Ghazala's Weblog

a poetic thread to string my words and experiences on…

Daughters and Feminist Mothers — March 6, 2009

Daughters and Feminist Mothers

All my unconsciousness knows about being a woman was learnt from my mother.

I am eerily like my mother in so many ways but I don’t want to be “like her” and try to do things, react to things differently. Even though I wasn’t close to her and my father was my teacher of the world, its politics and the large philosophical questions, it is ultimately, who she was that shapes me as a woman.

I firmly believe that it is not so important to ask how much time was a mother able to spend with her daughter (child?) and what she did specifically in that time but what the mother did with her entire life. How did the mother take on the various aspects of life, what kind of treatment she took from people around her, what were her dreams and how did she go about them…all these the child remembers. The girls learn from this how to be a woman and, I suppose, the boys would learn how to treat a woman.

Arundhati Roy once said somewhere that a feminist is a woman who creates choices for herself. Being a feminist daughter to my mother is not easy. I’m always evaluating my choices and trying to create new ones where none exist. Being a feminist mother to a daughter is no joke either… in fact the whole effect is that of a double whammy. I seem to be constantly swimming against the tide. Regardless of whether I make any progress or not on any front, slogging is a must and being tired is a given.

Why do I feel compelled to go on slogging? Because of my daughter… let me clarify lest you get me wrong. As a feminist, my struggle for equality begins with my own family, in my own house. I struggle with feelings of love and concern, with demands of devotion and decency while I strive for respect as an individual and freedom to engage with what I wish to. I struggle with others’ nostalgia for ‘family values’ and I struggle against unreason and coercion masquerading as ‘respect for elders’. I am forever struggling and contesting established notions in relationships to create options for myself that will create a new legacy for my daughter. With each act of negotiation, confrontation, conciliation and even compromise I am writing the text for her unconscious.

As I struggle, I write the script of my daughter’s struggles.

It is not surprising, then, that it was the feminist struggle that gave birth to the slogan “personal is political”. None other could have.

For women’s day my gift to my daughter and all my (feminist) friends who have daughters, a ‘Lullaby‘ by Fehmida Riaz in translation by Amina Yaqin.

Dearest your countenance like the
moon
You who are a piece of my heart
Dearest I keep on looking
Dearest my eyes are filled by your
image
Dearest I rock you in my cradled arms
Holding you next to my heart
Dearest sparkle of my eye listen,
Your mother’s entire life,
A flowing cataract of tears
Passed by
This bowl has been filled with that clear
water
With that dearest let me wash your
flowerlike hands, lotuslike feet
Touch you with my eyes
I endlessly wept away my sorrowful existence,
your sight stopped the tears
They unfurled and blossomed into
laughter
My frightened motherhood has great
faith in you
It seems like yesterday to me
I can recall that night
When you were born
That night was very black
Tormenting the heart with pain
But a kind of oil lamp began to burn
upon hearing your cry
Your beautiful beautiful limbs
Lovely and fresh, healthy and
prospering
Dearest can’t manage a kiss
Dearest I’m shaking and shivering
I know a wolf stands in my doorway
Consuming my youth, drinking my
blood
The wolf who was raised by Mammon
Who rules the world
We who are cursed from age to age
Because of whom in this world
Thinking is considered a crime
To love-a major sin
It has sniffed the blood of a human
body
It tracks your every move
Dearest cannot sleep at night
Dearest I am constantly awake
Dearest borne of my womb listen
This world belongs to injustice
What skills can I teach you
Women who came and went
Embroidering sprigs on net upon net
Placed food on platter upon platter
Which the wolf ate
Today every kitchen is empty
What can I show you
What skills shall I teach you!
When I take you in my arms
I listen to the call of time
I hear great battle cries
I listen to the beckoning of war
Hearing this again and again
Your skill is “bravery”!
Listen my dear little one
This land, this sky
All the grandeur of peace
The markets full of grain
Until that does not belong to us
We cannot exist in harmony
No one to lean on
There is no other option
Do not fear the wolf
Dear heart! Fight with conviction
Do not ever despair
I will teach you bravery
I will make you into a lioness
Fear will not touch you
Listen my dear new little one
You will not be alone
Your friends will be with you arm in
arm
Your friends, your companions
Will be by your side
Many hands will join together
This is my one wish!

How shall we get acquainted again…? — December 24, 2008

How shall we get acquainted again…?

So much has happened in the last couple of months and it has left an unsavoury taste in lots of interactions, expressions and friendships. Mumbai attacks claimed hundreds of lives but people were not the only casualties.  For weeks I went about my life, feeling inwardly as if I had experienced a personal loss. Like when my parents died.

Kosi floods had pained me as did the images of recent repression in Kashmir. The encounter of young Raj from Bihar had me shaking my head in disbelief and sadness at being a citizen of police state. But this was something different… It was personal. It could not be otherwise when a friend told me that, “in times like this when Imams want to wear black bands on Eid and Muslim groups don’t want terrorists to be buried on Indian soil, you of all intellegensia (sic) should sense the dominant mood and that perhaps its very WORTHWHILE for Muslims all over the world to say that TERROR in name of Islam should be stopped.” Another person said “Although some members of the Muslim community do express condemnation, on the whole I do feel that the Muslim community has not expressed enough outrage at some of the terrible atrocities that some extremists have committed in the name of their religion over the last decade or so especially.”  

