Book Review: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing

I recently had the opportunity tot read “Love and the Turning Seasons,” an exquisite collection of bhakti poetry in translation from Aleph. I wrote about it in Kitaab.

Love and the Turning Seasons

Title: Love and the Turning Seasons – India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing
Edited by Andrew Schelling
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 294
Price: ₹399

I left shame behind,

took as an ornament
the mockery of local folk.
Unswerving, I lost my cleverness
in the bewilderment of ecstasy.

— Manikkavacakar (9thcentury), Tr. A.K. Ramanujan

In a lover’s enraptured world, love is the breeze that strips one, quite simply, of the garment of shame. In reading Love and the Turning Seasons, the newest offering from Aleph Classics, a series that aims to bring new translations of India’s literary heritage, the reader is swept in that denuding breeze. Edited by Andrew Schelling, the collection of poems bears the slightly beguiling subtitle, India’s Poetry of Spiritual & Erotic Longing. I say beguiling because it would seem like the poems could fall in either category – spiritual or erotic. In reality, as Manikkavacakar, the ninth-century Shiva devotee tells us, the line between the two states is as diaphanous as air itself. For, in the “bewilderment of ecstasy”, who is left to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit? This seamless merging of the body and the soul is at the heart of this anthology of bhakti poetry, translated by various poets and literary translators.

Love and the Turning Seasons alights upon the reader as a songbird to take her across time and space – from the sixth century (barring the Isa Upanishad) right up to the twentieth, on an anticlockwise path beginning in the south of India and ending in the east. Despite the multiplicity of expressions of the bhaktas or poet-minstrels, informed as they were by specific cultural and regional parlance, what unifies them is their rejection of societal norms in their unwavering quest for the divine. These were among the first true radicals in the Indian context, repudiating, with delightful contempt, tradition and convention. Gender-bending, caste-subverting, these individuals lived and (even) died on their own terms and sang of the divine with ariose abandonment. As Lal Ded, another Shiva devotee from Kashmir said,

Who instructed you, O Brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?

— Lal Ded (early 1300s), Tr. Andrew Schelling

 

The Sanskrit word bhakti means devotion and has come to connote intense, even blind idolatry, and in these troublingly skewed times, bhakta (devotee) has become a bad word, an uncomplimentary term for blind followers of certain ideologies, political or otherwise. As the anthology affirms through its diverse voices, the bhakti poets were anything but blind in their devotion.

Read the rest in Kitaab.

 

 

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Day’s End

The evening adjusts the hem
of her smooth rose wine
stole. You and I move
to the back porch. The sky
flushes to allure us with its
pink. But work and all that
went wrong with it take their
toll.

Bird wings hustle. Soon it will
be dark. We’ll pick up our
half-sipped glasses of
wine. When the day’s fatigue,
its taunts, its grime start
sinking us, the evening’s
blush will still leave its
mark.

The Crop by Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

Even if I were to
hold the pen
like a plow,
a spade
or a trowel,
I wouldn’t be able to
harvest the crop.

I can only prepare the soil.
A few rare ones will sow the seeds of revolution
and nourish my toil,
carrying my journey forward.

Tomorrow, when I’m no longer there,
the crop will grow and flourish,
ripple in the breeze.
It will touch the feet
of those who planted the seeds
The ones who harvest it will sow more seeds
I shall only sleep buried in the earth underneath.

फसल / सर्वेश्वरदयाल सक्सेना

हल की तरह
कुदाल की तरह
या खुरपी की तरह
पकड़ भी लूँ कलम तो
फिर भी फसल काटने
मिलेगी नहीं हम को ।

हम तो ज़मीन ही तैयार कर पायेंगे
क्रांतिबीज बोने कुछ बिरले ही आयेंगे
हरा-भरा वही करेंगें मेरे श्रम को
सिलसिला मिलेगा आगे मेरे क्रम को ।

कल जो भी फसल उगेगी, लहलहाएगी
मेरे ना रहने पर भी
हवा से इठलाएगी
तब मेरी आत्मा सुनहरी धूप बन बरसेगी
जिन्होने बीज बोए थे
उन्हीं के चरण परसेगी
काटेंगे उसे जो फिर वो ही उसे बोएंगे
हम तो कहीं धरती के नीचे दबे सोयेंगे ।

Balancing yin and yang in Coyoacan

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

It’s the third day of our visit to Mexico City – also the first working day since we landed here. I’ve yet to recover from a severe case of food poisoning, but don’t want to spoil our plans to visit Frida Kahlo’s and Leon Trotsky’s houses in Coyoacan – situated practically at the other end of the city. We decide to take a cab, our first on this trip. The cab driver exudes the friendliness characteristic of his ilk and offers us candy and bottled water. And he brings us to La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s Blue House – now a museum.

