Thursday, February 26, 2015

Love and Longing - An Essay on Sangam Poetry in Kindle's Poetry Special

The incredible part about writing, apart from how much a basic necessity it is for me, is the kind of reading I get to do because of it. I end up learning about things I would never have found the time for otherwise. That's why I enjoy writing for Kindle magazine so much, the kind of articles I write for them always requires a great deal of reading.

I love Sangam poetry. Read up on its very unique rules and metrics online, they are absolutely fascinating. This essay on Sangam poetry is quite close to my heart, and not just because it is one of those rare ones where I liked what I wrote. Read it here or see below.

The illustration reminded me of Amar Chitra Katha and childhood, for no apparent reason.


Deepa Bhasthi delves into the world of Sangam poetry – the surroundings in which they were written, the traditions they had to adhere to, and emotions they elicited.    

I cannot name my lover here. Tradition will not allow me to. Not when these are poems from the Sangam era that I write about here. 'Poetry cannot swerve from tradition,' declares the Tholkappiyam, the definitive text on Tamil grammar written, scholars say variously, between 3rd century BCE and 3rd century CE.

My poetry, I am the Sangam era, has to adhere to strict rules that the rest of the few hundred poets who wrote me worked with. I can speak only anonymously. I cannot tell you my name, not my mother's, not my female companion's. My lover's name I cannot bring to my lips, I can only say how,

Gently he would stroke
my long and curly hair
and put his arms around me.

We cannot tell you our names. We can tell you were we are from though. That place you now call Madurai, the city of lady Meenakshi, used to house a Sangam, an academy, where hundreds, some say thousands, of poets lived and wrote my poetry. There were two other sangams, according to tradition, one south of the present-day Kanyakumari and the other in Kapadapuram. Both were submerged, there is a historical memory of a massive tsunami that destroyed thousands of poems. The two thousand that survived is from the third sangam.

Near Madurai, the river Vaiyai (also called Vaigai) once used to be a mighty river. So important was the river, that the people of Madurai, then under the Pandiyan kings, revered it, constructed songs in praise of its waters. The Paripatal, the last of the eight anthologies that make up part of the eighteen greater anthologies of the corpus of Sangam/Cankam literature, contains songs for the river. These are the only texts in the Sangam literature that are written according to melodic scale, called pan, so scholars believe that they were set to music and performed. In the Paripatal, Vaiyai is 'known in the most immediate manner, through the senses', the flow and ebb of the river is akin to the hero's love for the heroine.

He goes away often, my lover. Chasing wealth, fame and other women. I pine, in the inky darkness of the night, I wait. Yet,

In the hillman’s mountain fields
where the millet harvest is over
the lush country beans
have started blooming.
Even in this cold winter
He hasn’t come home.

He comes home, my lover and we meet,

…in the woods by the
where the hoary sea
plays on the beach
and the birds are clamorous

I would never swim in the
with anyone other than

I told my lover this. To the mighty Vaiyai, our people

...feed the river
garlands, pastes,
musks and
making the waters
            They offer the
river liquor,
            which it refuses to

The river was where we bathed. He would lay his eyes on the other women who came to bathe there, the kind whose,

Garlands of leaves mix
with hair, rubbing paste on
erasing it away
            in the embrace:
jewels on breasts and
tangled, entwined.

The poems the poets wrote then, they were of the Marutam thinai, the countryside and plains that set the scene for my man's infidelity. They constructed five thinais, each named after a flower, representing a geographical region, each indicative of a set of feelings in the poems as well.

My lover, he always brought me flowers, withered sometimes from the long journey and protested his innocence. My companions would tease, set up ruses. We would meet at the Vaiyai.

With a laugh, he goes
away, taking her
like a river rushing to
join the immense,
dark ocean.
Not drinking the fruit
nor wiping away the
blood-red water,
            he makes love to
Her friends say,
'She is blossoming,
may she live long,
and prosper.'
The Vaiyai makes her

My eyes, laced with collyrium, would be red, because

palm liquor
            flowing water

I forgive him, for I am the virtuous, not the other woman. He is a man, after all, and

Mixing love and
bringing together
lover and beloved
to bathe and make
this is the nature of
full of flowers.

I cannot tell you the name of my lover. Tradition does not allow me to. The poets who wrote of our love stories, of the river Vaiyai, of the frolicking we indulged in, of our flowers, our longing in separation, the urgency, desires in our lovemaking, these poets of extraordinary genius, they only tell you who said what to whom.


