Monday, July 27, 2009

Random Thoughts on 'Art and Technology': A Decade after that Humanities Course

To mention Art and Technology in same breath requires a shift in perspective, for these two streams of human creativity, appear to be quite distinct. A decade ago, as an undergraduate in Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, I opted for a humanities course, titled Art and Technology, taught by Prof. V. Sanil. A decade after the course, I am still fascinated by the aspects of art and technology that we discussed and discovered during a semester of music, movies, paintings, and handouts. Once we realize that the story and beauty of literature, painting, poetry, architecture and dance is coupled to the technological evolution, we begin to see how truth and beauty are manifested through both art and technology. When we look at a Mercedes Benz or I-phone or the image of splash of a drop of milk or a special effect in say a 007 or superman movie, a Disney or Pixar cartoon, we are marveling at confluence of these two streams. As an engineer, I spent the last decade in universities, studying polymer dynamics, iridescent beetles, chaos and chaotic mixing, pattern formation, and dynamics of complex fluids. I have continued to evolve as a poet and a writer, and my first collection of poems in English will be appear this year. My growth as a human being, my personality, has sipped from the cup of both art and technology. In this piece, I recall how a single course introduced me to themes that I find impossible to ignore now. When I met Prof. Sanil on my recent India trip, I began to rave out this course, how we talk about it all the time. Like a good professor is wont to do, he smiled, and assigned me an essay on "Art and Technology: A decade after that Humanities course".

As a nineteen year old, I had watched many movies, read a few books, attended rock concerts in and around Delhi, and I had studied at least as much science as one needs to get into IIT. The courses in humanities were required courses, and most of us picked those based on recommendations by seniors, or because our friends (or real or imaginary boyfriends/girlfriends) preferred one. I guess I was in Art and Technology course for similar reasons, helped by presence of three of my closest friends, and by the fact that we had enjoyed Prof. Sanil's course on Moral Literacy and Moral Choices. The course on ethics had introduced us to work of Aristotle, to utilitarianism and Hume, existentialism and Sartre, to Kant, to Amartya Sen's theories, and through the inevitable discussions on moral choices, it introduced us to our own perceptions and preferences. Through the course, we learned to examine our own points of view and choices. It was as if, we became philosophers through a semester of handouts. In the last decade, I have found this knowledge handy in discussions of all kinds: social, political, cultural and technological. So in the next semester, when the professor first talked about things to be covered in Art and Technology, we wondered why we wanted to take a course that involved two weeks of watching movies, and listening to lectures about paintings or music. Art, it seemed to us, was a realm of fantasy, of senses, where taste and talent determine the appreciation and presentation of sights and sounds. We were determined to leave laws of physics outside the room when we entered a movie hall: Bollywood movies expect that from us anyway.

We use our ears (and invisible mind) to discern noise from music. When I first came to IIT, I found Rock music to be unbearable. It was nonsense and noise to me. Hindi movies had introduced me to songs based on Indian classical music, but my appreciation of Western Classical music was limited to associating it with the background score of Tom and Jerry and other cartoon series. My hostel room was next door to a friend's room whose 1000 W system blasted Metallica, U2, Guns and Roses, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin at every imaginable odd hour of the day. Another friend, who smoked anything and everything, (and was sometimes seen carrying a 'hukka' around the campus) swore by the names of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. Due to valiant attempts by these two and other friends, I developed a respect and taste for both forms of Western music. Yet, I never sat down to think why the Eastern and Western music was so different. So when Prof. Sanil asked us this question in class, we started saying a lot of things, hoping to hit the right answer somehow: this is a talent every engineer learns, and every manager excels in. I still remember the discussion about role of harmony in Western music and predominance of melody in Indian classical, about differences in frequencies of basic notes in Indian and Western classical music, about the meanings of words 'raaga', 'symphony' and so on. I recall a handout that talked about how an Indian flute maker is typically an illiterate man, who goes to the jungle during a ritualized season, dries selected bamboo shoots, and pokes holes into the reed to make small or large flutes, that work marvelously. On the other hand, in United States, a specialized company uses the most sophisticated machinery to design flutes made out of special alloys, and maintains precision in frequency, size and surface finish of holes, and sells one flute at a price that will be more than the price of all flutes an Indian flute maker sells in a lifetime. I learned about how Western musicians require "engineers" to tune their pianos, whereas just before a performance a tabla player tunes his table by hitting hammer and tightening few ropes, while a sitar player strums each chord and decides on the right one. The beauty of music, it turns out, can be recorded in terms of beauties of the notes that can be expressed a frequencies. Many physical laws are best understood by thinking of them in terms of harmonic motion, in terms of frequencies, and no wonder, CV Raman was fascinated by the physics of tabla and other musical instrumnets, for his own knowledge of "frequencies of electromagnetic waves" was crucial in his discovery of Raman effect. Next time you think about noise as an electrical engineer, or of vibrations as civil or mechanical engineer, remember a heart beat, a tap on tabla, the earthquake, and a note of Sitar are all vibrations of some kind.

