Friday, October 31, 2008

Forough Farrokhzad's Fridays

"And when I gained the road where all are free/ I fancied every stranger frowned at me" run a pair of lines in the nineteenth-century poet John Clare's plangent sonnet "I Dreaded Walking Where There Was No Path". To walk where there was no path, to search for that place where all were free, and to invite society's obloquy was also the fate, or perhaps the destiny, of the Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), who began writing verse in her teens, broke with her marriage at twenty-one, took several lovers and with them notoriety, and, like Clare, eventually did time in a mental institution.

The titles of Forough’s early collections of verse: Asir (Captive), Deevar (The Wall), Osyan (Rebellion) all suggest intensely painful confinement – within family, patriarchy, society, religion, conventional morality – and the bliss and blaze of throwing off those shackles. “I have sinned a rapturous sin/ in a warm enflamed embrace,/ sinned in a pair of vindictive arms/ arms violent and ablaze”, begins her early poem “Sin”, and we are led to wonder if that word “vindictive” is a transferred epithet. That is, the arms that embrace the speaker are not vindictive because of any actual malice on the part of the lover but because of the terrible consequences that already seem poised to pounce, even before the moment of rapture is past.

“In the confines of a four-walled time, our only connection to the world outside is a window,” writes Farrokhzad in her memoir In An Eternal Sunset. “A window towards light, towards the sun. A window on the other side of which is beauty and desire. Without a window how could we bear the darkness that presses itself upon us?” Here is one of Forough’s most resonant poems, “Friday”, which seems to describe a world without that window. The translation is by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, and the place of Friday in Forough’s Iran is something like Sunday in ours:

Quiet Friday
deserted Friday
Friday saddening like old alleys
Friday of lazy ailing thoughts
Friday of noisome sinuous stretches
Friday of no anticipation
Friday of submission.
Empty house
lonesome house
house locked against the onslaught of youth
house of darkness and fantasies of the sun
house of loneliness, augury and indecision
house of curtains, books, cupboards, picture.
Ah, how my life flowed silent and serene
like a deep-running stream
through the heart of such silent, deserted Fridays
through the heart of such empty cheerless houses
ah, how my life flowed silent and serene.
Although the poem more or less explains itself, among the things worth noting in it is that “serene” appears to be a negative value here: it seems to be a cover for stasis, for submission. This is an impoverished silence and serenity, very different from the real thing. Everyone who has felt found their life or home intolerable at some point – whether through the callousness of the complacent, the condescension of the well-meaning, or the cheerlessness and empty routine that often masquerades as stability and peace – will recognize the mood of Farrokhzad’s Fridays. Many of Forough’s poem enact this movement of dread, the horror of insignificance: “Despite all my thrashing,/ I was sinking like silt/ slowly, slowly,/ in stagnant water, crusting/ the walls of its hole.”
And here is the first half of Forough’s long poem, “Window”, which, from the childlike peep of its opening to the ringing sounds of its crescendo, seems to enact a journey into disillusioned adulthood, an entrapment that the speaker beats back with the refrain “One window is enough for me”:

A window for seeing.
A window for hearing.
A window like a well
that plunges to the heart of the earth
and opens to the vast unceasing love in blue.
A window lavishing the tiny hands of loneliness
with the night’s perfume from gentle stars.
A window through which one could invite
the sun for a visit to abandoned geraniums.
One window is enough for me.
I come from the land of dolls, from under
the shade of paper trees in a storybook grove;
from arid seasons of barren friendships and love
in the unpaved alleys of innocence;
from years when the pallid letters of the alphabet
grew up behind desks of tubercular schools;
from the precise moment children could write
“stone” on the board and the startled starlings took wing
from the ancient tree.
I come from among the roots of carnivorous plants,
and my head still swirls with the sound
of a butterfly’s terror – crucified with a pin to a book.
When my trust hung from the feeble rope of justice
and the whole city tore my heart’s lamps to shreds,
when love’s innocent eyes were bound
with the dark kerchief of law, and blood gushed
from my dreams’ unglued temples,
when my life was no longer anything,
nothing at all except the tick tick of a clock on the wall,
I understood that I must, must, must
deliriously love.
One window is enough for me.
The translation is by Sholeh Wolpé, who has recently published a book of Forough’s poems in translation called Sin. The other bits of Forough I quote here are from this book, and one of the virtues of reading the poems in the chronological order of their composition, which is how Wolpé presents them, is that we sense the growth of the poet and the expanding circle of her compass. 
In the four decades after her untimely death in a car crash, Farrokhzad’s voice and words have seeped out into Iranian and world culture to enjoy what the Italian poet Eugenio Montale memorably termed “the second life of art”, or art as remembered and invoked in human dealings long after the first encounter with it as an aesthetic object. And it has been generative of other art too: I first heard of Forough in 2000 through Abbas Kiarostami’s marvellous film The Wind Will Carry Us, which takes its title from a poem by Farrokhzad of which this line is the ecstatic close (this link leads not just to a translation of the poem but also Kiarostami's revelatory essay "An Unfinished Cinema").
An interview with Sholeh Wolpé in which she discusses the process of translating Forough is here ("Something interesting to note is how even in our written material we refer to Forough Farrokhzad as Forough, not Farrokhzad. Even some scholars refer to her by her first name. To this day she evokes a charming intimacy between herself and the reader. Her poems are intimate at many levels and one cannot help but feel a kind of familiarity with her. After reading her work it is difficult to refer to her as Farrokhzad. She becomes one's own Forough.") and her translation of the long lyric poem "I Pity The Garden" here
Forough's short film The House Is Black, shot in a leper colony in 1962, can be seen here. And here is the poet Mimi Khalvati's marvellous poem "On A Line From Forough Farrokhzad".

Monday, October 27, 2008

Happy Diwali

The Middle Stage flings a couple of unreadable books over its right shoulder, holds up a diya, and wishes all its readers a very happy Diwali.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Poetry as Medicine in Ashvaghosha’s Handsome Nanda

This essay appears in the latest issue of the Indian literary magazine Pratilipi.

