“Freedom”-A poem by Jayant Mohapatra

At times, as I watch,
it seems as though my country’s body
floats down somewhere on the river.

Left alone, I grow into
a half-disembodied bamboo,
its lower part sunk
into itself on the bank.

Here, old widows and dying men
cherish their freedom,
bowing time after time in obstinate prayers.

While children scream
with this desire for freedom
to transform the world
without even laying hands on it.

In my blindness, at times I fear
I’d wander back to either of them.
In order for me not to lose face,
it is necessary for me to be alone.

Not to meet the woman and her child
in that remote village in the hills
who never had even a little rice
for their one daily meal these fifty years.

And not to see the uncaught, bloodied light
of sunsets cling to the tall white columns
of Parliament House.

In the new temple man has built nearby,
the priest is the one who knows freedom,
while God hides in the dark like an alien.

And each day I keep looking for the light
shadows find excuses to keep.

Trying to find the only freedom I know,
the freedom of the body when it’s alone.

The freedom of the silent shale, the moonless coal,
the beds of streams of the sleeping god.

I keep the ashes away,
try not to wear them on my forehead.

Freedom is the leitmotif in the poem- a different type of freedom from what we usually understand.The poet draws upon the Indian belief system about death as freedom from the body, the bondage of the world,from the physical aspect of life.The imagery of the poem is largely concerned with death and its associated activities .

..my country’s body floats down somewhere on the river

A body is cremated on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi and its half-burnt remains are left in the river to float down somewhere.Nobody knows where the remains finally land, may be, in the vastness of the ocean , the ultimate destiny for the river.“somewhere” is unspecified destination in the vast expanse of space.

The body here is not an individual human being but an entire country, a collection of human beings ,now a mere body floating along on the river to an unspecified destination.

Inasmuch as the body is freely floating on the river it is freed from its bondage of mortal life.

The country is now free in another sense. It is now, in 1997, fifty years of freedom from the colonial rule. What if the woman and her child had no sufficient rice even for a daily -one meal , all these fifty years. Freedom from foreign rule did not give them freedom from hunger.

Old widows in Brindavan or Varanasi are free of their worldly attachments. Their kin have abandoned them and they had to live alone in desolation, uncared for and unloved. But don’t our old widows and dying men cherish their freedom bowing time after time in obstinate prayers ?

Obstinate prayers are said despite the hopelessness of the situation with an eternal hope that some day God will listen to them and grant a miracle to lift them out of their misery.

While the old and dying pray for their deliverance, the young too pray to change the world even before they have faced it. They have their notions of Utopia , to which the poet cannot subscribe . Nor can he join the old and the dying in their desire for freedom from bondage.This way he is left to be alone and not meet the starving woman and child or try to find a political solution to the economic and social ills of the society by resorting to the parliament.

In the new temple man has built nearby,
the priest is the one who knows freedom,
while God hides in the dark like an alien.

Beautiful lines .It is the priest who is free against God in the temple, who hides in a dark corner of the temple.The priest retains his own freedom and enjoys the freedom to let God interact with the devotees as and when he wants it . He alone has the power to decide God’s availability to the devotees.

The priest is our man and one of us.God is an alien , accessible to us only through this middleman of a priest.

A very interesting juxtaposition is achieved by contrasting things/people who have a choice with those who do not have it.

I watch (freedom to watch and not participate) ::Country is lifeless body with no freedom to watch or participate .
Upper part of bamboo is free::lower part of bamboo is sunk into itself.
Old women and dying men pray for release from physical bondage::Young children want to be in it and transform it.
Priest is free to move about :: God has to hide in a corner.
I keep looking for light that is hid in shadows:shadows keep looking for excuses to keep light
I try to find the only freedom I know(no choice): the freedom of the body to be alone(choice)

Let us list below all the things involved with freedom or lack of it:

