Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year Resolution (Singular)

How many of you read that as Will Work For Free?


(Also, Happy 2013. Be good!)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hyderabad: Take Back the Night 5th Jan 2013

On the 5th of Jan 2013, there will be a march from Tank Bund to Punjagutta via Liberty (I'm not really sure that'll work, but okay).

Details here.

Also, tomorrow there is a Youth Forum panel of Sexual assault and violence at Lamakaan, off Road No. 1, Banjara Hills. That's 30th Dec 2012, 3pm-6pm at Lamakaan.


A.Suneetha, Senior Fellow, Anveshi, Research Centre on Women’s Studies, Hyderabad
Vasudha Nagaraj, Advocate, High Court, Hyderabad with expertise on the Sexual Assault Bill
Tejaswini Madabhushi, Organizer of the ‘Midnite March’ in Hyderabad
Natha Wahlang, PhD student, Hyderabad Central University

Jointly sponsored by Lamakaan and Anveshi(
Moderator: Sangeeta Kamat, Professor, University of Massachusetts

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Posters and campaigns against sexual assault

Over the last few months, I've seen a number of posters for campaigns against sexual assault. No surprisingly, these are all in other countries than India. Every time I see a post, I intend to save it and then forget.

Now that there's some kind of critical mass surrounding rape, rape culture, sexual assault and so on, I thought it was time to go looking for those posters.

1. How To Prevent Rape/Sexual Assault

2. Don't Be That Guy

These are not culturally specific to India in a number of ways beyond the obvious ones. But the Don't Be That Guy campaigns have apparently been effective elsewhere. And guess what? They acknowledge that men also get raped and sexually assaulted. It would be fantastic if we could have variations of these, no?

Posters and posters.

3. Statement by Women's and Progressive Groups and Individuals.

Here is a fairly comprehensive statement with a list of demands that does not include the death penalty, chemical castration and other absurdities. What is does include is demands for police reform, more, and more effective gender sensitisation of not just the police or other government functionaries, but from the primary school and up.

No, sorry, this statement doesn't ask that action should include gender sensitisation from a very young age, but duh! That is clearly necessary. Also, by the time kids are old enough to protest, they might know better than to wave bangles at the cops to taunt them in order to get them to do their jobs better.

At any rate, though it's possible that the statement doesn't cover everything, if you agree with it, do consider signing it (email given in that post). And do pass it on.

4. Solidarity and PLUs

This is also a good time to remember that it's not just People Like Us who get assaulted: not just urban, middle-class, mostly higher-caste women and men who get assaulted and raped.

It's fantastic that people are out and protesting, but let's not expect solidarity for ourselves and be less ready to give it when it is dalit women, rural women, people in Kashmir or Manipur, women and men in custody.

Anu Ramdas has a great post on Round Table.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Kavita Krishnan on Rape & Rape Culture

A fierce, necessary speech from Kavita Krishnan, Secretary AIPWA, outside Sheela Dixit's house. The translation here and the video below.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Raise your voice for Swar

Anindita Sengupta has written an article about the recent attack on Swar Thounaojam where a mob of about 40 men gathered around Swar, while the police constable present not only did nothing, but pushed her and didn't let her get in her car.

Thounaojam is Manipuri and the newspapers have focused on her racial background. What happened was because of a rancid stew of biases and hostilities, no doubt, and race has its own role to play. But Thounaojam is worried about the race issue being sensationalised. She points out: “You can’t ignore the fact that I am from the NE and this distance-marker played its own role in the harassment and intimidation I have faced. However, it is very difficult for me to bring up the race issue here because we don’t yet have the tools and language to discuss the racial discrimination NE residents face in various parts of India. Because of such a lack, it sounds like populist posturing whenever the race angle is brought in. It becomes dangerous too.”
Let’s also not diminish the fact that this was a gender-related crime. Thounaojam was subjected to harassment that was decidedly sexual in its violence. The fact that women are vulnerable on our streets anyway made it easier for the mob to use that particular form of intimidation.
According to some reports, the motorcyclist claims that Thounaojam demanded his licence and yelled. As if that somehow is a defence. Because, of course, a woman should not be assaulted and molested in a public place but if the woman in question is angry, assertive, vocal, heard — then, then...
Then, nothing. This cannot happen in any city or state that claims to be civilised. Under any circumstances. No matter whether (or how much) the woman yells. Or is angry or vocal or even unpleasant. This cannot happen. Forgive me the lack of subtlety but I cannot afford the comfort of that right now.
The rest here. There's also a link to the petition which, please sign.

