Sunday 9 December 2012

Poetry for Peace, inspired by Rabindranath Tagore

Several months ago I was invited by Wasafiri Magazine of International Writing to contribute to a reading event at Asia House in London. Three writers of South Asian descent – me, poet DaljitNagra and writer and broadcaster Shyama Perera – were to read through an issue of the magazine which was dedicated to appraising and honouring the cultural contribution of radical sub-continental writers. We had to choose an article as inspiration and create an original work in response to it. A full feature on the event, including pictures, can be found here.

I chose a critical essay about the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore has long been a literary touchstone in my household and I thought I might create from his formal high Bengali a new interpretation of his thoughts, language and imagery. A straight translation wouldn’t work – indeed, even the Wasafiri essay conceded that Tagore was rendered more acutely and subtly in French than English. I wanted instead to distil his essence and compose some new work that was totally Tagore and yet also completely, freshly, creatively myself.

There was one missing link: my mother, a writer and academic. We took down our many Bengali volumes of Tagore and she read some pieces aloud to me, just a few lines, to get the flavour. I found many verses that piqued my interest, particularly the songs from the Gitobitan, the Collection of Songs, which was published in India in 1931. The two pieces I chose to work on come from the section of the collection called Shodesh, translated as Homeland, which contains songs pertaining to India’s dignity, unity, strength and patriotic zeal in the fight against British rulership and exploitation.

I understand and can speak Bengali but can’t read or write it, to my regret. My mother read out the two short songs and we carefully discussed the meaning and rhythm of each line. Then she created a literal word-for-word translation, which I could not have done without and took strong inspiration from in crafting my own pieces. I gave them my own voice, my own words, ideas, rhythm, syntax and form, and I titled them. But their hearts are Tagore’s. The first piece I offer is inspired by a song written in 1905, while the second occurs much later in the original selection and cannot be dated.

Despite the specificity of their first origins, to me the songs are about the struggle for dignity, self-determination and emancipation anywhere, in all situations, not just at a national or outwardly political level. They affirm the power of the individual, they honour the bravery of independent action and acknowledge the risks of speaking out and standing alone. They also pay sad tribute to the way oppressive situations warp and brutalise everyone in them including the perpetrators. The songs are, above all, full of hope for change and faith in people to make that change, to right wrongs, to correct a crooked path, to agitate, to be proud, to be brave, to save, to redeem and to transform.

The Asia House event was a wonderful mixture of Daljit Nagra’s inventiveness, hilarity and wonderful performing skills, Shyama Perera’s intelligence, insight, rigour and candour and my nerves.  I think – I hope – I wrote and read the poems well and I had also hoped that my work wouldn’t disappear without a trace. As serendipity would have it, a few weeks later I received the following message:

We are writing to you and other distinguished figures with strong connections to South Asia, from Iran to Burma, and Tibet to the Maldives, to seek your help in our literary project.
We’re calling the project ‘Poetry for Peace’, a title that can be interpreted in various ways: peace between nations, between communities or between individuals, or peace within oneself.
We will donate 20% of the royalties from the sale of the anthology to Amnesty International and the remainder will help support the Rukhla Project, an active rural development project in Himachal Pradesh, India. The overall aim is to help foster initiatives that support and develop the local community and economy, including working with village schools, eco-volunteering, establishing links with educational institutions within India and abroad (including Japan), and so on. At the moment, the farm directly supports three families, including seven children. This figure is expected to rise as the project develops. There are plans to develop a cottage industry in the short term, producing apple vinegars, cheeses, and other artisan quality products using local materials and expertise. The buildings are being upgraded to accommodate guests, including trekkers, artists, poets, musicians and writers, as one of the aims is to develop it as a visitor centre where people can find their own inner peace and/or explore the forests and mountains with a local guide.

We hope that by sharing our love of words, we can add an idealistic drop to the pool of common good – a small reminder that we are one human race, with so much more uniting than dividing us: a common heritage, a common future, one common life.

I knew I couldn’t let it pass and have submitted the poems to the anthology, along with some of this introduction.

Tagore died in 1941. The national Indian liberty he had dreamed into being in his literature came to pass just a few years later, in 1947. As I write, the world is full of other freedom struggles against inequality, injustice, exploitation and prejudice. I hope that readers engaged in that long and righteous fight are inspired by my words, however flawed, as I was inspired by Tagore’s.

If there be no answer

If there be no answer, continue alone.
At the crossroads, on the high path, should they leave you,
On the dense road, at the tough pass, should they flee,
Should they turn their faces and offer no words,
Then read in secret the inward story
And walk the thorny road on your bloodied feet.
If there should be no lantern light, nor hearth, nor flame,
Then do what others cannot:

Go to the storm
Pluck out a rib
Light it with thunder
And burn alone.

 The victory banner

The tighter the binding, the looser it grows,
Our liberty escapes it, as light as a breath.
The trickier the knot, the rougher the rope,
Our freedom evades it, as subtle as scent.
The angrier they stare, bloodshot and stricken,
So softly we gaze, as open as children.

Inwardly we win, though outwardly submit,
The more vividly we dream, the more real is it.
The louder they shout, we grow more awake.
What’s rent by their hand, we privately remake.

If they strike, they hit water, waves rippling like silk.
If they stamp, they hit water, waves twisting like silk
If they kick, they hit water, waves flowing like silk -
The silk of their banner,
Torn as they tear.

©Bidisha, 2012