In discussing about music, we started talking about Rock music, about the origin of this form, why drums and guitars played a central role in evolution of sound. In past decade, I have had occasion to revisit these discussions. I visited Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and a museum dedicate to Bob Dylan and Hendrix in Seattle. I have read more and more about how certain musicians adopted technological advances to expand their repertoire of sounds. Dylan was heavily criticized for using an electric guitar, Pink Floyd for using light and sound for making eerie concerts and records, and Madonna for thinking the most about videos that could play on MTV. When we begin to think about instruments, we begin to see that instruments exist in a culture; the instruments are made by artisans or technicians; instruments use wood, metal, alloy or plastic, invented by a certain age. When we begin to see the hand that shaped the tabla, when we discern that the pitch and frequency of a note we find aesthetically pleasing can be analyzed mathematically, do we loose our appreciation of melody, of sound, or music? Or do we begin to hear more than what a mere monkey would hear? How do we hear things? Isn't the sensation of music itself produced first by the banal strumming of cords (aha! from notes of a vibrating string) or from blowing air (through windpipes, creating disturbances with certain frequency and amplitude) and later isn't the appreciation itself through the chemical and electrical signals that are transported and analyzed in human auditory response system? What are senses, and why do we sense things as beautiful, aesthetically pleasing? We began from very simple questions, and in the course, we soon reached the seemingly abstract questions: what is truth, and what is beauty? Are these abstractions? Prof. Sanil gave us another handout, this one from Chandrasekhar, the Nobel prize winning scientist most famous for his work on black holes and other 'physicsy' things. I have read several scientific texts and papers by Chandrasekhar, all written with exception clarity of concepts and dealing with challenging mathematics. Curiously enough, was interested in this question of truth and beauty, and talked about how these show up in both art and technology. Chandrasekhar is not an exception in seeking answers to these questions: as we read works by great scientists, poets and writers, we find this quest is an eternal quest. The faithful have shaped their Gods as an answer to this quest or as the means of pursuing the answer; the rational have framed theories and explanations and the creative have forged works of art that seek and show 'truth' and 'beauty'.