Few texts in Indian literature are as pointed and yet as paradoxical as Saundarananda (Handsome Nanda), written in the second century CE by the Buddhist monk Ashvaghosha and recently published in the Clay Sanskrit Library series in a translation by Linda Covill. This vivid and beautiful “conversion narrative” is both a story and a sermon; both a paean to sensual pleasure and a bitter denunciation of the deceptions of sense experience; both a work of literature—rich in metaphor, poetic language, and dramatic counterpoint—and yet an attack on literature from within.
The protagonist of the story, Nanda, is a handsome and pleasure-loving prince, a scion of the king of the Shakyas. Handsome Nanda has an equally gorgeous wife, Sundari; he is also a half-brother of the Buddha, “the Realised One”, who is creating a tumult across India with his revelatory perception of the nature of human suffering. Ashvaghosha's other extant work is a life of the Buddha, the Buddhacharita, and here too an entire chapter of his story is devoted to a recapitulation of the life of the Buddha. In one of the hundreds of metaphors with which this precept-heavy text is strewn, we are told that Buddha is the seer who had “passed over the fathomless sea of faults - which is watered by conditioned existence, which has anxious thoughts for fish, and which is disturbed by waves of anger, desire and fear”, and who wants to take us across too.
Sundari and the Buddha represent, respectively, the two poles of extreme sensuality and spiritual ambition that vie for Nanda. This conflict is realised in the story’s most dramatic scene, in which we see Nanda at home sporting with his wife even though his brother has arrived in the town of his birth to teach the dharma. The two lovers are so rapt in each other’s presence that, we are told, “they rubbed off their cosmetics through caressing each other” (like St. Augustine in the Christian tradition, Ashvaghosha seems to have clearly drunk deeply of the well of pleasure before abandoning it for the cave of austerity).
When the Buddha comes home to visit Nanda, he finds all the housemaids enlisted in this carnival of sensual pleasure: “one woman was grinding body-unguents, another was perfuming clothes, one was preparing a bath, and others were weaving fragrant garlands”. He sees the time is not right for him and leaves, but word of his appearance and abrupt departure reaches Nanda and disturbs him, and he seeks his wife’s permission to seek out his brother. Sundari, tantalising as ever, lets him go on the condition that he return before her make-up has dried. As Nanda makes himself presentable and leaves, we are given this matchless description of a man giddy with indecision and then another who has conquered his own self:
Reverence for the Buddha drew him on, love for his wife drew him back again. He hesitated, neither going nor staying, like a king-goose pushing forwards against the waves. However, once she was no longer in his sight, he came briskly out of the palace, only to hang back again, his heart contracting, at the sound of her anklets. Kept back by his passion for love, and drawn forward by his attachment to dharma, he proceeded with difficulty; being turned around like a boat going upstream on a river.
Then setting out with long strides, he thought “The guru can’t possibly not be gone by now!” and “Perhaps I’ll be able to hug my darling girl, whose love is so special, while her visheshaka is still wet.”
Then on the road he saw him of the ten powers, free from pride even in his father’s city, and with all arrogance similarly gone, stopping everywhere and being worshipped like Indra’s banner in a procession.
Indeed, Nanda’s unfulfilled hope that the guru has disappeared from sight might be seen as a foreboding of what lies in store for him, for in fact this is the last time he is to see his wife. The Buddha, when approached, seeks to rescue his brother from slavery to the senses, and after a brief sermon asks his monks to ordain Nanda “so that he may find peace”.
Weeping copiously, writhing in agony, sighing and grieving at the memory of his wife, Nanda enters the realm of monkhood with his glorious locks are shorn from his head and his fine clothes taken away. Ashvaghosha memorably describes his gloom in cosmic terms: “wearing a faded garment of tree-bark and depressed as a newly-captured elephant, Nanda resembled the full moon moving into the dark half of the month, at the end of the night, daubed with the light of the early morning sun”.
That Nanda is a monk only in shell and not in spirit works to the advantage of Ashvaghosha, for the rest of the text is devoted to the depiction of his conversion in slow, shuffling stages. Burning with sensuality and worldliness, the reprobate Nanda is given the most elaborate working-over by the Buddha and his monks. First he is led forward by false inducements and promises that appeal to his pleasure-seeking nature, then gradually his hopes are disappointed and his illusions stripped away, and he is driven on until he learns to see the truth of the dharma for himself. This dramatic situation allows Ashvaghosha to present an elaborate exposition of the Buddhist view of the self and of suffering, of the cycle of rebirth and the route to liberation, of the tyranny of the senses and the necessity of mindfulness. And of course it is not just Nanda who is being persuaded of the duplicitous nature of “conditioned existence”, but also the reader.
Indeed, the distinctive feature of the text is the intensity of its attack on “the six roving senses” and “the glittering show of sense objects” - the very foundation of our experience of the world. “The village of the senses never has enough of sensory experience, just as the ocean, though rivers perpetually fill it, never has enough water,” preaches the Buddha. “As fluidity inheres in water, solidity in earth, motion in wind, and constant heat in fire, so does suffering inhere in the mind and body. [...] Who could sleep without worry in the world of humankind, ablaze with the fires of death, sickness and aging, any more than in a burning house?”
And the emphasis of Buddhism not on an external deity, law, or commandment but on personal agency, practical action, and self-sufficiency is sounded in the Buddha’s revelatory assertion that “the reason for this suffering during one’s active life in the world is not a God, not nature, not time, not the inherent nature of things, not predestination, not accident, but the host of faults such as desire.” The antidote to this suffering is mindfulness: “The mind unguarded by mindfulness can be regarded as defenseless, like a blind man stumbling over rough ground without a guide. [...] Whatever it is that a person continually thinks about, his mind, through habit, will develop a leaning towards it. Therefore, you must give up what is unwholesome and concentrate on the wholesome…”
A spiritual novice to begin with, even a rebel, Nanda gradually becomes an initiate, then an adept, and finally a realised being himself, a self-conqueror. Dramatically, this is the least interesting section of the text, but Ashvaghosha partially compensates for this by showing Nanda rooting out the essential truths of existence, ascending to revelation, through his own journey of striving and discovery: what the Buddha has already said once, Nanda confirms through his own means and in his own language.
Nanda’s story has a curious double conclusion. One is sounded by the Buddha, who marvels at his accomplishments and asks him to go out into the world and carry his “lantern of learning” among the ignorant. The other is voiced by Ashvaghosha himself. Ashvaghosha declares in the last two paragraphs of the text that, knowing the predilections of his audience, he has deliberately made use of a questionable means to achieve a worthy end, and drawn upon the sweetness of literary form and poetic language to make palatable the austerity of his message. “This composition on the subject of liberation is for calming the reader, not for his pleasure,” he announces:
… It is fashioned out of the medicine of poetry with the intention of capturing an audience whose minds are on other things. Thinking how it could be made pleasant, I have handled in it things other than liberation, things introduced due to the character of poetry, as bitter medicine is mixed with honey when it is drunk.
Seeing that the world generally holds the pleasure of sensory experience uppermost and is resistant to liberation, I, holding liberation to be paramount, have described the truth in the guise of poetry. Knowing this, that part which relates to peace should be carefully extracted from it, not the entertaining part; serviceable gold necessarily comes from ore-born dust.
But which kind of reader is the real object of this moralising message? Is it the lay reader with his mind “on other things”, as claimed by Ashvaghosha? Or could it be that this passage is meant to disarm the Buddhist monks and teachers who were Ashvaghosha’s contemporaries and who may have frowned upon his elaborate depictions of sensuality and indeed his apparent love of language, rhetoric, and metaphor as ends in themselves?
The material character of Ashvaghosha’s text suggests an approach towards worldly and sensory experience more ambiguous than its explicit message, and while Ashvaghosha himself acknowledges and rationalises this, there is something expedient about his logic. Poetry, in this marvellous but apparently reluctant poet’s description, is a kind of addiction and corruption, just like sense experience, yet knowledge of the weakness of human nature has prompted him to take recourse to it to convert the masses. But in doing so Ashvaghosha seems to have supplied an escape clause not just for himself but for others. Why should the reader, even if converted to peace by the narrative, not claim the same immunity as Ashvaghosha, and steep himself in poetry with the intention of extracting the worthy part from it?
And isn’t poetry, heightened language, itself an antidote to conditioned existence and to idle sensory dalliance? Is poetry only a glittering wrapper for the truth, and not a form of truth in itself? Might we not be changed or redeemed by poetry as we might by faith or by right action? Poetry may be cited in Saundarananda as only a vehicle for an answer to the problem of suffering, but form and content are not as easily separated as Ashvaghosha seems to suggest, and there is one condition then that his “medicine of poetry” cannot cure and in fact furthers, which is the love of such sweet-tasting medicine.

