- GOUTHAMA SIDDARTHAN
Gouthama Siddarthan, is a modern poet, short fiction writer, essayist and literary critic in modern Tamil literature. He is running ‘Unnatham’ a modern Tamil literary magazine. He has 17 volumes in all, spanning poetry, fiction and essays, to his credit. Honoured with several literary awards in his 30 years of…
Maharathi is a poet and translator. Born in Tuticorin, southernmost…
4 Pandemic poems with an introduction essay!
… that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
– The closing lines of Albert Camus’ novel ‘The Plague’
I am presenting these poems as historical testimonies to the Corona-ridden Tamil environment. All through the endless pages of recorded human history, corona-like viruses and infectious diseases had turned the society upside down and wrought havoc at one stage or the other. Artists have since been operating as mega humans, bearing a testimony to those disasters and recording them in the pages of history in the form of stories, poetry and epics.
Thomas Mann, who was writing about the fast spreading cholera in Venice, has captured the soul of the city.
Jose Saramago in his novel ‘Blindness’ conjures up a sombre scene of people entering into a church to worship God to guard against a virus which causes sudden blindness that proved contagious. There the eyes of Jesus Christ’s statue were covered with a white piece of cloth, as were the eyes of other statues too. Like humans, have the gods also become blind? How can they, unable to safeguard themselves, protect the humans? These were the questions that Saramago posed on a disturbing note.
A similar episode took place on our home turf also. In a temple in our country, the idol of Linga, symbolic of the omnipotent and omnipresent Hindu God, Lord Siva, was found covered with a mask. This reverberates with echoes from Saramago whose work thus attained an eternity. All these should be recorded as historical evidences to the corona times.
I am a simple and humble citizen of India which, according to date available now, stands second in the Corona affliction. We can have a brief look at the geography of our country which is diverse in languages, cultures and races and States.
I am a writer in Tamil, the ancient classical language of the Tamil people. In India, my linguistic state, Tamilnadu is at the southernmost tip of the peninsula. In our country, Tamils are a minority. Though Tamil is hailed as a classical language, a Dravidian language and the world’s primitive language, it is caught in the micropolitical web of the States vying with one another to project and promote their own languages.
Tamil Nadu, which has several things to boast of, has added to the list yet another thing: It occupies the second slot in the country in terms of Corona infections.
When the wave of affliction started lashing the country, the people panicked and exercised restraint. However, when the data showed the infection growing in thousands, they began turning a Nelson’s eye to the need for sustained awareness and vigilance.
According to the Indian data, it is Tamilians who are the most active in social media channels such as Facebook. They dish out memes, ridiculing and parodying everything as if making a mockery of the Corona virus were part of the infection awareness. It is not only the common people but also the writers who are engaged in the business of creating memes to the comic effect, exploiting scenes and stills of popular Tamil film comedian Vadivelu.
A Tamil poet puts forth the quotidian data about Corona in a seemingly poetic form, breaking sentences into small lines. He does it in the name of ‘a poem a day’ on the Facebook and his 168th verse runs successfully. Alas! Poetry, the queen of arts, has degenerated into a Facebook status.
Tamil newspapers and journals popular among the people have no proper understanding of modern literature. At times, as if flaunting their knowledge of modern literature, they project certain literary shams in the name of modern literature. At a time when the internet and social media are reigning supreme, small literary journals dedicated to the modern literature have vanished into thin air. The terminology ‘modern literature’ has lost its meaning and identity in the wake of all people having Facebook accounts and scribbling whatever strikes them at their whims and fancies, donning a poet’s mantle. All that is written, be it sensational news items or shallow and sterile experiences of life, goes in the name of great literature!
The popular Tamil cultural environ and life, by and large, are revolving around caste and cinema. The mushrooming growth of internet and social media post-millennium has triggered the revival of the caste-oriented and caste-based ideations.
On the one hand thousands of people get infected by the virus and hundreds succumb to the viral onslaughts. On the other, there seems to be a total apathy and even schadenfreude among the people. At the same time, the episode of a pair of lovers, apart in caste and social status, being murdered added a somber quality to the overall situation.
During these times of infection, the most cruel phenomenon was the fact that thousands of migrant workers from other States became the worst lot. Right from day one of the lockdown, as the cities were closed and cut off from other regions, there had been long caravans of pedestrian migrant workers treading back to their home towns or villages over 2,000 km away, carrying their luggage and holding their children’s fingers safely. There have been instances of the aged and the women falling on the wayside in the impact of the scorching sun and breathing their last in the seemingly never ending ordeal; and there have been cases of people walking down the railroad tracks fatally hit by oncoming trains. Those rails will one day write poetry about these tragic human creatures.