Country’s body has to float down the river
left alone :freedom to be alone
bamboo sunk in itself in the lower half
it is necessary for me to be left alone,not meet…etc
old women and dying men cherish their freedom but how? By bowing in obstinate prayers(no freedom to do otherwise)
children scream their desire for freedom to change the world
the poet has no choice other than to be alone.Otherwise he has to see this,this..
priest knows freedom but not his God who has no choice

“The Maggots”- A poem by Kamala Das

At sunset, on the river ban, Krishna
Loved her for the last time and left…
That night in her husband’s arms, Radha felt
So dead that he asked, What is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses, love? And she said,
No, not at all, but thought, What is
It to the corpse if the maggots nip?

[from The Descendants]
Kamala Das

One of the finest of Kamala Das, a forthright female(not feminist) poet of India ,equally comfortable in her mother-tongue Malayalam and in English, the poem strikes one for the terseness of her language and the beautiful narrative form she has adopted here in this poem. First , the narrative form.

The poem begins at the beginning. Krishna had loved Radha that evening on the river ban. “Loved” is a usage that suggests a continuous emotion .How could Krishna have loved her for the last time? Was it that he made love to her for the last time, a sensual act by a lover to his beloved and is one- time? No.If that were so ,he would not have loved her and left.

The narrative goes on to what happened in the night after Krishna had loved and left.Her husband made love to her (not loved her) . In his arms Radha felt so dead that his kisses felt like maggots on a corpse.Did she mind the kisses,a considerate husband would ask.No. Not at all.It hardly mattered to Radha who was already dead to any love.After Krishna had left Radha became dead to any love.The kisses were just maggots on her corpse.Did the corpse feel the maggots nipping it?

The narrative form adopted is beautiful.The first two lines tersely deal with the events that happened before what unfolds in the next stanza, which is about the love act between Radha and her husband. The first two lines are a preface to what the poem speaks about in the next stanza.

The event of love making between Radha and her husband is dealt with not in a third party narrative style but as a dialogue:

what is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses,love?

And she said
No,not all.

(but thought)

What is it to the corpse if the maggots nip?

The maggot thing Radha merely thought.She did not say it to her husband, So we have a prior event of Krishna having loved and left,told in a third party narration. Then we have a narrative of what happened in the night by a dialogue between Radha and her husband , followed by what Radha thought, i.e. what happenedinside her. A beautiful narrative form.

“She felt so dead that he asked…” is layered with meaning. Love(not love making) is what makes you alive. The moment Krishna loved and left Radha felt like a corpse to all sensations. The husband’s kisses are mere maggots feeding on her dead body. So she thought. She did not say it. But she felt so dead that…made all that clear.

“Astronomer”_ A poem by A.K.Ramanujan

Sky-man in a manhole
with astronomy for dream,
astrology for nightmare;

fat man full of proverbs,
the language of lean years,
living in square after

almanac square
prefiguring the day
of windfall and landslide

through a calculus
of good hours,
clutching at the tear

in his birthday shirt
as at a hole
in his mildewed horoscope,

squinting at the parallax
of black planets,
his Tiger, his Hare

moving in Sanskrit zodiacs,
forever troubled
by the fractions, the kidneys

in his Tamil flesh,
his body the Great Bear
dipping for the honey,

the woman-smell
in the small curly hair
down there.

 

A.K.Ramanujan

Love A.K.’s short poems like this. A thumb nail sketch of an astronomer-astrologist , a Tamil home-grown scholar who dabbles in the twin subjects of astrology and astronomy. Not that the subjects are inter-related but in our culture the man who fixes the auspicious time for your son’s marriage or your grandson’s school entry is also an astronomer of sorts, who claims knowledge of the skies. A sky man in a manhole. He knows the Great Bear constellation ,with a great bear of a body with a hunger for the female flesh, the woman smell down there.

Great bear dipping for the honey

A lovely image.Bears are known for their love of honey. This bear dips for the honey in the small curly hair down there.Exquisite .Mark the physical act of “dipping” in the woman smell down there.

