hand also holds mirrors which reflect faces: “This is a face of etched lines, hard/And confident as history”. So “let history be a little afraid” (Leonardo).
Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.