In Conversation Books

‘If you blink, you fail’: Tabish Khair

Tabish Khair gives a pitch-perfect demo of the ‘art to say what has to be said and still retain your head’ in his book of 21 reworked Shakespearean sonnets

Unlike most of us, writer Tabish Khair has been using the lockdown productively. In the second week, in Denmark where he currently lives, Khair started re-reading Shakespeare’s sonnets for an academic anthology. Appreciating them anew, he also began re-writing some of them with a degree of humour, irony and satire that would have made Shakespeare proud. Quarantined Sonnets: Sex, Money and Shakespeare is now out as an e-book. It is a must-read, not just because it is a virtuoso performance but also because the profits from the sale are being donated to a charity for migrant workers.

Excerpts from an e-mail interview:

Reading the sonnet sequence, just when the reader thinks that these are the cries of an old codger yearning for the pleasures of yesteryear, the mood turns grim, with references to the pandemic. Did you have a structure in mind when you started?

The rough structure was my knowledge that the original sonnets by Shakespeare get progressively darker. I wanted to start off with six-seven sonnets that captured the times, its foibles in particular, while playing with Shakespeare’s peccadilloes as well. I rewrite one of Shakespeare’s sonnets — “When I consider everything that grows” — twice

(Number 7 and 8 in my collection); the only one I rewrite twice. In the first rewriting, Number 7, it is a rich person extolling the virtues of plastic surgery (which plays ironically with the themes of age and death in Shakespeare’s sonnets). The next version of the same sonnet (Number 8) has a Wall Street speculator talking of making money from the looming pandemic. That is the hinge; then the sonnets turn to the crisis. But I also wanted to say that the vampiric speculator did not come from nowhere: there was something rotten in the state of our ‘normal’ world.

The sequence is ‘dramatic’, with the persona of the speaker changing in each sonnet. How satisfying was this role-playing? Coming from a novelist, was this par for the course?

Now that you mention it, yes, maybe the novelist in me played a subterranean role! But when I was working on the sonnets I was thinking more of Shakespeare. You see, Shakespeare’s sonnets are probably autobiographical, but sometimes I feel that they are read too literally by us. Shakespeare was too intelligent a writer to simply vomit his heart out on to the page, and he lived in very dangerous, off-with-his-head times. I think that he plays with personas in his sonnets too. He does not lie, but he puts the truth across in ways that might not cost him his head.

It also has to do with the complex relations between facts and truth. I definitely had that in mind. It was greatly satisfying, for I dislike the lockdown of the self in any case, this bourgeois obsession with oneself. It plagues much of poetry.

How do you think Shakespeare would have reacted to the present pandemic? After all, he is said to have written plays during the plague.

True, the literary rumour mill, which regularly produces Ph.Ds and professors, holds it that the quarantine play was King Lear, arguably the most devastating of his plays, containing what some say is the bleakest line in pentametre in the English language: “Never, never, never, never, never.” The plague was rampant in his lifetime in London. He definitely wrote something or the other during a ‘lockdown.’ I think he would have reacted to this one with the basic honesty that is essential to all great art, while also, because he was a pragmatic man, ensuring that his head did not get chopped off! The art to say what has to be said and still retain your head should not be underestimated.

We are in a world where a demagogue may confidently shout: “They will accept as Gospel all my views,/ But you, O bitter Fact, will be Fake News!” Do you think it takes a poet to state the truth?

All of us should face up to the uncomfortable truth, but a poet has no choice, or she fails in her vocation. Poetry is the act of staring relentlessly into the face of life and death. If you blink, you fail. Sometimes of course, you have no choice but to repeat with Faiz, “Mataa-e-lauh-o-kalam chin gayee to kya gham hai, Ki khoon-e-dil mein dubo li hai ungliyaan maine” (What if the tyrant has snatched away my paper and pen, I will write by dipping my fingers in the blood of my heart). But in most cases, as Shakespeare knew, one can use art to speak the truth in such a way that the tyrant cannot throttle you. That has been my endeavour in all my works, including this one, which is essentially a satirical conversation with our times using Shakespeare as the translator.

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Printable version | Jul 9, 2020 6:40:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/if-you-blink-you-fail-tabish-khair/article31708609.ece

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