The bear image extends from the Great Bear of the stars from the high sky (Sky Man) to the man in his hole , with astronomy for dream, astrology for nightmare. The sensual imagery used here contrasts with the airy words of the man who speaks authoritatively from the astral charts (squares of zodiacs) precisely pinpointing the influence of the stars on our lives.But he is a poor man who has astronomy for a living ,trying to grapple with the holes in his own shirt. For ever troubled by the fractions, he deals only in whole numbers and has a language of the “lean years”.

When called upon to point the stars he has to squint at the black stars in a parallax , at his Tiger and his Hare because their position appears different each time. He combines the knowledge of astronomy fitfully with astrology to make his living. His constellations are always in a state of flux based upon the squares of his almanac ,which themselves reflect the changing views of the sky.

The sky man is essentially an earthy soul who dips just like the Great Bear for its honey down there.

 

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Our early approaches to the Infinity

On a height he stood that looked towards greater heights.
Our early approaches to the Infinite
Are sunrise splendours on a marvellous verge
While lingers yet unseen the glorious sun.
What now we see is a shadow of what must come.
The earth’s uplook to a remote Unknown
Is a preface only of the epic climb
Of human soul from its flat earthly state
To the discovery of a greater self
And the far gleam of an eternal Light.

(excerpt from Canto 4 of Savitri, a beautiful poem by Aurobindo, one of India’s greatest poet-thinkers)

Apart from the mysticism of the poem Savitri by Aurobindo , lines such as these are pure magic ,imbued with the richness of exquisite imagery. One stood ,already, on a height that looked towards greater heights . A poet-photographer’s vision of the sunrise slowly coming out from the hills is the nearest approximation to overwhelming beauty, an early approach to the Infinite. A shadow of what is to come. A mere preface to the epic climb ahead(“to the greater heights”).

“Our early approaches to the Infinite” is simply delicious. “early” could be anything- an early dawn, an early spiritual experience, an early climb to the greater heights, an early approach to God , early graduation from the finite to the infinite.

The Banyan Tree by Rabindranath Tagore

O you shaggy-headed banyan tree standing on the bank of the pond,
have you forgotten the little child, like the birds that have nested
in your branches and left you?

Do you not remember how he sat at the window and wondered
at the tangle of your roots and plunged underground?

The women would come to fill their jars in the pond,
and your huge black shadow would wriggle on the water
like sleep struggling to wake up.

Sunlight danced on the ripples like restless tiny shuttles
weaving golden tapestry.

Two ducks swam by the weedy margin above their shadows,
and the child would sit still and think.

He longed to be the wind and blow through your resting branches,
to be your shadow and lengthen with the day on the water,
to be a bird and perch on your topmost twig, and to float like
those ducks among the weeds and shadows.

I have always loved this simple Tagore poem ,so full of pretty images. Nice to think of the birds that have nested in the shaggy hair of the banyan and left it. Come to think of it ,the banyan has lost count of the birds that have nested in her hair,made it shaggy and left for other trees,other skies. The banyan has forgotten all of them,standing on the bank of the pond.

But surely it cannot forget the little child on the window who admired her tangled roots and plunged underground (jumped from the high window). Surely not the women who would fill their jars in the pond,as the banyan’s shadow would wiggle on the water making indecent passes at them. “sleep struggling to wake up” is a delicious image !

The most brilliant image is that of the sunlight dancing on the ripples like a weaver’s shuttle weaving fine golden tapestry.

Two ducks swam by the weedy margin above their shadows (imagine this scene as a photographer’s composition and you will love it) .

The child would sit still and think. Think what? How would it be to be the wind and blow through her branches? To be the banyan’s shadow on the water that will lengthen as the day progresses. To be a bird that perches on the topmost twig of the banyan and survey the pond . To float like the ducks among the weeds and shadows..

There are still countless ponds and banyans on their banks where time stands still in the Bengal of Tagore.But the child is missing from the window. He is now playing video games in a hole of an apartment in Kolkata.

