‘ Thou shalt leave everything beloved most dearly; this is the first shaft which the bow of exile lets fly. Thou shalt prove how salt is the taste of other men’s bread, and how hard a path it is to go up and down upon another’s stairs.’
— Dante Alighieri, Paradiso
I have stolen the epigraph from Usha Akella’s wonderful volume. Once upon a time the diaspora clung to the Homeland’s coat tails or dhotis . Big B and Bollywood, bhajias and bhajan CD’s, Hussain and horses, puris and payasam were the flavour. It was the noonday of nostalgia for Bharat Mata.(Translations into English are perilous — don’t ever confuse her with Mother India and Nergis or you could get shot today). Most Indian poets, except A.K. Ramanujan got sucked in by this gravitational pull. Even a fine poet like G.S. Sharat Chandra was not immune. Nostalgia trips are over. The diaspora no longer hungers for filthy by-lanes and open manholes it left behind. Indeed it has a bone to pick with some of our arrogant, pathetically preening poets. (Bear with me, I am on an alliterative trip.)
I was lucky enough to be invited to the Matwaala South Asian Poetry Festival in Austin, Texas, hosted by Usha Akella. (News of my ingratitude towards festival hosts had evidently not reached Austin.) I have never felt more comfortable than at this one. One reason was that most of the poets were generously accommodated in Ravi and Usha Akella’s house.
You slide into a festival. A morning with American poets of Austin at the Community College, an evening at a Turkish Institute where Phinder Dulai (Toronto) was the toast with poems on Komagata Maru — the Japanese ship with Indian revolutionaries which in 1914 faced harassment at Canadian ports. The opening bravura Usha Akella declaring: “We are poets because we dare to say the unsaid and we hear the unheard…we unlock experience with words.” Hearing the unheard is important—and much of the diaspora poetry is unheard.
The poets of note were Saleem Peeradina, Anish Shivani, whose novel Karachi is making waves, Pramila Venkateswaran and Sasha Kamini Parmasad from Trinidad. The best known was Ravi Shankar, Pushcart prize winner and editor of Drunken Boat , a poetry journal. His poetry is heavy with meaning, slow-cadenced, an exercise in unusual meditation. “Perpetually beneath lurks stillness…distinct from yet part of the sequined/Design that glints iridescent now…” he says in poem “Spangling the Sea”. The same could be said of his poetry, which is replete with images: “ plankton columns where some fry turn larval ”, “ riparian/Terraces, hinged vertebrae whipping back and forth/In an elastic continuum ”.
His first book, Instrumentality , can be a bit inaccessible. For someone as dull as me, his meaning, to quote his own words, “slips through the noose of language”. Shankar has been accused of “blending a Stevenesque quality for a meditation with an Ashberyesque sense of humor.” Blurbs also opaque.Look at this magisterial start to his poem “Blotched in Transmission”:
‘ Bark of the birch, aria of the oriole, grit of the sand-grain,
In the first stanza I shall attempt to confiscate your essence
And each time, you will slip through the noose of language,
Having no owner .’
In a poem “Fabricating Astrology”, stars are “masses of gas, bearers of dead light”. .. ‘This much is certain:/Today I’m a day closer to extinction’ and stars move ‘Towards an annulment in a proof I cannot prove.’
Usha Akella’s The Rosary of Latitudes is an odyssey across lands stretching from Istanbul to Venice to Nicaragua and Mexico, a mix of poetry and prose, of rapture and reality. As Ravi Shankar says in the afterword to her book “The Japanese have a form called haibun, which combines prose with haiku,and often includes…diary entries, travelogues, prose poems…” He calls her book a post modern haibun. Akella transcends the mundane as she crosses latitudes, borders, myth and poetry sited in lands. To quote from the title poem:
If I told you, I have been shown cities
like a procession of jewelled elephants
of ponderous gait
and the earth took their load
and the latitudes passed under my feet like
skipping ropes under a young girl’s quick step..
and the poem ends with the lines
If I told you, all the latitudes
Are the unread lines of my love letter…
Meanwhile the poem has spotted “islands afloat on water like spilled mustard seeds”; a river turning into a “silent vein in the skin of a lake”, and streets metamorphosing into “lines of a ghazal”. This volume is a love letter to the globe, to life, and to poetry festivals(!)
She has a splendid Ghazal “Bridges on Struga”, from where poets read at the Struga Evenings. I have read there twice and have a good anecdote or two about the place. The Istanbul poem starts with: “Blue scarf gracing the necks of two continents,/Line two of the Villanelle/the quiet pause between/the repeating refrains of Europe and Asia.
She wrestles with the sacred — poems on Rumi, the Kalishta monastery and many others. A monk who hints at the divine: “Something exists, we do not know the name but something exists” and the monk spots a ghost “in the balcony of my eyes.” We will hear much more of Usha Akella.
The diaspora feels ignored in America, that it is neither here nor there. We need to make the poets feel they are both here and there.
Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet and short story writer