Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke (Stephen Mitchell Translation)

Unsurpassed in their importance to every young poet.

Rilke is Rumi, Kabir, Gibran of German language. As a poet, as a seeker, he explored the limits of his knowledge and belief. He translated his solitary thoughts into poetry which has music, meaning and agelessness. What this prose, these letters contain is a faithful, forthright, candid and very modest, searching, guiding voice of Rilke. In these letters, written to a younger poet, who sought Rilke's guidance, Rilke chalks out his whole ideology of what poetry must be, and how a poet must reach above, beyond and deep within himself, to arrive at the inevitable verse, which is both timely and timeless, not only for himself but also for the reader.

As a craft, poetry is full of solitary devotion. The premium and investment in terms of poet's emotional and intellectual effort is seldom rewarded. A poet lives on the edge, and always runs the danger of tipping into the pits of self-pity, destruction and death-like poverty. The world seldom honors a poet in his prime, rather the best of the best poets compose their work in spite of the social, political and economic obligations they need to fulfill, obligations that motivate poetry, as well as impede the writing of it.

Sheer talent is not enough, mere vocabulary does not quite make you one, rhyming words and dedication are mere abilities, knowledge of published works is important, and yet what Rilke strove for, what Rilke achieved and what he advises the readers/poets to seek is a state where all these attributes synchronize to produce a poem that is at once lyrical and philosophical, understated yet powerful, terse yet tactful, and most importantly, honest and heartfelt.

There are very few books that have touched the poet in me thus. Maugham's Of Human Bondage and Tolstoy's War and Peace come to my mind when I think of effectiveness of Rilke's prose. Yet Rilke, like his Russian idols, is bathed in realism, he seeks for life outside cities and savors spirituality that he most probably carried within him. Selected Poems of Rilke translated by Robert Bly is a recommended resource, as is The Book of Hours (new translation is only couple of years old).

I will encourage every writer, who takes his vocation with seriousness to read Rilke. Like Neruda, Shakespeare, Kalidasa, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Goethe, Tagore, Pushkin, Ghalib, Hafez, Basho, Dinkar, Tulsidas, Homer, Milton and Lorca, Rilke is a must read poet for everyone interested in poetry and life. This book is a collection of letters, so is not to be confused with Poetry Handbooks or Guides that are available everywhere. These letters are personal admissions and advice of Rilke to a younger poet. Rilke started writing these when he was in late twenties, and was still groping for his voice, his intention, his ability. The letters are moving and touching. They are like streams of thought that will shape the terrain they flow through, assuage the thirst of ones who arrive at them and if you let yourself go, carry you to the ocean of consciousness.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sham President Zindabad!

I am extremely happy that Indian National Congress chose Pratibha Patil for the post of president. Finally the oldest political party has realized that it serves the interests of the audience as well as the story-teller to have puppets in place. Puppets are easy to handle. Puppets are better than masks. Be it a Prime Minister who has some authority, or President, who is titular head, having puppets is brilliant showmanship.

When the name was announced, I was disappointed at first. I let my sentimental self wail over the fact that APJ seemed set for second term, and the nation would have loved it. But like Indian cricketers who left world cup in first round itself, like Yash Chopra banner who has taken to producing glamsham, pricey nonsense potboilers, the political parties decide to get out with the most profitable, low effort, low caliber solution. Mr A is too outspoken, Mr B is not acceptable to his own language speaking partymen, Mr C is too much of a politician, Mr D is unacceptable to actress turned politician. By the mere possibility of a virtue or popularity they might encounter, many candidates were taken out of candidature. I felt quite disappointed when I heard that the name selected seems to ring no bell at all. Of course, I am still not smart about politics. That was the idea!! This is woman empowerment spelled out for you. Since Laloo needs to be in jail, Rabri becomes CM. I have started feeling quite at ease with the candidate now, for a fair number of scandals have emerged to make her likable.

