Friday, November 11, 2011

Plug for Pâticheri

My friend Deepa Reddy has long tortured her friends on Facebook with photos of food. It was a pleasant sort of torture, for the most part, and I sort of missed seeing those photos of desserts and gorgeous plates.

Her pet project - a long time in the making - was to combine her love for food with her training as an anthropologist, and Pâticheri is the result.

Now that winter, such as it is, is nipping at Hyderabad's heels, I am seriously considering making some of those delicately-hued marshmallows. Chances are, though, that between reading Pâticheri and watching Masterchef Australia, all my aesthetic food cravings will be satisfied and I can go back to making a quick gothumai dosa.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Beaches of Agnès

Image from
The Beaches of Agnès by Agnès Varda. 2008.

Is probably the best film I've seen this year. Admittedly, I haven't seen too many; on the other hand, the year's almost over.

Toward the end, Varda sits in a room that looks Venetian-blinded. She sits on a rough stool made of film cans. Then you realise that the blinds are really film, celluloid hanging reel by reel. Her house of cinema is literal and, in the moment the instability and transience of material itself is made clear. She lives, as she says, in a house of cinema, but what does that really mean?

There were many, many lovely moments: not least seeing Godard without his dark glasses, Chris Marker's alter-ego, Resnais editing on an old Moviola, Jacques Demy aging before one's eyes. Also the mirrors on the beach, the art installation-nature of Varda's filmmaking, her self-appraisal that, for all its laying bare, slyly suggests that even spilling everything can leave you knowing nothing.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Review: I, Lalla

My review of Ranjit Hoskoté's translations of Lal Ded in The Sunday Guardian last Sunday.


I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Děd
Translated by Ranjit Hoskoté
Penguin India, 2011. Pp. 246. Rs. 450
The last time I checked, my TV had at least five channels oriented to religious discourse and bhajans. Hoardings advertising yoga camps or talks by gurus of all kinds assault our eyes every day. It seems to me that somewhere in the last half century, bhakti has become less the challenge to authority we have come to believe it is and more the default mode of engaging with religion, philosophy and spirituality. In such a context, I can’t but ask myself what the role of bhakti poetry is in contemporary South Asia.

Ranjit Hoskoté’s I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Děd goes some way toward answering or soothing my uncertainties. Hoskoté’s translations of the vŒkhs of the Kashmiri poet known variously as Lal Děd, Lalleshwari, Lal- ‘Œrifa and Lalla, has been two decades in the making and is a work of both scholarly depth and poetic exactness. His 77 page Introduction sets the context for his chosen 146 of the 258 vŒkhs attributed to Lalla, and is a fascinating essay in its own right.

Hoskoté’s thesis moves along interesting lines: he sees Lalla as not quite the bhakti poet that anthologists and literary historians claim her to be. He would like to see her, instead, as a poet ‘whose ideas straddled the domains of Kashmir êaivism, Tantra, Yoga and YogŒcŒra Buddhism, and who appears to have been socially acquainted with the ideas and practices of the Sufis’. (xix). What Hoskoté does is to closely argue for a figure whose biography contains the sketchiest details, but whose words demonstrate the variety and richness of Kashmir’s intellectual and social heritage of the 14th century CE. In contemporary terms, his introduction serves to place Lalla in a tradition that stands against the Vedantic mainstream.

That little is known of Lalla is not so much a loss as a freedom. The appropriation of Lalla began, in Hoskoté’s account, in the 1980’s, where both Kashmiri Pandit and Kashmiri Muslim scholars claimed Lalla for their own and attempted to purge her verse of what they saw as interpolations. Perhaps, given the turbulent times that the 80’s inaugurated, this is no coincidence.

Hoskoté declines to look for a pristine Lalla, opting instead, to see the vŒkhs (collected from various sources; the account of what these sources are make for engrossing reading) as a product of what he calls a ‘contributive lineage’. ‘Lalla, to me, is not the person who composed these vŒkhs; rather, she is the person who emerges from these vŒkhs’, Hoskoté says.

Yet, reading the vŒkhs themselves, shorn of context, can be a baffling and perplexing experience. Some of them fall clearly within a tradition that is familiar to readers of bhakti poetry and thus more accessible – VŒkh 13, for instance, gestures to the familiar idea of the seeker as lover and the sought as Friend, and the quest returning to the point of departure:

Love-mad, I, Lalla, started out,
spent days and nights on the trail.
Circling back, I found the teacher in my own house.
What brilliant luck, I said, and hugged him.

Other vŒkhs are more unyielding and require a context that Hoskoté provides in the notes to each vŒkh at the end of the book. This makes the book an experience akin, if not to wrestling with the Arden Shakespeare editions, with its wealth of annotations at the bottom of the page, then to reading the notes to The Wasteland, which provide a much-needed way into the text.

It is not impossible to read and experience these verses by themselves; but I would suggest that the notes enrich the text with their exposition and are crucial in understanding the philosophical traditions that Lalla claimed for her own.

 VŒkh 103, for instance:

Pressed in winter’s paws, running water hardens into ice
or powders into snow. Three different states
but the sun of wisdom thaws them down to one.
The world, all hands on board, has sunk without trace in Shiva!