The Lost Sketchbook of Guillermo del Toro

I saved this for one month on my reader and found yesterday that it had disappeared. This is why: blog as soon as you see something you want to ready-refer from your own blog!

Image from here

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro put all his ideas for `Pan’s Labyrinth’ in a notebook — then lost it.
The heavyset man ran down the London street, panting, chasing the taxi. When it didn’t stop, he hopped into another cab. “Follow that cab!” he yelled. Guillermo del Toro wasn’t directing this movie. He was living it. And it was turning into a horror tale.

Via the amazing Subashini.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Readings in Hyderabad: Siva Reddy and Cheran

Putting up the invites for two readings:

Telugu poet Siva Reddy on 16th Dec at Lamakaan
Sri Lankan Tamil poet Cheran on 20th Dec at Sundarayya Vignana Kendram.

Please consider this an open invite. Come for either/both readings and do let people know.


Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Sarah Manguso: Asking for More

'Asking for More'
by Sarah Manguso

I am not asking to suffer less.
I hope to be nearly crucified.
To live because I don't want to.
That hope, that sweet agent —
My best work is its work.
The horse I ride into Hell is my best horse
And bears its name.
So, friends, drink your cocktails and wear your hats.
Thank you for leaving me this whole world to go mad in.
I am not asking for mercy. I am asking for more.
I don't mind when no mercy comes
Or when it comes in the form of my mad self
Running at me. I am not asking for mercy.

I read Sarah Manguso first in Poetry - this poem, in fact - and wanted to read more. As ever, poems are to be found not as collections but chanced upon, chased or dug up.

If anyone (I'm looking at you, Cat) find Siste Viator, please get it for me.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Chaucer, channelling Bishop

Gives me advice and I take it to heart. Even if I do it by simple repetition.

Blog sum thyng every daye. Accepte the flustere / Of sleples nights, of weekends badlye spent. / The art of blogging ys nat hard to master. 

Ah but it's the sleples nights that are hard to accepte, and Ich'll admyte freely that it's not only the weekends that are badlye spent.

('The Sola Arte' by Elisa Episcopus may be found on Chaucer's own twitter. )

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Review: Selected Poems of Subramania Bharati

Last week in The Sunday Guardian, my review of Usha Rajagopalan's flawed translations of Subramania Bharati's poems.

Selected Poems: Subramania Bharati
Translated by Usha Rajagopalan
Hachette India. Pp 151. Rs 350.


About a century ago, two poets were writing transformative verse in languages other than English. In their own ways, these two poets changed the way people read and spoke about poetry. One was Rainer Maria Rilke and the other was Subramania Bharati. While Rilke’s poetry has been translated into English many times, it’s incredibly hard to find an English translation of Bharati’s work.

As a child growing up outside Tamil Nadu but immersed in Carnatic music, I have always had a frustrating relationship with Bharatiyar’s poetry: I know it only through song, both classical and filmic but I cannot read his poetry off the page and have always needed someone to translate his verse for me.

It was with delight, therefore, that I began Usha Rajagopalan’s translation of Bharati’s verse. It seemed to me a necessary project, to bring this poet who sang of ships and minerals as joyfully as he sang about Krishna and Shakti, to the notice of the Anglophone world. I was even more thrilled to read that Rajagopalan’s journey through his work also began via song.

It helps that this is a bilingual edition as, I think, all translated poetry should be. Unfortunately, this is as far as the good news goes. The risk in a bilingual edition of course is that for those who can read the source language, the shortcomings in the translation are inescapable and apparent. Every translating decision is laid bare on the page and the translator’s only defence – if it can be called that – lies in an Introduction.

This translation of Bharati’s poetry does not have an Introduction. It has a list of important dates and an account of his life that very briefly outlines his engagement with the Independence movement, his political writing, his subsequent escape from British India and his life as an ardent spiritualist-nationalist. But there is nothing from Rajagopalan on what her approach to translating his work was or how she engaged with the very different kinds of poetry he wrote: the spiritual/love poems and the rousing nationalist verse.

