Sunday, 22 January 2012

A Peace of India: Narrative of a Nation

-Brian Mendonça

When I bounced the title of my second book of poems 'A Peace of India'
with friends a while ago, some of them wryly retorted 'Piece'? - or 'Pieces'?

That was the time Jharkhand was happening and and we had not yet got
to Chattisgarh. Telangana was nascent and the Manipuris were doing
their bit with the head hunters. Nearer home, trains occasionally got
stoned at Hubli or Belgaum and the only safe transit point between two
states seemed to be the silence in Silent Valley.

After the hermeticism of 'Last Bus to Vasco' my first book of poems,
India itself, I thought, would be my canvas. So from Delhi - or Goa
depending on what my base was, I travelled from Kashmir to Trivandrum
and from Kachch to Kohima to peel the skin of India. The search took
more than a decade.I am more convinced than ever now that my homonymic association with the word will vouch for 'peace' rather than 'piece.'

A great part of my working life was spent in a room at the top of the
stairs.Weekends, I rushed frenetically across India to discover my
adopted 'family.' 'Family' was an all-inclusive term really:

Yes I Will Go

Yes I will go
to see my 'friends'
the rivers, the birds
and the trees
Where the wind calls
and the forests wait
in the stories of an India
yet to be told.
India is a huge carpet.

The narrative of the nation is told in her stories. Each experience humbled me. The Narmada river told its story in its terrifying descent at Amarkantak. The river then flowed across to Gujarat from Madhya Pradesh. Does the river pause when it crosses the state boundary? Saramago -- speaking of the river Tagus which flows from Portugal into Spain -- ponders whether the fish give a second thought when they cross the border in the fluidity of the river. Nature like India is free and bountiful.

'What were you doing at midnight at a crossroad at Jamshedpur? Don't you get scared of the naxalites? Fortunately, this was asked to me after I returned to Delhi. But then again, it would not have deterrerd me. I know friends with NGO's who work with villagers in abject poverty. What is their recourse when they are the undead of the State? We had a superb poetry session in the makeshift guest bedroom of my friend who is a documentary film maker in Jharkhand. 'Ek shaam kavita ke naam se,' wrote a senior poet who had attended the session.

Amid all vicissitudes, I have found poetry has the power to redeem. There are people everywhere in this land of Bhavabhuti, Kalidasa, and Shudraka who revere the poetic. Poetry inspired us all to join hands and knit India into a poetic canvas. Poetry enabled  Indians to rise above seeming differences to enjoy a space of bliss. It gave us the inspiration to believe that we had a higher destiny to realize. United in this common goal, India received me in peace wherever I went.

‘A chronicler of our times,’ wrote a critic after my poetry reading at the Pasha in Chennai. The ordinary, in India, seemed so momentous simply because it was reified by experience – and chastened, as it were, by a uniquely Indian sensibility. Whether it was a reflection on a sadhu urinating from a railway platform at Tatanagar or on a railway vendor making parotha bhaji at Lumding station, these were all vignettes of a tactile, sensuous India. Here was India live with all its folkways and mores. From the  homegrown wisdom in Chamba of ‘Halwai kitna khayega’ [How many sweets can a sweetmeat seller eat?] we moved to the sagacity of a grandmother in Gujarat reassuring us that ‘Koteshwar is not far away.’ With every breath there was a lifetime to be learnt or to lament.

The horrific disasters India has been through, mellowed us all. ‘On the Anjar road, the ceiling hangs like a curtain’ was all that was needed to remind us of the Gujarat earthquake. So many had lost their lives here. And how was one to say to the proud safa-headed mahout that his city of lakes was reeling from drought? Your heart went out to these simple villagers whose stoicism saw them through their curtain of pain.

Staring at Majuli across the Brahmaputra you knew Sanjoy still lived. Bhupen-da’s music still reverberates in wayside eateries in Assam. Legends pass on but India lives on. ‘Of a valiant race / all that remains  . . . / Is mawa tiranga / And a woman on a hill’-- Maharani Gayatri Devi epitomized Jaipur. What now?

The panoply of the ancient and the modern, is what makes India so timeless. To key into that energy, is to partake of some of that eternity – to be outside time. At the Gajner palace, the very wind hums the name of the daughter of Oudh, ‘diadem of the pleasure gardens.’ Basking on the lawns at Pinjore you are behoved to know the Pandavas once walked by followed by a dog.

And the ignominy of it all – when we reduce our most moving epitaphs to the dead to a jamboree for a carnival horde – the Taj. Peace is sometimes chastened by irony. Or in the case of the sights of India: Palace on Wheels / You do the rounds  . . ./200$ per day / For a package of India / What can I offer you? / I am only an Indian.

You see the same trees everywhere in India – or in most places. Trees, animals, rivers, skies are unifying tropes which stitch India into a many-splendoured quilt. The motifs reappear in the  myriad art and craft traditions only serve to accentuate the enduring beauty of this land, each in its own medium: ‘Sanganer’s scrolls / Sport Krishna’s dalliance / As Amber’s turrets / recall the watches of the night.’ Then again to the East: ‘Lanterns from Pipli / Patachitra on the walls / Off NH33 / This is home / Once more.’

This timeless land is also under threat: ‘Sand mining / Has denuded you / Of your waters / O mighty Bharatpuzha / Refuge of the ancients.’ When one whistleblower after another is laid low by the scythe of evil, it unites us as never before. When a finger is lifted to voice the truth  and the truth is silenced by murder, it unites us – to preserve an India we believe in. From the fierce patriotism of Haldighati to the sinking of the sailors in INS Khukri, off Diu, the supreme sacrifice does not go unnoticed. It is the purpose of the poetic to reveal these truths.

Moving India on her journey is the eternal Indian woman: ‘Instant city / Home to hot millions / Gita Govinda / Of Taya and Rukmini.’ You will always find an ‘autumn woman’ waiting by the kerb in end-October. ‘Does one still shed clothes / In a summer reprieve / Or is it that / You are just too hot?’ Indian women personify India. The maiden from Satna ‘bedecked in bangles / ardhanareeshwara . . ./ Are you fleeing / from, or to, love / in such precocious haste?’ Travelling across India is to discover the beauty of woman in all her dimensions. ‘Daffodil Kahmee, bound for Imphal / Fumbles for the chords / As she strums the guitar / For the girls from Manipur. . . / Praise and worship / In the North East night.’

 I just let the places speak for themselves through my poems. In Morni hills I wrote, ‘In Rumi’s night my life is in surrender / In the way of life of the villagers / And the trundle  of the city bus.’ Movement is the antidote for any cul-de-sac. The lessons of India may not be learnt in many lifetimes. Gadar still calls ‘From the land / Of the landless.’ On the Hooghly, ‘Under the absent moon . . . / A lonely man appears / And consigns sheets of newspaper / theatrically on the silent river . . .’
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This article - except the last 3 lines beginning from Gadar - was published in 'Spectrum,' the Sunday supplement of the Tribune issue, of Sunday 22 January 2012. This was a specially commissioned article to commemorate India's Republic Day (26 January). Pix courtesy: Asia Trans-Pacific Journeys Photo Contest

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