 It is possible to read the exquisitely compressed imagery as the dissolution of self into the divine; but knowledge of Kashmir êaivism would add nuance to the vŒkh and separate it from the all-too-common tendency toward a new-age blurring of all philosophies into one indistinguishable mess.

Indeed, if Hoskoté did nothing else with these translations, it would be enough that he has insisted upon restoring complexity to the personality of Lal Děd and her words; unsurprisingly, that is not enough for Hoskoté, who has also managed to make Lalla’s words shine through the filter of his own considerable poetic skill.

If no other lines remain, for me the beginning of vŒkh 28 will: Remove from my heart’s dove-cote, Father/ the ache for too-far skies­, Lalla says, but it could have been something Hoskoté himself wrote.

Kolatkar once said to Arvind Krishna Mehrotra that ‘he was not done with a translation until he made it look like a poem by Arun Kolatkar’ (AKM, Introduction, The Boatride & other poems, Arun Kolatkar). Hoskoté doesn’t go quite so far, but his stamp is clear upon the continuum that is Lalla’s verse.

C. Rajagopalachari memorably said, in his introductory comments to the Bhaja Govindam as sung by M. S. Subbalakshmi:

‘When wisdom is integrated with life and issues out in action, it becomes bhakti. Knowledge, when it becomes fully mature is bhakti. If it does not get transformed into bhakti, such knowledge is useless tinsel. To believe that jnana and bhakti, knowledge and devotion are different from each other, is ignorance.’

Perhaps Hoskoté’s approach, in light of Rajaji’s remarks, is the answer to the question of bhakti as the default mode of approaching the divine in today’s world: to complicate the discourse with genuinely intellectual iterations of bhakti. Hoskoté’s translations certainly pose a challenge, inflected as they are with deep scholarship and political awareness.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Poetry Mohalla on Bol Hyderabad 90.4fm

With joy and tredpidation in equal measure, I give you...

Poetry Mohalla
on the University of Hyderabad's community radio, Bol Hyderabad 90.4fm.

A few months ago, I was asked to host a poetry programme on the UoH's community radio. At that point, it was mostly music. I was, of course, delighted, but I couldn't for the life of me imagine how I'd do one episode a week, week after week. I mean, sure, there's plenty of poetry out there and one can always read something out; but I also want this to be a programme where we talk about poetry.

At this point, a few hours away from the first broadcast, I don't know how the whole thing will go, but I'm hoping it will go well. There's a lot of exciting stuff lined up and I hope you will tune in every week to listen. If you can't, the episodes will soon be archived on the Bol Hyderabad website.

For now, these are the details:

Poetry Mohalla will air on Saturdays from 3 to 3:30 p.m. with a repeat broadcast at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can listen to it by clicking on 'Listen Live'  here. 

I'm happy to take requests; if you want to record yourself reading poetry and contribute to the programme, please do so! You can mail suggestions, MP3s and feedback to 

There will also be another interesting programme that begins this weekend, called 'Caught in Passing', where there will be conversations with interesting people who happen to be passing through Hyd. This programmewill air on Sundays at 3 p.m. with a repeat broadcast on Thursdays at 7 p.m.

Friday, November 04, 2011

who steals my words steals [insert chosen word]

I wanted desperately to post on this when (or is that a 'but'?) I was busy. In the intervening four or five days, I have given myself repetitive stress injury thinking about this and now my brain is broken, fit only for romance novels I can finish in a couple of hours or a dizzy hour around the local park (which is only a park in disguise and is really a place to hide over-ground sewage pipes and overhead high-tension wires).

However, I still think I should be able to find these posts for ready reference at some point in the future, so I will first link and then modify with a couple of cryptic statements of my own.

First, the posts:

(Apparently something happened on Facebook but since I am no longer on it, all this happened as if on another planet. But news gets out, news gets out.)

(A few poet friends found someone on FB passing off lines from poems they, and others they knew, had written. As far as I can tell from the screen grabs, there was no attribution, but really - I know nothing about what it really was like on FB.)

Since this appears to have happened to other poets over several years, some of them wrote a joint post about it. You can find the post here. There's a follow-up post that selects some of the comments and responds to them, but you can find it for yourselves from the blog.

More interesting to me is poet Monica Mody's comment (who, along with Vivek Narayanan, raises some questions that I don't think the signatories to the post have thought about sufficiently). In follow-up, she's posted about this on Montevidayo.

Now, I promise I had plenty to say about this. But see opening paragraph: I have sprained my brain.

My own rather smashana vairagyam inflected view is that our poetry, as it is today, is neither strong enough nor lasting enough for this to really matter. In a few centuries, someone might make stupid movies about how one of us is really someone else. Even with Google’s apparently long and ineradicable memory, it’s not going to matter which one of us wrote which poem (or which part of a poem). What will live or die are the poems themselves. Between ‘live’ and ‘die’ you know which I think is more likely. 

Which is to say: Homer. Shakespeare. Kabir. Lalla. Calvin signing the snow. Signatures & stamps of ownership. Temporary immortality. Steve Jobs. Thermonuclear war. Bikhre Bimb. Single word quotation. Hive-mindedness.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

One poem in The The

My poem, 'A work of art is a problem' is poem of the week at The The Poetry. You can hear me read it here.

There's more I will say shortly about this poem in the context of other things. Stay tuned!