India In English

How does it matter if I write poetry or prose,
or if I compare the
jaaji and the rose
if all my writing’s in the English alphabet?
What does it matter if I tell of “
Raavana’s
defeat by fire to a long-tailed
vaanara”
if such a play with words reaches just the English-literate?

Can it matter if I heed the raita’s tragedy
and pray humbly for Indra’s pity
if English is the language of my prayer?
What does it matter if I sing a song
for a beggar-child, crying and alone,
if my words of song mean nothing to the crier?

Why should the outcast dalit give a damn
if I, in my best English, express my shame
at his being denied temple-entry?
Why should the tired cement-worker care
when I write in English, eloquent yet spare,
of his exploitation by the industry?

How can the artless village-girl blush
if I, in the throes of a romantic flush,
should praise her ‘Venus-like beauty’?
How can the warm and tender lullaby
I wrote in a state of rhapsody
be sung in English by the old
ajji?

How can I catch the scent of the flower
that scents the pious woman’s hair
when English does not know the flower’s name?
How can I lyricise about the goddess
who uprose from the sea within a lotus
when English is oblivious to the
devi’s fame?

How can a bhaashaa maybe known to ten
among a group of a thousand men
capture the yearnings of each forlorn woman?
How can the
shaastras of olden times
among whose copious chaff are hidden gems
be learnt through a language that is alien?

Can the rasa of thousands of years
that flows in the veins of the villagers
be distilled through the English tongue?
Can adages born of the land
that see in all life some god’s hand
retain their flavour in English’s rationale?

Can a language that once colonized,
that tyrannized, criticized, destabilized
a culture that submìtted to god’s will,
be used once more to revive
the clotted honey in the hive?
Watch watch as I bend English to my will.

For more about the poem, see notes.

Glossary:

1. jaaji (jaah-g): The Kannada name for a flower of the jasmine family.

2. Raavana (raah-wuh-ṇaah): The ten-headed king of the ancient kingdom of Lanka (today’s Sri Lanka). His kidnapping of Sītā, Raama’s wife, culminates in his defeat and death at the hands of Rāma and his army of vaanara-s.

3. vaanara (waah-nuh-raah): A member of a race that is today identified with monkeys. Its most famous representative is Hanumān. It is a matter of contention if the vānaras of the Rāmāyaṇa are simply mythical beings or if the word is a derogatory reference to the (darker-skinned, aboriginal) Dravidian peoples of South India.

4. raita (rye-thaah): The word for farmer used in Kannada (and other languages).

5. Indra (in-dhruh): The king of the devas, the gods. A rather insecure ruler, he is considered the god of the rain – whose weapon is the vajra, viz., the lightning bolt. [Looking now at the poem, I see I have imputed to Indra an ignorance of the English language.]

6. dalit (the-lith): lit. crushed. A Marathi word used to describe those downtrodden people who belong to castes not included in the “caturvarṇa” setup of Hindu society. They were previously known as the “untouchables” – an English word that, it can be argued, more accurately expresses a sentiment than an actual practice. What is inarguable, though, is that they were treated diabolically for centuries by the “upper castes”.

7. ajji (uhjj-e): The (generic) Kannada word for “grandmother”.

8. devi (they-we): The female counterpart to a dēva; a goddess. The dēvī referenced here is Lakshmi, Vishṇu’s wife, who is supposed to have risen from the ocean when it was churned. This churning (known as the sāgara manthana) is a fascinating story in itself.

9. bhaashaa (bhaa-shah): The Sanskrit word for “language”.

10. shaastra (shaahs-thraah): Any of the numerous ancient scholarly texts written in the Sanskrit language. They deal with a great range of subjects and are often prescriptive in nature. Today, the word is often used colloquially (in the various Indian bhaashaas) to refer to old, dogmatic directives.

11. rasa (ruh-saah): A very important word (as well as idea) in Sanskrit poetics. It is occasionally translated as “juice” but is more often left untranslated for lack of an English equivalent. However, the word “sap” or, better still, “lifeblood” may be thought to be closer equivalents.

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