These people were essentially just agreeing with American Hawk journalist Thomas Friedman when he says “But at the end of the day, terrorists often are just acting on what they sense the majority really wants but doesn’t dare do or say. That is why the most powerful deterrent to their behavior is when the community as a whole says: “No more. What you have done in murdering defenseless men, women and children has brought shame on us and on you.”

Another person said, “It is actually the welfare of the Muslim community that is at the heart of this argument… it is a religion and a community that has some serious thinking to do at many many levels…”  (all this exchange took place online when the friend mentioned above CC’ed an e-mail, containing a link to this Friedman article from New York Times, to several of her friends saying it was a “worthwhile read” and I hit the reply all button to say that I was, “Really saddened to see that you thought this dangerous ranting against Muslims in general a ‘worthwhile read’.)

I mulled and agonised over all this when I sat in winter sun in the park and watched my 3 year old daughter Miftah play and call for more of my attention. “Amma dekhiye… AMMA!” The comments hammered on my heart and left me gasping for air every time I thought of it. “Muslims all over the world“? Me included Miftah included? The terrorists were acting on what I and millions of Muslims around the world want but do not dare to do? And what they have done has brought shame on me and my daughter? Then, obviously, many people think it is not enough that I condemn the attack as a human being but that I should somehow feel responsible and ashamed because I am a Muslim and condemn the attacks as a Muslim.

I looked at Miftah and felt scared for her… I did not feel this scared even during and after the Gujarat 2002 violence. Those days, at least from the security of the small world of development professional/social activists, I heard many sane voices of reason and compassion. No one was calling for people who condemned the communal carnage to identify their religion.

I told my friend that it saddened me but it just scared life out me to realise that this was the world that my Miftah will be doing her growing up and living in. For weeks, I couldn’t muster words to respond except to apologise for my inadequate e-mail attequettes- having hit the reply all button.

My friend, philosopher and guide Dr. Manoj Jha sends out new years wishes every year. This year he chose this ghazal by Faiz Ahmad Faiz to go on the card. I think, it just so aptly and beautifully says what I struggled to in the earlier paragraphs of this post but couldn’t really. It will suffice if my English translation conveys how I feel even to a few people.

Hum ke thhehre ajanabi itni madaraaton ke baad
Phir banenge aashnaa kitani mulaqaaton ke baad

Kab nazar mein aayegi bedaagh sabze ki bahaar
Khoon ke dhabbe dhulenge kitni barasaaton ke baad

Dil to chaha par shikast-e-dil ne mohalat hi na di
Kuchh gile-shikave bhi kar lete munajaaton ke baad

The bohot bedard lamhen khatm-e-dard-e-ishq ke
Thien bahut bemehr subahein meharabaan raaton ke baad

Un se jo kahane gaye the “Faiz” jaan sadaqaa kiye
Ankahi hi rah gae vo baat sab baaton ke baad


Even after much warm hospitality we stand unfamiliar

After how many meetings shall we again get acquainted

When shall we see a spotless spring in the fields again

How many rains shall it take to wash the blood stains off

Though the heart wished, it did not allow its defeated self

To make complaints after whispering words of prayers

Merciless were the moments when the throbbing of love ended

Unpitying were the mornings that followed the compassionate nights

With the gift of your own life, Faiz, what you went to tell them

That matter remained unsaid when all had been expressed

The past few weeks have also included conversations with friends that gave much hope and I do not wish to end this post at a pessimistic note so here is an Arundhati Roy quote, that my friend Aanchal Kapoor mailed me.

“Sometimes — quite often — the same people who are capable of a radical questioning of, say, economic neo-liberalism or the role of the state, are deeply conservative socially — about women, marriage, sexuality, our so-called ‘family values’ — sometimes they’re so doctrinaire that you don’t know where the establishment stops and the resistance begins. For example, how many Gandhian/Maoist/ Marxist Brahmins or upper caste Hindus would be happy if their children married Dalits or Muslims, or declared themselves to be gay? Quite often, the people whose side you’re on, politically, have absolutely no place for a person like you in their social, cultural or religious imagination. That’s a knotty problem politically radical people can come at you with the most breathtakingly conservative social views and make nonsense of the way in which you have ordered your world and your way of thinking about it and you have to find a way of accommodating these contradictions within your worldview.”

Peace All.

Who Is Afraid Of Poems? — October 24, 2008

Who Is Afraid Of Poems?

I stumbled upon this interesting article by Katha Pollitt. Of course, the Laura Bush connection is hugely amusing and the article makes an interesting point about American poets’ response to wars (and how that has changed over time). My forever sceptic friends, who tut-tut my ‘naive’ optimism, please note that poetry does scare some hearts as it emboldens others.

Anyways… so, Pollitt is a columnist with The Nation- her column is called “Subject to debate”.

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen? Ask Laura Bush. 

by Katha Pollitt

 

So Laura Bush will not, after all, be discussing the works of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes with a selected group of American poets at the White House on February 12. The conference, “Poetry and the American Voice,” was abruptly “postponed” after Sam Hamill, editor of Copper Canyon Press and author of thirteen books of verse, responded to his invitation by putting out an e-mail urging invitees and others to send him poems and statements opposing the invasion of Iraq. When I spoke to him on the phone, Hamill described himself as a lifelong radical (“What on earth were they thinking?” he wondered out loud), and said he had planned to decline his invitation but had hoped to compile an anthology that another invitee would present to the First Lady. Within days almost 2,000 poets had responded to his plea. It was almost like old times, when Robert Lowell refused to attend a poetry symposium at the Johnson White House to protest the Vietnam War.

