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In memory of poet Meena Alexander

Memories: Meena Alexander, Chennai, 2008.

Memories: Meena Alexander, Chennai, 2008.   | Photo Credit: R. Shivaji Rao

Meena Alexander’s alphabets will ‘flicker and soar’ forever

Meena Alexander passed away on November 21, a grievous blow to friends and poetry lovers. Regrettably, her end was expected by many of us because she was rapidly losing her fight against cancer. Over the years she had been sending her books to me regularly — House of a Thousand Doors, The Storm, River and Bridge, Illiterate Heart, Quickly Changing River... She wrote prolifically, both prose and poetry. Her memoir, Fault Lines, lies with me unread, I am ashamed to say. A gentle soul, she wrote very strongly against violence and injustice. She has a fine poem where Paul Celan figures.

Initially, her life was a sort of a travelogue — Allahabad, Khartoum, Hyderabad — till she finally settled in New York with her scholar husband David Lelyveld. Malayalam, her own language, Arabic and English lay side by side in her soul. In ‘Port Sudan’, her father comes to the port to receive her, wading through a crowd of labourers/ forced to raise bales of cotton to their heads.

Someone cried kef Halek!

My skirt spun in the wind

And Arabic came into my mouth

and rested alongside

all my other languages.

Now I know the truth of my tongue

starts where translations perish.

One of her finest poems is ‘Muse’: You come to me,/ a bird shedding gold feathers,/ each one a quill scraping my tympanum. Later she says alphabets flicker and soar./ Write in the light/ of all the languages/ you know the earth contains... I hope our misguided Hindi chauvinists read this.

Last anthology

She wrote poems on her family, especially her mother and the ancestral house she lived in. The book with which she made her mark was House of a Thousand Doors.

In November, I received Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing, an anthology edited by her. The 410-page volume starts with Tagore and Sarojini Naidu. Tagore sees a rose and writes, What force brought it to this peak of beauty?

‘Recovery 4’ is a great modern poem by the old man. Should credit go to the translators, Wendy Barker and Saranindranath Tagore? He is writing in his final days. With a little nudge from the imagination you can almost visualise his soul winging its way to the empyrean.

Naidu’s letter to Tagore asking for a blurb (the word was not in use then) for her book, Bird of Time, is both girlish and genuflecting. ‘Congress of creation’, ‘bird of time’, ‘balancing beauty with ugliness’ — how dated both phrase and concept seem! It has taken us a 100 years to realise this. Our writings will be trod underfoot by the young within a decade.

The anthology gets its name from a Jibanananda Das poem, ‘Name me a Word’:

Name me a word

Great, simple, vast as the sky

A word that has like the intimate hand

Of the woman I have loved for ever,

Washed the dirty innards of history...

He tells the sky that it belongs now to the frozen seas on/ polar nights. Hence neither the morning bird/ Nor the dusky insect misreads the path of light. Is this great poetry or hyperbole passing off as great poetry? I honestly wouldn’t know. But I’ll avoid Kolkata for a while. Bengalis being fiercely chauvinistic, deeply in love with both poetry and mishti doi, are quite capable of decapitating you before you ask cholbe ki cholbe na?

The anthology is star-studded with Vaikom, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Ageya, Ayyappa Paniker, and the two Arundhathis — Roy and Subramaniam. There is Jeet Thayil, of course, and Sukirtharani. Meena may have missed out on Sridala Swami and Priya Chabria, but how many can you accommodate?

War words

An anthology of ‘Indian Writings on the First World War,’ titled The Great War has come out, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil. She has been a great force in propagating Urdu literature, translating many writers and foregrounding them. It starts with Tagore’s scathing critique of the First World War, where he says “Kshatriyas had never tolerated the power of the traders, the Vaishyas. Therefore, Germany, in the pride of its martial past, has contemptuously begun the war.” Good one from the great man.

Most translations from Urdu verse are by Jalil. How the Urdu poets hated the British! Agha Hashar Kashmiri writes O earth of Europe, O cherisher of outer raiments… because of you the world is a place of mourning (duniya aaj eik maatham khana hai). Zafar Ali Khan ends ‘Bugle of Freedom’ with the lines Some crumbs have fallen from Britannia’s table/ O toadies, go crawling on your bellies to pick them. Urdu poets wrote with a thakkalus, a nom de guerre. Ahmaq (foolish) Phapoondvi writes rather wisely. ‘Had there been no shuddhiand tableeghi movements here’ the Brits would not have been able to stay in India for a moment. As Ghalib would have said, dil ko behlane kai liye khyal acha hai Ghalib(an apt thought to beguile the heart).

The writer is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 9:57:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/remembering-meena/article25687236.ece

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