The quest for beauty in painting has a better documented history. It begins with the sketches made by the ancients in their caves. It evolves through the art that existed in temples and places of worship, in palaces, in folk designs. The Renaissance began when the man began to explore the possibilities of perspective, of attention to detail, of form and function. Leonardo da Vinci was like the procrastinators who abound in our midst: his paintings were incomplete, and his science was incomplete: yet what he sought was important enough, his methods were scientific enough for his time and his unfinished work was masterful enough, to survive as an inspiration to artists and scientists alike. While I believe a handout from Prof. Sanil would delve of such things later, it seems strange to me that before we actually began discussing paintings in this course, my appreciation of artistry was limited by my ignorance. When the cave man looked at the sky, he saw bright objects; when Ancient Greeks and Indians saw them they found divinities, Ptolemy saw earth at the center of universe, Aryabhatta though of earth revolving around the sun, and we all know that Galileo and thereafter, the scientists used telescopes and other devices to learn more. It is the same sky, same objects, but the story of what we ‘see’ is also the story of human progress. In this case, technology changed how we perceived them. Yet, in his own way, Van Gogh, though a single painting on Starry Night, provided us with an image that we cannot forget. "Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are" is quite a simple nursery rhyme but for a scientist and an artist, it carries connotations that require lifetimes worth of work. ‘Seeing is believing’, and yet what we really see is determined by the manifest forms of art and technology. For example, a two dimensional image, a photo, gives us a map of human face. A video provides sound and mobility. Three-dimensional objectification comes next: both in art and science, the leap in imagination from two to three to four dimensions, represents a giant leap in our understanding of life, universe and everything. Coming back to paintings, if you look back at the history of art and science, the question of perspective, symmetry, curvature, patterns are questions that led us to new vistas of knowledge, both of scientific and aesthetic nature (both pleasures might co-exist, without our knowing so). Through the course, we discovered the impressionists, Van Gogh and Manet, the modernists, Picasso and Dali, the medieval giants: Rapheal, Leornardo da Vinci, Micheal Angelo. In years that followed, I have slaked my thirst for their work by visiting museums in Amsterdam and New York, by reading books like Moon and Sixpence by WS Maugham, through movies.

Of late, I have figured that we need more understanding of our own, i.e. Indian art and technology, for unless we do that, we cannot understand who we are. Argumentative Indian, a book of essays by Amartya Sen, provides contexts and examples for this understanding of Indian culture, language, technology, and music, and the role of this understanding in determining our identity. Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red retraces the history of Islamic art, where the artists in Istanbul make attempts to copy the old master of Herat, who were in turn influenced by Chinese miniature artists, and yet the Islamic artists establish a love-hate relationship with sixteenth century art of Europeans. As Salman Rushdie's Enchantress of Florence acknowledges, Eastern art was a work of a team, any sculpture, any painting, was attributed to a team: in Western world, individuals got the honor. In the course, we had explored questions about how our knowledge of the artist influences our perception of his work, and if should be so. The questions of what is art and what is not, what is communal and what is personal, of who is an artist, and ‘art for arts sake’, of what is taboo and what is revolutionary, resonated in the class. These questions were asked in the same vein as questions about what is a fact, what is truth as opposed to perceived truth, what is knowledge? Be it Pamuk's novel or Einstein's biography, we find these questions intact.

The seeming distance between art and technology disappears when you read great works of literature. The description of architecture, and its history in The Hunchback of Notradame by Victor Hugo, the details about whale hunt and whale industry in Moby Dick by Melville, the thesis on art and science of paper making in Lost Illusions by Balzac, or description of vogue scientific knowledge in War and Peace by Tolstoy, is apt as scientific and artistic writing. The great German poet, Goethe wrote a treatise on color science, while Vladimir Nabokov (of Lolita fame) collected and cataloged butterflies all his life. Even with nineteenth century equipment, a maestro scientists like Rayleigh and Plateau perceived laws of physics hardly perceptible to human eye. Robert Hooke's Micrographia shows the level of his skill as a sketcher: after several buildings in London burned down, he provided sketches for builders, based on his own memory. The mathematician Lewis Carol created a wonderland for Alice, a doctor Chekhov turned in on good story after another to feed himself, while treating poor patients for free. The influence of art on technology and vice versa, is apparent in naming of things: to call an allotrope of carbon as buckminsterfullerene acknowledges contribution of Buckminster Fuller to the designing of geodesic dome. High speed photography, including splashing droplets or images of sportsmen in action, required innovations from Harold Edgerton in MIT: a professor ended up transforming how everything that happens in a fraction of second is captured, observed and understood. His images are hung in galleries and museums and are printed in journals and textbooks of science. Cinema is a grand medium for simultaneously showcasing the latest innovations in art and technology: in the class, when we watched Battleship Potemkin or Citizen Kane or Pather Panchali or Pyscho, we discussed some aspects of cinema that have ever reverberated in my thinking. What is a long shot, a close-up, the interplay of color and shadows, of what is captured in a frame and what is left out: if my love for cinema is like that of a protagonist from Cinema Paradiso, this course introduced me to a different level of appreciation. The questions we asked while looking at a painting, or while hearing a song, or while discussing relation of "art" and "audience" are all uncorked simultaneously before us in cinema. Perhaps the mixing of several arts and technologies, limits our appreciation of each individual ingredient, but when we pay little more attention, the mind picks out sight, sound, poetry, story, and emotion separately; and then as one.

