TABISH KHAIR: QUEST FOR HOME AND CULTURAL IDENTITY
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NAMRATA PRERNA HORO and R.K SINGH
Indian poetry in English today has overcome the subjugation to the influence of English, American or Western poets and post-colonial temperament. The whole range of contemporary poetry projects the inner self of poets. Their history, experiences and surroundings are expressed through a web of symbolic representation. They display genuine love for culture and heritage with “comfortable control on universal themes”1, just as they explore “new horizons in contents”2 and maintain the Indian spirit. Obviously, they are conscious of the country’s multi-lingual and multi-religious reality and seek to present a synthesis of the nation’s diversity and differences. They share the common nationalistic spirit irrespective of belonging to any sub-categories such as metropolitan, cosmopolitan, regional, migrant, or diasporic.
Expatriate poets such as Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander, Saleem Peeradina, Vijay Seshadri, Ravi Shankar, Jeet Thayil, Mani Rao, Debjani Chatterjee, ReetikaVazirani, Bibhas De, Shanta Acharya, Sudeep Sen, and Raman Mundair etcetera make a considerable contribution to the growing oeuvre of Indian English poetry. The themes of their poems demonstrate regional/national/multicultural sensibilities.
For instance, some of Saleem Peeradina’s most successful poems in First Offence (1980) are “those dealing with Bombay life, and its sights and sounds with understanding and admiration.” 3 Sudeep Sen’s poetry seems to have varied number of setting which ranges from “India to Italy, and America to South Africa and he moves with effortless ease from Mathura to Hiroshima, and Kali to Dali, perfectly at home with all.”4 Sen negotiates the settings of a Mediterranean country in the poem ‘Mediterranean’ recalling his own earlier experiences at home: “A bright red boat/Yellow capsicums//Blue fishing nets/Ochre fort walls….//My lost memory/White and Frozen//now melts colour ready to refract.”5
Raman Mundair is another expatriate Indian poet who recounts her Indian background using English as a medium with time to time input of Punjabi, Urdu, and Hindi terms. According to Cecile Sandten, her collection Lovers,Liars, Conjurers and Thieves is “centred around themes such as a strict patriarchal hierarchy which is criticized, child abuse, domestic violence, a child’s sexuality, love, desire,the body, wounds and blood. It is also about a Muslim boyfriend, immigration to Canada, immigrant disillusionment or racist murders, and it is also inspired by the Hindu epic the Ramayana, and accounts and aspects from the Indian religious and everyday life.”6
Against such a perspective, commonly noticed in migrant poets, an attempt has been made to analyse the quest for identity inTabish Khair’s poetry. At a recent event, to a question from Bill Ashcroft “whether he is an ‘Indian’ writer, Tabish Khair said that he is an Indian writer who comes from Patna , Bihar.”7 His poetry testifies to this statement. It is also the migrant sensibility which compels him to return to his roots via memory. The past which holds the present and the future determines his poetry. Despite living in Denmark, he is nostalgic for the original homeland.
The poet unwraps the sights, scenes, senses of small-town from the treasure of his memory. In ‘Summer Senses’ he writes:
The soft, sweet smell of his hookah,
The starched smell of her sari,
The smell of mangoes ripening in the straw,
Of water cooling cement roofs, of khus,8 (WPLM.15)
In the “winters and immigrant wilderness of snow,” that is, Denmark, he misses this olfactory sense, which connects him to the lifestyle of the small town.
The unfading memory is also unchainable, flowing with the current of consciousness. The childhood experiences, culture, tradition, religion, faith, myths, folklore, history, space, ancestors, and ancient authors in a web of symbolic representation form a metaphor of memory.
Khair through his narrative poems recreates his childhood. He recalls flying kites and related preparation and fun, as a small boy:
Roofs were the runaway of our flights, the cockpit
From which we monitored our dogfights of paper
And tight skeletons of wood. Danger lurked
In the corner of the eye with no computerized beep
Of warning, and sometimes trees jumped at our kites. (WPLM.76)
Here, the poet mourns over the present day children who miss such games of adventure and learning. The childhood made mechanized with video games which “Are the mythical cursors, the dots, dashes and demons, /of your computer screen?” is now deprived of the fun he had at home.
He intensely collects the strings from the past to restore what is lost. The re-construction of ancestral home and relationships helps him negotiate his traumas as a beleaguered migrant, who is conscious of exile, alienation, unacceptability, dislocation, hostility, and homelessness. He seeks to find relief by recreating the concept of home.
