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With rice stems in her hair

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Glorious autumn! Even Delhi becomes pleasant in this season of amber, never mind the political shenanigans. Forget them. Think of flowers — white-petalled harsingar, also known as night jasmine or parijat, and that flower which sprouts on alstonia scholaris, the tree from which blackboards are made, and pencils. Its fragrance is heavenly. Indian poets went wild this season, once the 10 heads of Ravana were burnt with fiery arrows, the feats of Hanuman recorded, and the Chalisa sung. Now the stage was set, with the sugarcane ripe for the sickle, rivers and streams shrinking, water fowl descending on sand banks, farmers building machaans to keep wild boar and monkey from the crops. Poetry couldn’t have asked for a better setting.

Living nature

The Sanskrit poets, bound to their rigid traditions, left their amours and all the romantic wrestling with rain-wet women to the months of Sawan and Bhado. Sadly, autumn poetry was devoid of sex. For poetry in the months of Ashwin and Kartik, we need to turn to the great man, the author of Meghaduta himself.

Here’s a stanza from Kalidasa’s Autumn, translated by Arthur W. Ryder (1877-1938), Professor of Sanskrit, University of California. You know what Ryder said of Kalidasa? “Rarely has a man walked the earth who observed the phenomena of living nature as accurately as he.” Here is our one and only poet:

The autumn comes, a maiden fair

In slenderness and grace,

With nodding rice-stems in her hair

And lilies in her face.

In flowers of grasses she is clad;

And as she moves along,

Birds greet her with their cooing glad

Like bracelets’ tinkling song.

A slight 19th century tinge to it, but so what? It flows. Read Daniel Ingalls (I have a book gifted by Nissim Ezekiel with strict instructions never to return it) and you will find a tinge of caste prejudice also.

The sun gives sharp pain/ Like a low man newly rich./ The deer drops its horns/ Like a thankless friend.

That’s not Kalidasa, it is Bhasa. Autumn was followed by Hemanta, or early winter, when the wind no longer bears the pollen and the poor bees at dawn sip frost together with their honey (Yogeswara), and the wind blows fragrant with black mustard. Abhinanda talks of dung fires (which) cast a ring of smoke/ that hangs overhead from weight of frost.

Autumn in our lungs

What can the poor modern poet talk of? Amritsar hoi polloi on railtracks watching Ravana burn while trains mow them down, fisticuffs in the CBI, bribes extorted from a meat-exporter, Sabarimala and menstruation, or money and Rafale?

Why not try our hand at the cordite-thick Diwali air? Autumn night, gasoline at field’s edge in Haryana; /stubble crackling, smoke like blackened ground fog,/ only denser, doesn’t know where to move/ without a wind to nudge it,/ till, like a long-lost lover,/ It nestles in our lungs. No wonder we are no match for Vachaspati, Abhinanda or Yogeswara.

Mamang Dai, the 2017 Sahitya Akademi winner for her novel, The Black Hill, is an old hand at poetry. She belongs to Arunachal Pradesh and made a name for herself writing about landscapes and imbuing them with spirits and legends and beliefs of the Northeast, addressing mountains and rivers as living beings. The poems in Midsummer Survival Lyricsare more about love, a meditation on a love that has passed. The book starts with the statement: “Love stepped out of our lives quietly and conclusively on the fifteenth day of a month in between summer and autumn.”

Women restless as oceans

There is nothing frenetic about the lyrics, her verse is still as a rosebowl. In a poem, ‘Incalculable days’, she writes In the courtyard of symbols/ someone like myself is crying/ for the man who loved me. The lines remind me faintly of Nikos Gatsos, the Greek poet, and his lines: In the courtyard of mourning black grass grows.

There are things apart from love in the volume — deification of nature, Claude Monet and colours, a poem on language, a red kite. She makes her intentions clear at the start. “I want to write about small towns, buried hope… the nature of love… and women restless as oceans who fight tooth and nail to beat time.” And she has a striking poem entitled ‘The Sorrow of Women’, which deserves to be anthologised in any volume of Indian poetry. One of her poems starts with the line We have long journeys in our blood. Poets do have.

Dibyajyoti Sarma is both poet and small-time publisher of beautiful volumes of poetry. His Book of Prayers could be placed in an art gallery. But nowhere does he say that the illustrations are his. The reader is baffled. His poetry is a mix of myth and history. His grandfather returns as a beggar to Nalabari from East Pakistan, with a few gold coins of Queen Victoria tucked in the knot of his dhoti, and tall stories of the wealthy life he had lived. His poems are well grounded in fact and reveal a culture which he displays lovingly and yet subverts dangerously.

The writer is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 12:39:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/with-rice-stems-in-her-hair/article25451492.ece

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