I think of the sweet embraces
of my girl,
her tender, rounded arms
and her golden spotted breasts.

The poets will tell you that I was pining for my lover and saying this to myself. They would never speak in their individual voices. Their words were always through characters, as though it were a play. Their words were of me, the hero and my lover, the heroine. Their words were of my friend, her friend, her biological and foster mothers, my concubine and sometimes, those of my charioteer. This anonymity is why their words appeal to you now, communicating across time and space in this modern century. They do not seem like the words of my time, of two millennia ago when I lived and loved my women.

The subjects of love that these poets wrote on, about our love lives, these are divided into the complementary categories of akam and puram, both extraordinarily complex and defying any simple explanation. Akam is inside, heart, mind, sexual pleasure, breast, etc. Puram is the ‘other’ of akam: outside, exterior, bravery, side, back, gossip, wild tract, etc. From our times to when you are reading this now, hundreds of words have been described as either of these two concepts. It is complicated. Our lives were of simpler times though. We loved and laughed, revered the river, prayed to our gods, paid allegiance to our kings of the Pandiya dynasty.

It was a woman’s world that the poets wrote off. It is my lover’s feelings that the Vaiyai best carries in her swelling waters. They sometimes talk of that time when I had to go away, and was separated from my beautiful girl.

If one can make out
morning and day,
desolate evenings
and night when the world
and daybreak,
then this love is false.

To ride the palm-frond horse
and be mocked on the street
is a shame.
So is living
in separation.

She, my lover,

I met her in the foothills
rich with flowers ---
a slim young girl
with broad shoulders.
The water of her gracefulness
has subdued the fire
of my manliness.

this beautiful young girl
with sparkling white teeth
and bangled wrists
has struck me down.

I do not know
if she knows it or not,
but my heart is still with her
and I lie here
heaving heavy sighs
like a sleeping elephant.

I have been with other women. There are concubines. Yet my lover became my son’s mother. I always return to her. For how could I ever forget, in this life, and in yours as you read this, my son’s mother,

Wearing an amulet
made of the forked
which have dull
of the soft-flowered vagai
and leaves of arugu,
and the sweet-smelling
buds of pavai,
that sprouted in the first
monsoon rain
that came like thunder,
whose petals of blue
neatly washed sapphire
bound together with a
white thread,
she looked resplendent
and lovable
in her wedding dress.

All the lines in italics are extracts from Sangam poetry, written between 300 BCE and 300 CE. I have taken these poems and several references from two books.

1.    Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry, edited by A R Venkatachalapathy

2.    The River Speaks: The Vaiyai Poems from the Paripatal, translated by V N Muthukumar and Elizabeth Rani Segran

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Goodbye to a Little Hole in the Wall I Sometimes Called Home

It ought not to matter what led me here, for it was a long time ago now. But it is hard sometimes not to look over your shoulder and down the way you came on, for the past is always behind you. For now, I shall not burden my words with the baggage I pack and take along with me. Moving on.

This hole in the wall where I have lived for more years than I want to say out loud has been home, once in a while. Like the vows we make under our breath when we begin a relationship, this house has been, for better or for worse, a refuge sometimes, a scene for drama always and witness to the many 'me's that make up the me now. I like this me immensely more than the one I was when I moved here. But as someone said to me recently, it is always a process, everything adds up.


So finally, FINALLY, I am moving. There won't be many details on these pages, maybe a picture, if the sun filtering in through my new studio/study inspires me enough to take one. There was once upon a time when with you, dear readers, I would have shared the details of the gorgeous balcony I shall have, the leafy, big tree that overhangs it, the light that sweeps in through these new rooms, the openness, the change of air and wind and all that. But you change, I have changed. And while the urge to write down every idea that comes to me remains (thankfully) strong as ever, there are certain things I would no longer write here, on these precious pages. 

How I digress. 

So this home I shall leave behind and make a new place mine. I remain incredibly apprehensive. Where once I could sit between giggling girls and video games and bus stations or within plain walls and bang away at the keys of the computer, space is so much more important now. Perhaps that's what age and experience does. I remain apprehensive for what this new house will make me do. There is the thrill of that mystery too. 