The e-pass system brought in by the powers-that-be to curb the regular movement of people from one district to another was something startling and unheard-of to the people who have hardly been acquainted with Camus’ ‘The Plague’. The officials were waiting to give e-passes to the needy with their palms waiting to be greased. Without reading the novel, they were implementing what was described in the novel; it all shows how the Tamilians had a malignantly sharp, subtle mindset.
The adventures, which several indulged in, of crossing internal borders without e-pass are the staple of ‘travelogues.’ But the real problem is more acute than this. People in other districts, fretting and fuming, put up blockades for those coming in from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, which is the hotbed of virus infections. The kind of ritual that those people resorted to, which is called in local dialect ‘kumbam thaaliththal’, is worthy of a deep research by Levi-Straussians. So much laden with connotations this is!
This ritual called “kumbam thaaliththal ” is more interesting and more gothic than Boccacio’s Decameron tales which almost represents the present day pandemic.
The local people perform this ritual in order to ward off infectious diseases such as smallpox, cholera and diarrhea. As part of the ritual, a cart would be loaded with all kinds of household scrap such as worn-out stony grinder, overused mortar, pestle, winnow and broomsticks; then the cart would be taken out in a procession amid the blaring funeral music. The village temple priest, mouth covered with a piece of cloth, would walk at the front, women and men following him, making a chorus of shrill sounds with their wagging tongues. The procession would halt at each doorstep and collect all waste things. Finally, the cart would stop at the border, on the outskirts of the village, and pour out all scraps at the spot where a pooja would be performed. It is one of several myths doing the rounds in Tamil villages for ages that the ritual would keep at bay all kinds of disease.
This antediluvian ritual has been revived in these Corona times and by extension used to include in the list of unwanted scraps the ‘man from Chennai’ too. The refurbished ritual now witnesses an effigy of the Chennai man added to the things to be kept at a distance, at the border literally. Would this practice take the cake in the post-modernist culture? Only Slavoj Zizek can answer.
Besides, at several places in Tamil Nadu protests broke out against the attempts to bury the bodies of those who had succumbed to Corona affliction, in the cemeteries . The protesters opposed using of the cemeteries in their areas, fearing that it would be contagious. In an environment bereft of love for fellow human beings, where real warmth of heart was dead, Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem on kiss comes back to the mind. Marina Tsvetava has revived the fountain of love again throughout the universe.
We remember a portion of the letter she had written to her friend-poet Boris Pasternak:
“… sit down. Prompted by everything that is in the room, I take her hand. A hand longs for a hand (one takes hers, the other goes to her hair), I bend over, in my head: “Myriads.” And fully aware of the crime I am committing — right to the heart of her infection. In full awareness.
Boris! The resistance of that mouth was so different from the others. And with what shame it yielded. My first genuine kiss.And, perhaps, her desire. Boris, I kissed death. My wish to compensate for everything, in the name of life. Life itself kissed death. Boris, every kiss ought to be like that, not for life but for death, in full awareness of the price and the cost.”
Time has changed the miracle she had performed in reality into the life of death.
Also coming back to mind is the world renowned Indian Upanishad called ‘Katho Upanishad.’ It is a mega treatise that puts forward hosts of questions over life and death, philosophical quests and visions of wisdom.
Vajashravas of the Vedic age had performed a great yagna. As a rule, he was distributing his assets to the needy and the poor as part of the mandatory donation system. Nachiketa, his son, pestered him with the question, “Whom will you donate me?” An irritated Vajashravas petulantly said, “I will give you away to Yama (God of Death).”
Though his father had uttered the words in a mood of anger, Nachiketa obeyed his words scrupulously and went to the world of Yama where he was kept waiting for three days. Apologizing for the wrong, Yama by way of expiation told the boy that he would grant him three boons and asked the boy what were the three things the latter wanted.
Of the three, two were usual and ordinary. The third boon that the boy sought out captured the zenith of the Indian philosophical wisdom.
Nachiketa said: “Lord Yama! Some say people live beyond death and some deny it. What is the real state of man after death? What is the life of death? And what is the death of life? The answer that you would give me is the third boon that I wanted.”
A startled Yama said, “Nachiketa! No. Ask for some other boon. Ask for deathless great life. I would grant you. I would grant all the wealth, all the pleasures and countless gifts to you. But DO NOT SEEK TO KNOW THE SECRET OF DEATH.”