Not all translators need be scholars or even be in a position to contextualise a poet’s work and place it in the broader framework of the times in which s/he lived. The Selected Poetry of Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell, for instance, has a comprehensive and intelligent Introduction by the American poet Robert Hass. If it was beyond Rajagopalan to write an Introduction that examines Bharati’s poetry with the care it deserves, surely someone else could have been commissioned to write one?

For a reader who is not already familiar with Bharati’s verse, this plunge into the deep end of his work is very disorientating: the first poem is an invocation, which is all well and good. It is followed by a poem that Rajagopalan titles ‘A Special Song’ but in the Tamil is called ‘Ammakannu Paatu’. Even for someone whose Tamil is as workaday as mine is, it is apparent that ‘Ammakannu’ is a term of endearment and ‘Special’ in no way conveys the tenderness and affection of the title in Tamil. The poem itself is a barrage of trochees that assault the ear: The hand opens a lock,/Wisdom opens the mind./ Melody makes a song/A woman makes a home happy. For a poem that is called ‘Song’, it is singularly unmusical.

There are many such instances through the book and it would be unnecessarily cruel to draw attention to more of them. Let us admit that poetry is not easy to translate. When it is done well, it is a cause for celebration.

But when a translation of poetry does not read or sound like poetry, I would imagine that those involved in the project would do anything rather than put the work out into the public domain. They could, for instance, have had two translators: one who knew the source language well and the other who knew the mechanics of poetry in the target language well.

Here for instance, is Stephen Mitchell translating Rilke:

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,

            (‘You Who Never Arrived’ from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke)

And here is Usha Rajagopalan translating Bharati:

If I can forget Kannan’s face,
What use having eyes at all?

            (‘Kannan, My Lover – I’)

Someone who knows nothing about Subramania Bharati, who cannot even struggle through the Tamil on the page or have someone read aloud the original Tamil so they can absorb the beauty and power of the sound – if not the sense – of the poetry; someone whose first and only encounter with one of 20th century’s greatest poets is through this translation is absolutely sure to ask what the fuss is about.

Bharatiyar’s poetry is in no danger of being forgotten in his native land. It is a great pity that our definition of ‘native land’ must be more narrow and parochial than his own expansive one, at least until a better translation replaces this one.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Search engines, writing advice and miscellaneous trivia

What did you expect? It's Saturday, idyllically sandwiched between Friday's anxious socialising and Sunday's frantic preps for the week to follow.

Of course there's work but everyone knows what to do with it on Saturdays.

(If you don't, I'm fairly certain link #1 will have the answers).

And even though you should be prepared for time-wasting persiflage, with no further ado, I give you...

1. The Calvin & Hobbes Search Engine, which I found on Slate, while reading...

2. Kurt Vonnegut give his students the kind of assignment I wish my teachers had given me.

3. Oh, and of course you wanted to know that Yoko Ono's Lennon-inspired menswear collection has a bumless (I don't even need to say any more, do I?).

4. While we're on the subject of The Beatles, a story about George in Rishikesh.

5. And just to creep you out, this image.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Poem of the Week: Monica Mody's 'Myth of Cosmos'

Monica Mody's poem, 'Myth of Cosmos' is the last up on November's Poem of the Week on TheThe.

It went up a bit late because of Thanksgiving weekend, so for any of you who turned up on Friday, bright and early, waiting for links only to find there were none, he

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Diamond for Spaniard

Guys! This is the 1000th post!

To celebrate, and since no one else is likely to, I thought I ought to give the blog a diamond.

This is a house (yes, really) in the neighbourhood. It is brilliant and I hope people actually live there. It is also more splendorous than it looks in this photograph.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Enough with the eulogising

Can we not pretend that 1992-93 never happened? That we need to, somehow, say something - anything - nice about someone just because they happen to have died?