When I was young, I was of the opinion that politicians should retire at age of 70, not begin their careers at that age. If you have not accomplished anything in first fifty decades of your adult life, I guess, your ability to lead a nation to disasters is expected. Thankfully, most of our politicians have continued the pre-independence tradition of doing sabbaticals and internships in the prisons of the country. They always have a long list of murders, rapes, pending criminal cases, and so on in their resume. If I was the interviewer for a political position in India, I will simply look for the count of crimes, and scandals associated with it. Every scandal makes you more qualified, more valuable. It is impossible for any indecent man to get the required quantum of crimes under his belt before age of fifty. Then there is a series of local, district and state elections to be rigged, before you get to booth capture your way to the national parliament.

The development of our country is evident in number of facilities these leaders have in the jail. Thanks to cell-phone, color tv, Mujrawaalis (Geishas), and high speed wireless access in AC rooms with the best doctors employed by government to look after your health, and security cover provided by the policemen, Indian Jails have turned into the finest tourist spots in the country. The Oberois Udaipur Palace Hotel might soon face competition from the prison cells (their rank one is under threat). I hear Shantaram was written and inspired in Indian Jail. Well, thats no big deal, Nehru always took time off from regular chores and went to the jail to write. What I think could be an extremely beneficial proposition is allow the poets and writers all over the world a stay in those jails. They will get to understand making of many of India's most powerful men, they will write more bestsellers like the Shantaram and they will surely love the rich language that can be accessed only by living in the Indian jails.

Of course, I am writing a satire. I am painting a funny picture, I am drawing caricatures. I am ignoring moral men, erudite women in the system. If anyone of the politician comes and questions me, I will admit that except him or her, the rest are rotten. I sit on a higher ground and judge. But if you like, I can be with the masses on this:)

We eradicate caste system in India by ensuring that we mention the caste on every form, every forum and we need it to get education, employment, votes, positions and promotion. We improve the situation of women by killing many of them long before they are born. If their population per thousand men drops to the levels of Haryana, we realize that supply being less than demand means, a commodity can be imported and sold for huge profits. The women sell from anywhere between 10,000 to 30,000 rupees ( $500) and if the families are poor, two or three brothers share them. If someone objects to the practice, we cite Draupadi's example from Mahabharata. Similarly the practice of having titular kings comes from the times of Mahabharata, where a blind man, Dhritrastra must rule, so that his sons can make most of his vested powers.

We have answers to all the problems. We increase the seats in institutions of learning without creating classrooms, laboratories, hostels required for them, or better still, we use that money to build houses for half a dozen politicians and bureaucrats. We believe in distribution of wealth on one hand, and on the principle that harder you have to work for your education, more you will value it. We create fake housing societies so that farmers can be displaced from their land, and then we blame dead men, who start living under new identity in a different country, for fooling the masses. Sometimes, we just underpay the peasants so that they commit suicide after giving us their harvests for lowest possible price. We sell the handwoven textiles at 1000% profit. The shawl, the rug, the carpet, the flute, the tabla, the sitar, khadi clothes and accessories, firecrackers are all produced by people who can barely provide their own selves meal a day. They are bought by them who curse the pricetag, and meanwhile the middleman/seller earns just enough for shopping spree in Europe or Singapore. When people want to get their daughters married, the discussion revolves on the value of groom in corruption marker. If he fetches a good price for his actions, he is the man. Some people say that we have problems in India. I look at them suspiciously and explain....But we have answers to all problems. We never state the problems that we cannot brush aside or we don't have answers to. We have answer to all the problems.

I am surprised that our politicians are still looking for a non-political candidate for Vice-President. I assure you that we could have had a blind, deaf, mute as an awesome candidate, a blind, deaf, mute stone statue could be perfect, and serve nearly the same purpose as a puppet president. But then there is an important question of minorities that stops us from attempting that. Firstly the Buddhists might object, for Buddha disliked Idol worship. It is irrelevant if they have built statues of him everywhere. Muslims would see a blind-deaf-mute stone president as a sign of idolatry, and will think of it as India's turning pro-Hindu.

I suspect the best idea could be to make a book the president. Aha! The Constitution of India could work well as the titular head of the country (in spite of nearly 100 amendments, it is still usable, and a position of prominence could make it into a bestseller (like Gita, Tagore and Ulysses, which are always bought and never read). All religions revere their religious texts, and chose to ignore whats inside: the move could in fact create a new religion of leaders in India. Other options are using bathroom chappals of maybe Rajiv Gandhi as the President, just like Bharata did with Ram's khadau (wooden sandals) and ruled for fourteen years.We will let Rahul Wear them as soon as his feet are of right size. We could have a president who reports to some "baba" or "guru", or maybe someone who is even older than Shekhawat. Come on, older means wiser. I assure you my great grandfather is more than a century old and since he can neither see or hear me, he seems to be a great candidate.