In poems such as ‘Amma’, ‘Kitchen’, ‘Their World’, ‘To My Father, Across the Seven Seas’, and ‘Almost a Ghazal for My Grandfather’s Garden’, he explicitly shows his yearning for an ideal ‘home’ which provides him the desirable feeling of homeliness, love, care, security, and belonging. The poetic presence of his ancestors soothes the painful soul. He remembers his grandmother “In a starched and white sari, the fragrance of soap around you” in the poem’ Amma’. In ‘Kitchen’, he seeks to present the unity in the diverse society of India. According to the poet, it is his mother’s kitchen “where parallel lines meet”. The life lines of the people from different generation, religion, caste, and class run parallel to each other regardless of their origin, purpose, and destiny. The poet had been a witness at one such point/stoppage, that is, the mother’s kitchen, where all these lives come to contact to blend, share and be in peace with all. The kitchen is a universal symbol of a united nation which provides the family atmosphere to every individual whether Hindu or Muslim, tribal gardener’s grandson or old servants.
The poems like ‘Poem from Outside Muharram Procession’,’Shobraat’, ‘Ganesh Stuti’, ‘Ashvatthaman’, ‘Krishna’, ‘Snakes, Outside the First Book of Moses’ reveal that his mind or observation is not confined to the context of Muslim religion only, but he is essentially secular, trying to explore logic from every religious source. He writes in ‘Shobraat’:
Festival of graves; festival of ghosts
That could not exist for a Muslim, but did;
Festival not of the past but of memories (WPLM.13)
In the last line of this poem he regrets his inability to remember “Festival of rolls I cannot read, names forgotten”, so his agenda in the poem is to celebrate “memories”, “death in life, and life/In death” through the festival.
Tabish Khair is philosophical in the ways he replicates the thoughts of the masters and maestros like Kalidasa, Kabir, Ghalib, V.S Naipaul, Rumi, Karen Blixen,and H.C Anderson. In the poem ‘Such Richness Fills The Aspects Of This Earth’ he writes:
Such richness fills the aspects of this earth,
Each man’s a beggar seeking alms of worth.9 (MOG.45)
The poet perceives the world is so rich that in its comparison man is a beggar--rich or poor—ever in search of ‘alms’ that is worth satisfying. This poem is a transcreation of the couplets of Ghalib, perhaps recalled by the poet from memory. The poet frames himself with the spirit of Ghalib while mediating between his inner self and the missing homeland. He demonstrates that the opinion of Ghalib has a similar kind of persuasion in him. As a spiritual soul he turns to these maestros, testifying to his personal disenchantment while living abroad.
The things which are beyond his reach as a physical being is acquired by configuring self in the spiritual unification with Ghalib, Kabir, and Rumi, etc. Khair’s active personal voice and expression is transmuted with the shared experiences/feelings of the classics. This is done through translation or transcreation , a mode in which the source text is as important as the target text. Translation which Khair does is always in accordance with the original author and his sensilbility. The selection of these verses, couplets, or stories is purposely made as part of his search for identity. In ‘No Hope In The Morning Light’, he writes:
No hope in the morning light.
All faces hidden from sight.
The day of death is fixed:
Why can’t I sleep at night?
I know the way to heaven,
But prefer to turn aside. (MOG.40)
The lines clearly state the helplessness and restlessness of the poet. Ghalib in the 19th century may have written it in a spiritual context but here, if we notice the mindset of the translator, then we find the transparency of agony Khair feels a là Ghalib.
Similarly, deriving from Kalidasa’s play Abhijnana-Shakuntalam in the poem ‘Arrival’, the poet reconstructs the story of Shakuntala in the hardship of an expatriate who is afflicted by a sense of dislocation, alienation, displacement, loss, and regret:
She sees for the first time those eyes outside the lost home.
She hears for the first time the streets of her lost town.
Soon their absence will fill her with the nectar of nostalgia,
a glass of half-lies she will have to drain to the dregs before
She sees reflected in its emptiness the truth of her loss: how
how memory can be either opium or the forge of anger. (MOG.19)
Khair voices his grief as Shakuntala does when detached from her home.The unexpected difference between the desired imagination and the actuality of world complicate the position of Shakuntala as well as of Khair in the acquired society.
The historical sense, myths and folklores occupy a decent part in his poetry. Poems like ‘Three Tribes’, ‘History’, ‘mohenjodaro: bric-à-brac’, ‘The Vanished Dravidians’, ‘Gup-Shup(Gossip):Siddharth Becoming Buddha’, ‘Pomegranate(Anaar)’, ‘Birth and Marriages’ evince the Indian history and ethos.