If you're sick of all the hushed reverence TV news has been showing over the not-yet-finished-tamasha that is Bal Thackeray's death and funeral, please read Rohit Chopra:

The free pass given to Bal Thackeray today also tells us something about the pathologies of Indian life that produced and made Bal Thackeray possible: pathologies shared across those who identify as secular and those who rant against pseudo-secularists; pathologies that unite the South Bombay whisky-drinking, rugby-playing, Bombay-Gym types with Dadar Hindu colony sons-of-the-soil; pathologies that allow diasporic Hindu nationalists in Silicon Valley and Shiv Sena footsoldiers alike to believe that they are the victims of a secret cabal of Muslims, Marxists, and Macaulayites. Thackeray did not, then, come out of nowhere. He was not the creation simply of disaffected subaltern Maharashtrian communities or of middle-class Maharashtrian communities who felt outsiders had snatched what was their due. He represented something central in Indian political society–not an essentialist, ahistorical tendency but a historically produced capacity for using violence as a form of political reason, the absence of a coherent vision of solidarity that could respect similarity and difference, and the many deep failures of the postcolonial Indian state that our exceptionalist pieties about Indian tolerance, coexistence, and secularism often obscure.

And no, we do not need to be silent on any of this just because Bal Thackeray died earlier today. I doubt any Shiv Sainiks or Thackeray himself spent a minute thinking in silence about any Muslim killed in the 1992-1993 riots in which the Shiv Sena played a key role. As Vir Sanghvi’s article on Thackeray, posthumously anointing him the “uncrowned king of Mumbai” reminds us, Thackeray’s chief objection to Mani Ratnam’s representation of him in the film Bombay was that his cinematic alter-ego expressed regret at the riots.

It is a disgrace that Bombay is shut today. It is a disgrace that Thackeray is being wrapped in the national tricolor. It is a disgrace that he is being given state honors in his death. And it is a disgrace that none of our political leaders, celebrities, or media personalities seem to think any of this is a disgrace. And that if they do they are terrified of saying so.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Poem of the Week: Joshua Muyiwa's 'Eight' from 'The Catalogue'

On TheThe this week is Joshua Muyiwa's poem 'Eight' from the longer series called 'The Catalogue'.

Just a few lines here:
Look at Nan Goldin’s face, it is battered. But she makes this photograph to remind herself that love, her friend, visitor and heart-thrower will find her. Even the next time, she will follow blindly but this time, she will bargain.
Perhaps, our approach to love should be Goldin’s approach to photography:
a healing art. Love like Goldin’s photography will teach us the indulgence of self-reflection, relearning the erotic and the slippage of gender.
And we will be the changed.
Go look at Nan Goldin's face - and read the poem - on TheThe.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Poem of the Week: Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

This week's Poem of the Week on TheThe is Tsering Wangmo Dhompa's 'Exile: An invitation to a struggle.'

With the prayer flags below and Tsering's poem now, I seem to be firmly placed in that part of the world (but facetiousness aside, with the almost daily self-immolations of the monks in Tibet, this poem is a good reminder that words like exile and freedom are not the absurdities they seem when the photographs report only calm skies and peaceful roads.)

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Mother Mary with prayer flags

Because I'm chronically lazy and have not kept my promises to blogblogblog and feel guilty as heck, here's a picture of Mother Mary for you.

Yes, those are prayer flags.

Sikkim - Gangtok - was enormous fun. I was visiting after nearly 30 years and it was the kid's first brush with something approaching cold (though actually it was very sunny and only mildly chilly in the evenings). We walked, gathered stones (lots of shiny mica), grabbed nettles, ate momos, took photos, visited monasteries, kept intending to buy thangkas, sat outside a hotel and watched a wedding reception in progress, kept count one night as wedding guests danced right above our heads.

And so on. Oh, and we went to Kalimpong by the most breathtaking road off the main highway.

And we bought cheese.

The whole trip was brilliant from start to finish.

Friday, November 02, 2012

November's Poem(s) of the Week on TheThe

I've been away for a long, long time, haven't I? But I'm back and not in the least sorry because I have! photos!

Also, this month I have selected the Poems of the Week that appear on The The and first up is Aditi Machado's poem 'How A Thing Turns Wretched'.

Go read.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

'You are not alone'

Last night I watched a couple of things on TV - an event so rare it should be recorded here.

First, there was a brief glimpse of (I don't know which season of) KBC. This lady, after having reached the Rs. 20,000 threshold, was allowed to chat for a while with the Big B. She charmed everyone by saying how she has played and won KBC many times - once a day, in fact - in her mind.