 

Why was the conference canceled? Hamill expresses himself rather forcefully (“I was overcome by a kind of nausea,” he wrote of finding the invitation in the mail)–in fact, he sounds a lot like writers of letters to The Nation. But he didn’t urge poets to take off their clothes and pee in the punch bowl, or to stage a reading of the Not In Our Name statement. He merely suggested giving the First Lady some poems. Poets these days are a mannerly crowd, and it’s a safe bet that those who chose to attend would have been polite. Marilyn Nelson, poet laureate of Connecticut, said she planned to wear a silk scarf decorated with peace symbols, in hopes of attracting the First Lady’s eye. So is that it? The White House, so bold to make war, is afraid of poems and scarves?

 

So much for democracy, free speech, vigorous discussion. In this most insulated and choreographed of administrations, the “American voice”–note the singular–is welcome only when it says what the White House wants to hear. And yet, as so often, censorship backfired. “They did us an extraordinary favor,” Hamill told me. “They revealed that there are many, many poets opposed to the Bush regime. And they demonstrated their fear of the carefully chosen word–their fear of poetry.”

 

Now Laura Bush, a former librarian, likes to read, and that’s good. As Texas First Lady she helped start the Texas Book Fair, and as First Lady she has held a number of symposia on interesting historical topics–women writers of the West, the Harlem Renaissance and Mark Twain, whom she calls the “first real American writer,” so eat your heart out Bradstreet, Edwards, Franklin, Irving, Douglass, Emerson, Thoreau (especially you, Henry, you civilly disobedient antiwar tree-hugger, you). To her credit, she invited to these gatherings serious writers and scholars–Arnold Rampersad, Justin Kaplan, David Levering Lewis, frontier historian Ursula Smith–who she must have known could not, on the whole, be happy with her husband’s policies. Still, according to press reports, invitees to these events arrived suspicious, went away charmed. That’s how it usually works with the presidency–Bill Clinton beguiled an entire roomful of poets at a 1998 soiree, with only a few refuseniks. Proximity to power, a brush with history, the cachet of exclusivity and, in the case of Laura Bush, a private glimpse of perhaps the biggest contrast-gainer in the history of marriage–say what you like about the irrelevance of poets in today’s world, if they’re willing to forgo all that, antiwar feeling must be positively rampaging across the land.

 

“There is nothing political about American literature,” Laura Bush has said. But it would be hard to find writers more subversive than the three she chose for her event. Whitman’s epic of radical democracy, Leaves of Grass, was so scandalous it got him fired from his government job; Hughes, a Communist sympathizer hounded by McCarthy, wrote constantly and indelibly about racism, injustice, power; Dickinson might seem the least political, but in some ways she was the most lastingly so–every line she wrote is an attack on complacency and conformity of manners, mores, religion, language, gender, thought. None of these quintessentially American writers would have given two cents for family values (Whitman was gay, as perhaps were Hughes and Dickinson), abstinence education, the death penalty, tax cuts for the rich, Ashcroftian attacks on civil liberties or the other hallmarks of the Bush regime. It’s hard to imagine them cheering the bombing of Baghdad.

 

There will be readings all over the country on February 12. As of this writing some 3,500 poets (who knew?) have sent poems and statements to http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org. Here’s mine:                         

 

   TRYING TO WRITE A POEM AGAINST THE WAR

   my daughter who is as beautiful as the day

  hates politics: Face it, Ma,                                     
   they don’t care what you think! All                              
   passion, like Achilles,                                           
   she stalks off to her room,                                      
   to confide in her purple guitar and await                        
   life’s embassies. She’s right,                                   
   of course: bombs will be hurled                                  
   at ordinary streets                                              
   and leaders look grave for the cameras,                          
   and what good are more poems against war                         
   the real subject of which                                        
   so often seems to be the poet’s superior                         
   moral sensitivities? I could                                     
   be mailing myself to the moon                                     
   or marrying a palm tree,                                         
   and yet what can we do                                           
   but offer what we have?                                          
   and so I spend                                                    
   this cold gray glittering morning                                
   trying to write a poem against war                               
   that perhaps may please my daughter                               
   who hates politics                                               
   and does not care much for poetry, either. 

“Dayar-e-shauq Mera” Tarana-e-Jamia — September 24, 2008

“Dayar-e-shauq Mera” Tarana-e-Jamia

Another post, to set the context for some words used in the last post. It just occurred to me that the Tarana-e-Jamia or Jamia’s anthem has very interesting lyrics. It uses a delightful mix of Islamic imagery with themes popular in Urdu (but not Islamic)- of wine and taverns etc and talks of Jamia’s formation in answer to nationalist call, passion for quest of knowledge and freedom.

