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Playtime in the pastures of language

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KEKI N. DARUWALLA

Hoskoté's sense of linguistic play comes through in this volume.

Vanishing Acts: New and Selected Poems, Ranjit Hoskoté, Penguin Books, p.219, Rs. 250.

RANJIT HOSKOTÉ has had a good run as a poet, with three volumes of poetry and copious translations in German. He recently won, along with others, an award for young writers at Sahitya Akademi's Golden Jubilee. (Namdeo Dhasal won the main one.) Now comes a volume of New and Selected Poems: 1985-2005, though his first volume was published in 1991.

Windy rhetoric

The earlier Hoskoté revelled in high-toned, over-heated verse. "Between my palms scald and struggle/ the redhot coals of hours". Take these lines from "Wolf Rain": "Rain-hit my eyelids shuttered and rain-hit/ my shoulder receded into its shell, / and from watching the tracks spooling into the past/ I drew back, wrapped myself into the train, rain-hit." Four laboured lines when one would have done. The poem on painter Ram Kumar starts: "The wind has been blowing through your paintings/ for a thousand years: overtures without tomorrows. And what voices have you heard on this wind... What diamond shards of sailcloth/ have stabbed through this wind, fingerprinted by the dawn?"

Mature poet now

This reviewer gingerly went to the new poems (2000-2005) at the end of the volume, praying he wouldn't encounter such windy rhetoric again. The prayers were answered. Readers now face a mature poet in Hoskoté. The very first poem, on a moth, is delicate, fragile, "the moth is rust/ its wings the colour of blood drying on stone". And when a boy grabs at it, it turns to "pollen dust".Hoskoté could always mint a fine phrase. Glow-worms become "ambushes of light"; Kabir wraps "himself in the torn fabric of sky"; an editor watches "first light crouching over tents"; a lady finds "a hypnotist standing by to catch her dreams". "Diagnosis" and "Miniature" are subtle poems and so is "The Interpreter". The interpreter sounds more like an intelligence agent "who receives no mail, leaves no forwarding address". But he interprets signs that no one else cares for and "chases after receding horizons". One day "he will forget the passwords: /trapdoors will yawn between his nouns/ and the things they named". Hoskoté should know, for, he himself interprets art and poetry — the blurb calls him "a culture theorist", though I don't know what that means. A poem, "Long Distance Call" is not just about phones and satellites, but about voices coming from distant worlds, sieved through walls and curtains of rain, time zones and dreams. Similarly "Café Monsoon" is not just about negotiating a rain-dark night.Memory and myth act like magnets to Hoskoté's verse. He has a fine poem on the Philoctetes, marooned on the island Lemnos on Odysseus's advice, because his wound stank too much. But he inherited the bow and arrows of Heracles and according to prophecies, only those could conquer Troy. So he was summoned after 10 years to Troy to kill Paris. Shouldn't all this be footnoted for the Indian reader? Hoskoté digs for meaning, travels far for illumination. Everyday phenomena appear to him as a code to be broken, as land does to his surveyor: "What is land but the wry code left to be broken/ at the map's edge?" The Surveyor's fear of houses is about leaving, "the shutting of doors, the creaking of hinges". But when he does move out, he finds, "The landscape itself, / like a stalled engine, growling to life".

Simple mastery

A short poem, "Circa", needs to be quoted in full.The archivist returns to the earliest drafts
of the master's poems, folded away
between the pages of old notebooks:
it's like carbon-dating a few fine bones
buried in an avalanche of conceits.
Why can't he always write as simply as that? Even in the new poems, there are passages that seem overdone. (I wouldn't eat a steak cooked by him.) A poem on Guru Dutt has this about the theatre audience: ... a thousand throats crying
in the voices of strange animals driven
by fire or flood into the wrong country.
If you are talking of Guru Dutt, talk of the sepia tinted light of his films, his artistry, the haunting songs, talk of Waheeda Rehman! Why waste time over the fans? Similarly, in a haunting poem on the last sad days of Nissim Ezekiel (so aptly and sensitively named "Passing a Ruined Mill"), we have this clutter of images:
They poured tea into his hours,
waiting for the clouded marble of his eyes
to spark a relay in the burnt-out tungsten
of his thoughts.
Agha Shahid Ali rightly talks of Hoskoté's "sense of linguistic play". Mostly he handles words (and images) beautifully. A mountain river becomes "a shrivelled skin of ice". At his best, one thinks of him as a pedigreed racehorse rolling and gambolling on the pastures of language.


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