Apparently she talks to the Big B every day while working out: they play KBC and he asks her questions and she answers, each answer the right one, until at the end of her hour or hour and a half she has her one crore. Then she stops, because one crore is enough for one day and there are more games to be played and much conversation still to be had with the Big B.

I was surprised and charmed and delighted by Pujaji's unselfconscious, frank confession not only to the world but also to the object of her daily speeches. I could never admit - not even now, when I am half-confessing - that I also talk to people I am never likely to meet in my life because they're dead or fictional or worlds away from my life. I can only imagine that I would pass out if I should ever happen to meet those dead/fictional/otherworldly people I'm such friends with in my head.

Then later, I watched X-Men: First Class. And where Michael Fassbender says, "I thought I was the only one" I said, with Charles Xavier, "You are not alone."

Oh yes.

Utpal Dutt's 'Ray, Renaissance Man?'

Over at The Big Indian Picture (which is, by the way, a must-read) is a magnificent rant by the actor Utpal Dutt, on many things Ray & GoI related. It is even more extraordinary when one realises that this speech was delivered at a Sahitya Akademi/Lalit Kala Akademi/Sangeet Natak Akademi seminar on Ray, shortly after Ray's death.

In contrast, I am thinking of the recent SA Young Writers' Festival, where the general tone was self-congratulatory and unjustifably optimistic.

Utpal Dutt, in his own words:

Already in Pather Panchali, Ray’s protagonists suffer not because gods have willed it so but because of poverty created by men. They are evicted from their home by a power that is stronger than gods— a social system that condones exploitation. And this revolt against a concept of gods who crush human beings reaches fruition in Devi, where a girl, a common housewife, is declared a goddess incarnate and is expected to heal and cure every sick villager, until the boy she loves more than her life is dying and is placed before her so that she can touch and heal him. She dare not play with this boy’s life and tries to flee, her sari torn and her mascara running all over her face. One has merely to compare this film with dozens churned out from the cinema-machine of this country, where a dying child, given up for dead by medical science, is placed before the image of a goddess—and, of course, there is a lengthy song glorifying the goddess—be it Santoshi Ma or some such forgotten local deity. Then the stone image is seen to smile, or to drop a flower on the boy’s corpse, and lo and behold, what the best doctors could not do, the piece of stone achieves in a second! The corpse opens its eyes, even sits up. This is followed either by another unending song of thanksgiving, or the boy’s parents weeping and rolling on the ground to show their gratitude. This kind of brazen, shameless superstition is peddled by film after film in this country every year. Are they any less dangerous than drugs? If drugs destroy the bodies of our young men, these films destroy their minds. A proper tribute to Ray would have been to make it impossible to make such filth and, instead, to make arrangements for Devi to be shown all over the country at cheaper rates. Devi is a revolutionary film in the Indian context. It challenges religion as it has been understood in the depths of the Indian countryside for hundreds of years. It is a direct attack on the black magic that is passed off as divinity in this country. Instead of the vulgarized Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Indian TV could have telecast Devi again and again; then perhaps today we would not have to discuss the outrages of the monkey brigade in Ayodhya.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I was in Delhi last week for a few days and after what seems like a decade, I actually found myself enjoying the city. This, despite a baggage mix-up at the airport, ratty hotel room with filthy sheets and the severe shortage of gajar in this season.

The thing is, I remember Delhi with such unhappiness: how I left a decade ago, my brief visits - a day every couple of years - when I desperately wanted to be home instead of whereever else I was; all of which made the city a place I refused to re-experience.

This time, though, it truly was fun. I loved the Metro, hanging out with friends, I even enjoyed reading my poetry, which is a thing I somehow have failed to do recently.

As always, I girl-guided my way through the packing and unsurprisingly came back with heavier (and more) bags.

Some things were weightless, though, and I feel I should share one at least of these objects with you.

Yes, this exists.

Oh, and did I miss my chance to say Fifty Years Ago Today on the 5th? Apparently I did. But at least I didn't do what MTV India did, which was to wish Lennon a long & happy life yesterday.

Friday, September 21, 2012

What's not to like about purple?*


Bonus purple in this Passion Flower which is not currently in bloom.

*First there was pink. Now there is purple. Someone find me a purple luggage tag.

