Sunday, September 25, 2011



Without you, I float like an abandoned ship
seeking sailors left behind by wreckages.
My journeys end in unknown ports.
I trust your knowledge of stars, of drifts,
of the birds that bring luck, of rocky shores.
I know you can rescue me.

Without you, I float like an abandoned ship,
the sky is endless blue, direction-less,
the waves only know the harmonics
of nausea, the ocean is an unguided
atheist, and the winds are false promises
that can only lead astray.

Without you, I float like an abandoned ship -
a ghost at sea, a sailing monument, a tomb,
a message to future, a trove of memories,
and I suspect that I will be ecstatic
if the pirates pillage me. Without you, I float
like inarticulate thoughts.

First published in MYTHIUM, No. 3, 2011

Monday, September 19, 2011

You Are A Festival

You are a Festival

colors of Holi, gulaal, sindhoor,
splashed hues of bhang-like joy,
decorated like Diwali, your eyes,
your bangles, your earrings, sparkle like diye,
you waft into a room like the fragrances of Basant Panchmi,
and day-dreaming kites sashay in the breeze of your chatter

like Christmas gifts I unravel you,
and gasp each time, surprised anew,
I turn towards you on every Id
and thank Allah as you thank Ishwar on Teez, on Karwachauth,

like Krishna, when surrounded by gopiyan,
I sing and dance to your name –
my Radha. My Sita – I yearn for you.
Every separation is an exile
and I battle demons and Ravana of the worldly tasks,
blazing my way to your door with the Dussera glory;

when I meet you, it is like Bihu, Sakranti, Navratri, Lohri , Onam;
Bhangra, Garba, Raas throb in my steps,
and my songs, composed in your praise,
resound like Sanskrit chants, hymns,
poured with milk, honey and ghee - panch amrit,
over the Shiva-linga by the fasting believers.

I know that my baraat will arrive at your door one day,
with the same ardor that Durga Pooja and Ganesh Chaturthi
bring to the streets of Calcutta and Mumbai.

You are a festival
and I celebrate you each day.

Notes: Festivals: Holi, Diwali, Id, Dussera, Bihu, Sakranti, Lohri, Navratri, Lohri, Onam, Durga Pooja, Ganesh Chaturthi mentioned here are all associated with myths and rituals, that vary with region and language.
Bhangra in Punjab and Garba and Raas in Gujarat are popular folk dances.
Teez and Karwachauth are difficult fasts, carried out by wives, once a year (even a sip of water is prohibited). On these days, wives pray for the longevity and well being of their husbands.
Baraat is the retinue of the groom that goes to the door of the bride for wedding ceremony.

First published in Mythium, No. 3, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

Poems of Nazim Hikmet

Poems of Nazim Hikmet (translated from Turkish by Randy Blasing and Multu Konuk, 2nd edition, Persea Books / New York)

Poets like Nazim Hikmet have a deep understanding of human feelings, failings, optimism, dreams, desires and contradictions. Poets like Nazim Hikmet know their words can rend a heart as easily as they can mend a heart. Poets like Nazim Hikmet appear rarely on earth, and when they do, their songs conjoin the undying spirit of humanity as eternal echoes of their rhymes and times. A collection of hundred poems appears in a translation here and for readers like me who must rely solely on translation, the poems present flavors, sights and a sensibility that fill our hearts with a mixture of sorrow, serenity, loss and hope. The ability to create hope in a reader or a feeling of serenity is indeed a testament to the power, generosity and depth of the poet for he manages to do so, even though he spent thirteen years of his life in jail and thirteen more in exile. Only great souls can bring out humane words after living through hardships and bitterness, and bunch them into words as melodious as of Hikmet.

His biography can be deciphered by reading some of his own poems. He wrote (It's This Way): "It's this way: / being captured is beside the point, / the point is not to surrender." In a Rubaiyat, he said: "Between us just a difference of degree -- / that's how it is my canary: / you an unthinking bird, with wings, / and me with hands, a man who thinks..." and in another rubaiyat he wrote: "Me, one man, the Turkish poet / Nazim Hikmet / I'm faith from head to toe --/ from head to toe, struggle and hope ..." and of course, the best rubaiyat: "I don't mean to boast, but I've shot / through ten years of bondage like a bullet. / And putting aside the pain in my liver, / my heart's the same heart, my head still the same head..." In another place, he writes (Angina Pectroris): "I look at the night through the bars, / and despite the weight on my chest / my heart still beats with the most distant stars."

The poems in this collection are arranged chronologically. The poems written before 1945 or so (first third of the book) are perhaps not as moving or as potent as the poems in the remaining two-third of the book. In Hikmet's case, one can see the sapling young bard turns into a banyan-like mature poet after weathering a succession of historical storms, personal winters and amorous torrents of springs. Hikmet poems talk about melons and pomegranate seeds, Istanbul and Bosphorus, Berlin and Moscow, Marxism and solitary confinement, son and wife he cannot meet as he lives in exile, wife waiting at home while he sits in prison day after day keeping himself alive with songs. When Hikmet talks about freedom or blue skies or hope or hunger and cold felt by his people or death without meeting his beloved or change or love, when he talks of the same cliches at we all poets are moved by and use in our verses, the wordplay is an incidental embellishment to a deeper song of the human spirit he symbolizes within the poems and we aspire to, as readers. Hikmet uses as his source a stream of experiences and feelings which uncommon as they are, provide him with a connection with universal, and sip after sip from his every poem (especially later poems) brings to us through sounds and translated sense a recognition of what lies outside the cage of our own personal limitations or sensibilities. 

