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Updated: November 6, 2010 17:39 IST

Fingerprinting the dawn sky

KEKI DARUWALA
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Slow Dance; Saleem Peeradina; Ridgway Press
Slow Dance; Saleem Peeradina; Ridgway Press

It takes some reading to understand Saleem Peeradina's craft…

Saleem Peeradina's first volume, appropriately named First Offence, came out in 1980, to be followed by Group Portrait (OUP 1992) and Meditations on Desire (Ridgeway Press 2003). Even the first volume took a long time coming, and to many of his confreres his early claim to fame was the anthology Contemporary Indian Poetry in English he brought out in 1972. It was the first comprehensive and discriminating anthology of Indian poetry in English, to be followed by a slew of such books. I still remember how thrilled I was to be in it.

Specific locale

One has also wondered why Peeradina didn't become a part of the canon earlier. (Perhaps, and this is a wild guess, because the locale of his poems was too Bombaiya.) Even in Slow Dance he has two poems ‘Bombay Times' and ‘Mumbai in Thirteen Clicks', not among his better poems. The present volume, which has three sections — Landscapes, Songs and Slow Dance— should set things right.

Amritjit Singh, Langston Hughes Professor at Iowa University, gives a fine introduction. The central poem of ‘Landscapes' is ‘Reflections on the Other'. The subject has been bothering poets since Constantine Cavafy wrote his ‘Waiting for the Barbarians'. The senators wait in the forum dressed in all their finery—“bracelets with so many amethysts/ rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds”, because “things like that dazzle the barbarians”. There's a snag though— the barbarians never turn up. For Roman and Greek, Zoroastrian Persians were the Barbarians. Peeradina's reflections start on another note: “There are always two kinds/ of people, two states of mind, two voices.”

One voice stresses the need to understand the other. The person who is addressed as the other does not remember giving this proponent the nod, but, in effect, experiences being implicated in his own smearing—an exile on his own soil.

But this voice considers itself superior: “Foreign but familiar, the voice speaks in accents/ unworthy of the other's dialect.” The other “has been nursed on a native lexicon.” Native, as most of us know, except some Indian language activists, is a word smeared with a bit of contempt.

( Hence I am always struck why some poets and Sahitya Akademi aficionados, keep rooting for “nativism”, and hold it against English writers here that they are not “native” enough. In fact these critics “fall ass over tea kettle” to borrow a line from Hayden Carruth, in condemning India's English language poetry on that score.)

A critic has a right to suppose that the poet is questioning the Westerner here. “If I am the other/what do you answer to?” he asks in the second poem Later he says

Are you the designated one?

For, in order to call me the other,

you have to be the one who points

a finger; the first half who must go

looking for the other half…

And there's a taunt in the last lines: “You with your abysmal need/ for love and obedience.” It is a complex sequence. He says in Poem IV, “The other is a new taste, an echo/ from a distant shore…a country that insists on occupying the map.” And still later:

The other is the truth continually denied, a lie only a shade deeper than your own. If there was no other to pick on, you'd have to invent one. It is only after one has read a Saleem poem that one realises the thought and craft that went into it. Take the three Exhibit poems. “The painter of landscapes invites us to the gallery/ To gaze at cliffs wrapped in mist, /Or waterfalls…or a lush, tropical forest sold to us as Eden…” Then the figure of a recluse, ‘modestly miniature' wanders in. The painter is trying to send the message across that in this grand cosmic design, the recluse and painter are nothing. The poem ends with the lines “We buy this fiction/ And make out of it a window on our wall.”

Man and cosmos

The talent of a mature poet is evident here. He turns a painting, or gallery at most, into a metaphor for the cosmos, and puts man in his place, a miniature in the grand design. It reminds me of a brilliant Ashok Vajpeyi poem about a fisherman's catch. The fisherman seems to net the entire brahmand (or cosmos) in his meshes, as the poet puts it.

The title poem is lyrical and personal. Peeradina has a splendid poem written after watching ‘Winged Migration' (possibly on TV). Year after year birds fleeing ‘the arctic freeze' follow ‘beacons of the sun' and fall on a farmhouse watched by a lady who feeds them. The birds peck on her outstretched hands —“The world is mapped inside her./ She lets them know she will be home/ Year after year awaiting the peck and shiver/ of their bladed beaks.”

The songs section is boldly experimental, but not so appealing. These poems are based on the first lines of Hindi songs. For instance, the Song of Subversion takes off on the lines “Ranjish hi sahi, dil hi dukhane ke liye aa/ aa phir se mujhe chodke jaane ke liye aa.” These are translated as “If your coming is meant only to cause anguish/ Come, trifle with my heart one more time.” Then follows the poem, which has no relation with the Hindi song. But the lilt and lyricism of songs is missing. Hindi songs rhyme. These extensions/ poems do not.

The volume has some very witty poems like ‘Counter Blurbs' and ‘Cliché Nation.' And it will also be remembered for its lines: “The wind howled/ The rain beat in slanted brushstrokes” or “the inky sky invaded his dreams”. Or when talking of migratory birds, he says “Their wingspans fingerprint the dawn sky.”

Slow Dance; Saleem Peeradina; Ridgeway Press, Roseville USA, 91 pages

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