Sunday, January 24, 2010

"What Teachers Make", Taylor Mali & Prayer addressing Teachers/Guru

In a video posted on, Taylor Mali speaks on "What teachers make". In this material world, where the importance of teachers (anyone who lives and acts like Gurus or Brahmins) is undermined, the metrics of success are falsely related to monetary gains only, Taylor reminds us of why we used to (and why we must) merit Guru or Teacher above everyone and everything.

Taylor Mali is one of the finest slam poets of the United States. I interacted with him at the Summer seminar for Writers at Sarah Lawrence College, in 2008. He gave tutorials on how to recite your work with right posture, pitch, tone and performance as opposed to mumbling in name of poetry reading. In a stellar performance there, he created a composite poem from works of all the poets and writers who read before him one evening. The three minutes from display every element of the poet's skill and teacher's will that Taylor wants us to emulate.

I am reminded of the classic Sanskrit hymn or shaloka:

गुरुर ब्रह्मा, गुरुर विष्णु, गुरुर देवो महेश्वरः |

गुरु शाक्षात परम ब्रह्मा, तस्मै श्री गुरुवे नमः ||

Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu, Gurur Devo Maheshvarah. Guru Shakshat Para Brahma, Tasmai Shri Guruve Namah. OR Teacher is like Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh (i.e. Generator, Operator, Destroyer [of humanity, knowledge, everything]), is like the manifest Ultimate Brahma/God (Satchitananda: all Truth, Joy, Beauty, Knowledge), (Teacher takes away  our ignorance, darkness & enlightens us); You should pray and give reverence to Guru /Teacher. 

I know many of you will suggest that Guru must have the ability, the character, the stature to merit such regard... my opinion is: whoever teaches you anything, deserves gratitude and reverence. We are all guilty of forgetting how our own progress in life is in many ways fruition of the efforts of the unsung heroes of our life: our teachers. Praise be to them!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, Edited by Jeet Thayil

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil, includes an eclectic, exciting and incredible anthology of poems by seventy-two poets from India and Indian diaspora. These voices that span the last fifty-five years includes works by all the major poets, (more familiar names) of Indian English including Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Agha Shahid Ali, AK Ramanujan, Arvind Krishan Mehrotra, Adil Jussawala, Keki Daruwala, Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamla Das and R. Parthasarthy. The collection also includes many younger poets and and many upcoming voices including Vikram Seth, Jeet Thayil, Ravi Shankar, Meena Alexander, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Kazim Ali, Daljit Nagra, among others.

The voices bring forth influences and feelings excavated, collected, cultivated, imported, ingrained or extracted from a rich and varied landscape of Indian heritage, culture, philosophy, religion and echoing the daily chaos and beauty of Indian existence. Diversity in temperament and tastes, rich colors and varied textures, aroma of spices, shingle of bangles, Hindu and sufi mysticism, Kamasutra or censored sexuality, chutnified or dignified English, free verse and sonnets, and a grand tour of modern and ancient world is served in this collection. Voices that are of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians, Indians, Americans, Britishers, and World citizens versify such that each poem both represents the local, particular idioms, icons and ideas and transcends these in creating literature that is human, universal, eternal.

Adil Jussawalla, perhaps speaks for every Indian writer, who spend his lifetime pursuing poetry in a country, where there is little reward for bards writing in this 'phoren' language, and whose English poets, are yet to be welcomed in international circuits, where a bad translation from another language gets more audience, than original writing in English from a poet born in India/non-Western countries:
"Bright sparks /
 on the international back-slapping circuit /
 are picking up prizes like static. //
 He's for the dark."

Arundhati Subramaniam, in a poem titled "To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn't Find Me Identifiably Indian" provides a succinct portrayal of both Western prejudice about who they consider is Indian and what is not, and the frustration of an Indian writer seeking to speak in this language about his or her complex existence that is not bound by what textbook definition proclaims to be his or her territory or ideology. The anthology also includes essays by Jeet Thayil, Bruce King and Arvind Krishan Melhotra. These essays provide insight into the life and work of few of the famous poets as well as the state of/ regard for English poetry writing in India. Similarly there are poetic tributes to the likes of Nissim Ezekiel and Agha Shahid Ali by poets touched and transformed by their work, and other poems that stake claim on English as language of expression, exile, migration, longing, learning and spirituality.

"Considerthefemalebodyyourmost /

suggests Rukmini Bhaya Nair, whereas

"You are no plagiarist of dusk. /
 Nothing in the sky equals itself."

writes Kazim Ali. At once, homage to a thirty century old tradition of Sanskrit verse form, shalokas, is made and in another poem, the limitlessness of possibilities is hinted at. The collection contains a large number of quotable lines, and startling sentences, each embedded in nicely sculpted lines and word images. Moreover, the collection includes works by poets who deserve way more attention than we have given them. Not many of us know of the poems by G. S. Sharat Chandra, who was once nominated for Pulitzer Prize. He writes:
'My good shoe has run away /
 with the tacks /
 of its slutty twin.'

