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Connecting worlds through verse

Fantasy and foreign lands Tabish Khair  

COIMBATORE: Close to 7,000km separate Gaya and Aarhaus in Denmark. That’s the distance between the places Tabish Khair spent his formative years and now lives and works in. In his poem, Birds of North Europe, the poet is surprised “ at how birds stopped at the threshold/Of their houses. Never/Flying into rooms, to be decapitated by fan-blades or carefully/Herded through open windows to another life, never/Building on this lampshade.” The sentences are broken up to create a space for the birds, and the words to fly.

Tabish Khair has written a series of poems based on the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. “ Outside the walls you crashed with Danish words/I hold a match between finger and thumb;/Its burning opens no door, no passage./I can almost make sense in your language:/I’m no bewitched mermaid; I have my tongue/And poems flutter in its cage like birds.”(To H.C. Andersen) How many tales could you identify?

How about this one? “ Who can tell her identity?/The fold, the silk mattress, such stuff/Are noble and yet not enough:/Where is the blasted pea?” In ‘Immigrant’, he echoes the tale of ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ending with, “ Once I had a voice./Now I have legs./Sometimes I wonder/Was it fair trade?

Some words stay in the mind, to be mulled over again and again. In the wistful and poignant Almost Sonnet, the poet mourns for a love he almost had. “In all the mud of language that turns doors to walls/And makes the best of truths, despite us, false.”

In Couplets in Ice, he says, “ How well we understand in tongues unknown/The word that in English is pronounced ‘alone’.” The loneliness of his early days in Denmark is evident here. He got by cleaning floors and dishes and other such work. I wonder about the soul of a poet in a situation like this. Adversity and tough times bring out the best in most of us; surely it’s true for the poet as well.

Interestingly, Tabish Khair says that he is a “… part of a long, complex and obscured history of ‘small town cosmopolitanism’.” He also wonders about writing that comes from a perspective of entitlement. Is there a privilege in writing in English? Besides, masters of their craft write in any number of languages and find ecstatic fans everywhere. In Tabish Khair’s words, “In short, literature is that which presses against the limits of language in life.” Profound, personal, and only proper.

These words may apply to his poems about his grandparents. In ‘Amma,’ he speaks of hearing his grandmother’s slow footsteps, “ echo or pause/As they used to through long summer afternoons spent within/The watered-down four walls of khus and fragile drinks/Of ice, mango or lemon, the circle of water-melon crescents.” Sparrows, herons, parrots, ladybirds, dragonflies, cows, rats, snails, and black ants populate ‘Almost a Ghazal: For My Grandfather’s Garden’. His writing of childhood familiarity that speaks most to me.

The entire world is connected and distances don’t count for much. Yet, 7000km does look like a lot. What connects two disparate worlds? What connects the world, period? Words. That’s what. And when it’s words in poetry, why, it’s the stuff of fairy tales.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 1:16:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/a-close-look-at-tabish-khairs-world-of-words/article7872865.ece

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