The poem “Song of Songs” from Mustansir Dalvi’s recent book of poems, Cosmopolitician, was a hot favourite with the audience at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival in December 2018. The recitation of this “item number” from the collection drew many chuckles and much applause. But I remember sitting back spellbound by its subversion of the incongruity between form and content.
While it is commonplace to use a deadpan voice to deliver humour, this poem had used the currency of a popular meme – a viral video from a few years ago in which the Goan politician Churchill Alemao had spoken heatedly about a “cosperancy” against him – to address some deeply existential questions. Dressed in the hilarious patois of the original speech (“whadafa”, “poposly”, “big tamasha”), the poem held within its heart an affable consolation of loss that perhaps drove home the point (of taking it in one’s stride) better, thanks to its form.
“Song of Songs” is just one out of a very eclectic collection – of free verse and metrical poems – that invokes a whole spectrum of feelings and images. I re-read Cosmopolitician months and several tragedies – personal, political – later, and felt that the collection had acquired meanings beyond the lightheartedness I had attributed to it in the joy of its acquisition.
As someone who has always found felicity of expression to encourage acceptance if not to actually heal, I didn’t need much convincing that “Kintsukuroi” – a poem named after the Japanese craft of mending broken bowls with gold – is a metaphor for beauty in brokenness. But reading it in a world that is more broken than it was in December 2018 (deeper wedges driven into the same old fault-lines by the same old vices; more dreams dead; more hopes quelled), the words in this poem spoken to (a ubiquitous?) Ghalib, – “Were you afraid of amending rather than mending your beating chalice?” – kept me one step away from giving in to an overwhelming hopelessness. Other idiosyncratic readings are bound to find other concrete ways in which it speaks to the reader directly.
The urbane imagination
The 66 poems in this book are collected under seven headings, each one represented by the title of one of the poems under that rubric – except for the last one, “a pashmina sky”, which is a line in the poem titled “Vertigo” under this category.
In the poems from the section “there’s a hunger in houses”, the reader is made to dwell mostly indoors while travelling through, among others, 2nd century Bihar, Greece in 400 BCE, and the 18th century, and marvel at the unromantic quotidian qualities of the legends that make them. The section “if we should cease to correspond” is a tour de force of one of the most explored of poetic engagements – the inward-eye view of interpersonal predicaments.
The section “where life stops being a city” is a Bombaywala’s welcome to the city. But it is a refreshing change from the tedious optimism of floral descriptions that characterises writing on this theme. Instead, Dalvi designs an unbowdlerised diorama of the city: as entrails fall on “strictly vegetarian rooftops”, it is the Bombay of Namdeo Dhasal’s cocky defiance; as young boys urinate gleefully beside an SUV on the Vashi highway and young girls watch the rain “susurrate” from inside it, it is Arun Kolatkar’s tongue-in-cheek Bombay that the reader is ushered into. “The lunes of ibn al-Haytham” and “Morgina’s daughters” are stories of stories, and “a pashmina sky” is, as the name suggests, poetry of witness.
The possibilities of diversity
A possible Achilles heel of this collection, however, is that some of the poems set in faraway locales tend to be too esoteric. As the readers go gallivanting among Helenic and Hispanic monuments and relics via words, the mind’s eye may have trouble sourcing images for them. Mine, for instance, relied heavily on Asterix comics. Whether that’s a good thing is debatable.
Also, some of the names and references put my desi Anglophone tongue in a twist. A quality I look for the most in poetry is its inhabitability. I admire the poem that follows the threefold path of “observe – draw in – sublimate”. By this theory, owing to their limitation in drawing in, a few of the poems did not touch me as deeply as most others did. However, their dervish-like sublimation was certainly redeeming.
Also, the descriptive endnotes are very useful if one is in the mood to learn; they ensure that nothing is opaque.
“Cosmopolitician,” a clever portmanteau under which these themes and moods are loosely held together, is the lodestar that deserves some attention. The title seems to take the basic idea of cosmopolitanism as the possibilities of diversity (of thoughts and ideas, of ways of seeing and being) and anticipate a world citizenship; an urbanity as opposed to parochial homogeneity – an urbanity to be aspired to in any case, particularly in these polarised times. This is presented to the reader to make her an agent of cosmopolitanism. It becomes a responsibility assigned to her – and a promise sought from her.
Dalvi writes with the finesse of the teacher of architecture that he is. It is evident in the organic ease of the villanelle and the sonnets in the collection; the rhyme and meter schemes amplify the effect of the thoughts contained within them and not stand out as scaffolding. But most importantly, there is compassion in his writing – but this is the kind of compassion that, after taking it squarely on the chin, can laugh at itself. In doing this, Dalvi becomes the practitioner of cosmopolitanism – the cosmopolitician. And so does the reader.
Cosmopolitician, Mustansir Dalvi, Poetrywala.