Only when we reach the gate do we realize our cabbie friend probably chose not to mention that the museum remains closed on Mondays. I’m too exhausted from the stomach bug but lurch on to follow my husband to Trotsky House, some six minutes away. Same luck there – a closed gate greets us. Having skipped breakfast, I’m as dizzy and disoriented as I’m disappointed at the wasted taxi ride. By now I’m so famished, I fear I might faint. We walk a few paces and notice a cafe and step inside. It’s a small place with no more than four tables. At one table, three ladies – all in their sixties — appear to be the only other customers.

One of them gets up and says to us, “Welcome, come on in. Please have a seat.”

As we make ourselves comfortable, she asks us what we would like to eat. “Tea, coffee?”

My husband glances at me and says, “Tea for you?”

I’m still a bit dizzy to respond, but the word, ‘tea’, stimulates me — this is the first time I’ve heard it uttered in a restaurant in Mexico City. I nod yes and manage to mutter, “And toast.”

“Tea and toast for you,” the lady says. “And for you?” she asks my husband.

“Cafe Americano,” he says.

His choice lights up her face. “Aha! Americano – that’s how we drink our coffee here!”

Even as black coffee forges that initial bond, the other two ladies convince my husband to have scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions with black beans on the side – the Mexican way.

The lady who took our order moves to the kitchen to guide a young man managing the cooking. One of her two friends asks us where we are from.

“India,” my husband says and goes on to tell them how similar he finds India and Mexico to be, despite the two countries being situated on the opposite sides of the globe. The houses, markets, the trees and the people all remind us of home, we tell them.

The lady nods and says smilingly, “Yes, countries with beautiful people. Beautiful like women.” She winks at my husband and adds, “And like men, too.”

I notice some of my disappointment stemming from missing the museums is wearing off. The young man emerges from the kitchen with my tea. The bag of tea steeping in a cup of hot water is one I’m not familiar with but find refreshing, especially as I sip it with bites of the biscuit the ladies have shared with us – tasting exactly like Marie biscuits sold in India.

The motherly lady arrives with a plate containing my order. The two pieces of crisp, well-done toast, along with the black tea, are just what the doctor ordered for me.

She settles down with her friends as they ask us where all we’ve been so far.

“The Centro Historio (historical district), Zocalo, the National Palace to see Diego Rivera’s murals, La de Ciudadela – the artisan market…,” my husband rolls off.

The women suggest other places like the museums of popular art and anthropology.

We mention our plan to visit the Teotihuacan pyramids the next day.

“Oh yes, you must go there,” one of them says, adding, “be sure to keep your wallets safe, though.”

“Oh, we know that,” my husband says. “It’s the same way in India.”

“It is,” the lady who took our order confirms with a smile. She should know, for she visited India three years ago – Delhi and Rajasthan.

As we eat our breakfast, one of the ladies informs us the three of them are part of a tai-chi group. The maternal lady, who, by now we’ve figured out to be the cafe owner, happens to be their teacher.

“You have yin and yang,” says her chatty friend, pointing to my earrings.

“I do,” I say, pondering on the strange balances of the morning – the sickness and the comfort of the taxi ride, the closed museums and the restorative breakfast, missing Frida and getting acquainted with such an interesting sisterhood of Mexican women.

BG2

“And I have this, too,” I lift my shawl to reveal Che Guevara’s face on my t-shirt.

“I saw that,” our chatty friend responds, her face suddenly grim. “I don’t like him,” she mutters.

I pull my shawl back up immediately and say, “That’s why I’m hiding him.”

Her grin returns.

This is the first conversation, a real conversation we’ve had since coming to this city of lovely Hispanic people. And been fed breakfast in true home style, complete with the right balance of humour, hospitality and Mexican warmth.

As we get ready to take our leave, the tai-chi teacher says, “You have to return to Coyoacan. You can’t leave without meeting Frida.”

“We will,” we promise.

The third friend, the quietest of them all, stops us as we move towards the exit. She insists on giving us a ride in her car to the central spot in Coyoacan.

Photo-credit: Bhaswati Ghosh

At Ramkinkar’s House with Shakti (Memoir) by Samir Sengupta

Translated from the Bangla by Bhaswati Ghosh

First published in Parabaas

It must have been the middle of the 60s decade—or was it the beginning? I don’t remember the year, only that the days were of intense spring. The festival of colours had ended just a few days ago.