Lord Yama’s tone was supplicatory and sweetly humble.
However, Nachiketa stuck to his guns, remaining firm in his request to know the puzzling secret of death.
Carried away by the boy’s steadfastness, grit and determination, Lord Yama proceeded to dwell at length on the secrets, states and subtleties of death. This dissertation of dazzling wisdom is called Katho Upanishad!
After reading, I began to write a poem; then it felt like my body being on the boil.
Staggering between reality and fantasy, I took up the body temperature gun and shot my temples with it: 98.7°.
DEATH OF LIFE AND LIFE OF DEATH
The scorching sunshine slants, easing
I’ve been waiting for its advent
Keeping the window wide open
The sun resonates with moments of emptiness
Getting broken behind the closed doors
That is the bird coming fluttering as the
Sun is its zenith, beating down on the earth
It is a new acquaintance coming in to share
Its centuries-old loneliness, perched atop a bough
Opposite my window
It’s by no means a crow pheasant
It is grey colored, posing a mystery
Over its kind, its country of origin
The way it coos gets lit up with
An endless chain of melodious notes
Permeates and penetrates my body
My body expanding, shattering boundaries
And the gates of the locked city,
Joins the long caravan of pedestrians
Treading along the long highways out of bounds for travelling vehicles
It showers kisses, unmasking itself of
The social distancing
Turns into a butterfly fluttering, perched on
The shoulders getting dazed in fright of death
Turns into a long, eternal river caressing bird’s head
Turns into a reed on the banks; into a tree
Into an elephant camouflaging the tree
Its song and my quietude meander, go zig-zag and
Attain confluence at a dot, changing into a dialogue
Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of
Looking at a Blackbird’ unfolds as a performing art
For reasons unknown and in an indistinguishable
Anxiety I’ve been waiting for it since morning
The afternoon sunlight is fading
The leaves hanging from the boughs are turning sour
The window sills are turning musty and rusty
The bookmarks inserted into the pages of poetry are creaking
My heart is breaking at the moment it hardly shows up
All of a sudden the walls in the room sprout with horns
As I leapfrog to the terrace upstairs the nakedly scorching sun burns
As the eye swirls and sways I search the whole of sky,
Wondering if there is the fourteenth way of looking at the bird.
Single feather comes down crashing like a streak of lightning
From the sky, in a sudden gust of winds.
Taking on the embrace of a long separated friend
Visiting after eons, the feather slithers all over my body
And gets clasped in my hand
How can I forget the hugging of the deeply brownish feather?
A great fire envelops me.
In the cool caressing of the feather on my no-more-burning cheeks,
I throw the feather into the wide expanse of the universe
*That lies, spreading like a gargantuan altar
At the moment the sun gets drowned into
My frozen blood
In an instant, it gets caught into the endless vortex of time
It leaps up, churning the winds.
Oh me! What a spectacular scenario!
That single feather keeps on inscribing the
Puzzle swinging between the death of life
And life of death
On mountains, flowers, trees, shoots, plants,
Riverbanks, cereals and
In the depths of the universe.
*I have recreated the line of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry in a different way.
THE WASTE LAND
Writing to me is akin to travel
The path may be rough
and rugged; a single-lane
and one-way path.
It may even be a forest
abounding in hedges and wild beasts
At times there may be no path at all
Yet, travel will go on, soil clasping the
striding feet whose pressure drives the travel.
On either side there are shady shelters
of trees where one can chill out
In the taste of the packed dry lunch
wafting all along and being shared with
fellow humans, the time of the desolation
and the length of shadow blissfully pass by.
But during the present travel, rows after rows
of people burdened with luggage in plenty
are dragging themselves along the long,
weary path that criss-crosses my way
and cuts into it.
Even as the time-face of the desolation
burns the skies and the lengthy space of shadows
sprinkles ash about, overhead suddenly bursts the sun!
MY DOOR KEPT CLOSED FOR 101 DAYS
Do not knock repeatedly at it, a strong ‘that,’
My beloved butterfly,
For your body will get shattered; wings battered.
Nay, I can’t open the door.
TV boxes keep on yelling non-stop inside
That virus has penetrated into the atmosphere outside
Government orders proclaim, ‘Love not thy neighbor.’
In this hullabaloo gods have gone into hiding.
How long can I endure the dwelling
In this 8X12 feet room where I have done
Circumambulation for a thousand years?