Tabish Khair is an Indian English poet whose concerns are about India. He is a cosmopolitan whose poems deal with small-town culture, sights, shared experiences, history through a burning nationalistic spirit. His style is simple, rich in metaphor and irony. Sometimes he may lack clarity in the images and expressions but, as a migrant he effectively negotiates the factors of exile, homelessness, rootlessness, dislocation, disillusionment, and despair.
He views himself first and foremost as a human being, not allowing any lesser identity to narrow his self-perception:
I who am not of the East
Nor of the West, un-Christian,
Not Muslim or Jew, neither
Born of Adam nor Eve,
What can I love but the world itself,… (WPLM.104)
But included in this primary identity he also has various concerns—or other identities—that he identifies himself with. He conveys the cry of Rumi, in an attempt to match his personal response with proximity to the Persian poet’s sensibility.
Khair writes poems in free verse. He declines the forms of “chopped-up prose”10 for poetry and prefers the pattern of “chop up narratives.”11 His narrative verse which appears to be very simple in form and content consists in multiple layers of themes rooted in Indian culture and heritage.
Apart from migrant sensibility, he possesses a refined mind as obvious from his attempt to identify himself with classics and great names in literature, religion, philosophy or arts. This also reflects his choices that are elevating the mind and the soul in an otherwise demotivating environment of the West.
In his verses he reflects with imagery that are typically bound to his ‘home’ culture/tradition markers, for example ‘Ganesh Stuti’(with which begins the collection WPLM), “Boarsi”, “Ya Hassan,Ya Hussain”, shobraat-“halwa”, “Murgh Musallam, Shahi Korma, Seekh Kabab, Pulao, Makuti.”, “Mango Recipes”- “Tarkari, pickle,chutney”, “pauroti”, “Ramphal”. “Kishenbhog”, “bangles of glass”, “magical, medicinal, sacred” – turmeric, “muezzin”, “Bara- singha”, “ Khaki shorts”, “dupatta”, “Biharichokkra”, “Banarasi sari”, “the trunk of kathal”, “dhaba”, “ Padh-kéPhook-Na”, “peepul denote /divinity of sorts”, “school-darbaan”, “table”, “chulha-smoke”, “mud village”, “cowdung fuel”, “rickshaws”,“terracotta”, “Ammi”, and “Amma”. Khair’s sensibility is more inclined to the local than higher aesthetic aspects except when he looks towards the great classical minds for inspiration and motivation.
To sum up, the poet demonstrates a migrant sensibility with a peculiar vision for his ‘home’ and ‘culture’. In his vision, he is determined to restore the connection which identifies him with those he loves. He seeks inner freedom, equality and unity, the inner realities of his self, and enriches the larger collective life. His search for identity is his search for oneness – ekatva—with the rest.
1. Prem, P C K. English Poetry in India: A Comprehensive Survey of Trends and Thought Patterns. New Delhi: Authorspress, 2011. ix. Print.
3. Naik, M.K. Narayan, Shyamala A. Indian English Literature 1980-2000: A Critical Survey. Delhi: Pencraft International, 2001. 167. Print.
4. Ibid., 173
5. Sen, Sudeep (ed).The Yellow Nib: Modern English Poetry by Indians. Belfast: Seamus Heaney Centre For Poetry Queens University, 2011.
6. Sandten , Cecile. “Looking Beyond The Surface.”Kavya Bharati 17 (2005): 187-188.
7. T,Vijay Kumar. “Indian Literature –At Home in the World.” Muse India Issue 48: Mar-Apr 2013.Web. 11 mar 2013.
8. Khair, Tabish. Where Parallel Lines Meet.New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2000. Print. Abbreviated as WPLM in subsequent quotations in the text.
9. Khair, Tabish.Man Of Glass. New Delhi: HarperCollins and The India Today Group, 2010. Print. Abbreviated as MOG in subsequent quotations in the text.
10. Khair, Tabish. “Preface.”Man Of Glass. New Delhi: HarperCollins and The India Today Group, 2010. xi-xii. Print.
-- Namrata Prerna Horo, M.Phil, ISM, Dhanbad
--R K Singh, Professor, Dept of HSS, ISM, Dhanbad
The article published in Poetcrit, Vol. 26, No.2, July 2013, pp. 83-87
R K Singh