लिपट जाता हूँ माँ से

A photograph of Nanima, my grandmother, with her friends and sister- figures, and my grandfather’s old but pristine Urdu dictionary. He was fluent in the language and gave me my love of words.

लिपट जाता हूँ माँ से और मौसी मुस्कुराती है
मैं उर्दू में ग़ज़ल कहता हूँ हिन्दी मुस्कुराती है

उछलते खेलते बचपन में बेटा ढूँढती होगी
तभी तो देख कर पोते को दादी मुस्कुराती है

तभी जा कर कहीं माँ-बाप को कुछ चैन पड़ता है
कि जब ससुराल से घर आ के बेटी मुस्कुराती है

चमन में सुबह का मंज़र बड़ा दिलचस्प होता है
कली जब सो के उठती है तो तितली मुस्कुराती है

हमें ऐ ज़िन्दगी तुझ पर हमेशा रश्क आता है
मसायल से घिरी रहती है फिर भी मुस्कुराती है

बड़ा गहरा तअल्लुक़ है सियासत से तबाही का
कोई भी शहर जलता है तो दिल्ली मुस्कुराती है

मुनव्वर राना

In 2016, my father in law gave me a book of Munawwar Rana’s poems. The jacket was a generic beige and the cover art so terrible I struggled to resist the saying- sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, thank God. In her odd, joyless little essay on the significance of covers, writer Jhumpa Lahiri says, ‘If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening.’ Stacked anywhere- a library, the tiny tinfoil shops at bus stands and train stations, a bookshop- this forgettable looking thing was and is definitely being passed over for its shinier peers, its awakening delayed indefinitely. For we are magpies, and poetry that looks like a limp beige sandwich doesn’t cut it. First, poetry isn’t easy to read. It looks like it should be- words tumbling down the page close to the spine so there’s more page than print, a thin waterfall of type against a clear paper sky. Sometimes it’s not even that- just a cluster of five, seven, ten words the middle of the page, like stray crumbs- unthreatening, so easy to scoop up and knock back. It’s a pleasant enough departure from our text- dense lives where skimming, not reading, is the only way to consume knowledge. In allowing you to read and not skim by virtue of its form (entire worlds and experiences made minimal, compact) poetry can seem like an easy, gratifying means to self improvement. But poetry is anything but easy. Its form dictates urgency so it is immediately confrontational; while prose affords you a lush thicket of words to meander and get lost in, poetry pulls you right into the deeps. Unlike prose, you cannot leave a poem mid-way; it demands the dignity of uninterrupted closure. Then, writers of the vernacular spend entire lifetimes militating against the colonisation of language, succeeding only in islands. The colonized thought has no room for a language rubbished by the coloniser; in forcing us out of our native language structures, the coloniser alienates us from our own instincts. Thus, we dream in one language, curse in another. Make love in one language, network in another. Even as the royal infants are celebrated for their precocious multilingualism, no one thinks to congratulate immigrant children or colonised children, fluent in so many worlds and fractured in so many places they can barely keep it together. When, as a little girl I’d argue with my mother, she’d say Just because you know English it doesn’t make you right. Apni angrezi apne paas rakho, zameen pe aao. It hurt then that she thought my choice of language was deliberate, that I was using language to cause her pain. I wasn’t. English really was my default, and it made my relationship with my Hindi Pahaari Punjabi- fluent mother miserable. For writers of the vernacular, there is also a reckoning with the bitter irony of posthumous glory. Unlike living writers of prose, living poets scrape the bottom of the culture and readership barrel, i.e. WhatsApp forwards. If you’re current you lack depth or heft and if you’re current and vernacular, what hope, really? Poetry must be sepia toned to be consumed in respectable circles. That is the way of the world.

Thanks to my father in law, a prolific writer of Hindi verse when he’s not tending to his patients, I’m actively reading current poets. Rana’s work is a contained explosion of feelings and imagery. The domestic and the political give it texture, woven wholly and inextricably into each other so you barely know where one ends and the other begins. Like fabric. लिपट जाता हूँ माँ से reads like running your hands lovingly over the soft, cool, neem- scented silk of your grandmother’s old sari, only to discover a rupture that threatens to turn it to shreds. Rana is skilled at landmining his verse with moments of jarring discovery and sudden discomfiture.

‘Sometimes people say to me, “why should I read a poem?”’, writes Jeanette Winterson in an ode to poetry. ‘There are plenty of answers,’ she says, ‘from the profound – a poem is such an ancient means of communication that it feels like an evolutionary necessity – to the practical; a poem is like a shot of espresso – the fastest way to get a hit of mental and spiritual energy. We could talk about poetry as a rope in a storm. Poetry as one continuous mantra of mental health. Poetry as the world’s biggest, longest-running workshop on how to love. Poetry as a conversation across time. Poetry as the acid-scrub of cliche. We could say that the poem is a lie detector. That the poem is a way of thinking without losing the feeling. That a poem is a way of feeling without being too overwhelmed by feeling to think straight. That the poem is “the best words in the best order” (Coleridge). That the poem “keeps the heart awake to truth and beauty” (Coleridge again – who can resist those Romantics?). That the poem is an intervention: “The capacity to make change in existing conditions” (Muriel Rukeyser). That poetry, said Seamus Heaney, is “strong enough to help”.’ In another essay, she explains why poetry is for everybody- ‘..when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read in school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.’ Rana’s poems, among others’, are my finding place.

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