Monday, September 17, 2012

August Kleinzahler on his ideal reader

From August Kleinzahler's 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize Speech:

I have a very personal, very particular notion of the ideal reader of poetry, my ideal reader. It is, in fact, a composite of readers I know or have known. It is not another poet, probably not another writer, though it could very well be a painter or musician or photographer. It is not a teacher of literature, though it might be a teacher of medicine or economics, say. It is someone of catholic reading tastes and broad knowledge: a serious reader, serious about the pleasure of reading.

The nature of this pleasure involves a degree of difficulty and resistance. This pleasure is not to be confused with diversion, even the cultivated diversion provided by authors like Elmore Leonard. My ideal reader has read widely enough, actively read, and with a certain degree of attention, that upon encountering a patch of dead syntax, tortured diction, bluff gesture, rote strategy, the ingratiating stylistic doffing of the hat or mechanical development and resolution the lights come on and the show is over. After all, it is 2005 and my reader doesn’t have a great deal of time – for time has vanished with inflated rents and the blitzkrieg of what’s cheerfully called information, information to be attended to, and I’m talking right now. The oriental notion of idleness as a civilized activity, or period of time without focused activity, that arena of floating consciousness in which poems are usually conceived or poems are picked up at random and read with unexpected pleasure – these sorts of sessions of empty or unplanned time are regarded as undesirable, perhaps worrisome, even dangerous, in so far that they may be the precursor of a pathological condition. So my reader demands action, complexity and intensity from reading, be it history, fiction, journalism or sci-fi. And the ideal reader of whom I speak demands the most and gets the most from poetry because poetry is the most distilled, complex and satisfying among all forms of writing, at least for the serious, cultivated reader, my ideal reader.
It gets a bit mixed-up once he names his ideal reader Khalid (a taxi driver from Karachi, no less) but until then...

This has nothing to do with this speech, but whenever I think of Kleinzahler, I think of Anthony Bourdain having a drink with him in some ancient episode of No Reservations.

Just, like a nugget of information thrown out there. No poetry can come of this detail.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review: The Poetry of the Taliban

In the Sunday Guardian last weekend, my review of The Poetry of the Taliban.

The Poetry of the Taliban.
Edited by Alex Strick Von Linschoten & Felix Kuehn
with a Foreword by Faisan Devji.

Hachette India Rs. 499 Pp. 247.


Quick: tell me what names come to mind when you hear the words ‘War Poetry’. If you said ‘Wilfred Owen’ or ‘Siegfried Sassoon’, you wouldn’t be wrong. We can be certain though, that nobody said ‘Abdul Basir Ebrat’ or Shirinzoy. At the very outset, this ought to tell us something about ourselves as readers and as consumers in the economy of literature.

As citizens of a post-colonial state, it is shaming but unsurprising that we should know more about the poetry and the poets of the First World War than we do about the poetry of our near neighbours in Afghanistan. So much of what Anglophone India reads or considers worthy of reading is mediated by the West’s narrative of its own literary history that a book like The Poetry of the Taliban demands a serious effort on the part of the reader.

 The Poetry of the Taliban is a collection of poetry published on the Taliban’s website over the last decade, though there are also poems dating from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and 90s that are included in the book. The editors, Alex von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have chosen 235 poems and arranged them roughly thematically into ‘Love and Pastoral’, ‘Religious’, ‘Discontent’, ‘The Trench’ and ‘The Human Cost’. So far, so universal.

But I had to remind myself that it was not the Taliban that had edited this book or had it published; they certainly had poetry on their website. Someone even curated it – after a fashion – though it is not clear that everyone who contributed a poem necessarily approved of the Taliban. At any rate the poetry was reaching, without translation, those it was meant to reach.

 I had to ask who this book was for, even while ruefully taking note that the poems are now being studied by American military analysts for what insight they might provide about the Taliban. It’s hard not to think of Vietnam and the US military’s efforts to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Vietnamese.

For a South Asian reading the book, therefore, there is a good chance that she is going to feel strangely displaced: this is clearly a poetry that has deep cultural roots that seem intensely familiar to us on the subcontinent, as when the poet says, ‘The ignorance of the dark turned to light when you came’ [‘Prayer’, Abdul Basir Ebrat]; or when a poet signs off with a takhallus – ‘I wish I could tell Mohammed Stanikzai about myself;/I wish my voice reached the wind though my mouth is closed’ [‘I wish’, Mohammed Stanikzai]. There are also familiar tropes of the Beloved, of intoxication and there is the symbolic power of colour or landscape.

