Thursday, January 25, 2007

Tigers in the poetry of Salabega and William Blake

The sights and sounds of the world are noted by us not just in their particularity, but because of the mind's capacity for imaginative association, they are full of the echoes of other things, and of our own memories. And it is poetry, above all other arts, in which we can see best this free play of the imagination - it is poetry which invites us, in the words of the eighteenth-century English poet and painter William Blake, "To see the world in a grain of sand,/And a heaven in a wild flower-/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/And eternity in an hour." In two poems - one by the seventeenth-century Oriya devotional poet Salabega, and the other a well-known work by Blake himself - we find the feral beauty and prowling menace of the tiger leading to two very different images of god.

Salabega was born to a Muslim father - Lalbeg, a trusted lieutenant of the Mughal emperor Jahangir - and a Hindu widow whom Lalbeg had abducted on one of his expeditions. The legend of Salabega says that he was raised as a Muslim, but after a dream seen in his youth he became a devotee of Krishna and his distinctively Oriya incarnation, Lord Jagannath. He spent the rest of his life in Puri, the site of the famous Jagannath temple (into which he was not allowed because he was a "lowborn"), composing beautiful lyrics in praise of Jagannath, the "dark and round-eyed lord", and the love of Radha and Krishna.

The novelty of Salabega's love poems is the way he takes on the voice of either Radha or Krishna: in his poems these figures from Hindu legend are not transcendent gods, their concerns far above the realm of mortals, but are instead wholly, vulnerably human, maddened by desire. It is possible to read in them the thrills and tensions of any adulterous love affair.

In one poem Radha speaks of how she is "a sane and chaste and married woman" who has fallen victim to the "blue mischiefs" of Krishna's flute, the flute that "won the green garden of my body". In another, she notes on his skin the marks of "bewildered bangles" and fires a volley of questions at him: "With whom did you sleep? Who shared your warmth?" "This fuming instant eats me away," she sulks in another poem. "He lifts me to the skies, and now drops me to the earth,/All men are alike, wearing a honey-bee's mirth." At such moments Salabega appears very much a modern, as close to us as Sylvia Plath.

"In the Wood's Desolation, the Tiger is Wild" is one of a minority of Salabega's poems in which the speaker is an external observer and not an actor. In it the tiger's bloodthirsty leap metamorphoses into Krishna's ferocious and passionate pursuit of the gopis. The translation and title are by Niranjan Mohanty; Salabega did not title his poems.

In the Wood's Desolation, the Tiger is Wild

In the wood's desolation, the tiger is wild.
Hungrier it goes without prey.
Whoevergoes to the Yamuna for water,

waiting and watching, He carries her away.
Into the womb of the wood, fast he flees.
Child-like, the tiger, yet it is wild.

It spreads fast the snares of its vigil
to all the serpentine bylanes
leading to the lyric bend of the river.

Into the waters deep He dives
at the sight of bathing gopis.
And softly he tears out the sheath

of their ululant hearts with His nails
obstinate, gleaming and sharp.
His wide gape wears moon-like glitter.

His lips are pretty and aquiver.
His body dark and the broad forehead
speckled and sprinkled with sandalwood;

and his eyes so rare, huge and globe-like.
No one knows whence came this tiger, Kanhai.
Thus sings Salabega, the lowborn.
Salabega's poem is full of assertions, bright details; he confidently identifies the tiger with a god he loves, and even his one negative formulation is an affectionate one: "No one knows whence came this tiger, Kanhai".

William Blake's poem "The Tyger" appears in his collection Songs of Experience (1793). The son of a haberdasher, Blake's training was as a painter and engraver. He was a man out of kilter with his times, self-publishing his poetry in handmade volumes with beautiful illustrations, but enjoying only the smallest readership. As he grew older his work grew more complex and esoteric, and some of his contemporaries thought him a lunatic; now he is thought of as the quintessential "Poet of London". He is best approached through his two early collections, now usually taken as a group, The Songs of Innocence and Experience, in which direct language, simple metres and striking symbolism produce a poetry of great lyrical force.