Here is the original text transcribed in English

Dayar-e-shauq mera, Dayar-e-shauq mera
Shehr-e-aarzoo mera, Shehr-e-aarzoo mera

Hue the aake yahin khemazan woh deewaney
Uthhe the sun ke jo aawaz-e-rehbaraan-e-watan
Yaheen se shauq ki be rabtiyon ko rabt mila
Isi ne hosh ko bakhsha junoon ka pairahan
Yahin se lala-e-sehra ko ye suraagh mila
Ke dil ke daagh ko kis tarha rakhte hein roshan

Dayar-e-shauq mera, Shehr-e-aarzoo mera

Ye ehle shauq ki basti, ye sarphiron ka dayar
Yahan ki subha nirali, yahan ki shaam nayi
Yahan ki rasm-o-rah hai kashi juda sab se
Yahan ke jam naye tarha, raqs rasm-e-jam nayi
Yahan pe tashna labi maikashi ka haasil hai
Ye bazm-e-dil hai yahan ki sala-e-aam nai

Dayar-e-shauq mera, Shehr-e-aarzoo mera

Yahan pe shamma-e-hidayat hai sirf apna zamir
Yahan pe qibla-e-iman kaba-e-dil hai
Safar hai deen yahan kufr hai qayaam yahan
Yahan pe raah rooi khud husul-e-manzil hai
Shanaawari ka taqaza hai nau-ba-nau toofaan
Kinar-e-mauj mein aasoodgi-e-saahil hai


Translation by Prof. M. Zakir

This is the land of my hopes
This is the land of my dreams

This is where men with zeal stayed
Men who answered the leaders’ call
It is here that torn-off love
Found the cohesive chords
It is here that wayward passions
Formed into frenzied love
It is here that the wild tulip learnt
How to make the scar of heart aglow

This is the land of my hopes
This is the land of my dreams

This is the place of men of vision
And of those with a challenging thought
Every morning here is new
And every evening newer still
Different is this tavern
And different are its norms
Different are the dancing cups
And different is their dance
Here drinking begets thirst anew
And different is this tavern’s call

This is the land of my hopes
This is the land of my dreams

Here, conscience is the beacon light
And conscience is the guide
Here is the Mecca of heart resides the guiding faith
Ceaseless movement is our faith
And blasphemy it is to stay still
Here, the destined goal is the march on and on
Here, the swimming urge seeks
Newer and newer storms
Restless wave itself is our resurrected shore

 

Listen to the Tarana being performed by the Jamia School choir. Shaky video but okay sound.

Longing for Gandhi… —

Longing for Gandhi…

 

What has visited me in the middle of tonight doesn’t feel like muse. But more a consuming urge to get this off my chest. I think in Hindi/Urdu so this is how it came but the translation took a turn of its own.

Khud ko majboor karti hoon
Khayalon ko idhar kuchh, udhar kuchh
Rakh ke dekhoon
Ke ik tasweer ban jaye
Zuban bojhil si hai
Dil pe kuchh saye hein…

Mere bachche! Mere log!
jin ki zubanein kati hui hein
Un ke haathon mein aslahey na dein
Dayare shauq mera!

Ke koi Gandhi ab kahan
Jo puchhe
“Zakir Hussain theek hein?
Jamia theek hai?”

saathi! kuchh dost
Dil ko khangaal kar
sharmindagi hi nikaal paye
haashiye se aati hui
doosri aawaazon ki taraf
uchhaalte hein sawaal kai
Khauf ke baad ki woh shaam
Lagaatar boonda-baandi ne
Ek bechaari si chaadar daal di thi jis ke sir pe
Halki si khunki thi hawaa mein
dar se larazne ka ilzaam uspe tha

Mere ghusse ki aag par
chai banti rahi kai kap
aur log drawing room mein beith kar
kehte rahe ke haalaat abhi aur kharaab honge

The translation or another poem in its right

Sleep eludes me
I move the ‘thought-pieces’
Here and there
Clockwise and anti…
And wait for a picture to emerge
My tongue keeps growing heavier
And long shadows loom over my heart

My people!
Find their tongues severed
My children!
Weapons thrust in their hands…
A dictionary, rough note books and pen
bomb-makers need these too…

Evening after fear
wore the pathetic chador offered by incessant drizzle.
There was slight nip in the air.
It took the blame
of making people shiver-
fear was left off the hook

my anger kept simmering tea
cup after cup
and in the drawing room discussion
it was declared that things will go worse from bad

Dayare shauq mera!
I long for a Gandhi
who will ask
‘Is Zakir Hussain safe,
is Jamia safe?’

Comrades! some friends
Reflect as asked and find
Guilt and anxiety
They hurl accusing questions
at the other voices from margins
and attempt even they don’t know what

I was at Janpath in a solidarity March and collection drive for Bihar Flood Relief on September 13, 2008 when we heard two bombs blast off at Central park and Barakhamba. And I was at home in Zakir Nagar while the Delhi police encounter at Batla House happened. What is the best way to respond to situations like these? To lie low and do nothing? I don’t know but that’s what I did- nothing and like so many others felt sad, helpless, restless, angry at the news reports.