My feelings are mixed. This place has been the longest I have lived in any house in this city. I call it a hole, for how small it is. It is everything that makes me cringe, yet it has been a comfort zone. Comfort zones, irrespective of their toxicity, are hard to push through. These walls could tell you many stories, of stupidities, of loves and lovers, of failings and fortitude, of laughter and a thousand memories. Maybe I will leave most of them behind.

On the other hand, it couldn't perhaps have been a better time to move. In life, I am almost exactly where I want to be - happy. The chips are all seemingly falling into place and the new place is nearly everything I would want in what will soon enough be called home, mine. I will miss only perhaps what the years here have done to make me who I am, but then, sometimes wanking the bandage off is the only way to do it. 

With all the excitement and apprehension packed in the carton boxes that fill one room here now, this feels incredibly like cleansing. Goodbye, dear house, you have added to the drama that I couldn't possibly do without in my life these days. Those were good times, the best and the worst.

Here is to new beginnings and inevitable changes. 

Monday, February 02, 2015

Four Poems: In Kindle Magazine's Annual Poetry Special

It started probably when the local newspaper editors in the hometown asked if I would write a poem for the English dailies Coffeeland News and Kodagu Front. I did. Then that last minute thing when an extra space opened up in the school newsletter Diksoochi. Then in scraps of paper in class, between boring political assignments, through tears, the rain - a favourite motif, through heartbreak and a lot else, I have written poetry. My poems have only ever been for the pages of my hurried notebooks. It has often felt like a personal blasphemy to share them with the world. 

I am not ready for the world to read my poetry. I shall probably never be. But the first conscious step in trying to share these unchosen words has been at dear old Kindle magazine. They have a poetry special this month, with poetry by Gulzar, Pritha Kejriwal, Sharanya Manivannan and several others, and me! 

Read four of my poems here. Or see below for the slightly unedited versions, with illustrations from the issue.


Where colours make sounds,
Red for laughter, yellow for tears
Red for love, yellow for longing
This moment when sounds – still
Motion – suspended –
39500 ft in the sky –
Captain something called out
‘weather permitting’
It’s morning yet, I’d want to think.
Just 8am Monday. A long day ahead.
Years, months, we haven’t kept count?
This morning, should we?

In – suspended – time, the young sun
Streaming amber through the small pane
I look out windows, what I do when
I have to think of
- mornings
- rest of the day/s.
A river below that I cannot name
Turns gold where the sun bleeds
Yellow longing and laughter into the thin waters
The gold colour, rich.
Snaking up and down and to the sides
Guggling – I can hear – with laughter,
It’s a new sun
Shooting up to where it turns into,
(or begins)
As a pond. Gold, rich,
Yellow, happy, colour-my-days gold.

This River of gold is the one
Along which I (might) sail on a boat home
To our tent of blue and green
and other hues that shall still speak
when you and I have
nothing left to say of
our myths,
our legends,
our constructions.

(April 2014)


Were those my
sins that were
being soaked down to
their dry, vast skin?
Were they those
tears that, sometime,
I had forgotten to shed?
Was it the sheer
crystal curtain of memories
In the labyrinths of my mind?
Or maybe
the footsteps before mine
which had tread
seasons before mine,
and lived, and soaked,
cried in and danced over
on days like this?

Maybe those days, in a
different space, time
age and mind
come back – try to.
Mine thoughts,
they take a dip
soaking in that pool, wet, reveling
on days like this
when it is raining.

(June 2010)


I shall stove away all those
            things now
the books, the towel, the cigarette
five years, ten years, twenty from now
I will open an old chest of
and find your faded grey T-shirt,
the one you wore the day we
made drunken love in Delhi.
The one that smelt of you, smoke
and vodka and you and sweat.
The one I slept in that night and
            wouldn’t give you back
I will find that grey T-shirt
and soak it with my tears
hold it to my face
            breathe in the smells
that day when you left
taking me with you
discarding as dump this
            empty shell.
Like an unmanned carousel
bereft against the setting sun.

(February 2013)


Two rose flames upon my throat
and curry wine fish for himself. Rice
drumstick potatoes on blue white plates,
he cooked by the makeshift
Whisky Bar
set up right, off the kitchen workplace
besides the jar of rice, pasta.

Two inches high against the broken glass
I bought him when we first met.
Looking like sunset through a filter against the naked
yellow electric bulb.
Straight. Drunk always straight.

