Tuesday, 15 April 2014
Saturday, 12 April 2014
Friday, 11 April 2014
Wednesday, 9 April 2014
Tuesday, 8 April 2014
Me—a book in the attic.
Maybe some covenant or hymnal.
Or a chapter from the Kama Sutra,
or a spell for intimate afflictions.
But then it seems I am none of these.
(If I were, someone would have read me.)
Apparently at an assembly of revolutionaries
they passed a resolution,
and I am a longhand copy of it.
It has the police’s stamp on it
and was never successfully enforced.
It is preserved only for the sake of procedure.
And now only some sparrows come,
straw in their beaks,
and sit on my body
and worry about the next generation.
(How wonderful to worry about the next generation!)
Sparrows have wings on them,
but resolutions have no wings
(or resolutions have no second generation).
Sometimes I think to catch the scent—
what lies in my future?
Worry makes my binding come off.
Whenever I try to smell,
just some fumes of bird shit.
O my earth, your future!
Me—your current state.
TRANSLATED FROM THE PUNJABI BY D.H. TRACY & MOHAN TRACY
Amrita Pritam was a Punjabi poet and novelist who recorded the trauma of Partition in her best-know poem, “I Call upon Varis Shah Today.” Denis Matringe’s French translation of her novel, The Skeleton, was awarded the La Route des Indes Literary Prize (2005). Among her other honors were the Jnanpith award (1981) and the Padma Vibushan (2005).
I first met Paul Scott at Firpo’s bar on Chowringhee in Calcutta in 1944. I was an NCO in what was euphemistically described as “Special Duties,” that is, intelligence, but more often meant taking on any odd job for which no one else could be found; Paul was an air supply captain who had been commissioned into the Service Corps, unkindly known to the Rifle Brigade or the Gurkhas as, in the words of his biographer Hilary Spurling, “the Rice Corps, Flying Grocers, or Jam Stealers and generally considered to be about as low as it was possible to get in the Indian Army.” We eyed each other’s shoulder-chips with sympathy over drinks, and got on extremely well. I did wonder at the time whether he might not have been trying to pick me up, a suspicion that Spurling’s biography and the new collection of Scott’s letters have done nothing to dispel.
A decade later, with Cambridge behind me, I was trying to break into the London literary world, and decided I needed an agent. Summoned for an interview at the firm then known as Pearn, Pollinger and Higham, I found myself facing, across a desk, an elegantly suited gentleman who—I suddenly realized at about the same moment as the penny dropped for him—was none other than my Rice Corps bar companion. We both exploded with laughter, and I became his client on the spot.
So began a literary friendship that lasted, in person or by correspondence, until Paul’s tragically early death in 1978. For six years, until he gave up his job to become a full-time novelist in 1960, Paul was my literary agent. We exchanged innumerable critical letters1 (quite a few of which have found their way into Janis Haswell’s collection) about work in progress, together with a kind of running commentary on the rare splendors and all-too-frequent miseries, mostly financial, of the writer’s life. We lunched with each other regularly at Paul’s favorite Soho tavern, the Dog and Duck. He was pleasant, competent, sardonic: nice to know, but nothing out of the ordinary. When I moved to the country and came up to town on weekly flying visits, I occasionally stayed with him and his wife, Penny, and their two school-age daughters in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
But from 1963 until 1971, my family and I were living in Greece, and after that I took up an academic post in the United States, so that during this highly important late period of his career my friendship with Paul was in essence restricted to letters. It was then, in the early 1960s, that Paul finally discovered his great theme—the twilight and eclipse of the British Raj in India—and retreated further and further, during the decade that it took him to sweat out the four long volumes that emerged as The Raj Quartet, into a kind of creative solitude where the fictional world of British India that he conjured up became, more and more as time went on, virtually his sole reality.
The physical and emotional cost was appalling. It was, essentially, as his daughter Carol saw, the prime cause of his alienation from Penny, the break-up of his long marriage. By the end he was (as he told a doctor) eating little, sleeping less, and drinking a quart of vodka a day. When I finally saw him again, after the completion of the Quartet—we had invited him to lecture at the University of Texas—I was shocked by the change in his appearance. In 1975, though still only in his mid-fifties, he was a dying man, and knew it. The completion of that vast and complex project had exacted a horrendous price, of which perhaps the saddest aspect was that Paul never lived to enjoy the fame and success that it brought him.