For some time in the past, I have felt my bond with Jamia weaken slowly. ‘Time…’ I thought. But the recent events proved that bonds are ‘bonds’- inherently difficult to break. Mushirul Hasan’s statements today and the university’s stand have reassured many a common-person-in-Jamia-Nagar’s (like myself) agitated hearts. Why is he doing what he is doing? I don’t wish to speculate on this and let skepticism take over … but I was reminded of the passages I reproduce below about Jamia during partition of India from a life sketch of Dr Zakir Hussain in RajMohan Gandhi’s “Understanding the Muslim Mind” (Penguin India, 2000)

“…Soon, however, disturbances started in Delhi. Many Muslims living in villages near Okhla were looted and killed, not by their Hindu neighbours, who had a long relationship of friendship with the Muslim villagers and with the Jamia but by organised groups from outside. Some Jamia men were attacked too. Shafiqur Rahman and Hamid Ali Khan- who was in charge of Jamia publications, barely escaped with their lives. Led by Zakir Hussain, who was obliged to forget his weariness and depression, the Jamia community organised the protection of its women and children and harboured a number of Muslims who had fled from their homes in surrounding areas. Nehru visited Jamia in the middle of one night; General Cariappa, head of the army, came and left behind a platoon of the madras regiment. ‘Keep the gardens in trim’, Zakir Hussain told Mujeeb. ‘if we are forced to vacate, let those who occupy this place after us feel that we loved it.’

From Calcutta, where a fast by him had restored security, Gandhi, 78, arrived in Delhi. His first question to those who met him at the station was, ‘Is Zakir Hussain safe, is Jamia safe?’ The next day he went to Okhla. Later Zakir Hussain recalled the visit:

‘His finger had got crushed in the door of the car and he was suffering great pain. In spite of this he laughed and provoked others to laugh, he infused courage into us, and advised us to stay where we were. He talked to the Muslim refugees on the terrace of the secondary school, took an orphaned girl in his arms and hugged and kissed her. Then he left, saying that he would do all that was necessary for our safety or perish in the attempt.’”

Tomorrow, I shall hopefully, march behind Mushir Sa’ab with students, staff and faculty of the Jamia in the neighbouring areas. Jamia is doing what Jamia has done earlier too, but I shall miss Gandhi.

Ganga, why do you flow? — September 18, 2008

Ganga, why do you flow?

In 1927, Oscar Hammerstein II Originally wrote the song Ol’ Man Missisippi for a musical ‘Show Boat’. The song is famously, but wrongly, credited to Paul Robeson who sang the song in the film based on the musical.

Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi,
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be,
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?

Ol’ Man River,
Dat Ol’ Man River,
He mus’ know sumpin’,
But don’ say nothin’;
He jes’ keeps rollin’,
He keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’t plant taters,
He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ’em
Is soon forgotten,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ and racked with pain.
“Tote dat barge! Lift dat bale!”
Git a little drunk,
An’ you lands in jail!

Ah gits weary,
An’ sick o’ tryin’,
Ah’m tired o’ livin’,
And skeered o’ dyin’,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along!

Bhupen Hazarika wrote an Aahomia song inspired by Ol’ Man Missisippi in which Hazarika alludes to river Brahmputra. (For more on Bhupen Hazarika and his Paul Robeson connection, click here ).

I present here Hindi version of the song written by Hazarika himself addressed to river Ganga, followed by my rough translation in English. The version is set around the belief in river Ganga’s cleansing powers as well as Ganga as a character in the epic story of Mahabharata.

 Ganga baheti ho kyun?

                       

Vistar hai apar, Praja dono par       

Kare hahakar, Nishabdha sada       

O Ganga tum, Ganga baheti ho kyuin?

 

Naitikta nashta hui, Manavata bhrashta hui                    

Nirlajja bhav se baheti ho kyuin?

 

 Chorus: Itihas ki pukar, Kare hunkar                    

O Ganga ki dhar                          

Nirbal jan ko

Sabal sangrami, samagra gami                                    

Banati nahi ho kyuin?                    

 

Anapadh jan, akshar hin               

Anagin jan, khadyavihin                

Netravihin dekh maun ho kyuin?     

 

Vyakti rahe vyakti kendrit                                            

Sakal samaj, Vyaktitva rahit                             

Nishpran samaj ko, Chodti na kyuin?                             

                            

Shrutasvini kyuin na rahi?

Tum nischay chetan nahi              

Prano mein prerana perti na kyuin?                              

Unmat avani, Kurukshetra bani

Gange janani, Nava bharat mein

Bhishma rupi, Sut samarajayi

Janati nahi ho kyuin?

 

Ganga why do you flow?

 

the spread is immense and

subjects on both banks are in turmoil

always quietly O Ganga, Ganga why do you flow?

         

morality stands destroyed, humanity stands corrupted

Why do you flow shamelessly?

 

Chorus: The call of history, roars

O stream of Ganga

turn powerless people into forceful strugglers

marching forward

Why don’t you?

 

illiterate people, unlettered

innumerable people, without food

sightless, why are you silent seeing this?

 

individual stays self-centered

entire society  characterless

lifeless society why don’t you abandon?

 

Why aren’t you the listener anymore?

you are definitely not animate

why don’t you fill inspiration in life

exhilarated earth has become Kurukshetra (a battle ground)

Ganga, O mother, in modern India

Why don’t you give birth to

a victor, a son like Bhishma (whose loyality lay with the state)

The song, also sung by Hazarika, is really rousing and reverberates in heart for long. I am personally, a little disappointed in the last lines and of course, Bhupen Hazarika’s political u-turn a few years ago has taken some sheen off the song. But again, like I said in an earlier post, the work of a poet is much more than the poet himself/herself and their unexpected, irrational political swings.

