Another discovery! Vikram Seth– the poet… sensitive, witty, employing new metaphors, weaving poetry in cultures still unknown to me… enchanting! Really! I read his “A Suitable Boy” as a first year undergrad student. I read it through… in one sitting and marveled at how he was equally well versed with the nuances of all the different cultures and backgrounds that his characters dwelt in. Most of Seth’s poetry, though, still belongs to realm of personal (like initial-formative work of Faiz?). There is another ‘Faiz-resemblance’ in employing traditional rhyme and meter schemes to conjure up novel imagery. So, am I hoping for too much if I am hoping for Vikram Seth to widen his concerns and turn his gaze deeper into matters beyond ‘the personal’? I think not. Sample this poem from his collection “A Humble Administrator’s Garden“.
Research in Jiangsu Province
From off this plastic strip the noise
Of buzzing stops. A human voice
Asks its set questions, pauses, then
Waits for responses to begin.
The questions bore in. How much is
The cost and area of this house?
I see you have two sons. Would you
Prefer to have had a daughter too?
And do your private plots provide
Substantial income on the side?
Do you rear silkworms? goslings? pigs?
How much per year is spent on eggs?
How much on oil and soya sauce
And salt and vinegar? asks the voice.
The answering phantom states a figure
Then reconsiders, makes it bigger.
Children and contraceptives, soap
And schooling rise like dreams of hope
To rise with radios and bikes
Round pensions, tea and alarm clocks.
‘Forty square metres. Sixteen cents.
To save us from the elements.
Miscarriage. Pickle with rice gruel
Three times a week. Rice-straw for fuel.
Chicken and fruit trees.’ In Jiangning
Green spurts the psychedelic Spring
And blossoming plum confounds the smell
Of pig-shit plastered on the soil.
Life and production, drought and flood
Merge with the fertile river mud
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest
And mandarin ducks return to nest.
The Yangtse flows on like brown tape.
The research forms take final shape,
Each figure like a laden boat
With white or madder sails afloat.
Float on, float on, O facts and facts,
Distilled compendia of past acts,
Reveal the grand design to me,
Flotilla of my PhD.
On the obnoxious dreary pillage
Of privacy, imperfect knowledge
Will sprout like lodged rice, rank with grain
In whose submerging ears obtain
Statistics where none grew before
And housing estimates galore,
Diet and wealth and income data,
Age structures and a price inflator.
Birth and fertility projections,
Plans based on need and predilections,
O needful numbers, and half true,
Without you what would nations do?
I switch the tape off. This to me
Although the beckoning plum-trees splayed
Against the sky, the fragrant shade,
Have something tellable, it seems,
Of evanescence, light and dreams,
And the cloud-busy, far-blue air
Forms a continuous questionnaire
And Mrs Gao herself whose voice
Is captive on my tape may choose
Some time when tapes and forms are far
To talk about the Japanese War,
May mention how her family fled,
And starved, and bartered her for bread,
And stroke her grandson’s head and say
Such things could not occur today.
The poem appeals to the researcher in me, grappling to understand social realities that must not be itemized and counted because they simply cannot be. I also liked Seth’s poems The They and Homeless from the same collection because these poems have concerns that do not draw only from the angst arising out of relationships and love. They also sort of appeal to my sense of what I consider ‘beautiful poetry’. But I also love a deeply personal Unclaimed. Then again, I think it speaks to my feminist concerns of sex, love and the accompanying emotional sticky-gooey mess.
To make love with a stranger is the best.
There is no riddle and there is no test. —
To lie and love, not aching to make sense
Of this night in the mesh of reference.
To touch, unclaimed by fear of imminent day,
And understand, as only strangers may.
To feel the beat of foreign heart to heart
Preferring neither to prolong nor part.
To rest within the unknown arms and know
That this is all there is; that this is so.