The two biggest mistakes you could do with this slim book of poems is to, first read Tabish Khair’s short bio on the first page. The second would be to read Ranjit Hoskote’s testimony on the book.
In his bio is revealed the challenging information that Tabish is the author of a book called “The Gothic, Post colonialism and Otherness: Ghosts from Elsewhere”.
And then Ranjit Hoskote, the writer and critic, says this: “Khair dwells on the persistences of historical memory…on events that course through the bloodstream or spark along the nervous system, to explode in the brain.”
But, hark, it would be unfair, and a loss, to not read this book on the basis of its uber-intellectual moorings and attestations. For here is a collection from an extremely talented poet, which engages well (though not always), as it covers ground between contemporary political concerns and the more personal plane of love and loss.
In the first section “Water”, Tabish rewrites the mythological Shakuntala’s story as a modern girl’s journey into the Western World in times of strife and stress.
It does take a while to get used to Tabish’s style: it’s often like prose chopped into little pieces and sometimes sliced oblong like beans; and the imagery is frequently abstruse.
The poetry delves into the life-journeys of the sensitive protagonist: here a chance meeting with someone she can speak freely in English (“How much she savours this stolen moment,/ Like a surreptitious kiss, this equal walk,/ Equal talk, this promise of the palace/ Of possibilities.”), there a poignant reference to the hopelessness of sacrifice (“Here on the stone-lab of Time are the crushed roots/ Of sacrifice that is ever repeated and never bears fruit.”).
Tabish uses nature to conjure disaster and is coruscating with his descriptions (“The wind peels off the dried crust of last night’s wound” and “the clear shout of sunlight”). He is often sly in his humour (“You guessed the day your dupatta slipped and you heard the crash/ Of something breaking that was always too big to mention.”) And he takes little detours of descriptions, whilst telling his stories, like whispered asides.
Where a reader gets lost is in the poet’s habit of intellectualizing situations - and then poetry becomes artifice.
The second section, “Stone”, a translated creation of some of Ghalib’s ghazals, is the weakest section. The delicacy of Urdu has always stood uneasily when translated into any other language. The metaphors sound stilted, the similes strained. And “Dil-e-nadaan tujhe hua kya hai” sounds alien as “O heedless heart, why do you despond?” And my sense of humour was severely stretched to see “Har buney-mu se dam e zikr na tapkey khunnaab/ Hamza ka kissa hua ishq ka charcha na hua” transferred into “If blood doesn’t drip from every line of love-verse,/ It’s only fit to go on sale with Dan Browns!”
But (triumph!) all the cerebral acrobatics and revisionist translations give way to a calm but anguished voice in the third section “Glass”. The rhythms become less complex, the similes simpler. From intellectualism to artifice to feelings – Tabish’s poetry becomes so quiet that one can almost hear his tears falling. He takes cues from the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and brings contemporary stories of love, longing and loss infused with startling poignancy.
In ‘Prayer’ (take-off on ‘Thumbelina’) he writes: “Grant me a little child / I can hide/ When the mullahs come home to pray, / When planes are birds of prey. / Someone / Smaller than my thumb/ I can put in my pocket and run.” He writes about racial prejudices, corruption, the insidious influence of wealth, the brittleness of love, et al.
From one heart-rending poem to another, he brings out poetry’s power of imagery, and life’s ironies, paradoxes and tragedies. And then the final poem, “Perspectives on a Grain of Sand”, a heart-felt gem, unravels, enveloping within its warm arms, the realization of how what’s precious has to be treasured at all cost.
Just the way you would like to treasure some of these final priceless nuggets at any cost.
This book is reviewed by Sunil Bhandari. Sunil is a finance man in a corporate job, who converts balance sheets into pieces of poetic fancies! Sunil loves films, writes to live, lives to write...He blogs at http://2-minute-film-review.blogspot.com