Your blood will plant an olive tree and your people shall live in its shade… — August 22, 2008

Your blood will plant an olive tree and your people shall live in its shade…

What makes a poem subversive? Expressing a common humanity? Refuting identities thrust at us? Turning the pen against injustices? Appreciating beauty in people? Confronting history? Telling stories of life as it is? Singing of sadness, regret and anger? Ironical, but the answer is yes. Mahmoud Darwish of Palestine did all this. He belonged to the tribe of ‘raconteurs of conscience’ whose poetry stirs the hearts that have not closed their eyes to oppression of people and their misery.  Darwish’s is really “an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered…” as his fellow Arab poet Naomi Shihab once famously said.

Mahmoud Darwish’s death on 9th August 2008 went largely unnoticed in India which has all but turned its back on the Palestinian struggle and people. It was left to the independent voices on internet to let us Indians know that the great voice will no longer sing the songs it had created and give us pleasure, touch us with the beauty of his thoughts, make us sad and uncomfortable with what he recounts. Breyten Breytenbach, an anti-apartheid Afrikaner poet who also knows well the pangs of exile and pain of prison, was at the last reading by Derwish just weeks before he died. He describes the evening thus…

“The sun was setting, there was a soundless wind in the trees and from the neighbouring streets we could hear the voices of children playing. And for hours we sat on the ancient stone seats, spellbound by the depth and the beauty of this poetry. Was it about Palestine? Was it about his people dying, the darkening sky, the intimate relationships with those on the other side of the wall, ‘soldier’ and ‘guest’, exile and love, the return to what is no longer there, the memory of orchards, the dreams of freedom…? Yes – like a deep stream all of these themes were there, of course they so constantly informed his verses; but it was also about olives and figs and a horse against the skyline and the feel of cloth and the mystery of the colour of a flower and the eyes of a beloved and the imagination of a child and the hands of a grandfather. And of death.”

Derwish was fluent in Hebrew and read the work of Lorca and Pablo Neruda in Hebrew translations. His poetry resembles that of Faiz in the sense that he uses stylistically classical language but writes of common concerns in the voice of oppressed people. Also, like Faiz, Derwish’s poetry has many layers of meaning. In a hard hitting poem, he describes the violence that Palestinians face on day to day basis. Its full force comes not from harsh angry words but soft, melancholy tones of lost relationships, death, dreams and colours.

Victim #18

The olive grove was once green;
It was! And the sky was
A blue forest; it was!
What has changed it tonight?

And tonight
I’ll come through the window
And bring you jasmine.
Don’t blame me if I’m late;
They always stop me on the way.

They quietly stopped our truck
at the curve of the road
and quietly turned us East.

My heart was once a blue sparrow;
It was! And your handkerchiefs
Were all white, my beloved.
What has soiled them tonight?
I don’t understand.

They quietly stopped our truck
and quietly turned us East.

For you I have everything:
Both shade and light
And a wedding ring
And even an orchard of fig trees.

They quietly stopped our truck
and quietly turned us East.

The olive grove was always green;
It was, my beloved.
But tonight
The blood of fifty victims
Has turned it into a red pool.
Please don’t blame me
If I can’t come;
They’ve murdered me, too.

A Palestinian blogger from Gaza- Heba says, “He taught me to believe that our cause is alive and just and that a Palestinian does live in the conscience of millions with his/her long legacy of love, patience, exile, and nostalgia.” Heba, you are right Palestine will continue to live in my heart with Derwish’s legacy and poetry.  

In one of his last poems, set in ditch where a victim and his enemy have fallen, he articulates his dejectedness at not having been able to see a resolution of Palestine Israel conflict and passes the baton to future poets to dream on and realize their dreams for the Palestinian people.

He said: Would you negotiate with me now?
I said: For what would you negotiate me now,
in this grave-hole?
He said: On my share and your share of this common grave
I said: What use is it?
Time has passed us,
our fate is an exception to the rule
here lay a murderer and the murdered, sleeping in one hole
and it remains for another poet to take this scenario to its end!

I conclude with another of his famous poems, a chance reading of which introduced me to Derwish and the Palestinian struggle, years ago.

The Earth is closing on us
pushing us through the last passage
and we tear off our limbs to pass through.
The Earth is squeezing us.
I wish we were its wheat
so we could die and live again.
I wish the Earth was our mother
so she’d be kind to us.

I wish we were pictures on the rocks
for our dreams to carry as mirrors.
We saw the faces of those who will throw
our children out of the window of this last space.
Our star will hang up mirrors.
Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air?
We will write our names with scarlet steam.
We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh.
We will die here, here in the last passage.
Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.

 

Mahmoud Darwish, poet, born March 15, 1941; died August 9, 2008

Discovering African-American Poets — August 13, 2008

Discovering African-American Poets

I finished school and went to university (Jamia Millia Islamia) to study mathematics but got more interested in all the contemporary English literature in the Dr Zakir Hussain Library. I remember my three years of B.Sc. Maths Honours as a period of great intellectual stimulation and growth. I spent hours at the library, got issued numerous books, devoured them, often using up seldom used library tickets of my classmates. I submersed myself totally in them, not really paying much attention to any of the subjects that I was actually supposed to study.

