The convent school I attended in Delhi had firm views on How Poetry Should Be Read. We were supposed to stand “like Horatio at the bridge, girls!”, elbows out and hands clasped together, and read “with nobility in your hearts”. My only attempt at reading was a disaster.
(This was hard to do. I’d been allotted a particularly twee Sarojini Naidu verse–“Lightly o lightly we bear her along/ She sways like a flower in the wind of our song”–and was trying not to think of the parody: “Heavily o heavily we bear her along/ She should have skipped lunch, the silly fat Bong.”)
“Think of the beauty of those immortal lines. Now look soulful.”
(With much effort, I produce an expression redolent of terminal constipation.)
“No, no, look soulful! Think beautiful thoughts!” (In an aside to another teacher: “I fear this one is not spiritual enough, Rekha.”)
What I liked most about the poetry reading session in tribute to Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar at last week’s Jaipur festival was that the three readers–Keki Daruwalla, Jane Bhandari and Jeet Thayil–had clearly not attended my convent school.
Keki pulled off the difficult feat of reading Nissim’s over-anthologised Night of the Scorpion as though he was listening to the words for the first time. There are poems that are ruined because they’ve become too familiar–Wordsworth’s Daffodils, Auden’s Stop All The Clocks–and for my generation, it’s hard to read ‘Night of the Scorpion’ without hearing a faint echo of the perfect, merciless parody: “I remember the night my mother bit the scorpion.”
The hall was packed, and Antara Dev Sen, moderating the session, allowed the three poets on stage to remember their three absent colleagues in the way they preferred. Space Bar, Middle Stage and me enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, and I think poetry made two new converts out of two old sceptics, Jabberwock and India Uncut.
There were moments of sadness: Keki speaking of all the poets we’ve lost in a relatively short period–so very many of them, so many of them his friends as well as his peers–Arun, Dom, Nissim, also Agha Shahid Ali, A K Ramanujan, a handful of others.
There were small moments of revelation: Jane Bhandari talking about meeting Arun Kolatkar at the Wayside Inn in Kala Ghoda, Jeet Thayil giving us the stories behind Madhu Kapparath’s photographs of the Bombay poets. Kolatkar’s house was so tiny, he said, that guests had to be entertained on the equally tiny balcony or at his “office”, the Wayside Inn, where he was to be found at the same table for years. Dom Moraes caught sitting at his typewriter at the exact moment that the genial, jesting raconteur melts away, revealing the forceful writer underneath.
The session closed with Jeet, Keki and Jane reading from their own poems. I particularly enjoyed Jeet’s playful ghazal on Malayalam (excerpts reproduced here with the author’s kind permission):
Ghazal: Jeet Thayil
Listen! Someone’s saying a prayer in Malayalam.
He says there’s no word for ‘despair’ in Malayalam.
Sometimes at daybreak you sing a Gujarati garba.
At night you open your hair in Malayalam….
…Visitors are welcome in The School of Lost Tongues.
Someone’s endowed a high chair in Malayalam.
I greet you my ancestors, O scholars and linguists.
My father who recites Baudelaire in Malayalam.
Jeet, such drama with the scraps that you know.
Write a couplet, if you dare, in Malayalam.
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