There’s this silly annoyance I feel every time I read an email that ends with “Warmly” or “Warm wishes”. Having chosen to live in a non-air-conditioned environment at home, the wishes, well-intentioned as they are, raise the temperature by a few degrees. Then there’s the word “hot”, now used to describe – favourably of course – almost everything, from sex appeal to the effect of a deodorant.
For those like me, coming in late into this temperature-related appraisal of things and people (god has managed to escape this narrowly, for I haven’t heard a believer call him “hot”) , one can never be sure whether the right word to use is “hot” or “cool”. And so I’ve chosen to use neither. I remember a friend’s lovely photograph on Facebook, inundated with that one word – hot, hot, hot – until I found myself typing a characteristically matronly comment: “They’ll blame you for global warming now”.
I therefore understand the annoyance of students forced to admire Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 in an Indian classroom in April, that cruellest month. Heat – and feeling hot – being a thing of hierarchy, it is most often only those at the top who feel the heat as it were: only offices of college principals and vice-chancellors and heads of departments are air-conditioned. Student life unintentionally becomes a military test – the sweat and toil is literalised in a way that takes us back to the origin of the idiom.
Imagine, then, entering a summer classroom where two aged and feeble ceiling fans battle perspiration and expiration. And, in quasi-romantic cheerfulness, begin reading the first line from this Shakespearean sonnet:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
If the 13 lines following this first one had been lost forever, this line, when spoken in the tropical countries that Shakespeare’s countrymen would come to conquer, would, in all likelihood, have been insulting, even hurtful. Burns, blisters, who’d compare a loved one with these? It was probably this that made Proloy-babu, our English professor in college, crack a tired joke about the woman’s transition from “Sudhamukhi” (speaking honey-sweet words) through “Suryamukhi” (literally “sunflower”, but also standing for a mouth as fiery as the sun) to “Jwalamukhi” (volcano).
Caught in a poem
The post-colonial classroom is a treasure house of comedy. The post-colonial student begins life with the three-year-old’s confusion about “John” and “Jack” and “Jill”, continues with not knowing what a daffodil looks like (an aunt of a classmate was furious when she found my friend rote-learning answers on Wordsworth’s poem – “Too early for you to know about the dil,” she scolded, having misheard “daffodil” as some kind of love struck “dil”; my classmate was pronouncing the name of the flower as “Daff-O-Dil”, the last two syllables perhaps an entry from her subconscious archive of Hindi film songs that begin with that apostrophe, “O Dil”).
Derek Walcott’s words about being taught The Daffodils in a tropical country holds true for India too, of course. “Forget the snow and the daffodils. They were real, more real than the heat and oleander, perhaps, because they lived on the page, in imagination, and therefore in memory,” he wrote, while talking about the gravitational pull of English literature on his imagination. And yet, the consequences of studying a decontextualised language in a post-colony are often tragicomic: one of my mother’s students in school wrote a five-mark answer on The Solitary Rapist when he was obviously asked to write about the “Highland Lass”.
Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 reminds us that the seasons, like humour, often do not travel and translate well. Being a great advocate of close reading, I once found myself looking for ways to bring the relation between the two “more”s to the surface. I asked the class whether it struck them as odd that there were two “more” words in the same line. I wasn’t expecting an answer at all, but a girl stood up and said that it was a rare instance when Shakespeare had got it wrong – no one could be “lovely” at that “temperature”. She had, of course, misread “temperate” as “temperature” – how could I blame her, in this heat?
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.”
Year after year students come up with the same example when I ask them to imagine one – the delicate mango buds that couldn’t resist the April and May northwesters. I never looked for equivalents of possible examples of “the darling buds” of an English summer. The reason was simple: this seemed to be the only metaphor in the poem that had found a good fit – a home – in tropical Bengal.
I was tempted, from time to time, to add shudder quotes about the exoticisation of mangoes in literature by and about the Indian diaspora, but I resisted – poor Shakespeare hadn’t known the taste of that beautiful fruit. Just as he hadn’t known the character of the summer that produced the fruit – the sight of the students from Malda, famous for its sweet mangoes, would bring the farmer’s adage home to me: the harsher the summer, the sweeter the mango.
The hot, cool verse
We read literary criticism together, my students and I, but returned disappointed. There was, quite obviously, nothing in it to explain the journey of this poem to a different climate. How could “summer’s lease hath (have) all too short a date”? After all, the ceiling fan moves for at least eight months a year. Or the line “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines...” – how could the sun be “the eye of heaven”? Hadn’t Paradise Lost taught them that it was hell that was hot?
There’s also the thing about the lack of description of the loved one in the sonnet. The Petrarchan sonnet – which a student (and later, also my phone’s auto-correct monster) wrote as “patriarch sonnet” – is so easily studied as a vehicle of heterosexual love that it takes students, in spite of all the “background” lectures about “Mr. W. H.”, the dedicatee of these sonnets, to accept that the person being described by the male poet is not a woman. The responses over the years have been hilarious but also fascinatingly odd. Who is being described in these lines? I wondered whether cultural conditioning would make it difficult for them to understand that the object of admiration – the subject of description – was a man, given as we are to using a gendered vocabulary to describe beauty.
