The champak dripping dye

A zigzag journey, from Ruth Padel to Pramila Venkateswaran

August 18, 2018 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

What exactly are we doing to language? You switch on the Test match between England and India and find the guys on the mike talking of balaybaaz and gaind baaz , instead of batsman and bowler, as they are known the world over. They haven’t found an equivalent for wicket-keeper as yet. Why not wicket pichadi gaind rok baz ? This is not the end of the Hindiaisation. A worthy commentator once said “ balaybaaz nay balay ka munh khol diya .”

That is a stupid translation of ‘opened the face of the bat.’ He could have easily said bat ko tircha kar diya : slanted the bat. The word baaz , derived from the Urdu wager or ‘contest’, has some unsavoury vibes attached. If you are a gambler on quail fights (illegal) you are known in Lucknow as a batairbaaz . A visitor to prostitutes is known as randibaaz . I could give other profane examples but cannot afford to do so in the finest national paper of India. I am not sad at the loss of English words in our cricket. I am bemoaning the trivialisation of Hindi.

Incidentally, a subway in Delhi is marked ‘Bhumigat paidal par path’ . So short and sweet.

Life is a midnight ride

To ascend from here to Ruth Padel, one of the finest present poets from England, is a steep climb. I chanced upon her volume

E merald at Kitabkhana, and became enamoured. The book is a sort of requiem on the passing away of her mother, Hilda Padel. But it is also a poet’s rumination on emeralds and I was reminded of a beautiful poem on jewels by Imtiaz Dharker.

The first poem, ‘The Emerald Tablet’ sets the tone. It is almost incantatory in the sense that the laser pointer comes back repeatedly to the same themes, wondering if the truth

will pop out of the green

out of the woodwork to reveal it

encrypted on a slab of emerald

by the king of a forgotten world

in exquisite bas-relief lettering

similar to the earliest Phoenician

script.

She goes on to say that what is inward/ buried in earth... and in your mind/ is also the bright surface of the world outside/ and is divine ... above is the same as below . A bit semi-mystical all this, and in her notes she tells us that “ The Emerald Tablet itself is the founding text of medieval alchemy,” and that in the 17th century, Isaac Newton translated it into English, and the first words of the volume are ‘Above is the same as below.’

Ruth Padel needs to be read for the scintillations she provides: ‘a half-ignited sunset , ‘ starlings spiralling to roost/ in the Avalon marshes ’, ‘ birds shimmering with metallic oils/ sapphire, emerald ’. What more can one want. Padel’s craft lies in how effortlessly she mingles the tragic vein of a mother’s loss to moving into a mine and ending with a profundity:

Life said Joseph Conrad

is a midnight ride

over barely cooled lava

you might fall through the crust any

minute.

In the same vein, poetry in this column is going to be a zigzag journey, because we come to Ravi Shankar, tough poet to read and imbibe in a few sittings. The reader will encounter words like ‘apotheosis’ — I have nothing against the word except its five syllables.

A Capulet also makes an entry as it moves from mint leaf to love. I am new minted in your gaze, unused,/ unmarred, coined especially to fit your purse,/ to be pawed, turned over, spent as legal tender/ in a country whose borders no map can draw/ because it extends past this life into the next,/ into the past where we were more verdant/ than jade polished to a sheen

Kya baat hai! Subhan Allah!

Sociological insights

Ravi Shankar is a diaspora icon as well as bête noir. He has spent many years fishing obstinately by obstinate isles, to use Poundian lingo. But we are concerned with his poetry and I can do no better than quote Arundhathi Subramaniam, that empress of introductions to poetry volumes.

She rightly credits him with “a logic based on the premise that the journey of poetry is riverine and deeply democratic, assimilating tradition and modernity, past and present, east and west, silt and plastic, ‘sublime’ and scatological’, classicism and kitsch, without discrimination.” (Madam Subramaniam, don’t confuse me with big words. I don’t know what scatological means, but never mind, ki farak painda , as we say in Punjab.)

But, she rightly points out later, his “poems have the quality of Ganga in Benaras — sometimes darkly opaque, but never stagnant, always lurching towards some promise of expansion and illumination.”

Pramila Venkateswaran has been poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island, and teaches at Nassau Community College, New York. Her latest book, The Singer of Alleppey, is on her grandmother who was a singer and composer, whose works were not preserved. She has tried to recreate her life in verse.

Apart from its poetic merit, it has some telling sociological insights into the Tamil past. Her husband is attacked by the granddaughter devastatingly (is this what feminism is coming to?). I know the difference between sinking dark/ and womb dark: my marriage is dung . But the singer of Alleppey, Sitala, is asked to sing by her dead mother and she dances in the rain:

twirl and sing / like the champak and

hibiscus dripping their / dye .

A musical end, what more can a poetry column offer!

The author is is a poet and novelist.

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