The flown-in politicos, they clap clap clap
The flown-in journos, they click click click
And more has been said than ever before
Because more can be said than ever before
–Silence, Five Gujarat Songs in Universal Beach
You might enjoy reading the lines above, they are about Gujarat and we know how that name of the place has become a metonym for something else.
What these lines do is describe, quite caustically, how the metonym itself created more metonyms for certain varieties of disaster tourisms.
But these lines prove more effective when recited. I have tried reciting them myself, they roll on to the tongue pretty well, but I cannot capture half the pungency in my narration than is created when the poet himself performs them.
The poem is a part of the first collection called Universal Beachby the English poet Vivek Narayanan.
I had heard them before I read them in this collection. My relationship with poetry in English, or in any language other than Urdu or Hindi, is quite curious for someone who is otherwise deeply interested in literature of many different kinds. I have read novels, in translation, of different literary cultures, modern Bangla, French, Spanish and Tamil.
Unsurprisingly, for a post-colonial reader, I have gone through a fair amount of English literature, classical, modernist and contemporary. I read most of my social sciences and current affairs literature, in English.
I also think and write in English, but when it comes to English poetry I draw a complete blank.
The blank is so near total, that it becomes a glaring omission in my literary education — an Auden poem here, a line of Eliot there, something of Arun Kolatkar, a few lines of Rimbaud and my knowledge of foreign poetic traditions is exhausted.
The only poetry I can appreciate is the one I know best, Urdu poetry. All else seems either too jejune or incomprehensible. Hence, I need to explain my admiration for Vivek’s writings.
Perhaps, I like these and other poems in the collection a lot since my first encounter with them had been oral. I had the pleasure of watching Vivek perform these poems in an experience that he describes as performance poetry. He not only recited them, he performed them, complete with gestures, bodily movements, theatrical modulation of voice, mimicry along with sound and light effects.
Since I am used to hearing poetry aloud, I am as much attuned to poetry as sound. As shruti you might say, as I am to poetry as creation of meaning. Hearing Vivek perform these poems brings them alive in a manner that is hard to obtain for poems, which remain on the page.
Having gone this far, I also need to clarify that Vivek is a colleague at Sarai where I sometimes work, therefore I have had occasion to interact closely with him and familiarise myself with his work. Vivek is deeply interested in poetry and how poems are made and it helps that he is an ardent fan of Dastanagoi, who as some of you might know, has a lot of poetry as well as versified prose.
Born in Ranchi, raised in Zambia, educated in the United States and a denizen now of Delhi, Vivek’s poetic range reflects the varied background, especially the spoken poetic and other oral traditions of Africa and his native Tamil region in ample measure.
Here is a Tamilian take on the scientific Brahmin
Pandit the pundit, hyper-managerial software king,
Opened an office on the Moon, another on a Saturnine ring
-From Hindus on the Moon: The Tale of Pandit the Pundit
Vivek is also sometimes an anthropologist. Hence his dialogue with history was bound to be doubly complicated. Consider this excerpt from another Gujarat song:
History in its petulant detail
Prefers to sabotage retail:
Now the goondas use computers
To distinguish their own from others
My personal favorites in this collection are My Father’s Wound along with some of the American poems, among the latter Man Washing his Foot in the Bathroom of a Bus Station and Learning to Drown afford me unending delight especially the last which is based on a personal experience of drowning in a frozen lake and becoming a television hero for the local community, for a day.
Many of these poems and songs had been published in some of the most prestigious poetry journals of the world including Harvard Review, Poesis, New Quest and Agni.
The collection has been published by Harbour Line.
You can write directly to Vivek at vivek at sarai dot net if you want to order a copy. But remember that listening is more effective than mere reading and in this particular case Vivek’s performance of his poetry is far more sensuous than it is as printed word.
The best thing would be to catch a glimpse of his performance whenever he is anywhere near you. Meanwhile, you can peruse the poems, in anticipation.
[First published in Mid-Day.]