Blake's tiger, we find, is a more ambivalent creature than Salabega's - forbidding, inscrutable, a figure of fearful perfection. Even the archaic spelling of "tyger" with a "y" seems calculated to emphasise its menace. "No one knows whence came this tiger", a passing remark in Salabega's poem, is in fact the predominant sentiment of Blake's poem - every stanza but one ends with a question. The creator he imagines is not personified, easily accessible, as with Salabega's Krishna, but nebulous and awe-inspiring. Note how Blake repeatedly uses the word "what" and not "who" to refer to the tyger's maker, and the verb "dare" to refer to its making:

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The line "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" is a reference to Blake's poem "The Lamb", a contrasting poem in which the gentle lamb is identified with Christ.

Niranjan Mohanty's translations of Salabega's poems can be found in a collection called White Whispers, published by the Sahitya Akademi. A couple of translations of Salabega by Subas Pani can be found here.

And in this marvellous interview, the American poet Stanley Kunitz speaks at length about the life, work and times of Blake, and provides readings of several of the best-known poems of Songs of Innocence and Experience ("It is believed he had only thirty orders for Songs of Innocence, of which there are only twenty-six in existence today. But each was individually produced, and so no two copies could be identical."). And the translator Burton Raffel has some illuminating thoughts on the poem("Is it the tiger's eyes that burn? or his presence, his fierceness, his passionate hunting? Blake is of course speaking of all of these, and more, but of none directly") in an essay on translating "The Tyger" into French.

To celebrate the 250th anniversary of Blake's birth, The British Library is currently hosting an exhibition called William Blake: Under The Influence, featuring items loaned or donated by writers and artists inspired by Blake's work. Among the items on display (and available online here) is Blake's notebook, in which are visible 30 years' worth of notes and sketches. Take a look.

And here are two favourite Blake poems: the doom-laden "London", ("I wander through each chartered street,/Near where the chartered Thames does flow,/And mark in every face I meet,/Marks of weakness, marks of woe.") and the equally dark "The Human Abstract" ("Pity would be no more/If we did not make somebody poor,/And Mercy no more could be/If all were as happy as we.").

And an old post: "Some thoughts on artistic time and real time".

Update, March 3: And the British poet Tom Paulin discusses "The Tyger" and other Blake poems an essay called "The Invisible Worm".

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Away this week

I'm travelling this week through Delhi and then on to the Jaipur Literary Festival, so there won't be a post this week. I'll be back next week.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Irrelevant detail in the fiction of Raj Kamal Jha

The good-ness or bad-ness of a work of fiction lies, among other things, in the choice of details that the writer chooses to present to us. And the test of those details is their relevance, the way in which each thing noted seems to become an essential part of a larger picture.

When a reader picks up a novel, he or she signs an implicit contract with the writer. Irrelevant detail in fiction is a breach of that contract: when description seems gratuitous or self-indulgent, we have a right to complain about why our time is being wasted. I thought of these things while reading - in some parts suffering - Raj Kamal Jha's new novel Fireproof, a book which somehow manages to be both tedious and profound.

Fireproof is a novel about the tragedy and the horror of Gujarat, 2002. A reasonable question to ask is what a novel can tell us about this cataclysm that all the newspaper reports, journal articles, and books on the subject have not. To this Jha's good answer is: nonfiction and reportage cannot present the voices of the dead, only fiction can. Of the many narrators in Fireproof, most speak to us from the afterlife, where they have "discovered gifts we never knew we had". Many of these voices speak for no more than the length of a page: they are admirably concise and powerful. The plot itself turns on the interventions made by the departed in the world of the living.

One of these interventions involves the protagonist, Mr.Jay, who, even as people are being massacred by the dozen, waits in the hospital for the birth of his first child - in this way Jha juxtaposes the "newborn" and the "newdead". The baby turns out to be grotesquely deformed; Jay is appalled, but is forced to take it home, and slowly he begins to feel for it what every parent feels for a child. Much of the novel is told from Jay's perspective. Like the narrator of Jha's first novel, The Blue Bedspread (whom we also find in the company of a newborn child), Jay has some guilty secrets which the action of the novel slowly reveals.

Jha's prose has many faults. In fact, if one were to go by Fireproof alone, he would appear a much worse writer than he actually is. He has a liking for lushness that is often not far off from cliché: "Outside, the sky was beginning to stain the colour of ink, the purple blue that forms when night begins to grow old, a colour that softens the edges of this hard city, washes the washed-out yellows and the whites and the greys of the houses" (my italics). Or, "He sees her mouth move, as if she were gulping the night down, chewing it, drinking it, as if she had been emptied and needs the darkness to fill her up once again."