The curious aspect of thinking about art and technology in the same room or together is that soon the spectrum of colors that fill our world, seems to come from a single streak of light. It becomes increasingly obvious that it is a drop of human intellect or mind or sensibility, that acts as the prism, which creates an explosion of colors. Or maybe not, maybe the rainbow exists, even if we don't know why it does? Why do we need to know how the rainbow forms, and why are we attracted to it? Are we seeing the same rainbow that our forefathers saw? But each rainbow we see is different from any rainbow that anyone else sees. But rainbow represents something. Is the rose a rose a rose? Eco's Name of the Rose leads us through labyrinths of such questions. Meanwhile the Hindi or Sanskrit word for rainbow is Indradhanush: again a bow, but of Rain God (rather than the English rain bow, we have rain god's bow in Hindi), whereas French call it arc-enciel, or the colored arc and Slovene word is mavrica, meaning a multicolored arch of color. In Slovene, mavrica is a feminine word as opposed to masculine Indradhanush. Most poets write about the blue sky, but humanity waited till late nineteenth century to find out why the sky is blue! While Lord Rayleigh was quite right about role of scattering in making the sky blue, he got the explanation for the color of sea wrong, and while Raman found the answer to this question, we know now that sky is not blue for all organisms, for perception of color itself depends upon biological optics. It is, as if, what we see is not enough; there is more to it then we first notice. The Upanishads proclaim that sensory perception is lowest form of perception, and a yogi transcends this sensory perception, and of course, Gods transcend all knowledge and need for perception. We go through levels of perception, using sense (indri), reason (vivek), mind (buddhi) and aatam. So be it, the questions of what constitute truth and beauty, lead us to science, arts and religion, and the seeking makes us human beings who exist in a particular space-time. How do we become aware of our "space time", how do we become better beings, design better machines, create better art, and what does ‘better’ mean anyway?

Vivek Sharma graduated from IIT Delhi in 2001, and is currently a postdoctoral research associate in Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Vivek writes in both Hindi and English, and his collection, “Saga of a Crumpled Piece of Paper” (63 poems, English) will be published by Writer’s Workshop, Calcutta.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Rendezvous with Prof. P. Lal, the Bhisham Pitamah of Publishing Indian Writing in English

I visited Kolkata and met the legendary poet, translator, writer, professor, publisher: P. Lal. For the poet who has known over half a century worth of writers, and has been a cornerstone of Indian writing in English, a meeting with a novice like me may not appear anything special. But it was a very special forty-five minutes for me, and my post is a testimonial about the meeting. To call him Bhisham Pitamah of Indian Writing in English is to recognize the role he has played in nurturing several generations of writers, and to pay tribute to his effort at translating every verse of Mahabharata.

P. Lal, or Prof Lal (as he is affectionately called) is a month away from starting his eighth decade. In the last fifty years, he has launched innumerable poets and writers, who have found their niche in the world of celebrity (or in many cases obscurity). Be it Agha Shahid Ali or Vikram Seth or Keki N Daruwala or Pritish Nandy or AK Ramanujan or Chitra Bannerjee Devakurni or Kamala Das, their story begins with Writers Workshop imprint. P. Lal runs a small publishing "room", from where book acceptances are issued, and where 500 copies of hand-bound books are shipped, each carrying exquisite calligraphy, which is the hallmark of WW & Prof. Lal. As a publisher, his enterprise has incredible 3500 titles already to his credit. As a translator, he has collected and translated nearly every verse of Mahabharata. The epic is much much longer and richer than Collected Works of Shakespeare or both Iliad and Odyssey and requires a wisdom of language and culture, spread over three thousand years and more. The Writers Workshop has survived so long by the personal funds and efforts of one man, who continues to inspire writers like me. Now before I talk about the meeting, let me repeat the story of how I got the Writers Workshop imprint. I hope many more will follow this route and stay thankful for the existence of WW.

