Friday, June 10, 2011

(Hindi Kavita) Anth Mein Tera Kaun Hoga / (with translation) In the end, who shall be your own?

अंत में तेरा कौन होगा?

न प्रीति के प्रसंग होंगे,
न कामना के स्वाद, अंग होंगे,
आराधन, अश्रु नहीं सहारे होंगे,
स्वजन नहीं किनारे होंगे,
न सुरमई सुखद छंद होगा,
न चपल मन का द्वन्द होगा,
जब वृहद् अहम् गौण होगा,
अंत में तेरा कौन होगा ?

(Recited in Annual Harvard Poetry Reading 2011)

The poem has been with me for more than a decade now, and only one question, two lines have remained unchanged "anth mein tera kaun hoga?/ kashubdh prabudh maun hoga" (In the end who shall be your own/ profound, perplexed silence... (will be your own). I read only one stanza in the India Poetry reading at Harvard and I have posted that verse here. The question itself can be only loosely translated and the poem itself is written in Hindi, as it aspires for an Indian's interpretation.

In English, most of the words are Abrahamnic in their connotation, and often when I seek a Brahminic, a Hindu interpretation, of my own works or of the poetry by Rabindranath Tagore, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Kabir, Tulsidas and my favorite Indian poets, English translations/connotations are inadequate. For example, 'Mana' is often translated as mind, but the word mind is so limited in its meaning. 'Mana' in an Indian sense is a powerful existence that creates and destroys the finite and the infinite, the Hindu Gods exist as Mana creates or perceives them, we act as Mana directs our actions, and Mana lives on even though bodies, cities, civilizations perish. It is the Mana where dualities duel/ debate/ argue ("dvand"). The Mana embraces the dvand, the dualities: material and spiritual, divine and human, Shakti and shiva, Purush and Prakriti, a particle and a wave, matter and mind, the finite atom and the infinite, truth and translation, inspiration and creation, love and illusion, Maya and Satya. In fact, Vivek is the ability to distinguish between the different, divergent, dueling aspects of dualities, and when I use the word in Hindi/Sanskrit, the word itself represents deeper connotations that connect to the debates ( and currents and counter-currents or to the "dvand" we humans have experienced throughout our known and unknown history. In English, Vivek is a just a name, and when words become just nouns without meaning, words loose their correspondence with resonance that is essential for realizing their true meaning, their 'artha', their 'siddhartha'.

In the end, who shall be your own?

No anecdotes of passion,
No organs or flavors of desire,
No solace from tears or prayers,
No beloved on the shores,
No musical joyous verses,
No duels of astir mind,
When the grand ego will be gone,
In the end, who shall be your own?

Harvard hosts Annual India Poetry Reading, 2011

First there was silence, then emerged a sound, the sound became part of a word, the word then searched and searched till it found a meaning, the meaning became the unspoken baggage of the sound, then a poet picked sound after sound, set it to a rhythm, with all the baggage of spoken and unspoken meaning, and out came a poem. Words are material objects, words live on paper, words are printed and written, but sound is just a vibration and poem is neither the meaning nor the vibration, or perhaps it is both and more. 

On 14th May, 2011, Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies organized the Fifteenth Annual India Poetry Reading. The theme this year was ‘Spirituality,’ which probably is the stated and unstated essence of every poem, the "more" every poem carries within it. The event, held a week after Rabindranath Tagore's 150th birthday, included several recitals of his poems. The confluence of various spiritual quests that is resonant in Tagore's verses arises from, and perpetuates, an endless tradition of poetry, and in this event, we celebrated the continuation of that quest.

Achyut Adhikary from Nepal opened with an invocation titled "Rise". It was a call to all to write and express thoughts and emotions, and then the event commenced. Ravi Shankar was the visiting guest to the event and presented poems from his latest, award-winning collection "Deepening Groove". Ravi is an American poet whose childhood sojourns to India provide inspiration for several lyrical lines that acknowledge a regard for the ancestors who loved and lived in a world quite different from his own. By conjuring sounds, smells, colors from nature and arranging them in verses about human aspirations, ideas, emotions and thoughts, Ravi’s poems sing to the spirit, while the body is in the act of hearing, feeling, smelling, seeing and even forgetting itself.

Poets representing seven languages – citizens and exiles of different traditions, brought up in different landscapes of belief – then followed in quick succession. After Jamunabai Prakash read a poem in English titled "Free of Form", Rosie Kamal presented Sufia Kamal's "Listen O God" in a translation by Kabir Chaudhary. Through the recital, Rosie paid homage to her mother-in-law Sufia Kamal, an eminent Bengali poet from Bangladesh, whose hundredth birth anniversary is only a month away. Thereafter Vivek Sharma recited a poem in Hindi titled: "Anth Mein Tera Kaun Hoga?"/ "In The End Who Shall You Call Your Own", and followed up with an Anglicized Ghazal titled "Lexicon of the God." Hema Pant recited "Microscope" (Hindi) by Subash Gogate. Julie Batten read two poems next, and in a highly evocative poem, "Born to Dance", she merged the sorrowful narrative of massacre of Royal dancers in Cambodia by the Pol Pot regime with the human quest for beauty and art. Ola Mackiewicz from Brown University read a short poem "Into the void" narrating the journey in life.