Shakti said to me, “Samir, let’s go to Santiniketan. The Khoai area is ablaze with Palash now.” Shakti had just crossed 30 and was neck deep in his Birbhum phase. Every year, his presence at the Kenduli baul fair was almost a given. He didn’t just have a personal relationship with the bauls who came to the fair, as Chandi Lahiri has written, he was intimately in touch with their family affairs, joys and tribulations. Nabanidas (Purnadas Baul’s father) was still alive at the time; after retiring from the post of peon in Sultanpur Sriram High School, he had built his akhra at the outskirts of Siuri town. Shakti would run to that place on a whim and return only after spending a few days there. He was dear to Nabanidas. Shakti was not acquainted with Meenakshi yet. He said to me, “Let’s go—I haven’t met Kinkarda in a while. We will spend a night with him; then go to Siuri.”

In those days, it used to take a long time to reach Santiniketan. There weren’t too many good trains, land prices in Santiniketan hadn’t started shooting up as yet, the rich of Kolkata hadn’t begun occupying Khoai to build houses.

By the time we reached the place, the afternoon had nearly slipped away. Just before Cinematola, there used to be a country liquor shop called Akorshoni; Shakti stopped the rickshaw there and grabbed a couple of bottles.

Next, he stopped the rickshaw in front of Ramkinkar’s house and said, “Wait; we won’t let go of the rickshaw yet. Let’s check if Kinkarda is there or not.” He used to go away to Jugipara at times. Acting like a detective, I said, “The door is ajar; he must be there…” Shakti looked at me and said with a smile, “Kinkarda never locks the door.”

“What? He goes away to his village without locking his door?”
“He doesn’t have any lock; Kinkarda, O Kinkarda…” Shakti started yelling from the rickshaw itself. A barefoot Kinkarda came out, tending to his lungi. “Arre, poet, you are here—come, come, I hope you have got something for me? Who’s that with you?”

As he picked up the jute bag from the rickshaw base, Shakti laughed and said, “I have brought stuff, Kinkarda. This is my friend, Samir.”
“Does he write poetry?”

I quickly folded my hands and said, “No, Kinkarda, I don’t write any poetry.”

Kinkarda rolled his eyes and said, “Then why have you come here?”

My hands still folded, I said, “To give company to Shakti and to see you.”

He just said, “Oh” and then completely oblivious to my presence, took Shakti inside the room, almost in a warm embrace. I guess he remembered me while crossing the door; he looked back and said briefly, “Come.”

I entered the house. The famous house that has been described by so many. The signs of poverty were everywhere. On one side was a string cot with dull, faded bedding. On top of the bedposts lay a folded, dirty, almost blackened mosquito net. A few painted canvases lay above the net. We learned that it had rained a few nights ago and water was leaking through a hole on the roof. An irritated Ramkinkar had woken up; put a few canvases atop the mosquito net and gone back to sleep. If water had to drip, it would fall on the canvases.

Ramkinkar squatted on the floor; we followed suit. Butt-ends of bidis were strewn everywhere. Kinkarda pulled out a few earthen tumblers from beneath the cot. As he used his seasoned hands to remove the tar-sealed cap, he called out, “Mungri, O Mungri…” A good-looking adivasi girl came and stood at the rear door. Ramkinkar uttered some instructions to her in a language unknown to us; the girl disappeared. He looked at Shakti and said, “I sent her to her village to check if she could fetch us some grilled pork.”

It was almost three in the afternoon. He never asked if we had any lunch or not; food arrangements meant that pork meat, if available. He poured the liquor into the tumblers with great care and presented them to us in a manner befitting a Japanese tea ceremony host.

The pork came and vanished; a rickshaw-puller was made to bring two more bottles, along with some roasted chickpeas; those were gobbled up in no time. Two more were brought by paying a premium—it was past ten in the night. I don’t remember anything after that. I just remember endless country liquor, endless bidi smoke, endless talk, endless songs of Tagore, sung in broken voices.

I don’t know what time of the night it was when my consciousness returned, triggered by severe thirst. The early summer heat of Santiniketan’s Chaitra, coupled with limitless tumblers of undiluted country liquor might have been nothing unusual for Kinkarda and Shakti. I was sheer lucky not to have suffered dehydration.

For a while, I kept sitting quietly. It was pitch dark and the place unfamiliar to me. I extended my hand and felt Shakti, sleeping unconsciously beside me. I couldn’t spot Kinkarda. But it seemed as if my life would ebb away without water—the body was so dry. Where could I find some water?