“The Tiger and the Deer” -By Aurobindo


Brilliant, crouching, slouching, what crept through the green heart of the forest,
Gleaming eyes and mighty chest and soft soundless paws of grandeur and murder?
The wind slipped through the leaves as if afraid lest its voice And the noise of its steps perturb the pitiless Splendour,
Hardly daring to breathe.But the great beast crouched and crept, and crept and crouched a last time, noiseless, fatal,
Till suddenly death leaped on the beautiful wild deer as it drank

Unsuspecting from the great pool in the forest’s coolness and shadow,
And it fell and, torn, died remembering its mate left sole in the deep woodland,
– Destroyed, the mild harmless beauty by the strong cruel beauty in Nature.
But a day may yet come when the tiger crouches and leaps no more in the dangerous heart of the forest,
As the mammoth shakes no more the plains of Asia;
Still then shall the beautiful wild deer drink from the coolness of great pools in the leaves* shadow.
The mighty perish in their might;
The slain survive the slayer.

Two or three beautiful usages in the poem have captivated me. I mean images that could be termed post-modern

soundless paws of grandeur and murder

It is not “soundless paws” that is noteworthy but ‘of grandeur and murder” ,which at once evokes an ambivalence ,that is almost philosophical. Grandeur comes first or murder? Murder is banal, a deliberate act of killing that does not make the tiger any more grand than any common carnivore but there is a grandeur in its “burning bright” form(“tiger,tiger burning bright” of Blake),in the beauty of the beast in the green heart of the forest, in its importance in the grand design of the forest.The grandeur transforms “murder ” into an activity that the tiger performs as a key role holder in the forest’s scheme of things.

In the forest’s coolness and shadow

A beautiful usage in which “shadow” becomes part of “coolness” but is much more than contributor to coolness , a visual image of the trees casting their shadows on the forest floor combined with a tactile image of their coolness i.e leaves filtering both light and heat of the sun.

The wind slipped through the leaves as if afraid lest its voice and the noise of its steps perturbs the pitiless Splendor

Another beautiful image. I love the wind slipping through the leaves.Try to imagine a gentle breeze entering the latticed foliage of the trees without shaking the branches and blowing on the dry leaves of the forest floor.Even the wind is terrified of the pitiless Splendor.

Circles of light

Bangle sellers are we who bear
Our shining loads to the temple fair…
Who will buy these delicate, bright
Rainbow-tinted circles of light?
Lustrous tokens of radiant lives,
For happy daughters and happy wives.

Some are meet for a maiden’s wrist,
Silver and blue as the mountain mist,
Some are flushed like the buds that dream
On the tranquil brow of a woodland stream,
Some are aglow wth the bloom that cleaves
To the limpid glory of new born leaves

Some are like fields of sunlit corn,
Meet for a bride on her bridal morn,
Some, like the flame of her marriage fire,
Or, rich with the hue of her heart’s desire,
Tinkling, luminous, tender, and clear,
Like her bridal laughter and bridal tear.

Some are purple and gold flecked grey
For she who has journeyed through life midway,
Whose hands have cherished, whose love has blest,
And cradled fair sons on her faithful breast,
And serves her household in fruitful pride,
And worships the gods at her husband’s side.

A poem by Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949)

I love the images used here for describing the colors and textures of the glass bangles being on sale in the temple fair.

“shining loads” ,“circles of light” ,”silver and blue as the mountain mist”, ”flushed like the buds that dream”, “Like fields of sunlit corn”, “like the flame of her marriage fire” , “Purple and gold-flecked”

Most of the imagery is visual. The only auditory image used is “tinkling” which comes into use only when the bangles are worn. Mountains and meadows and streams are invoked here because the glass sellers in a temple fair especially in Hyderabad (the home of Sarojini Naidu) are usually banjarins ,women from a nomadic tribe called “banjaras”.