Poetry in motion? Yes, you can find it on the buses and autos in Chennai
One summer afternoon many years ago, when I unlocked the trunk of my brother's car to unload the groceries, I found a poem. Specifically, it was a rectangle of corrugated cardboard printed with William Butler Yeats' ‘When You Are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep'. I read it there for the first time and, in that unexpected place and time, it seared itself into my mind.
The sign was part of New York City's campaign Poetry in Motion, in which poems were posted on the city's subway trains and stations. It seemed a beautiful idea, in keeping with the cultural generosity of many American cities, and it was inspired by London's Poems from the Underground.
We have our more humble version of poetry in motion on Chennai's buses, where a couplet from Thiruvalluvar's Kural is painted on the panel just behind the driver, where you can read it no matter how many steaming bodies are packed around you. Classical Tamil is beyond my abilities. On a ride from Tambaram to TVS, I may eventually spell out the archaic words and make a wild stab at the meaning. A translation in today's Tamil would have been useful, but the couplets are a nice touch nonetheless.
In fact, I wish we could see more lines, and from different poets. It would be good to ponder on a stanza by Kalidasa or Subramania Bharati painted on the walls of a bus, or a Kannadasan lyric along the metro tunnels, or an Ilayaraja sentiment on the inner side panels of an auto, instead of the poster of an obese baby wearing nothing but jewellery.
Reading a book is a solitary pleasure, but sometimes you really want to stand up in the bus and say, ‘Stop, everyone, listen to this!' And sometimes the person you really want to share a couplet with is in another city, or in another time zone.
Recently a friend told me how to put a ‘signature' on my Gmail settings, that is, a tag line that will appear at the bottom of all my emails. I could put in my very own ad, I suppose, telling my friends where they can catch my latest column, but what I do share is a quotation from whatever I'm reading at the moment. Also lines that I always felt were so clever everyone should know about them.
‘I love those lines,' said one friend, ‘Do you have this book?' That was a gratifyingly quick result. I like to prod those I love into reading the books I love. They are gems, but they are so hidden, in dull covers, on high shelves, behind 19th Century names. Now I have found a way to tease my friends into reading further.
Tomorrow, I think I'll get Emily Bronte to show them some skin.