I did not have anyone around me to recommend books or let me know of reputation of writers and books. I mostly picked up books I read randomly, intrigued by their titles. This is how I found “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” and then ended up reading all four volumes of the autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir. Then her novels- “She Came To Stay” and “The Mandarins” and of course “The Second Sex”. I would read all the works available of an author who interested me. So read a lot of A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, V.S. Naipaul.

The biggest discovery of this period was getting to know the work of African American poets-writers of the Harlem renaissance. I had picked up Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of America” in my usual random fashion and read Margaret Walker’s prose-poem “For My People”:

. . . Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth, let a people loving freedom come to growth, let a beauty full of healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control!

And Langston Hughes‘ poem “Harlem” also known popularly as “The Dream Deffered”

What happens to a dream deferred?
              Does it dry up 
              like a raisin in the sun?
              Or fester like a sore-
              And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

It was still those days when internet had not been heard of much by likes of us- so I couldn’t just google ‘Harlem Renaissance’ or ‘African American poets’ to find out more. It took years to gather in bits in pieces my acquaintance with these phenomenal poets. Another very famous poem of the genre is by Gil Scott-Heron

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
and Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back
after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

Poetry, sedition and Old promise… — August 5, 2008

Poetry, sedition and Old promise…

In an earlier post, I had promised to bring some translations of work by Ibn-e-Insha. I begin that task today… heres my translation of his ghazal- “Khamosh raho” 

This is not a time to say anything, don’t say anything- stay quiet

O! people stay quiet, O! people stay quiet

 

Truth is good, but in its roots lies a bowl of poison too

Are you mad?! Don’t be a Socrates for nothing, stay quiet!

 

Truth is good but better if someone else dies for it

Are you mansoor that you’ll go to the gallows? Stay quiet!

 

They say that the sun revolves round the earth

We agree, let the sun revolve, stay quiet!

 

Fear lurks in the gathering and the chains pierce

Think again! Yes, think again!  Yes, think again! Stay quiet!

 

Warm tears and cold sighs, the seasons felt in this heart!

Don’t open the secrets of this garden, take a walk, stay quiet!

 

Sit on the side having closed my eyes and keep closed the doors of my heart

Insha ji take this thread and stitch your lips, stay quiet!

I had contributed the original ghazal, along with another couple of poems for a campaign demanding release of an independent film maker Ajay TG who has been arrested in Chhattisgarh on charges of sedition under Sec 124 A of the IPC and the Chattisgarh Special Public Security Act. CSPSA assumes guilt by association and criminalises even political belief. Under this act ‘any contact’ with a banned organisation becomes a criminal offence. Ajay has been arrested because allegedly he wrote a letter to Maoistsin Chhattisgarh requesting them to return his camera which they had snatched from him while Ajay was accompanying a team of PUCL in Bastar in 2004!

To know more about Ajay and the campaign to release him click here  

Following is my English translation of Jo kuchh dekha-suna, samjha, likh liya- by Nirmala Putul a santhali poet (from Hindi translation by Ashok Sinha).

You have words, arguments, intelligence
Entire system is at your disposal
You can falsify truth by retelling it again and again
You can write me off completely in just one pronouncement

 

What eyes have seen
You can prove wrong
I realise…

 

But don’t forget
those who call truth-“truth”
And falsehood-  

“false” with all their might

haven’t been totally wiped out.

More on Insha later… promise!

 

 

 

 

Sounds of Resistance and Freedom — July 16, 2008

Sounds of Resistance and Freedom

 

 

(*My article that has previously appeared in the 2007 issue of “Our Diary”, brought out by a civil society group- “Kriti” in Delhi .)

 

We come across language mostly as sound- words spoken or sung and then heard. The sounds carry with them implied meanings. We can load the simplest of words with meaning beyond the literal one. We can choose the shape of our words with varying degrees of freedom. Words become a song when this freedom is exercised to its fullest potential. Music is, perhaps, the most malleable of all media of human expression. It always finds a form that’s just right for the message- gentle or ironic, grim or humorous, powerful or subtle, straightforward or a little roundabout, appropriate or offensive.  The reach of a song is far wider than other forms of expression – the deepest of messages have been known to be set to simplest of tunes.

 

On the other hand singing words set to music enables us to step back from the immediacy of the words as communication and to make it an aesthetic object. Singing becomes an act of contemplation and of celebration of words simultaneously. It not only conveys the meaning of the words but also adds to the meaning something that words fail to express.

 

In a song people may express their political or spiritual beliefs, tell a story, history, or just provide amusement. People also sing about their ethnic character or social, political, economic situations. Singing always seems to help when the going is tough, when the task is uphill, when we feel afraid and unsupported. People sing and call each other to action and to express solidarity in resisting oppression. People sing together to kindle the torch of passions in each others’ heart and light the way to see some hope.

 

Just as singing is celebration of words, singing together is celebration of humanity.

 

Songs and singing together are an integral part of protest or social change movements. Songs that are sung in movements are work songs of peasants and artisans, prison songs, anti-war songs, songs for freedom and equality, spiritual songs, songs for children and for communal harmony, songs about life and humanity, protests and resistance songs and songs just for celebration, dance and enjoyment. They contain love, hope, pain, resolve, resilience and revolt.