While still sitting I felt the darkness melting away a bit. How did that happen? Was dawn approaching? I turned back and figured a light in the shape of a small rectangular door—a lantern must have been lit somewhere inside. Could I find water there?

As I started getting up, extreme dizziness gripped me—it was impossible to stand. I sat down. The moment I moved a bit, the unknown world around me started swaying. But I had to drink some water. After a while, I gathered enough strength to crawl towards the door.

The door led to a verandah; on the left, with his back to the door, at approximately a thirty-degree angle sat Kinkarda on a stool, stark naked. He hadn’t noticed his lungi slip off his waist. Before him, on a high stool (I don’t remember if it was a turntable or not) stood an unfinished clay sculpture; the lantern was hung on a bamboo support fixed to the ceiling. His right hand held a small fistful of clay. Sitting on the stool, Ramkinkar stared at his work—motionless. A million mosquitoes were clouding around him, but he didn’t seem to notice. His eyes had a strange, blank expression—he looked on, but didn’t seem to see with his physical eyes. It was more of what Ramakrishna had called a yogi’s eyes—he had said that when a bird sits on her eggs, the look in her eyes suggests that she was looking, but not really seeing anything; all her focus remains concentrated on her eggs. Ramkinkar had the same look in his eyes.

Even in my semi-conscious state I realized I had trespassed. I had no business there; even if I died of thirst, this wasn’t a place to ask Ramkinkar for water. And even if I did, he wouldn’t be able to offer me any. I crawled back to the room and lay down with my parched throat.

It must not have been more than a minute. I saw Ramkinkar only that one time, nearly fifty years ago—yet it is one of the few visual memories that remain immortal in my petty life. After my death, if God asks me what I saw in the world of dust and clay, I will be able to say, “I saw your contender, immersed in his art of creation.”

Translated from Amar Bondhu Shakti (আমার বন্ধু শক্তি) by Samir Sengupta; published published by Parampara, Kolkata in 2011.

After the Party

First published in The Ham Free Press

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The lips of the bald man, as he speaks of the “Indians and Pakistanis” he sees at the tennis court, curves into a sly smile. My racism detector picks up the snigger that sneaks through his lament on the status of those work-visa immigrants whose kids get Canadian citizenship by virtue of their birth. After the party, I recall how he tried to herd folks from the subcontinent into “all those IT workers.”

As he keeps probing my husband on his career track, the soft September evening makes me gravitate towards the late-arriving “immigrant.” The Muslim lady from Delhi. We relay hometown bonhomie with hugs and she tells me about her Bengali family — the one from Noakhali she married into. Her geologist husband had shifted base to teach at Aligarh Muslim University. She followed his trail from Delhi to Dubai, where he worked. Later she would migrate to Ontario as a widow with her two children. After the party, I think how, like her husband, she, too learned to measure the worth of soil as she brought up her son and the daughter–now an engineer and a doctor–by cleaning and decorating the finger and toe nails of customers at a salon.

The evening lulls us with its whispers, broken only by the whistle of the kettle the hostess is boiling tea in. Most of the guests have left after ingesting the aromatic lamb curry and saffron rice. We are left, along with the mildly immigrant-allergic man and his wife–beekeepers outside their corporate lives. The over-milked, boiled-to-death tea arrives. The host talks about how the British left behind a legacy of high-tea in the Indian subcontinent. The beekeeper woman shares her knowledge of the same, gleaned off a British historical novel. Her husband asks me and my husband about the type of English we were taught in schools in India. I talk about how it was much different from the American English the internet would later expose me to. After the party, the incredulous, near horrified look on the woman’s face as I told her about a generation of Pakistani writers using the English language with a subcontinental flourish, flashes before me.

Cottage Trip

It always starts with the kitchen.
Adventure is about burning your finger
on an alien stove. Pulling out
the cabinet doors, prying open
the drawers of catalogued cutlery —
cookmarks of successive lodgers.

Your excitement at the corelle set,
the one identical to yours at home
quickly dissipates. Home away from home
is never home. Pieces of ginger float
in your cottage tea. The view of the lake
Must compensate for the missing strainer.

You carry sacks of rice, vegetables
in brown bags, a half-eaten burrito from
lunch. Tandoori sauce for barbecuing meat.
Salt. Sugar. Oil for cooking.

The lake makes a pilgrim out
of you. Its tranquility
A placid mask for exacting love.