Similarly Agha Shahid Ali is quite unknown in India. He, like G. S. Sharat Chandra has a prize named after him (by University of Utah). Shahid was a Kashmiri-American poet, best known for his Ghazals in English. He was devoted to the cause, and taught many Americans that this form of verse is not merely about rhyming couplets, but about rendering a lament that stretches the personal grief, till it becomes an umbrella over everyone who reads the poems.The collection does not contain any of his Ghazals, but his accessibility and depth is reflected in these lines I often quote from 'Stationery',
"The world is full of paper. /
 Write to me."

Works by Mamta Kalia, Leela Gandhi, Eunice de Souza, Kamla Das and others have an edge to them, a revolt against the Kaushalya-Sita-Sati-Savitri (ideal mother/housewife) image of Indian women, a celebration of contemporary movements in celebration of right and freedom of women. Eunice de Souza has lines like:
"'O Universal Lover /
 in a state of perpetual erection! /
 Let me too enter into /
 communion with the world /
 through thee.' "

and others like:
'It pays to be a poet. /
You don't have to pay prostitutes.'

Leela says:
"Our desire wanting we tried our love /
 and found it good enough without /
 this sex thing, this hip and lip thing. /
 Let other lovers sweat and grind, /
 our love's refined, raising virtues from necessity."

In a poem titled Brat, Mamta Kalia, has a daughter say:
"You, perhaps, were hardly proud /
 Of your creativity -- /
 Except for the comfort /
 That I looked like Papa /
 And not like the neighbour /
 Who shared our bathroom."

While Vivek Narayanan celebrates the vamp from silver screen in "Three Elegies for Silk Smitha", Arun Kolatkar picks an "Ogress" from a poverty-striken street and describes her
"has always been a kind /
 of an auxiliary mother, /
 semi-official nanny //
 and baby-bather-in-chief /
 to a whole chain of children /
 born to this street".

Reading the poems included in this collection helps us arrive at answers to our own quest in poetry, as well as in life. Jayanta Mahapatra, who is another pillar of Indian writing, usually keeps irony to minimum, but in a poem titled "The Quest" he says:
"Even computers begin to understand our castes and prejudices. /
 The voluptuous figures of women in stone  /
 only wish to save our feelings of love and freedom;"

While Nagra and Ezekiel provide glimpses of Indian English, countless lines, similes, metaphors and allusions scattered throughout the book emphasize the "Indian" (in English). Indian poets writing in English have had a few guiding lights in the subcontinent. The inimitable Nissim Ezekiel as a mentor, and the tireless P. Lal (Writers Workshop , Calcutta) as a publisher are two significant pillars. The anthology is a tribute to the lifelong struggles of these and other poets. Jeet has done a commendable job in compiling biographies, digging out unpublished and published poems from known and obscure sources and highlighting how poetry defies the artificial constraints and bounds of time, space, age, location and traditions. Philip Nikolayev, the editor of Fulcrum, who inspired the project, and everyone else who contributed to its completion deserve the gratitude of every Indian (especially of the poets). Other anthologies that deserve our gratitude include collections edited and/ or translated by AK Ramanujan and R. Parthasarthy.

I highly recommend this Bloodaxe anthology for its reach and range, and for a comprehensive and erudite introduction to Indian poetry in English. It includes most of the important poets born before 1975 (or as I jokingly tell myself, all poets older than me!), and provides exemplary poems about every imaginable theme and subject that poets and readers will remember and relish in years to come. I have often returned to the poems included there, and I have learned more about Indian poetry in English language from this book than most others.  I think the anthology should on the shelf of every Indian poet, irrespective of the language they write in. I will close this review with another set of memorable lines from Ranjit Hoskote, who in a poem titled "Ghalib in the Winter of the Great Revolt" writes:
"The friend, with a spy at his shoulder, writes back: /
 When did you become a poet of adjectives /
 roosting in the rafters of a broken house? /
 Ghalib, the owl must hide in the tamarind for now, /
 but the genie of havoc will go on furlough soon. /
 You say your ink-well is empty, but your dry quill /
 still claws at the fibers of the heart."

Saturday, January 02, 2010

On claims of sexual bias in publishing (In a Washington Post article)

Juliana Braggot wrote a piece in the Washinton post claiming "Key to literary success? Be a man -- or write like one".  She goes on to quote the statistics about how many female authors featured on the top 100 books of the year 2009 (a list by Publishers Weekly & another by Amazon), and how many of the fifty most inspiring authors writing now are females (a list published by Poets and Writers). I suppose it is best to read her piece before proceeding, though her major claims can be quoted here:

"How many female writers were in the top 10? Zero. How many on the entire list? Twenty-nine.

I wish I were scandalized, or at least surprised. I'm not. I understand the invisible prejudice -- from the inside out. I'm a woman, but I've been a sexist, too."


