Far down memory lane one October morning in the early 1990s, I climbed a tree and decided to define what was said to be my geography. I saw from that tree two tongues, one river and one people. I spoke both the languages, I had become both the people, and I was made up of that river and the bloody conscience that it carried deep within its waters.
It left me with a sense of bewilderment, even as a young grown-up, about the languages we inhabit in our head. Time and again I questioned those languages and sought to find in my subconscious, a deep-seated need for such clarity. We are creatures of discomfort, of war, ethnicity and diverse tongues, and the inevitable consequence of incessant and often insensitive mappings that have sought to make us who we are.
Today, when devastated Syrian refugees line the political borders of Turkey, when Turkey itself faces a coup, when innocent bystanders in Nice are attacked during celebrations of Bastille Day, when atrocity shows its ugly face in religious killings in Bangladesh, we as members of communities around the world, imagined or otherwise, are sometimes forced to confront our collective humanity and reconsider the borders we create. Perhaps it is also time to ask ourselves, then: what is the language that we think in, love in and would like to make a home in?
Increasingly faced with moments of global uncertainty, when the terror of history has brought us at a dangerous crossroads, only one language emerges in my head, that of poetry. It forces me to rethink what I have gathered so long as an illusionary identity, language and mindset. Poetry then becomes a reality, inhabiting the melting culture that is my current home in Bangalore and its fast emerging poetic mindset. Here many of us find a sameness of thought where poetry blends us beautifully with the thresholds of home and the world. We become blurred and translated creatures, often wandering with one predominant language as old as man himself.
As poets, many of us have questioned over the years our monolithic identities. We are compelled to look back and retell the stories of what is inclusive and what is not. We become these centres and recurrent dialogues, where the self is central and yet inclusive of what others are defined by, and this is where we become the language and its purpose too.
In her poem Where the Script Ends, Arundhati Subramanian writes:
All languages are honest here,
just none honest enough.
At home he speaks a dialect
he’s never written in –
not even when his mother died.
And I know what it is to live
in a place where the mind’s ink
has many tributaries, fermented enough
to make all songs
seem just a little untrue.
It doesn’t matter
whether he reads my lips
or I his mandarin fine print
because it still makes sense,
the old dream –
If poetry is an old dream, it is ironic, because poetry lives in the shadows of those who often deny it an existence. There are those who consider poetry dangerous because it does not always seek rationale, and so throughout history poetry is often thought of as irrelevant, even given that colour. Even if one were to concede that this language, which is utterly native to all humanity, is indeed marginal, we cannot ignore the fact that it is poetry that gives hope and the glimpse of a gossamer thread connecting all of humanity somehow, in some miraculous manner of speaking.
Poetry and Bangalore
Many evenings over filter coffee frothed Bangalore evenings were spent in book store Atta Galatta (as the photograph above might validate) discussing why poetry had few, and sporadic platforms, why we could not discern our language from others, why poets were relegated to one corner of literary festivals, why poets could not request reprints of their books more often, why poetry could not be better marketed, why poetry was bound to few celebrity voices and most importantly, why poetry didn’t find more publishers.
Poetry is not dead, long live poetry has been a clarion call that a few have nourished like a secret little dream. It flourishes in small cafes through different cities, in mohallas of doubt, in the shared tea cups of frugal college canteens or like a Vidrohi in abandoned corners of universities. Like beautiful men and women who live their lives through split personalities, poetry lives in both the niche as well as the popular.
The beauty of poetry is that a Teejan Bai can sing the longest surviving poem, The Mahabharata in rustic villages in Chhattisgargh or before an audience in Paris to a rousing reception, just as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg could read his poem Howl at the Six Gallery Reading, San Francisco in a room full of intellectual friends, and go on to influence an entire generation of Americans to abandon themselves to poetry.
You discover that poetry doesn’t let itself be planned. Whether our poetry festival needs to be small or big was a decision taken out of our hands. Languages merged here, poets and publishers too – what emerged as a cohesive whole was the need to bring together diverse voices, different poetic movements, sensibilities and styles into a well thought-out platform that recognised and served the larger need of poetry rather than the individual.
Why write poetry?
There are many who wouldn’t admit it, but poetry holds a key to fiercely locked doors in the mind. And in that perhaps it acts as a medium between the so-called realism, dreams, and experimentation, of the abstract. In trying to use such a key to open the mind, every poet then becomes a topsy-turvy tale, a character, an emotion or turmoil in their own work. Often this makes poets realise the futility of everything; they grow desperate, and sometimes arrive at the brink of what they imagined to be the edge of understanding, only to take a leap in the dark and remain there, content and in that bliss.
As a poet, you ask yourself then, why do you write? A writer friend says, “I write so I can sleep well.. I write so I won’t go mad, so I don’t need to speak a language that everyone understands and interprets in their different ways. But while the interpretation might not be mine, it is still beautiful, for poetry is open to all interpretation and then some".
People have different definitions of why poets write what they do. Some think, they seek immortality and are in the process defending a cherished goal. Readers of poetry would tell you, however, that poetry doesn't belong to those who write it, but those who need it.( Il Postino 1994). But then most writers are sometimes closeted, even selfish in their own way, because whether it is writing a book or a poem, it is inevitably an exhausting struggle, like a wound that you bare unwittingly and in details to be picked upon and cross-examined by everyone.
Acknowledging that is also an understanding that no one would ever undertake such a journey if one were not driven by inner demons that they can neither resist nor understand. Where the language of poetry takes us is where we become it.
Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a poet and one of the organisers of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival (August 6 and 7, 2016, Leela Palace, Bengaluru).