There is a quality of familiarity and relatability that runs through the poems of Arjun Rajendran, one of the most versatile contemporary Indian poets today. His debut collection Snake Wine, published by Les Editions du Zaporogue in 2014, was a delightful, vividly presented walk through his world, where “snakeskin tasted like soanpapdi” and “The doctor found a museum of wax/in my ears: a microcosm/of people and things from the past”. Such remarkable effects also find their place in his second collection, The Cosmonaut in Hergé’s Rocket, published by Paperwall Media and Publications in March 2017.
After a thorough reading of his works, one can’t help wonder about the man behind the poems, whose explorations shift from beetroots to euthanasia, from demonetisation to the beloved world of Tintin – a world he peeled the skin off gradually in an interview with Scroll.in.
“My first memory of poetry is likely one I share with many others – nursery rhymes. Even when I couldn’t know these were referencing the black plague, the enactment of Ring a Ring o’ Roses flooded my imagination with death. How could there be anything kindergartenly about the sight of your playmates collapsing to the ground? But a poem I enjoyed memorising was RL Stevenson’s The Vagabond. I hated school, and found it liberating to return to the voice of the persona,” recalled Rajendran.
Years later, he read his first contemporary volume of poetry – The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. He couldn’t relate to the bulk of it. “Kunitz was sagacious to a fault, and I felt utterly lost till I read The Portrait, which was unlike anything I’d ever read. The poem begins with the lines: ‘My mother never forgave my father/for killing himself,’ and ends with, ‘In my sixty-fourth year/I can feel my cheek/still burning’.”
Therein began his wondrous love affair with poetry, which has found his poems a place in numerous journals like Star*Line, Berfrois, VAYAVYA, Mithila Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Sunflower Collective, Eclectica, and Asian Cha, among others.
Talking about his process of writing, Rajendran explained that there are different ways to arrive at a poem. “One involves a process analogous to spotting a star from the corner of one’s eye to see it more clearly (astronomers call it ‘averted vision’). I also enjoy building new and protean conduits with language to access my remembrances, to stimulate new ideas by splintering memories, footnotes, history, science, the occult and pop culture against each other.”
The writing almost always happens in his house and on a laptop. “The first and last lines are usually the ones I edit the most, and these are often the poem’s most persuasive critics – if I like my beginning, I know I’ve a fighting chance at completing the poem. Sometimes, I become excessively pleased with certain lines and ideas, and they become a hindrance, preventing me from moving onto something different,” he shares, adding that the years between 2002 to 2010 were frustrating ones, where he attempted many novels/novellas/plays/erotica/short stories and poems, most of which were unfinished and unsatisfactory.
When did Rajendran decide that poetry was his calling? “The realisation, if it could be called that, didn’t happen overnight. I workshopped my poems extensively, kept experimenting with prose, and had been told many times that my prose seemed lacklustre in comparison to my poems. I perceived I was losing time in trying to be a writer I wasn’t meant to be, and focused my efforts in trying to publish more poetry. I won’t deny that there is an increased feeling of self-worth when I’m pleased with a poem I’ve written, the briefest surge of invincibility. But the commitment required also breaks my sleep patterns, makes me cantankerous towards people I care about.”
Over time, in his attempt to master the craft, Rajendran came up with his own set of guidelines. “The criteria is that the poem mustn’t bear a close resemblance to something I’ve read, or written before, that it survives multiple edits if required, and that every word contributes to the narrative arc, feels well-placed, and looks respectable when viewed from different angles, and at different times of the day. These self-imposed constraints often guide me: I use similes very sparingly; I have a lexical blacklist comprising words including ‘soul’, ‘spiritual’, ‘euphoria’, ‘gossamer’, ‘purity’, ‘bliss’. When I talk, I use profanity recklessly, but I’ll reflect at length before employing it in a poem or admiring it in one.”
When it comes to playing with form and structure, Rajendran doesn’t experiment a great deal. “Most of my poems are written in groups of tercets or couplets and I find this inhibition reassuring. In the poems where I have been more liberal with my use of line breaks and spacing, it’s often in spontaneous response to the content. I’ve much to learn about use of white spaces and innovative structuring. In one poem, ‘Picnic’, the traditional two-line stanza form I usually adopt simply wasn’t complementing the content. So I had to restructure the entire poem and isolate certain words to make it.
“It’s been so long
since we’ve had a picnic,
since we lay on a sheet
from all the gluttony,
all the laughter...”
It was my first poem that brought me to realise structure is as important as content,” he explained.
The private as public
The content does matter, however, and a subject of constant contention for years has been drawing the boundaries of privacy in literature. Rajendran confessed that there is a strong feeling of guilt that arises from alienating relatives by referring to them in his poetry. “Is the creation of a poem or story more important than the people in it, whose trust might be permanently lost? Should what has been said in confidence be used as creative material? Are taboos being challenged, or are they being exploited for shock value? I doubt if these questions have easy answers.”
