Verses for every weather
Cribbing about the weather is an eternal pastime. With several options to beat the heat today, is there a real solution, asks GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.
CHENNAI IS an oven in April, a furnace in May. No afternoon sea breeze respite for inner city dwellers either, the concrete jungle seals all entries. The baked roads and tree-robbed avenues are a blur of dust and traffic fumes. Splashing your face for the hundredth time with warm water from the tap, you wonder yet again just how you are going to survive the cruel weeks to come.
"Anything to distract me as I'm broiled alive," my cousin sighs. I respond hesitantly, "Coconut water? Buttermilk? Watermelon juice? New mocktails for the season bursting into print everyday? Khadi? Mangalgiri? Kanchi cotton? We are swamped by summer sales." Her scorn is too deep for rebuttal. But she says pensively, "Remember how we learnt rhymes during summer vacations? We didn't notice the heat then, did we."
Those were the days when our canny Grandma set the dozen children of her joint family to learn long verses by heart through the blazing noons of May. The best recitation of each day won a fistful of sugar candy. Often Grandma herself reeled off riddle rhymes, and taught indoor games, each with its own string of verses "pallankuzhi" on wooden board with slots for the shell counters, "ammanai" to juggle little silver balls, and "othaiya-rettaiya", a guessing game with tamarind seeds. We built up our stock of poetry (!) then. Our `era' was innocent of television and computer screens. Plays and `talkies' were rare treats. The mandatory family entertainment was to yank some child out of the throng, and have him or her recite Kural and Athi Choodi, or the rousing verses of Subrahmanya Bharati.
The bell rings. You open the door to a parcel from Smith/Doorstop Books, Great Britain, with a paperback, "To Catch an Elephant". A trip through hotter, sweatier tropics? In the very first poem, Gerard Benson, with wife Cathy's illustrations, explains how you can catch a pachyderm if you have a few buns, a step ladder, binoculars, blackboard, chalk, tweezers, matchbox and of course, a ticket to India or Africa (if you're not already there). How? Write "Free Buns! Jumbo Offer!" on the blackboard, arrange the buns beside it, climb the step ladder, watch through binoculars. When the herd comes and is distracted by the buns, you reverse the binoculars, look through them, choose your elephant, grasp it with tweezers and tuck it into your matchbox. Simple.
Benson not only writes verse, he has toured with the Barrow Poets to perform poetry. No wonder his lines pulsate with the rhythms of real voices, and a wry humour, almost like grandma's verses of your childhood. As when the Origami paper beetle speaks for all the world's crawlers:
"I'm always moving, I'm never stopping,
...I dodge the spider.
I just keep crawling with all my legs and I
Scuttle on and I scuttle on...
If I fall I shall wave my legs until,...
Something happens and I'll scurry on,
Then I'll hurry on. Then I'll hurry on..."
A search for verses animated by the throb-within-the-word leads to the 17th century Marathi poet ("Says Tuka"', translated by Dilip Chitre, Sontheimer Cultural Association, 2003). Listen to the angry wife cursing her god-crazy husband, who runs off to the temple and stays there all day, striking cymbals and singing songs. Her final shrug is framed here:
"Good that he has gone away today!
I've got all I want.
Now I can eat
All the bread in peace
With or without gravy!
I am tired of shooting off my mouth
at this stone-deaf man!"
The saint himself records how he became a poet. The Lord appeared in a dream-within-a-dream and announced it was Tukaram's task to hit the score of a billion poems that his predecessor Namdev had vowed to reach. But soon poor Tukaram discovered that it was easier to be the angry wife than a saint-poet visited by God.
"When a catastrophe
Wipes you out
And nothing remains
But God and you
God is visiting you.
When your language
Is stripped naked
Never to be clothed
In falsehood again
God is visiting you.
When you are robbed
Of the whole world
And your voice
God is visiting you.''
No linguistic, or even musical transposition, can strip Tukaram's verse of its natal force. Remember the eerie feel of the mendicant's song in your childhood summer? He got alms all through the street, for singing "Sundara te dhyana..." to the offkey twang of the ektara, Tamilising Marathi in the process. Anyway, hadn't Tukaram become a favourite in the south when Carnatic vocalist Musiri Subramania Iyer made his sole foray on celluloid in that role, recording devotion in Tamil songs like "Peraanandam kaan" (Ritigowlai)?
Contemporary verse has its own compulsiveness as in "Twentieth Century Telugu Poetry" (powerfully translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao, OUP, 2002). Take this one begging the Lord for salvation from the devotees of God, Godmen, Gandhi, Marx, Freud, Sartre, Science...
"God save me from all kinds of devotees
and then if I become your devotee
for saving me from them
don't save me
I will save myself."
This elusive voice belongs to Revati Devi who committed suicide at age 30, leaving an unfinished Ph.D thesis on Sartre (!), and poems for a single anthology "Silalolita". Listen to her "Invocation" and you wonder if her urgent, iconoclastic passion is so different from Tukaram after all.
"Why you? Even I didn't think I could write anything at all.
Let alone poetry.
yesterday, the day before, sometime ago or sometime now
when I fall into an abyss of sadness
when I lose myself in the heights of love
when I float on the white clouds of joy
sometime like that
when he becomes me,
never mind poetry,
I didn't think I could write anything at all.
Let alone you."
May is no time for greetings but here is one from Berit Ostberg in Oslo, well over seventy, but with deep feelings for India from the time her son studied in J.Krishnamurti's Rishi Valley School. Look at the impishness in the illustrated postcard poems she creates, like this one: "You are like other people Unique".
Her nationality reminds you of the slim volume tucked in your bookshelf, a selection from the "Havamal", or "The Sayings of the Vikings". Ten centuries have passed, but the maxims belong to the here and now. "A man should know/How many logs/ Stubs and strips of bark/ To collect in summer/ To keep in stock/ Wood for his winter fires." Our age of exiles and diasporas can recognise the ache in "A lone fir/ in an open field/ withers away/ A lone man/ loved by none/ how can he live long."
You had shut the ''Havamal'' when it announced "A son is better though late begotten by an ailing father." A million verses across the globe have echoed this craze for male progeny. But today a chatty email from Columbus, Ohio, brings you this pithy retort from the Hawaiian poet Haunani Kay Trask:
"Your grandmother said
about your grandfather
"I gave him three sons."
...But I have no sons
to give, no line of
I am slyly
the rope of resistance
for unborn generations.
But sons are not
so earthbound. They soar
with a woman's trust
in their fists.
I stay behind weaving fine baskets of resilience."Come mid May and the Chennai sun is smothered by clouds. The still distant hurricane announces its birth over the high seas by turning the city into a cool summer resort. The prediction is of heavy downpour over the next few days. The parched citizens perk up, waiting for the rains, like the legendary chaataka birds subsisting solely on sky water.
My cousin calls to ask, "Anything to distract me if the rain keeps us at home."
I recall how once my grandfather bought a novel at a railway bookstall. On the train he realised he had read it before. How to occupy himself on the journey now? Wait! Hadn't he tucked the well-thumbed copy of the Ramayana between veshtis in his steel trunk? He knew Kamban's stanzas inside out; yet, with the text on hand, the hours flew faster than the train.
"Read verses when it rains -- or shines," I tell my cousin, and quote from Gerard Benson, lines now credited to the summer account in my memory:
"Whether it's the words
#or the spaces between -
The white silences
among the dark print,
I do not know.
But I know this: a poem
Will sing in my mind.
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