Paul himself had put it on record, very early, “that I mean & intend to become a great artist if I possibly can be.” Yet there is nothing about his early suburban life—or, indeed, much of his pre-Quartet fiction—that presages the power and the scope of the Indian tetralogy. The son of a commercial artist (the family claimed descent from the engraver Thomas Bewick) who fell on hard times, he was removed from his private school—a far from classy one—at the age of fourteen and set to train as an accountant. He began writing poems and plays that were, as he agreed later in life, better forgotten. The turning point was his army career, which took him to Bengal, Imphal, and Malaya; but the seed then sown took years to come to fruition, and not before several not-quite-right attempts, such as Six Days in Marapore and The Chinese Love Pavilion, had been painstakingly hammered out. After the war, having qualified as an accountant, he got a job keeping the books for a new publishing firm, and from there moved on to the literary agency where I met him again. All the time he was writing, and fiction by now was slowly beginning to oust poems and plays.
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Monday, 7 April 2014
For a long time, the word kavi, Sanskrit for “poet,” was synonymous for me with a man named Kuvempu. He was the Rashtra Kavi, the national poet, of people who spoke Kannada, the language of the part of South India where I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. Kuvempu’s verse—lucid, patriotic, nature loving—was taught in primary schools and sung on the radio; when you drove into the countryside, you found his poems painted near waterfalls and framed in the midst of rose gardens. Even as a boy, I knew that where Kannada-speaking territory ended, so did Kuvempu’s fame. Our neighbors spoke Tamil—a very different language—and they had their own national poet, a man named Subramania Bharathi. As far as I could tell, each of India’s many languages had such a Rashtra Kavi, around whose verse a powerful subnational identity had coalesced. Overarching all these Rashtra Kavis, however, was a man called the Vishwa Kavi, the universal poet, who spoke to all Indians.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) began his career as the poet of an Indian province—fertile, densely populated Bengal (divided today between India and Bangladesh); then, through a combination of exceptional talent and good fortune, he grew into something that no other twentieth-century poet could have hoped to be. Modern India’s first international literary celebrity, Tagore, in 1913, became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. For many in the West and in India, his great silver beard and dreamy gaze made him a present-day incarnation of an ancient Hindu mystic; many Indians still call himGurudev, divine teacher. His song “Jana Gana Mana” is the national anthem, photographs of him hang in public libraries, and he is a key element in the liberal, progressive pan-Indian culture that is even more important than democracy or the army in keeping the country united. Tagore helped make modern India, but he also transcends it. When the part of Bengal awarded to Pakistan broke away to form its own nation, Bangladesh, in 1971, it chose a song by Tagore as its national anthem, thus making him the only man to have composed the defining patriotic verse of two nations.
Yet, as the writer Amit Chaudhuri notes in his fine foreword to The Essential Tagore, the poet has become a “static emblem” in India: worshipped everywhere, but not widely read outside Bengal. Like most Indians, I cannot read Bengali; Tagore’s verse came to my school in South India in an archaic and sometimes Orientalist English that left me with no desire to read more of his work. Young readers in other countries must have felt the same. One of the world’s most famous writers in the 1920s and ’30s, Tagore traveled from Argentina to Java to meet admirers; today, his international reputation has all but vanished. How surprising, then, in my mid-twenties, to watch Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) andCharulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), two films by the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray that were based on Tagore’s stories; to feel that the man who wrote those stories was not a silver-bearded bore but a restless young writer, someone I could have spoken to about my own worries about politics or love; and to wonder if, beneath the Tagore whom I had had to learn in school, there was another one, waiting to break out and speak to me. That is why this new anthology, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, is so welcome, because it starts the process of freeing Tagore for a contemporary audience.
The first thing that strikes you about The Essential Tagore is the diversity of its subject’s talents: In a career that stretched over seventy-three years (he finished his first poem when he was seven, and was composing a story on his deathbed), Tagore wrote novels, plays, literary criticism, political essays on the iniquities of the British Raj, and descriptions of his travels in Persia and Japan. Yet it is to the poems that one turns immediately. The range is dizzying—Tagore composed devotional, patriotic, erotic, and nature verse—and is tackled here by a phalanx of gifted translators, including Chaudhuri. Most of the translations are lucid and lively, although it is only rarely we feel that we are eavesdropping in on the original Bengali:
Chaitra nights, I sit alone, once again, it becomes visible—
among trees and branches, the illusion of your curved hand
in new-sprouted leaves by some error they return your
To heighten the standard problems of translation, many of Tagore’s most famous compositions are lyrics; they have as much power in English as Ira Gershwin must have in Bengali. If the core of the poetry might never be retrievable for the non-Bengali reader, a wild, celebratory power keeps breaking through in the English translation, as when Tagore promises us, “Again and Again you’ll regain your right to be in the world.”
By ARAVIND ADIGA
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