Literary Review

The grass is like me

Keki N. Daruwalla

Keki N. Daruwalla  

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Robert Frost is once reported to have said "poet" is a gift word

I was wondering how different generations read the same text. So, I opened father’s old Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, edited by F.W. Payne and turned to the page where Polonius, Ophelia’s father, makes his speech. Father had marked the passage where Polonius says his homilies to Laertes, who is embarking for France:

Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportion’d thought its act.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;

But do not dull thy palm with entertainment

Of each new-hatched, unfledged comrade.

The sermon goes on, “ Neither a borrower nor a lender be...

I found I had marked just one line preceding these homilies, when the garrulous old Polonius says “ Aboard, aboard”, and then the line: “ The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail.” The preaching had not impressed me, as it had father. The versifier in me had picked up the wind in the shoulder of the sail.

Robert Frost is once reported to have said “poet” is a gift word. You can’t use it for yourself. Others have to gift you the honorific. But here in India every scribbler who has rhymed four bad lines calls himself/ herself a poet.

I was listing the contributors to our poetry in English. First, I’d put Nissim Ezekiel who mentored so many poets and poetasters in Bombay.

His room at the original Bombay University, next to the High Court, always had some student showing his wares. The floor was littered with books. The Marine Lines office later was better kept. He had some hard-hitting lines on the wrong use of prepositions which I will not quote, lest the RSS file a case against poor Nissim. (Remember, Charles II got Oliver Cromwell’s bones dug up and had them hung?) Due to Nissim and the standard of English taught in the city (people like poet Eunice de Souza taught English at St. Xavier’s) Bombay poets still lead the pack.

Next would come the great P. Lal whose Writer’s Workshop has published and encouraged about a thousand poets by now. He gave the first clarion call for the credo of modern poetry to be written here. Surprising that the Calcutta Bhadralok couldn’t produce English poets of note. I think Bengali poets think it beneath their dignity to write in any language except Bangla. They are also woefully stuck on Tagore. But Bengal has its Jibanananda Das and Shakti and Sunil. Even in translation they come out splendidly.

One must mention Dom Moraes, though I suspect (rather mean of me) that some acolytes went to him as much for the wine as for his soft-spoken perorations on the muse. He mentored several Bombay poets, but could never imbue their verse with his own sense of music and rhythm.

I would also add the Marathi poet Hemant Divate and his Poetrywala, an imprint of Paperwall Media. As publisher, he has come to the aid of a host of poets. And the list is good, undiluted with vanity publishing, which affected Writers Workshop later. The list of books under this imprint is endless, starting with Learn from the Almond Leaf by Eunice de Souza, an anthology on post-globalisation poetry edited by Nabina Das, and the massive Missing Rib (664 pages) by K. Satchidanandan — all the ribs in his body would weigh less.

The muster roll of poets and their books? Srilata, Mukta Sambrani, Menka Shivdasani, Vijay Nambisan, Shiv Prakash, Hanane Aad, and two beautifully produced books by Anand Thakore.

Divate’s poetry has been lauded. To quote Adil Jussawalla: “Divate has an appetite for the contemporary, devouring both the poisons and its nourishments with gargantuan ease. A rich feast but not for weak stomachs.”

Kishwar Naheed, the eminent feminist poet from Pakistan, read at the Oxford Book Store, Delhi, to a small crowd. She was in conversation with Urdu heavyweights Shamim Hanafi and Rakhshanda Jalil.

An anthology of feminist poetry entitled We Sinful Women was published from England after her iconic poem: “ It is we sinful women /who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns,/ We don’t sell our lives/ we don’t bow our heads/ we don’t fold our hands together.” The poem goes on to talk of those “who sell the harvests of our bodies who become exalted.” It goes on to say, “ It is we sinful women/ who raise the banner of truth.” Her poems have been translated excellently by Rukhsana Ahmed.

Naheed was born in Bulandshahr in 1940 and left with her family for Pakistan in 1949. She has founded an organisation for giving financial help to women without income.

She won the UNESCO Prize for Children’s Literature, and retired as the Director General of Pakistan’s National Council of Arts.

In a poem she says the earth has sunk, “ But even now we stand/ on the rooftop of stories.” And in another famous poem: “ The grass is also like me,/ it has to unfurl underfoot to fulfil itself/ the grass is also like me/ As soon as it can raise its head/ the lawnmower/ obsessed with flattening it into velvet/ Mows it down again.

Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet and short story writer.

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 9:20:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/The-grass-is-like-me/article14630741.ece

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