I first wrote to Prof. Lal in December, 2008, asking him if I could send in a manuscript. The response was prompt "yes" and I sat down and compiled 63 poems into "Saga of a Crumpled Piece of Paper". After sending in the manuscript, I was ready to wait for months, and yet the acceptance came within a few days. Then began the process of revisions on my part. In November 2005, I was fortunate to walk into the office of Thomas Lux, a poet a residence at Georgia Institute of Technology and in next three years, he taught me the importance of craftsmanship, skill, reading and revision. When my book was accepted, my Gurudev and friend, Thomas Lux, offered to write an introduction. In the MIT convocation this year, a speaker said that an intellectual and a scientist must possess traits of 'generosity' and 'curiosity ': Gurudev has taught me both with regards to poetry. Gurudev Lux showed generosity when I was a student, as well as in the introduction for my book (I christened him Gurudev, both because he is my mentor and because I could not follow the American practice of calling him Tom). Within a few months of submitting the revised manuscript, I had galley proofs with me, and the book will be ready by Fall this year.

While Prof. Lal and I exchanged emails, I was aware of the central role played by him (and Nissim Ezekiel) in nurturing Indian poets writing in English. For example in the the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, (a comprehensive anthology representing 70 poets, edited by Jeet Thayil), there are several poets who have had Writers Workshop imprint for either their first book or for many of their books. 'Three Indian Poets: Nissim Ezekiel, Don Moraes and A. K. Ramanujan' by Bruce King examines how Indian heritage and Western education create a new voice in English, and the anthology edited by Jeet Thayil introduces us to a broad spectrum of work in English, where a Western language carries Indian hues, smells, sounds and mystery. The contribution of Writers Workshop is not in how many books it sells, but in how it has cradled the voices that would have vanished without reaching us. Given the contributions made by Writers Workshop, Calcutta to Indian English, I feel it is an honor and a privilege to begin my career as writer here. When I decided to travel to India, I wrote to Prof Lal, asking him if I could come and meet him. He sent me a phone number, and I packed my bags in Himachal and traveled 2000 km more to meet him.

I was so excited about meeting him that I just landed up at his door. I was asked by the gatekeeper to return home, and told that Prof. Lal does not meet anyone without an appointment these days. I called Prof. Lal and learned that he was quite sick, was on a strict medical regime. He was getting blood transfusions done but he offered to meet me next evening. Next day, I showed up at his door half an hour before the appointed time, and entered the hallowed publishing "room", the grand library-like "office" of Prof. Lal. Since I am quite forgetful and I took no notes, I will paraphrase the essence of our conversation. (I shall not say what he said about my writing, he was quite generous, and I respect him for being patient and inspiring to youngsters like me). Fittingly we started to talk about Mahabharata.

Prof. Lal asked me if I knew of an English word that has two opposite meanings. I couldn't think of any, though he said 'cleave' has been used in context of being removed and sticking to something. Then he said in Sanskrit words can assume two different meanings quite easily. In the end of Mahabharata, Mahrishi Vyas asks that why can't man understand the path of 'arth', 'kaam', 'dharma' and 'moksha'? Prof. Lal asked me what these words meant. He explained "arth" has two meanings: first one is "essence" or "meaning" or "the fundamental understanding" (of self, and of world). But the alternate meaning is "money" or materialistic gain. We all pursue "arth", but usually the materialistic one. 'Kaam' can be associated with 'gandharva' or with 'kaamdeva', with 'love' or with 'lust', and most fail to go from 'lust' to 'love' or get trapped in cycle of 'lust'. Same for 'dharma' (often mistranslated as religion): it has a connotation which is 'spiritual', requires performance of duties and responsibilities that are harmonious with spirituality. Other meaning is "ritual", where the "show", the 'act' takes prominence. Of course, the great bane of us Hindus is that we forget the spiritual aspect, and over emphasize the ritual part. (In this context, the story of Nachiketa from Katha-Upanishad is quite telling: when the young son questions his father about the parting with worthless cows and animals, rather than giving alms of things dear to himself). The final goal of 'Moksha', also has two connotations: the first one of "detachment'' or "renunciation": freedom from "kaam" (lust), "krodh" (anger), "moh" (love or attachment), "lobh" (greed) and "irshya" (jealousy). It is a hard goal. The other one is of "escape", which is what many people take it to be. The translation from Sanskrit texts requires such subtle understanding, and hence is hard for people, especially foreigners and for students, to appreciate the "arth" or essence of complex, nuanced arguments.