Two older posts on other Clay Sanskrit Library titles are here: on Kalidasa's Shakuntala, and Dandin's marvellous pan-Indian adventure story, the Dasakumaracharita (and if you are interested in scholarly literature, a bibliography for this title is here).

And a previous long essay in Pratilipi: "Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare".

Saturday, October 04, 2008

In Pratilipi

I'm pleased as always to see the new issue of the bimonthly Indian literary magazine Pratilipi just out. Pratilipi keeps coming out every two months, while I remain stuck in the same place all year long, writing new drafts of old things. Also, the washing machine broke down yesterday, and I had to soak, scrub and rinse two buckets of clothes.

But I digress. Among the many interesting pieces in the new issue are:

"Knowing For Sure Without Knowing For Certain" by the superb documentary filmmaker Paromita Vohra (part of a new section devoted to Indian documentaries introduced by the poet Sridala Swami, whose remark "All anthologies are at once histories and auguries" in this recent review of Jeet Thayil's anthology in Tehelka is one of the most satisfying observations on literature I've read in a while)

Some excerpts from Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novel The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers in a Hindi translation by Giriraj Kiradoo

A set of translations by Vinay Dharwadker of four great Hindi poets: Kedarnath Singh, Kunwar Narain, Shrikant Verma, and Dhoomil (Dharwadker has also published a book of very fine translations of Kabir called The Weaver's Songs)

An interview with the Tamil Eelam poet Kasi Anandan by Meena Kandasamy, and some poems of Kasi Anandan in English and Hindi translations

"Not Without Remembrance", an essay by Vyomkesh Shukla on the great shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan

Two poems by Keki Daruwalla, one of which is "Gandhi" (you might also want to read Daruwala's old essay "On Writing in English: an Indian poet’s perspective")

and Rabindranath Tagore’s short story "Ekratri" in an English translation by Arunava Sinha (whose translation of Shankar's Chowringhee was recently awarded the Crossword Book Award 2007 for Indian fiction in translation).

Lastly, I'd like to present my own essay "Poetry as Medicine in Ashvaghosha's Handsome Nanda", which I shall post here in a few days.