Sajed Kamal recited self-composed "Dance Shiva Dance" next, followed by "Dust Temple" by Rabindranath Tagore. Maya De also paid tribute to Tagore by reciting two poems written in his honor in Bengali. This was followed by a Bengali verse "Chinno Bastra" by Alok De. The winds then left Bengal and musical notes of Gujarat emerged in voices and verses read by Pallavi Gandhi and Bharat Dave, who recited "Saundryanu Gaanu" by Makarand Dave and "Halvad Taari Yaadon Aneri" by Bipin Shukla respectively. Jayent Dave followed up with a self-composed poem "Vedana" in Gujarati. Vedana, sometimes translated as suffering, is a deep emotion that itself arises when a person transcends his own ego, his own self.

The next poem "Buddha" was recited by Shantamma Prakash in Malayalam. As she recited a poem committed to memory in her high school days, the resonant notes throbbed quite like the chanting of Sanskrit hymns. The next composition, Arun Chaudhari's "Preet Jagao", was a poem in Bhakti tradition, sung like a Bhajan, designed for Satsang (literal meaning good company; refers to coming together of many people to sing and celebrate their chosen divinities or to a gathering like this one was!). Chandrakant Shah who recited next turned "Blue Jeans" into his chosen divinity. As the poem unfolds, you hear a poet’s wholehearted praise and dedication to blue jeans, as if blue jeans are the best manifestation of divine form and function. Pramod Thaker then read six "chappas" from his translations of Gujarati Bhakati/Sufi poems by Akha. Like Kabir, Akha's verses contain spiritual nuggets brought forth in lyrical language of common people, and the nuggets are served wrapped in examples that stick your tongue to remind of you of the taste and the treat. Ameeta Kaul read two poems on the theme "Spiritual Questions of our Times." They explored the harmony of beliefs uniting the faiths and the humanity. 

Bijoy Misra then closed with a soulful rendition of a poem in Oriya, titled "Mana" or mind, where through the poem he evoked and echoed the ancient philosophical Indian thought about 'maNa/mind' as the creator of universe, conscious as well as unconscious, earthly as well as divine.  Ruth Hill, the symbol of oral traditions in American culture, had the last word at the event.  Ruth has been a regular participant in this annual gathering.  Ruth recalled that her late husband Brother Blue, who was also a regular participant, was still in the audience and enjoying the words though he physically passed away two years ago. It was a spiritual conclusion to the poetry offerings.

A vote of thanks was then offered by Bijoy Misra to the participants and the volunteers, particularly to Gregory Miller, staff employee at Harvard University who has helped with the logistics for the event every year since its inception. 

As the event came to the close, poets of different chimes walked out with their varied rhymes. The stirrings that brought us all together run deeper than the physical and metaphysical distances that separate us migrants from India or Indians in India from people of different languages, states or religions. Only by exchanging words, no matter what our languages, will we begin to transcend our distances, and approach the plane of spirituality where humans as poems find their true resonance.

The annual opportunity to celebrate the diversity of Indian voices was created by special efforts of Bijoy Misra and the Department of Sanksrit and Indian Studies, and will present itself again next year. Chandrakanth Shah announced the formation of the South Asian Poetry of New England (SAPNE), a group which will meet every quarter to bring together people of like interests. The event brought to a conclusion the offerings of the Outreach Committee for the 2010-2011 academic year and the next season will commence with a lecture in November 2011.

PS: Being one of the youngest writers in the crowd meant that in typical Indian fashion the job of compiling the report was passed on to me and since I had no notes to reply upon, I might have missed details, etc...

Procrastinating in The Lab on a Saturday Evening

Whose labs these are I'm sure I know,
 His house is in the suburbia though.
 He will not see me stopping here,
 Or watch his labs fill up with smoke.

My dimensionless self must think it queer,
 To chose not a party-school somewhere.
 I haunt the labs, not a touristy lake,
 On the sexiest evening of the year.

I gives my laptop keys a shake,
 To check if I am still awake.
 The only other sound's the sweep
 Of janitors & parties at a faraway lake.

Yawn! These labs are lovely, dark and deep,
 Yawn! And I have relentless deadlines to meet,
 piles, higher and deeper to finish before I sleep,
 piles, higher and deeper... no finish... I sleep...

(In the name of graduatestudentkind, with due apologies to Robert Frost and his horse, woods and snow;

with conviction that imitation, with apt citation and an effort of rewriting lines in your own words, is the surest way of academic flattery, composed by Vivek Sharma, June 2011, inspired partly by phdcomics!)