My lover cooked me meals
breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, coffee
a drink – vodka, single malt.
He cooked me meals many
but ate my womb for lunch himself.

It was about the time
the play of light streaming through the large window
besides my bed, striking the jewel on my nosepin
unraveled the lover in me and unbound
the tormentor in him.
Waiting for the next meal.
Or maybe just passing the minutes
of that afternoon.

(May 2014)

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Reviewing Manohar Shetty's Goa Travels: In TNIE today

I was asked to review Manohar Shetty's Goa Travels recently. Read the review in the magazine section of The New Indian Express today, here, or see below for a slightly unedited version. It is a delightful book, one I'm hoping to pick up again for some non-work reading.


It is hard sometimes not to perpetuate a cliché and not frame the entirety of Goan culture within the lassitude and indulgent idea of susegad, the concept of kicking back the flip-flops, hoisting feet up on the sun lounger and indulging in a slow, laid-back attitude to life. Goa in the mind is still where being relaxed about the pace of a day is expected, almost demanded. It is a patch of translucent blues with a string of adjective-laden clichés unavoidably attached to its beaches, to its old quarters and on its many shaped and sized beach bodies. Within this time tested imagery comes, sticking out like tweeds in the tropics, an older idea, that of Goa as an El Dorado where trade in "Persian and Arabian horses, spices, all sorts of aromatic gums, alcatifs, porcelain, vessels of agate, several things made of lacque..." made it Portugal's fabled jewel and the 'metropolis of India. Goa Travels: Being the Accounts of Travellers from the 16th to the 21st Century, edited by Manohar Shetty, draws from the writings of visitors of many nationalities and professions to portray why Goan shores have continued to appeal for centuries.
Arranged in near chronological order, the writings range from those of Fernao Mendes Pinto's evocative account of when the body of St Francis Xavier was brought to shore in such grand splendour that the "native gentiles and Moors stuck their fingers in their mouths to show how deeply amazed they were as is their custom" to Francois Pyrard de Laval, "a talkative and observant Frenchman of the seaman class" who frowns upon the decadence into which the Portuuese had fell into to Richard F Burton's disdain for pagan Hindoos and the mongrel men. Dutchman John Huyghen Van Linschoten's observations, translated into quaint old world English, describes "very luxurious and unchaste" women who did not hesitate to drug husbands with the Deutroa (Dhattura) herb, rendering them senseless for nearly four and twenty hours, while they took their pleasures with one or two lovers. Ralph Fitch, among the first Englishmen on this land, calls Goa "a fine city and very handsome for an Indian town," whetting the appetite of the Europeans to start setting up trade links with India.
Nearly all the early travellers write in detail of the women being most jealous of infidelities of lovers and of the lives and excesses of the mesticas of Goa, mixed breed women born of Portuguese fathers and native mothers. Francesco Carletti finds them the "most desirous creatures imaginable", remarking on the ardour these women would go to, to get their men and how this amorousness pervaded their waking hours. Many travellers write on the practice of Sati as well, some having seen it first hand in neighbouring Narsyngua (the kingdom of Vijayanagar).
The book traces beautifully the rise and fall of the power of Portugal in Goa, from the economics of extensive trade to the moral degradation that travellers and priests found had affected Goan society. The Inquisition, Goa's darkest years, is brought to life again in Gabriel Dellon's account of his trial and eventual grant of freedom. From this account from the late 1600s, the book jumps to the mid-20th century, to the tail end of Portuguese rule in Goa. After Homes A Jack's report on the Goa liberation movement, the anthology veers towards adjective-laden descriptions of the sea and skies in the manner of modern day travel writings. Present day Goan holiday imagery begins to take shape with Graham Greene "lying on the verandah of a village house in Anjuna, watching the constellations wheel out of view...", the hippie Anjuna that in 1976, David Tomory describes as having "an aggrieved air, like an artists' colony suddenly chosen to host a beer festival." Katharina Kakar's interviews with the beach boys about their sexual excesses with white women and the editor's reminiscences of his first visit to Goa, eventual relocation to Dona Paula and the poetry it has only recently begun to impart to him tidily tie up this anthology.
Goa Travels is a fascinating constellation of accounts that adds an older, much different view of a place where Europeans made and unmade their fortunes to the ever popular sentiment of Goa Dourada, the Golden Goa of blue-green beaches and its many indulgences.