The immigrant journey that shapes the narrative is shadowed by a sense of exile.
'My passport reminds me how marginal I am in the global heart of whiteness.' Thus Tabish Khair, who has chosen to live and work in Denmark, voiced his sense of hurt in an article eight years ago. The immigrant journey that shapes the narrative of Man of Glass, Khair's first collection of poems in 10 years, is constantly shadowed by a sense of exile. As doors of personal, cultural and historical memory open and close, you feel — on the one hand — the assuasive ‘nectar of nostalgia' for homeland and — on the other — the anguish of being submerged by images of loss, erasure, and of terrorist violence.
Anguish of ambivalence
Like the Little Mermaid who bartered her beautiful voice for the mobility of borrowed legs in the children's story by Hans Christian Andersen, the immigrant Danish writer, the postcolonial is fated, as it were, to live with the anguish of ambivalence: “The stamp of our pasts that we wear and tear/off, / the stamp of language that we use and resist.” When Khair's Mermaid reflects: “Sometimes I wonder/Was it fair trade?” she is ‘voicing' the question that haunts the postcolonial consciousness. Ironically, ‘the palace of freedom', which still beckons with enabling possibilities in the modern world, was built by colonial plunder, assertion of racial superiority and even violence.
What, however, braces us to look beyond personal or ‘postcolonial' anguish is Khair's mode of reflection that unifies 47 fragmentary poems under three separate sections: water, stone, and glass. Implicit in their poetics is their multicultural reach through several adapted literary/historical personae: a contemporary version of Shakuntala, the heroine of Kalidasa's Sanskrit play; eight transcreated ghazals of Mirza Ghalib, a poet in the court of the last Mughal emperor of India, deposed by the British in 1858; and finally, a range of characters from stories by Anderson, as well as a monologue in the voice of the mother of Anderson.
Each of these poems is a vignette, a fragment of the vision of ‘the human globe, responsive as a mirror with a voice'. As part of his postcolonial review, Khair distinguishes this inclusive glass image from the one designed for the exclusion of the other: ‘the mirror of that white gaze' of ‘the shocked evangelising white man', and ‘lit with lamps of blood', that could see only misshapen lineage in Goddess Kali and not a ‘Goddess culled from the anger of colonization'.
For his reconciling mirror image Khair invokes the Romantic-modernist American poet, Wallace Stevens, who spoke of ‘the man of glass who in a million diamonds sums us up' and saw poetry as a means of redemption in the modern world of disbelief. This ‘impossible possible philosophers' man' may be an imaginative ideal but Khair's revalidation via Kalidasa, Ghalib or Andersen underlines the humanising role of poetry and creative literature: namely to ‘enable connections ('reconciliation') across differences'. ‘Picture', Khair's ‘transcreation' of Andersen's ‘Picture from the Fortress Wall' exemplifies this: Notice the ubiquity/Of the sunbeam:/It falls on you. It falls on me./Empty interstellar spaces/Dubbed dark/Have helped illuminate this park./How could we be/If there was no darkness/Between you and me?/Notice then the generosity/Of the sunbeam too/It falls on me. It falls on you.
Ode to today's world
The humanising voice of imaginative literature will always perhaps remain a minority voice. Laced as Man of Glass is with nuances and echoes from Blake, Wordsworth, Stevens, Eliot, Yeats, and Rushdie, Khair is clearly in good company. And ‘Prayer', after Andersen's ‘Thumbelina', is Khair's epigrammatic ode to our violence-torn world of today: Grant me a little child/I can hide/When the mullahs come home to pray,/When planes are birds of prey./Someone smaller than my thumb/I can put in my pocket and run.
If you are looking for exuberant restlessness with multicultural contradictions, throwing up a celebratory possibility, or a brisk immigrant narrative with a definite destination you will be disappointed in Man of Glass. The journey is more reminiscential than geographical, and evocation of detail and the storytelling are not always in harmony in the section tracing Shakuntala's journey from a mofussil town in India to Europe. Much of the power, however, of the chiselled verse in Man of Glass, comes from a postcolonial walk through cold corridors of memory and emerging with a new poetic voice for the old and new ghosts. As Shirley Geok-lin Lim puts it in ‘Riding into California', ‘Ghosts welcome us to a new life,' because ‘an immigrant without home ghosts/cannot believe the land is real.'
Devindra Kohli is an Indian scholar based in Germany and the editor of Kamala Das: Critical Perspectives.
Man of Glass: Poems; Tabish Khair, Harper Collins, Rs. 199.