And yet the poetry is often strident and so radically ‘other’ in its invocation of God, jihad, bravery, sacrifice and reward that it takes some effort to realise that this is not uncommon to nationalistic or patriotic poetry; and to see that beyond the tone of the poems lie a complicated web of identities and loyalties – to history, tribe, language, region, culture and ideology.

I suspect that if the poems in this collection had uniformly sounded remorseful or at least displayed a decent war-weariness, it would be easier for the Western reader to empathise. It is to the credit of the editors that they have refused to simplify anything. Their Introduction is, of course, a way in to the poetry and its history, but it also becomes significant for what aspects of Afghan society they emphasise and what they elide over – the near-total absence of women poets from this collection, for instance.

I could only wish that they had chosen better translators than Mirwais Rehmany and Hamid Stanikzai. So much of the poetry reads as if it could have been eloquent in different hands. In the poem ‘Sunset’ by Abdul Hai Mutma’in for instance, the translation reads:

‘The fast wind makes the branches of the trees hit each other;
Rays of sunlight go back and forth, they don’t remain in one place.”

If a poem from the section ‘Love & Pastoral’ can sound so clunky, it’s not hard to think how badly served the political poems are by the translation. In fact, for a project of such significance, a good translation should have been the first priority. Sadly, it seems to have been almost an afterthought.

The book is a useful, if not an entirely satisfactory one in the South Asian context. Perhaps one day, some poet from the subcontinent will translate contemporary poetry from Afghanistan, not in order to explain or humanise the people to anyone, but in the way that Faiz Ahmed Faiz translated Nazim Hikmet: as an act of homage and exchange.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Susheela's Kolams for World Literacy Day

Look at the date! Has it really been that long? Gosh.

I've spent these last couple of weeks anxiously waiting for letters; my permanent Song of the Day these days is Please Mr. Postman [The Beatles version, I need hardly add]. The Post Office haven't got the memo.

I saw plays at the Hindu Metro Plus Theatre Festival.

I gifted someone a copy of the Harper Collins Anthology of Poetry (in which I have poems) but have still not got my Contributor's copy.

By a delicious coincidence: after a post by Helen DeWitt some time ago, I saw there were, like, three or six remaining copies of The Last Samurai on Amazon. So I made a friend in the US buy it for me and bring it when he was in India next. This lovely hard-bound copy arrived a couple of months ago. And then, last week! Veena gave me a copy! She'd got it for me ages ago but forgot to give it to me.

Don't anybody ask for the extra copy, because you're not going to get it! This book is my new Scaramouche. I think I am going to be able to learn most of it. There are Boy Wonders and there are Spaniard Wonders; and I can be Scaramouche with a Spanish accent just as easily as I can be a single mother with a young boy... oh wait.

Finally, there's this thing called World Literacy Day, which is September 8, apparently. I knew nothing about it until Pratham Books chose my new book, Susheela's Kolams as the book they're going to use at their country-wide events.

As of today, there are more than 250 events/readings organised across the country. If I think about it, I feel overwhelmed. So I don't think about it. (That's a lie. I think about it all the time. No, that's not true either.)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Shakespeare, Silver & Exact

One last hurrah for The Hollow Crown, in The Sunday Guardian.


The last couple of months have been an interesting time for Brit-watchers worldwide. The economy continued with its very public meltdown. The republicans declined to be gentlemanly about the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and the left were vocal about the social engineering that was taking place in London in the name of the Olympics. Great Britain may not have stuck its fingers in its ears and said, ‘Not listening!’, but a good part of what was called the Cultural Olympiad seemed to be an effort to drown criticism with celebration.

There was a lot of poetry and theatre and despite the success of the Poetry Parnassus, the figure that stood, Parnassus-like at the centre of the Cultural Olympiad was Shakespeare. Versions of Shakespeare’s plays from all over the world are being staged at the Globe as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, including a couple of plays from India. Inevitably, many of these interpretations will be post-colonial readings of the Bard’s work (though so far no one has heard the Daily Mail call these performances plastic-Shakespeare).