I can provide only glimpses from his repertoire. He wrote (Separation): "finer than silk thread sharper than a sword / separation is a bridge between us / even when we sit knee to knee" in a series of poems written in 1945, when he was in prison, he writes:"Today, not broken and sad -- / no way! -- / today Nazim Hikmet's woman must be beautiful/ like a rebel flag..." Or a Rubaiyat: "My love's image in the mirror had its say: / 'She's not real -- I am,' it said to me one day. / I struck, the mirror broke, her image disappeared / but, thank goodness, my love stayed in her place..." We can say he passed a comment on the strength of his will, that kept his quill overflowing with love for humanity and Turkey when we said (From Sofia): "Exile is not an easy art to master..."

Maybe Hikmet was in solitary confinement or in prison or lived as an exile for years, but his poems are usually set where his heart truly is: either outside the confining walls, back in the streets where his imagination walks uninhibited and unrecognized. Indeed most of us being prisoners of our ambition, exiles made so by our own desires, can identify with a poet whose personal life itself becomes a metaphor for so many feelings that are suppressed or strengthened by our own deeds, thoughts and desires. Hikmet seeks neither pity nor praise, neither power nor reverence, tries to be no martyr or reformer, but his every poems seeks for people love, joy, peace, liberty, justice and above all empathy. In his lifetime he says in his poems he touched the two extremes of poverty and riches, insults and solitary confinement as well as international travel and recognition, hunger for a simple morsel as well as the flavors of choicest delicacies. He also died as a poet whose poems were translated into forty languages, whose books in translation were found in shelves in many countries and yet they were banned in his own country. In a poem (You're) he said:


You're my bondage and my freedom,
my flesh burning like a naked summer night,
you're my country.

Hazel eyes marbled green,
you're awesome, beautiful and brave,
you're my desire always just out of reach."

The opposites, the contradictions meet in Hikmet like parallel rays of light meet at in a distant star. His skill as a poet and his life as a person, have made him into one of the brightest stars of Turkish and twentieth century world literature. He will forever be a guiding light for many people across the globe. Like Darwish of Palestine, Hikmet never surrenders his faith in humanity, and indeed after reading this collection by him my feel that as long as poets like him continue to arrive to sing, we can hope for and progress towards a better and just world. His poems (the lines quoted below are from 'Message') will continue to speak to us, for now and forever:

"My fellow
             you'll get well.
The aches and pains will cease.
Ease will come
       softly, like a warm summer evening
       descending from heavy green branches."

Book Review: Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Chef by Jaspreet Singh is a lyrical novel, set in 1990s, expressed through the landscape of memory of Kirpal Singh or Kip. The shortened hip name Kip is a name he acquires after joining as an assistant to a chef in the army general's house in Kashmir. The body of Kip's father lies somewhere in the Siachin glacier, which Kip eventually visits at a crucial juncture in the story. When Kip first arrives in Kashmir, the memory of his father who was a decorated soldier/ officer in the army invades his conversations and interactions with armymen around him. The Sikh recruit, Kip, learns to cook local, national and international dishes from Kishen, who had trained in various embassies in Delhi to acquire the skill to blend flavors and prepare delicacies. The mentor Kishen, also a Sikh, extends his scope far beyond culinary arts, for he provokes Kip to think about women, about Muslims in Kashmir, about battlefields where soldiers like Kip's father die each day while "civilians" go on living unperturbed by the bloody reality at the troubled border between India and Pakistan. While Kip is the main character and the narrative emerges from his memory, it is Kishen who makes the eyeballs of a reader throb with emotion of every kind.

The army general has a motherless daughter who grows up in the shadows of the house, while the father is busy administrating Kashmir. While their personal fates are important elements of the novel, for Kip one presents his boss, the other who grows into a poetess, a foster daughter. Kashmir was once central to Hindu imagination, for many celebrated scholars emerged from Kashmiri Pandits, and in the last twenty years, (and a few hundred years leading to it), the Pandits and other Hindus were driven out from the peaceful land of their ancestors. In the new Kashmir, remain only the army and the Muslims. The Muslims who are half-unhappy with the military-dominated presence of the rest of India, are half-sympathetic to cause of freedom expressed by their leaders or youth for various selfish or selfless reasons, are perhaps half-motivated by propaganda from across the border, half-raged by the apathy from the rest of India, are being stifled by conflict, dwarfed by the unreasonable expectations of two nations. In this land of contradictions and conflict, Kip cooks curries with a military precision and churns dish after dish using Kishen's recipes. While the kitchen keeps him occupied for most of the time, it is his trips outside the kitchen that take the story forward.

Kip learns Kashmiri, and is called upon to talk to a infiltrator, a Muslim woman from across the border who ends up in India, washed to the shore of a river after her failed suicide. Till her emergence, Kip stayed secure in his anger and hatred for the enemy. But now a frail woman was the enemy, and her emergence upset his preconceived notions. In a jarring, haunting narrative, that one experiences while reading rest of the novel, (but cannot capture in a review of the novel), Jaspreet Singh creates a compelling masterpiece where love, scars, disillusion, hope, loss and compassion compete for space on every page. Sadness settles on a reader as the story unfolds, but the lyrical writing and an attachment to Kip's memory and fate, carries the reader into a somber night, not restless, not restful, just somber.

A good debut, a good read...