By Akash Bharadwaj
I don’t remember the exact moment when I first encountered poetry. When I try hard, I hear in soft whispers, my mother reciting verses, as part of pooja ritual after her daily bath. It hardly made much sense to me then, except the fact that on certain evenings, when I had to leave or return home alone for some errand, crossing the dead and dark alley, I would recite those verses. Reciting those verses meant keeping evil and fear at a distance.
This experience took another turn when we would hear her recite nationalist poet Ramdhari Singh Dinker’s “Rashmirathi”. In the poem, Krishna warns Duryodhana of injustice he is part of and the impending war he is so keen to wage. The poem is a plea for justice. Reciting the poem, mother looked a changed person; a certain resolution and determination would come over her face. The feisty tone of the poem and her determined voice reached the pores of my skin. I was surprised to find in her otherwise soft voice an anger that spoke not only about the epic world of Mahabharata, but a similar world of deceit, lust, and struggles that surrounded us.
She took care of us, four siblings, all alone, in a two room house. The walls in the house had no plaster on them and the windows lacked iron frames. The image of it still echoes in me…like a photograph that can outlast memory. Many years later in Bombay, struggling to find a place to stay, I was perhaps searching for the same house. Sitting in the college library, nostalgia gave way to poetry: tender is the heart/that knows no home.
My school days were trite and boring. So were the poems that were taught in the classrooms. While Wordsworth’s daffodils lost their grace in the claustrophobic classroom of a small town in Bihar, what appealed and touched at times was the lyrical charge and daily pathos of the poems.
Slowly the life outside classroom gave sentiments a way to enter into our lives. My eldest sister would bring recorded cassettes to the house. Dancing to its tunes on many afternoons we spent together, music offered an imagination of a world we longed for.
This world however got ruptured when a few years later, my mother and the eldest sister died in an accident. Pages can be filled with what happened, but it escapes me like Barthes’ punctum: a detail that evades language/narrative. The enormity of the event was difficult to grasp. I turned inward and tried to probe what it meant. “Poetry is the grief about which nothing can be said” – I copied the quote in my notebook in which I generally used to make a list of words and their meanings.
When I look back I think it was grief that took me towards poetry. Initially it seemed difficult to get inside the head of poets, their world of sensation and fragments. Donning various styles, writing in different genres, they came from different places. The distance between the world of prose and the world of poetry also seemed very vast. I remember I was told not to indulge myself in poetry. Like Plato who saw in poetry a deviation from the path of reason and truth, a move towards the world of passion and emotion, the old patriarchs at home feared poetry can take me to directions deemed not fit for a boy of young age.
Interestingly, Plato also posed philosophy opposite to poetry. Poetry, for him, might have had depth, but it had no function in keeping society in order and its influence was damaging.
It seems to me ‘philosophy’ since then has very often thrived on binaries. It demands reason based on calculation; a certain kind of permanence that wants to bind you to one or the other. Poetry on the other hand travels. It works with an intensity that can pierce through the cold reason. Things become metaphors. And metaphors are at once vague and most precise.
In the western discourse around aesthetics, philosophers like Kant and Hegel also gave a lot of weight to poetry. Kant found a middle-ground between philosophy and poetry: he considered poetry as the finest and purest of all art forms for its free play of imagination and yet was aware of constraints around language and thought.
As a result, though a poet has all the freedom to exercise his imagination, poetry must belong to sensus communis: a ground of reason, dialogue, and a conversation.
In a similar vein, Orhan Pamuk drawing from Schiller, the German aesthetician, talks about two kinds of novelists/writers/poets. There are spontaneous poets who think their world is the only world and who are only concerned about a particular meaning. And then there are those who are reflective and aware of form; those who know that nothing lies outside the purview of history and construction. For Pamuk, a good poet is a combination of the two and it is with this combination that he strives for freedom:
Not while writing
But carrying a heavy sack on your back
Lifting a heavy load on your head
The moon rises and
Flickers in the water
Water of our heart.
(An excerpt from a poem, “Thoughts Arrive” by Muktibodh, translated from Hindi)
Muktibodh hints at that corner of the world what Italian Marxist Gramsci called pessimism of the intellect and optimism of will. Very often I see poetry in a similar middle ground which defies easy boundaries around reason, will, and intellect and leads us to a summit that demands both an increasing skepticism towards our intellect and an ever more increasing desire for a just world. And it’s where poetry grapples, or if I may say, suffers with both an objectivity of vision and a subjective urge to express it.
I mostly read poets, who write in Hindi. Time and again I keep returning to them. They open up to me as I turn the pages. While for some the task is not to understand what meets the eye and feel the pulse of time; for others, distance and therefore the desire to understand is paramount.
At a little distance from them, placid and nervous, with a long nose and protruding teeth, not especially tall and with a mark hidden in my forehead that I must reveal, I too feel all over the place trying to find a language to tell what it all means. Hovering between the world of Paash and Dhoomil, as much as I want to instill myself in the sorrowful life of an old woman against her death, against my own death, returning home, in my room, in my own silence, I smell of the feet, just out of shoes.
Akash Bharadwaj studies Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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