It was only to be expected that Britain would wants its own version of Shakespeare – an ‘official’ version, as it were – if not competing, then rising above the competition. BBC2 very cannily commissioned Sam Mendes to produce a four-part series of Shakespeare plays titled The Hollow Crown, covering the plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V. This series was telecast on BBC2 through July with three different directors – Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre (directing both parts of Henry IV) and Thea Sharrock – taking charge of the plays.

Though differing somewhat in individual style, the four films are remarkably consistent in tone and world-view. This argues for a very clear brief given to each of the directors to keep their eyes on the title of the series. ‘The Hollow Crown’ comes from Richard II’s soliloquy in the play (III. ii): ‘for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps death his court,’ Richard says. We are to understand through these films that kingship is merely a loan and that death puts an end to all ambitions:

 Ill-weav’d ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
 Is room enough.
                                    Henry IV Part I, V. iv.

Rupert Goold gilds Ben Whishaw’s brilliant Richard in the iconography of St. Sebastian; Richard Eyre makes of Henry IV a private soap opera about fathers and sons (even beginning the second film with a quick episode recap); Thea Sharrock makes – rather cleverly, if controversially – the boy who accompanies Bardolph & Co. to the French wars grow up to become the Chorus.

Death universalises everything but we must remember that of these four plays, Shakespeare called only one of them a Tragedy: Richard II. The other plays were clearly Histories. We could even call them historical fiction, because Shakespeare was writing in response to the politics of the Elizabethan era. He was attempting to create a narrative that answered questions about Britain’s identity as a nation-state – about divine right, inheritance (and the rights of women to inherit kingdoms), the disease of ‘civil blows’ and the uses of ‘foreign quarrels’.

Politics are absolutely central to the plays but The Hollow Crown deliberately drowns the political with the universal. The coup at the heart of Richard II is less important than Richard’s own self-dramatisation – though it could be argued that this was always in the script. The deeply-discomfiting warmongering of Henry V (which Lawrence Olivier unashamedly played up in the 1944 film commissioned by Churchill as part of the war effort) is deflected by a muted performance by Tom Hiddleston as Henry V. In fact, in one scene before the Battle of Agincourt, Sharrock has Henry kneel in a field to pray. He becomes aware of the Boy/Chorus watching him and hastily composes himself as if he knows that history must remember him as the king who never faltered. This is an interesting cinematic moment, almost prescient, because the next time these two characters are together in the same frame it is at Henry’s funeral, which also bookends the film.

It is only in the figure of Henry IV, played by Jeremy Irons, that we get a sense of a beleaguered king beset on all sides by civic unrest, hard-pressed for money, ailing and prone to fits of anger and insomnia. Henry IV may not be a tragic figure like the Richard II and Henry V of this series, but he is certainly made all too human.

There, if you want it, is the series’ politics.

It is hard to read these plays as anything but an examination of national identity but – in these fraught and multicultural times – The Hollow Crown does a very good job of helping Britain forget that. It is no mean achievement to make us watch a king and see everyman.


Why must we care about kings? Why should the kings of another country and another time matter today? Is ‘king’ a codeword for ‘politician’?

Surely, at a time when politicians the world over are navigating the treacherous waters of failing economies, calls for self-determination or secession, and expensive and futile wars, these are questions we must ask? It’s hard not to make politicians out to be the villains of the piece. And never has their rehabilitation been more urgent, if we are to hold on to the template of the nation-state.

It has long been one of the functions of the dramatic arts to provide us with psychological insight into the minds of those we consider villainous. This rehabilitates the ‘villain’ and allows us to feel better about ourselves because of our ability to empathise with the struggles of a divided self. Everyone is humanised by empathy and all the things that divide us – our race, gender, nationality, our politics – are bridged by this impulse to see a bit of ourselves in even the most unsympathetic characters.

Once the Olympics are over, Britain must wake up from its pleasant daydream, of medals won, of happy guests and happier hosts. When it does, it should remember how the dream began: with Danny Boyle choosing Caliban over John of Gaunt to speak for the island nation.


I'm realising that I am so random with my tags that I can't find my own posts when I look for them. One of these days I'm going to have to sit and tag all the ancient posts from the pre-tag  Blogger days...sigh.

So in the spirit of good housekeeping, all The Hollow Crown posts under this one roof:

Richard II (not really a post, I know)