We could actually try finding out if anyone alive has the Mughal blood in them. Restore the Mughal Empire. Half of the politicians belong to those royal families anyway, why not have a president who is one of them too? Gosh! I gave out the argument that people think could even defeat Pratibha Patil. If only all Thakurs joined hands. But didn't that Gabbar cut those off a long time back? It is not easy to stand together as Thakurs anymore: a Bandit Queen can come any day and kill kill kill them all.

I got into that roadside Paan shop type raving discussion mode again. We all cannot escape from our habit of hurling abuse and spitting it, red and full of saliva, out like Paan. We are a nation of spitters and even though I never participated in the contests, I think I can do it as well as others. We all know how to make noise. We all know how to whine. We all want to be ruled by them who let us do whatever our craziest fancies can lead us to. We want to look good, we want to show that we have principles. Why, that makes the choice of our leaders perfect! They are our choices. We are our own choices. I am loving it, we are choosing people as bad as us, or worse. This is the zenith of human kindness, forgiveness. We have embraced the sinners, the lowly, the leftovers, and whats incredible is that we have made them the kings our own houses. We deserve the President and political system of India more than it deserves us. Chalta hai, dost! (Anything goes, so its alright my friend)

Sham President Zindabad!!

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Razor's Edge by WS Maugham

The Razor's Edge is a tale of one man (Larry) who was born and brought up in US, spend many years in Europe, first flying aircrafts in WW I and later living an idiosyncratic existence where he searched for purpose and ambition through books, languages and labor. He later travels to India, and finds solace in the Hindu philosophy, where he also learns how to medidate and be at peace with oneself and the world. Maugham writes a very accurate and engaging account of Hinduism.

The novel explores the relationship of various people. The author as a part of story travels in and out of the life of Larry and his friends, and through several conversations that occur intermittenly recreates the story of Larry, Isabel, Gray, Elliot and Sophie. Isabel loves Larry, but Larry's insistance on choosing to loaf and search for the meaning of life and his purpose (and hence living a poor life) and marries Gray, the multimillionaire. Without divulging much details of the story, one can say that the author does a good job in making his characters real and interesting, and presents through them an array of human emotions.

The Razor's edge is also a social commentary, and Maugham opens a window into the lifes and times of early twentieth century Upper classes, their constant striving for popularity and for materialistic pleasures, their hopes, and failings. The story is written in a sentiment and style that makes this discussion and critique on classes as invisible score playing somewhere in background.

In modern context of the philosophy of science, as say Capra in his Tao of Physics points out, or read Complexity by Waldrop, Eastern and especially Indian ageold wisdom and philosophy resonantes with the new contexts and paradigms in science. The paradigms of having cycles of existence, of evolution and coevolution, of each and every action of every creature affecting everyone else (Butterfly Effect), of uncertainity and unpredictability. Some sentences about Hinduism are particularly well written, say quoting from the book " Can there be anything more stupendous than the conception that the universe has no beginning and no end, but passes everlastingly from growth to equilibrium, from equilibrium to decline, from decline to dissolution, from dissolution to growth, and so on till eternity?"

Larry's description resonates with the beliefs and ideas I was taught while growing up in India. And since I have stayed in US for three years now, I guess I read into novel the kind of questions that I have faced: choice between materialism and spiritualism, choice between love and ambition, between my own country and the land of opportunity, of religion and beliefs! If you are a wanderer, and faced with such questions of life and reality, maybe you will love this book as much as I did!

It ain't only a love story, does not mean it isn't a good love story. Read it, maybe you will like it too!

Appeared on in 2004!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

A story with the backdrop of Indian partition holocaust that displaced 20 million people and killed over a million

Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan shall ever be considered one of the most significant chronicles of the horrors that accompanied the partition of India. In this spare and tight narrative, Khushwant Singh selects Mano Majra, a small village near the border, as the place where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs come to terms with religion based division of a country. To be uprooted from one country, the country that was your home was several hundred years or more, is an extremely painful experience. Khushwant Singh choses to leave the sentimentality to the reader, and just draws a series of sketches of how the events influence his nicely crafted characters.