Prof. Lal than told me another anecdote about how Yudhistar wanted to commit suicide after the battle of Mahabharata was over and he saw that the land was full of dead warriors and widespread destruction. Then being "dharmaputra" (Son of Dharma) he went to his foster father, Vidur, who represented Dharma itself (through his wisdom and deeds). Vidur asked Yudhisitar to first find out the similarity between "nadiya" (river), "stree" (female), 'taruvar' (tree) and "prithvi" (earth), and then make his decision. Yudhisitar came back, and said he understood. Prof. Lal asked me if I knew what the similarity was. River, earth, tree, and women, continue to provide even if they are abused, they carry on living even after destruction, they bring forth fruit and children and bear all the abuse with fortitude. To carry on in face of adversity and destruction is another facet of lesson imbibed in Mahabharata. I told him that I had heard about another anecdote about Yudhisitar visiting Bhisma to resolve these matters, and I had read Dinkar's verses about it. Prof. Lal smiled and said that is in Shanti Parva: the last part of Mahabharata, the section is finishing work on.

But the lessons in life and Mahabharata is always for the one who seeks an understanding. As Prof. Lal continued, he asked me why only Arjuna saw the "Viraat" Krishna (his grand form, with all times, all beings, all galaxies and universes, seen to be emerging from him and vanishing into him). The armies of Pandavas and Kauravas sat there, did not notice a thing. Yet Arjun went through a long deliberation as if, and this constitutes the Bhagavad Gita. 'Nar'-'Narayan', first is Nar (Man), then Narayana (God); first 'Jishna', then 'Krishna'. Why is Krishna only a charioteer, if he is the God, and why is Arjun in the doer, the driver, the decider seat? Why is Krishna, the all knowing God, not doing anything? Was Krishna just a voice in Arjun's head? Doesn't this mean that God watches as man does his actions? Why does Krishna advice Arjuna to kill Karna when Karna gets off his chariot to pull a wheel out of the mud? Why does Arjun commit this sin, why does he need to obey Krishna's advice? What is Krishna? The consciousness or mind or thinking that makes Yudhistar lie, say that Ashwathama has died and abet in the murder of Dhronacharya, his own teacher, his own Guru? Who is the doer? Who is the thinker? After all the arguments put forth in Gita, the pacifist Arjuna, says P. Lal, makes the wrong choice, and kills his own brethren. In heaven, when Yudhistar and Arjun get there, they see Duryodhana has a grander seat than them. When they ask why it is so, they learn, that they actually fought the war for profit, for their selfish desire to rule, and not because they were on the side of dharma (Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, in Rashmirathi and Kurushetra argues that once war begins, 'dharma' is impossible to follow, and so even if war has a just cause, every warrior ends up leaving his dharma). Prof. Lal smiled and said, there are lot of dilemmas and questions left open or raised in Mahabharata. It is a grand work, and if you get lost in it, there is no coming back. (I told him I want to do a translation some day as well). We talked about the versions he had used, about Gita Press Gorakhpur, who do a commendable job in making all the ancient texts available at a low cost. He also said, what I had seen, that the Gita press censors out any mention of meat eating (by Pandavas, for example) and of sexual matters (in highlighting which some Western translators take extraordinary pleasure in). He said, like many other versions, his interpretations will not be perfect, and he cannot hope to reach the perfect version: but he seeks a complete version.