"What are the best books? The answer is always subjective, and I'm not a literary arbiter. But the message I received from this year's lists was painfully familiar. It forced me to explain to my students -- the next generation of writers -- that the men in the class have double if not five times the chance of this kind of recognition. I'll hand over the statistics and explain that an industry kept afloat by women is sexist. I'll confess to my own sexism. And I'll tell them that we have failed, but they don't have to."

Here is what I think of the whole issue:

I think that statistics often hide more than they reveal. There are a handful of female poets and novelists before 1900 who are deemed as greats (Jane Austen, Bronte Sisters, Mary Shelley). But there are also only a handful of Black (African-American), Brown (South Asian, Middle-Eastern) and Yellow (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) skinned writers even now, who are on the lists of greats of literature. The latter "bias" (if you wish to call it that) excludes 80% of the world population, excludes the writers who are worshiped in their nations and are giants in literature and languages read/spoken by millions of people: but no one thinks of that... and if this is true, the earlier statements made by the author apply to women in Western societies only. While I do not want to downplay a bias, if it exists, by pointing out another bias, in our search for justice, we may not and must not, limit our struggle only to things that directly benefit us. Also we have to be wary of creating a new bias, where say women or certain races or castes or language speakers get undue preference for jobs, prizes, and so on; already  the academic and industry circles are rife with allegations that hiring in the past few seasons has been tainted by this mode of political correctness / bias or social coercion!

In any event, in this country (and everywhere else), the present generation can be fair only to the present generation, but you cannot go back to the eighteenth century and invent great female authors or authors from African-American ancestry writing in English. Maybe great female or African-American writers could have existed if education and opportunity were provided to them, maybe few good ones did exist but either their work was lost or they never got published. But we only compare what exists, and conceptual problems of what if and what if not, are pointless, as their premise is unrealizable.

Somehow Julianna claims that successful female writers are the ones who wrote about male themes (and interestingly, she quotes herself as an example). But all the female authors I like and I read and read and read, (Virginia Woolf, Akhmatova, Rich, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Arundhati Roy, Mirabai, Toni Morrison, Edith Wharton, Tahmima Anam, Mahadevi Verma, Kamla Markendaya, Cather, Boland, Forugh Farrokzad, Naomi Shihab Nye, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, Sarojini Naidu, Kamla Das, and so on), I can't recall a single one of them who wrote as a male author would, or pretend to be one! If I was an author I listed here, I would not be pleased with Julianna's article and yes, I am pretending to think  or speak like a female author, but that is my choice; believing it or not is yours. Whether Flaubert and Lawrence wrote about female emotion as well as Woolf or Austen could is not  in question for me, whether Woolf and Austen wrote well about male themes is also not in question for me: I only care about literature that causes me to wander, wonder, think, feel, smile, laugh, cry, make me drift into another time and place, about writing that entertains, and educates without telling me when and how, words that make me examine the world within and the world outside. All female writers listed by me do a large bit of what I expect from good literature; all writers I read or know personally write well, not because they are hyper-representations of a female or a Muslim or a Sri-Lankan or a communist country educated personae, but because they transcend such considerations.

It is very easy to blame biases of other people, turn bitter, cry foul, slander... what requires grit and character is to "show the other cheek", (like a good Christian / Buddhist / Hindu / human), and to keep writing. Good writing, like nuts in a box of cornflakes, or bubbles in beer, will always rise to the top.

Why did I need to write this post? While I believe that biases exist, both sexual and racial, their exposition and their dissolution, requires a constructive effort from people who can perceive them and write about them. If I were to claim that my poems are not accepted for publication solely because I am a woman (or for argument sake, say because I am a non-Christian, non-American, non-White , non-female, non-minority writer) I will be stating a half-lie, apart from slandering even those who have no such biases, ignoring any faults my own writing could have, trivializing the creativity and talent of who have been picked instead of me and in spite of me, and I will be doing a disservice to the very notion I want to support. Historically, popularity of books in a particular year has never been an index of how humanity perceives them in the long run, and all lists quoted here represent statistics of a  small fraction of buyers and readers around the world. Ideas, metaphors, biases, notions, fashions, preferences are all ever evolving and ever emerging in ways we can only steer or mould, but cannot control entirely.  The injustices of past cannot be used for justifying injustices in present or future. Any recourse to political  or social activism in  the name of race, caste, sex, creed, nationality, religion or language that tries to correct a bias by reverse discrimination (sometimes in form of reservation or affirmative action), any activism that denies the possibility of creating injustice elsewhere in its effort to provide injustice for past events, any activism that pretends to correct history by destroying the relics, icons and idols of the past, any activism that believes in superior or more binding rights of a fraction of humanity over others, any activism of this sort is unacceptable  to me and must be to all people, as it creates fresh injustice, hate, acrimony, anger, violence, bitterness and inequality.