The characters are closest to the villagers, Policemen and Magistrates I have known in reality. The conversations, the arguments, the brotherhood that extends beyond religion in villages, and the complexity of human nature is all brought out by this pithy masterpiece nicely. Without going into the details of story or characters (which I will let you read and marvel at yourself), I can tell you that the storyline, in spite of the baggage it carries in terms of trains full of dead bodies, forms a reading full of suspense, agony, mystery and things run to a brilliant climax. The novel is more like Life is Beautiful, where holocaust happens elsewhere. It is quite funny at places (Sardars and Sardar humor abound) and the events unfold in a dramatic and cathartic fashion. While I won’t call it a light read, or recommend it for humor, the style and story moves like an accelerating train to a gripping climax.

Why hasn't Khushwant Singh's novel acquired the reputation it deserves in the world literature? I think there are several reasons which primarily are related to how the novel is written. I believe Khushwant Singh could have spent a little more time and text on the history of Sikhism and Islam in India. What happened in 1947 was perhaps a consequence of accumulated hatred of centuries. What happened against the Jews in Europe wasn't the result of Hitler's personal vendetta alone, what happened in India wasn't a result of Jinnah (or you can blame Indian National Congress, if you like Jinnah) alone. We need to look at these in the light of bloodshed that had preceded these events.

Train to Pakistan presents one of the best studies (in English) of Sikhs and villagers of India. Another novel from the same time Maila Anchal (The Soiled Border) by Phanishwer Nath Renu is a complimentary study of villagers in Bihar, as these villagers witness rise of caste based politics and changes in wake of India's freedom. Since the events during partition involved a million deaths, and uncountable inhuman excesses (rapes, slashed breasts, castrations), the novel provides context for very strong emotions. In the dark dance of death and murders, there are occasional glimpses of romance, friendship and kinship.

I would urge every Indian and Pakistani to read this book. It is part of our painful heritage. The book is perhaps not as descriptive as it should be for the taste of non-Indian, non-Pakistani readers, but I am sure it presents the Indian holocaust in a very delicate, refined and understated fashion.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Reinventing the blogger: from poetry to fiction

In July 2006, I made a conscious decision to post only experimental poems on this blog. In my evolution as a poet, 2006 was the most important year. I benefited immensely from my association with Thomas Lux, poet in residence at Georgia Tech. I also had the opportunity of working with Stuart Dischell at the Sarah Lawrence Summer Seminar for Writers, and Chard DeNiord who was a visiting professor (McEver Chair) in Poetry at Tech. This June I returned to the Sarah Lawrence for another week of poetry, workshops, and had the chance of learning from Stephen Dobyns. (he writes fiction as well as poetry and has the book of essasy Best Words, best order, which is essential read for any poet). All the established poets have drilled similar ideals and ideas into my head: READ Read read Read READ; read good poetry; read good fiction; REVISE, avoid cliches, avoid sentimentality, and so on.

But can you learn how to write a poem? Certainly. If I was a person who had a natural sense of beat and step for dancing, I realize, my teachers trained me or inspired me to pick up the formal style of salsa, balle, tango and so on. My natural talent, with their direction, is hopefully progressing towards an ideal I aspire for. A consequence of this seriousness for the craft is my inability to leave my good work on this blogsite. Once published online, the poems become useless for print media, and so from now on, I will save all my work for submissions, and this means the poetry section of this blog will not be updated much. If at all, I will post some translations, etc. We'll see.

From the beginning of the year, I have tried posting fiction. I think my prose is at a much younger stage of development than my poetry, and hence I will try to post more fiction, as short stories and maybe as short novellas. The experimental nature of the posts now and earlier means I value every criticism that comes my way. The harsher the better.

Book reviews, movie reviews, occasional remarks about social and political issues and random posts about anything that interests me that day will continue.

I have removed some of the old poems. My apologies to anyone who goes to the poems that now say "Under revision." I have more than 100 poems archived online in some way or the other. Hopefully I will make a transition to print media soon. Cheers to new beginnings!