Then came the question of what I planned to do in life. I said that I want to continue my life of a researcher and keep writing in spare time. We talked about how English is still a foreign language when Indian emotions need to be expressed. Prof. Lal said that Indians are pastoral, and are more straightforward than a typical Westerner: with faith in simpler ideals and idols. To say something in an understated way is English style, not Indian. Irony is not what an Indian poet must excel in, for irony falters in an Indian context, and reduces us writers to poor mimics of Western writers. To say what we feel, requires a greater effort in English; there has to be touch of reverence, there has to be pastoral simplicity. We need to go beyond the established norms of Western writing in English to do a proper justice to the thoughts, traditions, practices, and emotions of this subcontinent. Prof. Lal said he found English particularly inadequate in capturing the multilayered connotation of shalokas or cantos of Mahabharata. We talked about how most of the famous fiction writers from India, who write in English, are urban elites, somewhat disconnected from the rural India, as well as from poor and middle classes in cities and small towns. I hope to continue writing about this underrepresented section of India, for I grew up in small towns and spend a large part of my vacations in villages. We agreed that if I stayed on in United States, it will be hard for me to stay unaffected by the Western style and Western thought process and write honestly, without irony or suspicion about Indian themes. Yet we agreed, it is sometimes by staying away from our land and language that we begin to understand ourselves better. It is through poetry that we understand that which we might not know otherwise.

The fifty minutes I spend with Prof. Lal, each minute for a year of Writers Workshop, filled me with a satisfaction that one feels after visiting a temple he has only heard about. My personal story as a published poet is on its first page, and as I walked out of the "Writers Workshop", I knew that if and when I'll visit the more celebrated publishing houses in future, I'll never feel the reverence and gratitude I felt in presence of the grand old man of Indian Writing in English. I left thinking that it is easy for us to focus on our individual careers, but it requires a substantial will to carry on an enterprise like Prof. Lal has done for five decades. In a few minutes, I found a rickshaw and retreated into the crowded lanes of Kolkata.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hindi Vaadi (Poem in Hindi)

मेरा बचपन हिंदी में है, उसे अंग्रेजी-उर्दू संवाद नहीं आता,
माँ की लोरी, थपकी का मुझको अनुवाद नहीं आता |

मुझसे क्यूँ चाहती हो अदब विलायती या लखनवी,
छोटे शहर के लड़कों को देना दाद नहीं आता |

अशिक्षित हूँ, फ्रेंच, बंगाली, मराठी, तमिल, हिब्रू में,
मेरी कमी है कि मुझे इनमें करना विवाद नहीं आता |

लिखता, कहता हूँ कई आधी, सीखी जुबानों में,
पर विवशता है, परदेसी परोसी में वो स्वाद नहीं आता |

तुम जाओ जिस राह जाना चाहो, मेरा सुख मेरी मिट्टी में है,
मेरी सृष्टि है मेरी जन्मभूमि, मुझे बनना अपवाद नहीं आता |

भुला-सा दिया है तुमने इस विवेक को, कह मेरी सोच पुरानी है,
सहस्त्रों वर्षों की संस्कृति का मुझको करना त्याग नहीं आता |

(Paraphrase (I have made no attempt to write English poem here, as even in paraphrase the ideas are preserved and the rhyme, wordplay present in the Hindi Ghazal will be lost):

My childhood is in Hindi, it doesn't converse in Urdu or English,
I cannot translate the *songs and pats of my mother. (lori is sung to put babies to sleep)

Why do you desire Western or Lucknowi style from me,
Boys from small towns don't know how to give compliments.

I am uneducated in French, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, Hebrew,
It is my shortcoming, that I can't argue in these tongues.

I write, speak in many half-learned languages,
But its my failing, the foreign helpings don't have that taste.

You can go whatever way you wish to go, my comfort is in this land,
My universe is my motherland, I don't know how to become an exception.

You have almost forgotten Vivek, saying my thinking is traditional,
I don't know how to part with few thousand year old civilization.