Jha loves what his narrator in one place calls "adjectival neons". Some of his descriptions sound like he is preparing a chart of the universe for the colourblind, and his two favourite words are "soft" and "smooth": "This time I began peeling her skin off, pink skin, soft skin, smooth skin." Or, "I feel her hair against my hands, between my fingers, I can feel its soft, smooth rustle". This kind of detail sometimes borders on the pointless, and sometimes it clearly crosses that border: "There are always flies on the bananas. Buzzing, flying in circles, triangles, straight lines, ellipses." Jha's tendency to state, even belabour, the obvious, brought to my mind JK Stephen's very funny sonnet about Wordsworth, in which he chides the poet for that aspect of his work "Which bleats articulate monotony,/And indicates that two and one are three,/That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep".

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jha also likes the urgent sound, the sense of great significance, intimated by laconic one-sentence paragraphs. This is a perfectly legitimate way of working, but Jha employs this device without discretion. His work has many bits which go like this:
The telephone rang.


Ithim was with me now, his father.
Father and son.
He also likes - I think we can call this the Arundhati Roy effect in Indian fiction - another hokey move, which is to capitalize words and phrases in mid-sentence.

The Blue Bedspread had some of these faults, but at least it was an admirably spare book. Some of its sections are no more than a paragraph long, and by virtue of this discipline they move the story forward very swiftly. In Fireproof, by contrast, there are many parts where we are presented with a paragraph when only a sentence would do, and a page when a paragraph would serve just as well. Great swathes of Jay's narration are bogged down by the most excruciating point-by-point, sensation-by-sensation, moment-by-moment detail. An egregious instance appears at the close of one chapter, when at the end of a long day Jay receives a puzzling phone call from a woman he only seen once in mysterious circumstances.

But before I could think through what she had said and what I had heard, before I could try to look beyond those walls around her, I knew I was fighting another battle, this one more immediate: a battle with sleep that came like water rising, rushing upwards, in a wave. Beginning with my feet, rippling in and out between my toes, rising to my ankles, then to my chest, lapping against my shoulders, climbing over my jacket, gurgling as I breathed through my nose, reaching my eyes, filling them both.
I slept.
Do we need to be told all this in such depth? And even if we did, is this account even true to the experience of sleep that comes " came like water rising, rushing upwards, in a wave"? Does that kind of sleep not overwhelm conscious thought in an instant, and preclude exactly the kind of slow, hyperconcious tracking which the narrator presents us? Which reader can imagine what it is like to feel sleep "rippling in and out between my toes"? This account of sleep taking over the human body section by section reminded me of the unintentional comedy of a similar passage in Kiran Nagarkar's God's Little Soldier, in which we are told of how a cold wind blows around the protagonist Zia: "It tore at him, slipped inside his trouser legs, groped at his crotch, ferreted in his armpits and careened into his lungs." Such sentences are pure verbiage.

Indeed, the body is Jha's great subject: in general, he never passes up the chance to go over it in slow motion whenever he can. Here the narrator is watching over his mother, who has just suffered a scorpion bite:

Even the slighest wavering and Mother might die. For if I am not careful, the poison will spread from her wrist, run into her veins and her arteries, travel along her arms, her shoulders, her neck, then down again, to her heart and her stomach to her legs to her face to her head her fingers and her toes - the pus and the black blue yellow green.
Leaving the city with Ithim on the instructions of the mysterious woman, Jay is received at the station by a midget in outlandish attire. Jha begins to describe his shirt:

And what a shirt it was. A profusion of not only fabric, a fabric that shone like silk and velvet, but also of wild colour and twisted asymmetry: blue and red and green and yellow and white and black, stripes, checks, triangles, circles, swirls, ellipses, straight lines, curls.
Once again the narration trips teeters into excess, giving us such a welter of details that it actually becomes impossible to imagine the thing being described, which is not such an important thing in the first place. These are utterly pointless moves, serving only to drain the reader's interest and leave him or her indifferent to details of actual consequence.

Fireproof has an interesting storyline, and it builds up to a conclusion of genuine grace and moral force, in which we witness the workings of a justice that avoids the senseless path of "fire and hate". But it is also an unbearably prolix book, and this dulls its power. Jay may hold many secrets, but Jha's unpleasantly overwritten sentences mostly do not. They seem rather like a literary instance of disguised unemployment: present, countable, but doing no useful work.