 

Songs and music attract people and have the capacity to become the most important tool for mobilization in movements. The lyrics explain complex, interconnected and multilayered issues and put things across simply. This helps people join in and/or relate with the cause. This is also how movements reach out to the larger audience on the fringes or outside movements with the message of change and equality

 

To sing these songs you don’t need to be trained or even talented singers, just a lot of passion will. No instruments are required really, clapping along is perfect or may be a dhapli. Like folk songs they are learnt by people from people, by movements from other movements, from place to place, and from generation to generation. And like folk songs, movement songs too, keep changing (words and tunes) and evolving over time, spontaneously as well as deliberately. At times portions of one song are sung with another song (for example verses from ‘ho gayee hai peer parwat si’ are sung with ‘sau mein sattar aadmi’).

  

Traditional folk songs themselves form one whole part of the protest and movement songs. They are mostly sung in groups concerned with conservationist values like adivasi or environmental movements. Some religious or spiritual songs also belong to the same category. ‘Ma Rewa Tharo Pani Nirmal‘ sung with fervour in NBA, is essentially an age old bhajan in praise of river Narmada with description of belief in its holy character. Many songs from the Sufi and Bhakti traditions are also very popular in movement groups because of irreverent attitude towards religious orthodoxy and lyrics that uphold love for humanity.

 

Many protest songs also invoke religious imagery to drive a point home though the message is not of religious nature, and in fact may be making an ironic reference to it. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ uses the Islamic imagery of the Day of Judgement though it is talking of the day when interests of the working class shall reign supreme. Similarly, Bhupen Hazarika’s ‘Vistar Hai Apar’ invokes the belief in the River Ganga’s holy nature and cleansing powers to paint a picture of misery of the masses in our country  and unjust conditions they are forced to live in.

 

So religion becomes some sort of secret code and provides the poet with a tool to cut straight to the core of the issue without being overtly political about it (and hence soften the blow?). Poetry becomes a vehicle that’s capable of bridging the separation of private and public, cultural and political. This many a times makes for very powerful poetry full of rawness, pain and gore of people’s politics like that of Paash but on some occasions comes up with words of great beauty and poetic merit as in case of Faiz.

 

Thus, poetry/songs/music or to use a wider term ‘culture’ stations itself as a site of significant political resistance.

 

Women’s movement in particular has employed cultural action in a much more imaginative way than any other movement and therefore (?… among other reasons…) has had a tremendous impact on more aspects of daily lives of many more people than any other movement has had. Folk songs have played a crucial part in this regard. Singing has been available to women for centuries as an act of resistance or defiance of suffocating social norms restricting women’s expression. Gaaree sung at weddings in Bundelkhand, and other parts of eastern UP and Bihar are a case in point. These are songs full of swear words, insults and expletives sung by the women of the bride’s family abusing relatives of the groom and vice-versa. But even for more usual protest songs of the women’s movements, the folk form- beats, tunes and repetitive lyrics have been employed very frequently.

 

Music/Songs are the way artists- poets, songwriters, singers and musicians associate with movements and express solidarity. The sixties in America, in the backdrop of students’ movement against Vietnam war and Civil Rights Movement, saw an upsurge of popularity of protest music and gave us many great singer-lyricists (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger) and classic songs (Times They Are A-Changin’, We Shall Overcome). These singers and their songs reached the height of popularity in a very mainstream sense. In more recent times with the backdrop changed to America’s ‘War Against Terrorism’, many mainstream pop and hip-hop singers released anti-war and anti-Bush singles but these had to be released in most cases, embedded in albums otherwise full of non-political fluff.

 

In India, mainstream popular music largely means songs from bollywood films. Hindi film songs that can be categorised with protest music have been few and far between. Very few songs from the mainstream cinema which had content of clearly or vaguely political nature have gone on to become popular hits. And anything by way of political has more often than not carried nationalistic sentiments. Only a handful of songs dared to go against this tide. ‘Chino Arab Hamara’ from Raj Kapoor starrer Phir Subha Hogi, and ‘Jinhe naaz hai hind par’ in Guru Dutt’s Pyasa are a few defiant examples which raised very pertinent and uncomfortable questions. A more contemporary ‘Yeh Taara Woh Tara’ in Swades raises the issue of caste discrimination but prefers to play it safe and stops short to look at the issue only from unity-in-diversity perspective.

 

Many mainstream musicians perform in aid of NGOs and causes- in solidarity and/or to raise funds but most such activity is restricted to areas and issues where there is no confrontation with the state and/or corporations. Also, the music played at these performances is not protest music. These performances posing as cultural action often end up being acts of patriarchal charity. 

 

And then there are those who are not mainstream- singing group of students in universities, groups associated with movements and development NGOs, individuals associated with one or more movements/causes like revolutionary balladeer from Andhra Pradesh- Ghadar. Susmit Bose sings songs from a relatively new genre- Urban Folk. Classical singers Madan Mohan and Shubha Mudgal (who also ventures in the Indi-pop genre occasionally) sing a repertoire of protest songs too, in some settings. Fusion band Indian Ocean is famous for playing and playing with protest and folk songs. Crowds of youth swaying to ‘hille le jhakjhor’ at Indian Ocean concerts disprove notions that there are no takers for protest music anymore in the world over or that it appeals only to the already ‘converted’.

 

Whether it is a marginal or mainstream genre of music doesn’t seem to bother protest music much. It plays on full of passion and vigour that befits songs of resistance and freedom.