Tuesday, November 13, 2012

diwali, by vikram seth: a poem for our times, esp for the deracinated ones

i sent this out once, but posterous is misbehaving, and often either a) posts things twice or b) throws the post away without autoposting to my other microblogs.

i have reset things on posterous, hope it works better now.

one of my favorite poems of all time, i usually send it out every deepavali

Diwali by Vikram Seth

 

Three years of neurotic

Guy Fawkes Days—I recall

That lonely hankering—

But I am home after all.

 

Home. These walls, this sky

Splintered with wakes of light

These mud-lamps beaded round

The eaves, this festive night,

 

These streets, these voices… yet

The old insensate dread,

Abeyant as that love,

Once more shifts in my head.

 

Five? Six? generations ago

Somewhere in the Punjab

My father’s family, farmers,

Perhaps had a small shop

 

And two generations later

Could send a son to a school

To gain the conqueror’s

Authoritarian seal:

 

English! Six-armed god,

Key to a job, to power,

Snobbery, the good life,

This separateness, this fear.

 

English: beloved language

Of Johnson, Wordsworth’s tongue—

These my “meridian names”

Whose grooves I crawl along.

 

The Moghuls fought and ruled

And settled. Even while

They hungered for musk-melon,

Rose, peach, nightingale,

 

The land assumed their love.

At sixty they could not

Retire westwards. The British

Made us the Orient.

 

How could an Englishman say

About the divan-e-khas

“If there is heaven on earth

It is this; it is this; it is this.”?

 

Macaulay the prophet of learning

Chewed at his pen: one taste

Of Western wisdom “surpasses

All the books of the East,”

 

And Kalidas, Shankaracharya,

Panini, Bhaskara, Kabir,

Surdas sank, and we welcomed

The reign of Shakespeare.

 

The undigested Hobbes,

The Mill who later ground

(Through talk of liberty)

The Raj out of the land…

 

O happy breed of Babus,

I march on with your purpose;

We will have railways, common law

And a good postal service—

 

And I twist along

Those grooves from image to image,

Violet, elm-tree, swan,

Pork-pie, gable, scrimmage

 

And we title our memoirs

“Roses in December”

Though we all know that here

Roses *grow* in December

 

And we import songs

Composed in the US

For Vietnam (not even

Our local horrors grip us)

 

And as, over gin at the Club,

I note that egregious member

Strut just imperceptibly more

When with a foreigner,

 

I know that the whole world

Means exile of our breed

Who are not home at home

And are abroad abroad,

 

Huddled in towns, while around:

“He died last week. My boys

Are starving. Daily we dig

The ground for sweet potatoes.”

 

“The landlord’s hirelings broke

My husband’s ribs—and I

Grow blind in the smoke of the hearth.”

“Who will take care of me

 

When I am old? No-one

Is left.” So it goes on,

The cyclic shadow-play

Under the sinister sun;

 

That sun that, were there water,

Could bless the dispirited land,

Coaxing three crops a year

From this same yieldless ground.

 

Yet would these parched wraiths still

Starve in their ruins, while

“Silkworms around them grow

Into fat cocoons”?, Sad soil,

 

This may as well be my home.

Because no other nation

Moves me thus? What of that?

Cause for congratulation?

 

This could well be my home;

I am too used to the flavor

Of tenuous fixity;

I have been brought to savour

 

Its phases: the winter wheat—

The flowers of Har-ki-Doon—

The sal forests—the hills

Inflamed with rhododendron—

 

The first smell of the Rains

On the baked earth—the peaks

Snow-drowned in permanence—

The single mountain lakes.

 

What if my tongue is warped?

I need no words to gaze

At Ajanta, those flaked caves,

Or at the tomb of Mumtaz;

 

And when an alap of Marwa

Swims on slow flute-notes over

The neighbors’ roofs at sunset

Wordlessly like a lover

 

It holds me—till the strain

Of exile, here or there,

Subverts the trance, the fear

Of fear found everywhere.

 

“But freedom?” the notes would sing…

Parole is enough. Tonight

Below the fire-crossed sky

Of the Festival of Light.

 

Give your soul leave to feel

What distilled peace it can;

In lieu of joy, at least

This lapsing anodyne.

 

“The world is a bridge. Pass over it,

Building no house upon it.”

Acceptance may come with time;

Rest, then, disquieted heart.

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