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines
Writing a short answer on these lines, a girl wrote about the “decline” of “fairness” as obvious: the Renaissance might have been a time of great inventions and discoveries, but the sunscreen lotion still hadn’t been discovered. Another corrected Shakespeare – not “dimm’d” but “darkened” should have been used after “gold complexion”. “Gold complexion will naturally change to coal in summer,” wrote a student from Asansol. Why else would the word “fair” occur so many times in the sonnet? It’s not difficult to see where these anxieties came from – in a country where Fair and Lovely is one of the largest selling cosmetic creams, the scepticism around the celebration of a lover’s beauty through tropes of skin-scalding summer is natural.
The theme of the sonnet is the old Shakespearean loop of time and art and love and the relationships of permanence and impermanence that connect them. That is how the concluding couplet ends:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
After everything, one boy had the final say. “There’s no mention of sweat even once in a poem about summer. Don’t Englishmen sweat?” he asked. They don’t stink, I said. He took out his notebook to write that down. I just made up that last statement. But it’s true, he looked at me as if he’d stumbled upon this epiphany. In the difference in the matter of sweat lay the difference between his lack of English language fluency and Shakespeare’s inability to use it as an expression of love. That word, backed by physical passion and the nervous energy of love, is missing in the sonnet.
For the last two years, ever since the publication of Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad (2014), I read out this passage from the novel to my students. Ananda is a young undergraduate studying English Literature – and thus this sonnet, as part of his Renaissance course – in London. In him, and not in the tomes of the Shakespeare industry, is perhaps the sahrydaya – the sharer of the soul, a term often used for the empathetic reader in Sanskrit poetics – that students studying this sonnet in tropical countries might be seeking.
“Shall I compare thee to”
Although the lines were incomplete, they kept ending on a question mark. He felt his inner voice rising docilely at the end. Confronting the day in Warren Street with the mug of tea in one hand, a breeze beneath the now one-quarter raised window flicking his weightless kurta ends, he reflected again – as he had only recently – on the beauty and particularity of the word “summer”. It wasn’t a word that had previously interested him. In India, it was a dead word, spoken almost without reference to its meaning, and all its mutations and locations – “summery”, “a midsummer night’s dream” – were ready clichés that locked up experience.
What summer itself was in India, or in its different regions, was still untapped, unaddressed in this colonial language. Only after coming to England had he discovered the beauty of the word. On reading the poem itself in Bombay in his school textbook, he’d decided it was stupid; silly, even. And who, in India, would compare someone to a summer’s day – except to insult the addressee? A near-imbecilic line.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
But, no; it was beautiful. He’d reread the sonnet, for his preparations for the Renaissance paper, and then, after reacting against its earlier associations, read it once again, allowing himself to understand it. The lines had begun to repeat themselves in his head, like a jingle in a commercial. The poet – what was he up to? He’d meant to extol his beloved – not by saying she was as good as a summer’s day, but better! Letting the wooden frame nestle his chin, Ananda daydreamed, studying Tandoor Mahal and its curtains.
“Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”
More lovely, more temperate! So the poet was dissing the summer’s day, then, in order to praise his beloved. Yet what apposite terms for this summer, as a season, or in its incarnation as a single day: “lovely”, with its suggestion of innocence and newborn qualities; “temperate”, indicating calm, modesty, and fortuitously echoing “temporal”, with its hint of the short-lived. “Lovely” carried in it the sense of the short-lived too; the loveliness of “lovely” was contingent on it not being eternal. And so the summer’s day was transient in comparison to the poet’s beloved, who’d continue to prosper and grow to “eternal lines” in the effing sonnet. To emphasise this, Shakespeare must diss the English spring and summer in the third and fourth lines again:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
It was the fragility and the undependability of the English summer that Shakespeare was drawing the reader’s attention to – hoping, thereby, that the contrast would aggrandise his lover’s qualities. But, for Ananda, it was summer – by being contingent – that came to brief life on his rediscovery of the poem in London, and not the beloved, immobile and fixed in eternity; because the imagination is drawn – not by sympathy, but some perverse definition of delight – to the fragile, the animated, and the short-lived. In this unlikely manner, the near-imbecilic sonnet had been returning to him in the last four days.
Through this reading – and experiencing – of the sonnet by an Indian student in London, summer is restored to what it actually is: a sensation. Like the apple, summer doesn’t travel well as a metaphor. I don’t know a single Indian who’s understood the idiom “apple of my eye” with the readymade cultural grasp that comes to, say, an American naturally. All classrooms are comic places, more so the post-colonial classroom – in it I’ve experienced a natural hilarity that is now rare in other sanitised places. To be able to experience that humour, as Ananda and my students do, is to restore literature to where it must come from – a literature of the senses, of reading Shakespeare’s sonnet with a sweat-drenched hankie.