Friday, June 03, 2011

Kavi-speak: Poetry contests, science awards, scholars & fairness

There are far too many card-carrying poets, scientists, singers, artists; so many that we run like roaches fighting battles over little corners to claim tidbits of glory. I know only a handful of us will matter when we are gone, I will be happy if I am able to produce one poem, one scientific article, one story that would live-on after all my friends and all other traces of me are gone. Time is the only true test of talent, and yes many saplings never grow into the trees they promise to be, but in time, we will neither remember the number of saplings nor who planted them or crushed them, but only the flavor of the fruit (perhaps). Yes, I will like to win a poetry contest, a science award; yes I will like it to be fair; yes I will like to get degrees for free after I have done my share of work and shown my share of intellectual growth and yes I will like to get jobs that value my learning more than my degrees or where I obtained them from; yes I will like to be part of a collective that publishes great scientific/artistic/scholarly material; yes I expect fairness from science, poetry and humanity; yes I am an outlier in most rooms I choose to sit in... yes I know that most of the human enterprises are corrupted by human failings and fallings, and so the only thing I revere, respect, clap for is the rare human who rises beyond human foibles, follies and trifles. But I get to clap very rarely! 

I subscribe to the idea that true scholars are a rare breed. We can only soar as far as our ability and imagination allows us. Perhaps the true seekers of knowledge, wisdom, poetry, truth, beauty will always find a way to reach their ...goal, in spite of critics and competition (or lack of competition). And yes, the ancients say, the path is tortuous/ sharper than the razor's edge (paraphrasing a shaloka from Katha Upanishad &/or a line from Amir Khusrao)... The greatest mistake of our times is the assumption that scholarship can be acquired through college/university degrees and by the virtue of being employed as a critic or a teacher or a writer or a professor or an editor. Many people stand tall in their lifetimes on basis of such fallible assumptions, and after they are gone, their traces disappear from the very pedestals they once graced. Poetry, its writers and readers, will outlive, as always, all the critics, criticisms, politics, and even the languages themselves. I hope and believe the true keepers, seekers, lovers of poetry in every era can/will see beyond the noise, rabble, gibberish... Similarly the only true measure of a scientist is his or her science. In spite of ancestries and nexuses that aid in scientific publishing or in winning awards or in obtaining faculty positions; a thousand slips and a million errors, honest or cleverly-cloaked mistakes and chance or chosen misunderstandings and jungle-like, rabble-rousing, selfish politics that decides who gets what often; the faults of the system that wants to turn every graduate student or a post-doc into a coal-miner, supervised by a professor who works in a similar dark coal-mine half the time and in the other half of the time thinks his/her life is better as he/she has put the coal-mine behind him/her (almost): I believe in spite of an endless list of shortcomings, follies, deceits, conceits, failures, pretenders, in spite of every obstacle, in the end, the experimental fact and theoretical construct that is true, scientifically coherent/cogent/correct and aesthetically pure/pleasing/'close to perfection' will prevail. Maybe the progenitor of the idea will not see its success in his/her lifetime, maybe a pretender will get the credit, maybe the idealist will die poor and disillusioned, but I believe for every million-failed recognitions, there are a few right ones, well-deserved and well-chosen ones. I clap for them!

There are only a handful of American poets who have risen internationally to the level of timeless popularity as Darwish or Neruda or Tagore or Yeats were able to... I am not moved by the poetry written by most of the award-winning poets of the US and elsewhere. Specially US where the publishing, awarding of degrees and awards is systematized; elsewhere the title 'poet' is still synonymous with jobless or writing poetry is not a skill that earns you a penny unless you have risen to a popular appeal which often results in great peril and punishment, less often in a comfortable life. I can easily get killed in India or Middle-East or Africa for writing a line that stand out or stands for or against something, and hence maybe when I write, my life depends on my words or I am writing my life off for I chose the Word above whatever follows the pronouncement! Perhaps a constrained society needs poetry more and perhaps it receives poetry at a greater risk to the writer or the reader, perhaps a freer one allows poetic expression and must to be celebrated for providing greater possibilities, and perhaps great poets live in societies that they create within their inner world more than the world outside, so where they live matters not. There are almost no rock-stars like Einstein ushered on to the world-stage these days. Noble prize winners have their day of reckoning, other award winners get nods from their own select clubs and perhaps some honest recognition there, but again I am not necessarily impressed with a person just because the resume shows a fellowship, a prize, a recognition. There is enough politics in academia, science and art to ensure that nearly every award is issued with a few nods and far too many frowns. Every age and every country has one good poet, one good scientist for every thousand irrelevant ones; maybe in our times, one for every ten thousand bad ones. So yes, most of the poetry is poetry only in the name, most of the published science is science only in the name and would qualify as gibberish if we were to judge it honestly. But there is some science, some poetry that is truly remarkable, and when I see that, I forget everything else -- all despair, aches, tiredness, travails, journeys, searches, hurts, sweat, politics, pettiness, past. When I see that lotus blossom appear, I break into a spontaneous cheer, and the clapping is at that moment the rhythm of my every breath...  

(PS: many of the ideas expressed here emerged as comments on articles in Huffington Post by Anis Shivani and some lines echo my thoughts expressed during discussions with friends like Marc-Antoine Fardin, Mayank Kumar, Renato Dopotelodico, Matija Črne and Bavand Keshavarz to name a few)