Then again, there is no hard and fast rule that things work out how he’d like them to. “I might arrive at a workable draft in a few hours, or in a week. Often, I recompose discarded poems, in that the final version bears little resemblance to the draft. The longest time was when I rewrote a poem titled ‘Pyre’ after a decade:
we were on the playground
when smoke from the pyre billowed above our heads
we tried stoning the sky,
to see if we could hit a skull behind all that dark energy
birds crashed into these pillars
of truth, as if the rest of their flight were mere illusion
we stood in awe watching
the wind eat every morsel, lick its fingers clean in the dusk
and all that was left of the pyre
by morning was a trapezoid of ash and buffalo piss
“In the first version, I had visualised a Bharatanatyam dancer in the funeral smoke; I liked the imagery enough to not edit it out, but eventually, it seemed an afterthought that distracted with its flourish. The final draft was a succinct version that accomplished what I initially set out to do, which was to explore the mood of schoolboys playing under a sky darkened by cremation. It felt eerie that something I’d been trying to delineate for years finally happened in less than an hour.”
Fortunately, it is these hidden, compelling and memories that colour Rajendran’s poems, making them richer than they already are. His love for Tintin – a project that he has long wanted to bring to fruition – is similarly reflected in the title The Cosmonaut in Hergé’s Rocket as well as in poems in the new collection.
Why did he indulge in Tintin and references like Rastapopulous and Destination Moon the way he did? “Early on when I first started writing, I felt stumped by my ambition with the comic. Then I re-attempted it in 2015, as a series, and my objective wasn’t to write a tribute. The references had to speak to other references that are rooted in places and time periods that poke out of lived experience, literature, and family histories, and I felt capable enough to ease these ideas into their present bodies,” he answered.
Besides Tintin, Rajendran is particularly inclined towards Soviet children’s literature, graphic novels (Yoshihiro Tatsumi, above all), science fiction and “books that startle me with their titles, cover art and synopses, and that have niche appeal.” He says, “I also curate a Facebook page called ‘Humans who Read: a project inspired by the work of Alberto Manguel’, which aims to publish well-written anecdotes about reading that connect to the world outside the text.”
Interviewing a Beetroot
First boil it with your eyes
highlight some keywords in the resume: organic, pesticide,
Ask about its strengths – if it says
I’ve always been fresh, look unimpressed.
A successful interviewer treats
like fungi. Ask
its weaknesses – the answer doesn’t matter, only
the tone; a precision to match the trajectory of your pee
to its naphthalene home. You’ve seconds
to guess if the beetroot has any bones.
You’re the man, and real
Asses if it’s overqualified
for poriyal, under qualified for borscht.
Always keeping in mind how a beetroot is
coloured, a potato isn’t;
a beetroot will haemorrhage the pot, turn
it a commie red – so never offer
a beetroot a chance to be anything but a salad.
I fill out forms. The cabin crew walks down aisles serving
one final round of anti-depressants.
We’ve entered the airspace of a country dangerously low
on the Happiness Index.
If you’re normal, you get to take one pill.
If you’re like me, someone whose legs haven’t stopped trembling
in over a decade,
you get a hug and syrup – just so you don’t start sobbing
soon as the plane touches down.
An officer examines my documents, checks the validity
of my suicide-prevention kit against a database.
Everyone bids for deals on euthanasia these days. The most popular
ones come with wifi, and are advertised as being painless;
though you who left me widowed should know there’s no such thing.
But I hear more than jet lag: my neighbour, punctually up
at 3 am with a noose, and her will, always unravelled
by the Dalmatian’s barks.
The Cosmonaut in Hergé’s Rocket
In his blog post, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma fondly recollects
stumbling across a copy of Destination Moon in his father’s library,
mulling over the rocket’s red and white squares as HMT watches pushed
the nation, its million prejudices glued with Fevicol, toward
another era of fiascos. Reading between his lines, a portrait emerges –
not of the stoical hero of the Soviet Union, but just a commoner
whose honesty must navigate bad breath. In an excerpt from his fan
fiction based on the boy reporter’s adventures, the dog Snowy is renamed
the dog Sorry in what seems an ambitious attempt to address the feelings
of the majority, its mangy grievances. And this leads me to speculate
about his broadcast from space, flooding out of radios with patriotic fervor,
concealing how “Sorry” first became “Saare”, then “Jahan se Achcha”.
Skull with Phantom Cigarette
after Van Gogh’s
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette
The Phantom of Indrajal comics –
a teetotaller who’d never lit a fag, lived
in a skull cave, and was unaware that in his image,
a brand of peppermint cigarettes was once popular
amongst Indian kids, including a boy who’d grow up
to become a renowned oncologist.
This doctor, in his book, observes that his colleagues smoked
while researching the link between cancer and tobacco.
Years later, inside the Van Gogh Museum, that sad irony tugs
at him from a painting. How the Phantom,
– nemesis of pirates, guardian of the deep woods –
was relegated by commerce to a stick of peppermint.