As I take every step, the earth goes inward;
I stamp my first step on my country’s politics;
The second on religions;
The next on the rotting and fetid casteist system;
On the fellow human with stings;
On the structures he has made;
On the unwritten pages; on the boundless Time;
On the hope that tomorrow will dawn;
On a piece of sky;
On the sun, moon, stars, on waterbodies,
On landscapes where frontiers are drawn up deeply,
My footsteps continue unabated.
Oh, butterfly, now you have come
to my window like a low-flying drone.
Your shadow gets gigantic, your wings standing
Laden with the endless skies.
I stamp my feet on the feathers enlarging timelessly;
What a miracle!
My land gets expanded;
Under the wide expanse of the azure sky,
On the landscape bereft of human footfalls,
I saw that lass and also a flower bud in her palms;
The bud she put in my hand bursts;
At the instant, a boundless tree sprouts,
Piercing my footstep.
10 POEMS WRITTEN IN A LOCKDOWN CITY
This poem is not mine.
Not that of Thomas Mann,
author of Death in Venice;
Certainly not by Albert Camus.
Is it Jose Saramago’s? Never.
Perhaps it is Marina Tsvetaeva’s
or that of a gypsy huckster carrying the cage
of sparrows hardly bought and shouting
in front of locked houses.
“Do not call a poem a poem;
that is hunger in the depths of stomach,”
says the folk gypsy beggar,
stretching out his hands before the locked houses,
seeking out mercy and lashing his own body
with a cruel whip.
The rabies-causing saliva dripping
from the dogs behind the closed door
gets sprinkled all through the poem.
Poetry is no art of dissection.
Before the Bonsai trees, sitting modestly,
in front of the closed magnificent doors,
wearing a small mask,
the ‘boom boom’ ox man asks for alms.
The ox’s bells hanging from the neck
chime the ‘ Padme Hum’ rhythm
that sets the endless musical universe resonating.
While intoxicated with the
eternal and elegant rhythm,
the gigantic space of poetry rises up
in the greenishness of the leaves
sprouting out of the inwardly curling
branches opening and stretching out
and dancing a dazzling dance,
swung and swayed by the universe.
What condition does poetry enjoy
In this despondent life of frequent hand sanitization?
Poetry staggers and shuffles its feet
between the aromatic flower of the dirty
smile of a tiny toddler lying on its stomach
along the back of the grimy and bony-stomached
nomadic woman hawking cheap beads
in the deserted street and the oily stickiness
of the disinfectants sprinkled anxiously
from a safe distance at the locked doorsteps.
In a closed street robbed
of odour of human buzz,
wearing a cascading whitish beard,
a fakir walks, incense smoke billowing
out of the censer that his hands are clasping
tightly, and the sky seemingly waving about
in his hands. The curling and swirling smoke is floating
in the universe like a Sufi.
In that magical moment,
poetry transforms itself into
a blossoming universe.
Form of poetry changes
from age to age.
The protagonist eking out his livelihood
in the city rushes to have the last glimpse
of his mother dead back in his home town,
along with his wife and kids by a two-wheeler.
The illegal journey where life too is a passenger
is written as a poem by the e-pass.
In this post-modernist age,
poetry is nothing but a
reconstruction of history, says Roland Barthes.
Uncut and unmanicured meadow greets
a pair of lovers who sneak into the park
closed for lockdown,
manoeuvring through the grilles.
While they embrace moments of
union, the blades of grass prickle their hanging toes.
“What place is this ? Where are we right now?” asks she.
The grassland grows up,
camouflaging the bodies of lovers
who were butchered in bundles
in slums, along rail tracks,
on the banks of rivers and in dense forests.
While she relaxes her mask
for kiss, a butterfly freed from her lips
metamorphoses into Carl Sandburg’s poem.*
* Grass by Carl Sandburg
A spider has built up a nest in the pale,
dreamy eyes of a small lass
wearing a small mask, walking down,
holding the fingers of her parents.
The butterfly that has escaped the dream
of Chuang Tzu has now transformed into a virus.
While it is dreaming of this girl,
poetry expands, permeating the
atmosphere laden with disaster.
The waterbody swings and sways
in the fixed eyes of the fisherman
standing in front of the locked houses.
What is caught wriggling in the bait of
the fishing hook dipping in the pond
is not fish; certainly not the frog either.
But it’s poetry pulsating at the
of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
A stone is flung at my tightly
closed door firm on its hinges.
The emptiness of the locked city
is broken in the sun swirling and
swinging in the rippled waterbody
that has been still and serene a while ago.
Basho’s frog that leaps into the pond
and this stone hurled into the water
set off a vortex that I break cross-sectionally.
Now writes the poem Gouthama Siddarthan!
Translated by MAHARATHI