I remember that day in Hyderabad when I was introduced to my first book of haibun. I began reading it to kill time before a literary event, but just couldn’t put the book down. I am not an enthralled reader. Anything can distract me: a film, a phone call, a friend, a better plan, the aroma of food…
But here, within 250 pages were 120 haibun, sketching universes of revelations in synopsised depth. Summarised lifetimes, told with lucidity, in a frame no longer than a page that set tales adrift with a lingering aftertaste of the haiku.
I read 120 haibun that day, traversing ages, continents, and eras through confessions, memory, and the anecdotes of pain and pleasure. I remember feeling enriched, as though I had read 120 novels or watched 120 films, through slow-moving window frames of worlds, going far into the multiplicity of slant, idiom, and thought-thread.
I can still remember a few lines:
“All our hinges are wearing out” (Swede)
“So many old friends among the deleted dead” (Jones)
“There is no one who believes in disbelief” (Kacian)
“A monologue divided into two is no dialogue. It’s like playing chess against yourself” (Manjrekar)
“Nothing could have been more splendid than to see the colored lights after the blackouts of war” (Prime)
“Holding the saffron brilliance of dusk in her cup” (Chhoki)
‘Tonight it is all the same blue” (Coats)
When lines of poetry were assimilated I thought of their stories: Why was the boy banished from playing chess by that old German couple in Bombay? What about the teenager whistling a woebegone tune in his beloved lanes of Lucknow? What of that pet dog who had exhaled his final mist at his mistress’s toes? Or that girl’s visceral response to her first menstrual spurt? What happened the day the boy’s father left him in the woods, that couldn’t explain away a falsely-acquired guilt, even years later?
By night I had haibun fever. This has to be it! I told myself, where the storyteller and poet merge into a silent sangam on a page. A haibun is just as immense.
We know the haiku. Two images juxtaposed in a fragment (one line) and a phrase (two lines) that link and shift.
thunderclap— Kala Ramesh
the darkening sky splits into
The haibun is prose poetry, interspersed with haikus. Written in a first person narrative, in the present tense, it can range from autobiography to diary-writing, essay to travel journal writing. Like the haiku, the haibun begins in the everyday events of life and can be described as a narrative of an epiphany. The practitioner of haibun is called a haibuneer.
There can be 100 haikus in a haibun, but we generally find one or two. The haiku forms an integral part of the haibun and follows the same link and shift that is inherent to all Japanese short poetry forms, including haiga, tanka, and senryu. While the haiku links and shifts between its phrase and fragment, the haibun does so between its title, prose, and haikus. The link and shift apes the continuity of life’s wheel, keeping in motion the navigation to new territories of notion, imagery, and feeling.
Take Johannes Manjrekar’s haibun, for instance, where a story unfolds into a poem.
My friend Vispi was cast in the strong silent mould. The only time we saw tears in his eyes was after a teacher had humiliated him in class, and he insisted it was because he had bitten his tongue. Although we sat together in the back row and constantly competed at who could balance his chair longer on two legs, neither I nor any of our friends had ever been to Vispi's house. We knew his parents only from their occasional visits to school when they had been summoned over some issue concerning their son.
Vispi's mother, small and bird-like, dressed in cotton frocks of subdued colour. Most times her smile seemed to be tinged by a hint of apology. His father, a worker in the local motorcycle factory, looked exactly the way one might imagine a grown-up Vispi. He too was a man of few words, but was freer with stern looks directed at his son. Vispi's parents exuded the frayed and anachronistic gentility of Parsis who had come down in the world. They conveyed the impression of valiant struggle against the intractability of a puzzling world.
Vispi too struggled valiantly with the mysteries of the universe flattened into the dismal grey type of our text books, but with limited success. After high school we heard that he had apprenticed with a refrigeration company, but no one knew for sure. We never met again.
a school friend's snicker echoes
in the bird chatter
Once a guru said that to practice Japanese poetry one has to celebrate and curate nature, becoming ornithologist, zoologist, biologist, spiritualist, psychologist, and painter – all at once.
If poetry is a niche genre in the world of literature, the Japanese forms are more so. The haibuneers and haijins world-over are a subculture practicing in quietude, with limited printed-book possibilities. In India, a group of 150 members constitute an online Facebook group that converge every day to weigh words like goldsmiths, for brevity between lines 1, 2, and 3 of the haiku. They will celebrate The World Haiku Utsav in September in Pune this year, led by Kala Ramesh.
Every time I enter a new college classroom and tell students that to write a haibun they can be a bit of a storyteller, personal-diarist, traveller, chronicler, and poet, there is a sigh of relief that runs through. I think the time for haibun has come, given the small reading screens and attention deficits. Or the fact that this is an accessible form allowing its practitioner to intersect story and poetry, besides acquiring edible-sounding titles like haibuneers and haijins, while practising the art of word-zen.
In relation to free verse poetry, a haibun has sentences stacked horizontally. In reference to flash fiction, the ‘Act 3’ is a haiku.
St Xavier’s college, Mumbai will be the first to include the haibun in its syllabus under Emerging poetry forms, whereas Wilson and VG Vaze colleges have welcomed it through workshops.
And speaking of the culmination of journeys, here’s Angelee Deodhar’s haibun:
At medical school, they never taught us how to break bad news. Comfort the patient, stay calm, do not fear, pain is only in the mind, or in that phantom limb. You're better says the physician, and with a dracula smile orders more tests - blood samples, x-rays, echoes, referrals - if better why all these investigations. You tire easily so you must take more oxygen, at least eight hours a day. Tied to the oxygen cylinder, an umbilical cord to survival dream of snow in the mountains and the ski slopes where we christied. Snowbound inside the white expanse of quilt, my knees tenting it into mountains over which only my fingers climb, play chess against myself remembering Edmund Hillary's quote:
Those Himalayas of the mind are not so easily possessed.
There's many a precipice and storm between you and your Everest.
Even the cicadas are silent, the hiss of the oxygen, the ticking clock, his gentle snore, the cocker whimpering in her dreams - moonglow intrudes. Earlier in the evening we'd watched a comet. With its flamboyant tail it whisks across the sky leaving other stars staring. In my mask, I am that comet, that space traveller racing past galaxies to keep a tryst with eternity.
needing more oxygen
I break the bad news
those eight hours
A must-read book is Journeys: An anthology of international haibun, edited by Angelee Deodhar. Online archives of Contemporary Haibun Online, Haibun Today, and Cattails are other sources to deepen a morning’s zen.
Rochelle Patkar is co-conducting a haibun-writing workshop on July 3 at British Council Library, Mumbai.