Sunday, September 28, 2014

Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Noorul Hasan, Athena Kashyap- 3 book reviews

Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions
Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Christopher Taylor 
Niyogi Books, 2013

The central display at my favourite Bombay bookshop, Kitab Khana, is creaking under the weight of new books on the city. It is difficult to know just what else can be added to the oeuvre before it collapses completely. I remember a time when the only books on Bombay that were available were Gillian Tindall’s history, City of Gold (1982) and Dom Moraes’ contemporary – and then, controversial – account Bombay (1979), commissioned by Time/ Life books. And then, apres Mehrotra/Dwivedi, le déluge.

On a slightly nativist note, I think any new book on Mumbai should pass muster with Mumbaikars first. Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Christopher Taylor’s immersive account – history, travelogue, ethnography, picture book and prose-poem does so, giving us a sense of Mumbai as it is today. Poet and photographer, both accepting the version of Indian time as a kaalchakra, retread and retrace the city to reclaim it: “What one saw at noon must be seen again in starlight; that which was seen in summer reveals another aspect in the monsoon.” This appreciation of multi-dimensionality, both in time and in space, articulates what Chabria calls the hard and the soft city – the city of data and materiality and of imagining and desire. Immersion is the wearing down of shoe soles, going forth to meet its very many “yesterday’s outsiders and today’s natives” (a phrase from Ranjit Hoskote’s preface) and submerging into the known and unknown to be ultimately renewed, much like the city’s annual Ganesh visarjan.

Using this “cross-genre” approach allows the reader to make a non-linear journey through the city, observing many simultaneities and palimpsest layers, the initial southern heart and the developing northern and eastern limbs, using voices from the past (Chitre, Dhasal, Surve, Pasolini and Paz are all evoked) and the voices of the present from the streets, bylanes, chawls and slums. Chabria narrates the many lives with gentleness and honesty bringing “all its denizens together” like the city at low-tide, who “all alike smell its tidal spoor”.

The book is a pas de deux between text and images, and co-author Christopher Taylor’s photographs, taken the old fashioned way using negative film to make silver gelatin prints, bring out the texture, grittiness and veracity of this mad megalopolis. His images punctuate the narrative and carry it forward, not with panoramas but vignettes of a city largely unseen. Not an underbelly, really (we’ve had enough of faux noir-imaginings of the big, bad Mumbai Nagariya) but more a quotidian presence. Taylor’s is a visual account of the occupied city.

Chabria un-riddles the city’s various etymologies, which become the access to some of the oldest and now dwindling communities and their physical artifacts: homes, religious places, cemeteries as with the Chinese, the Armenian Jews, the Irani Shias all centred around Mazgaon. Taylor photographs the newer communities – the drivers of “kaali-peelis”, the service industry that accommodates migrants “like the city accommodates high tide”. The vast, unlamented backroom industry that forms the bulwark for the Hindi film world is explored, as are some of the city’s geographies that we do not talk about much – the ferries and the forests. Chabria ends with a prose poem, “Cab ride through Bombay/Mumbai”. Here, like the book, ruminations, memories and the views outside meld together like a seething traffic jam, filling the senses like exhaust, making the eyes blink and water – and ultimately clear the vision.

-Reviewed by Mustansir Dalvi in Time Out Mumbai

Meena Kumari: The Poet 
A Life Beyond Cinema
Noorul Hasan
Roli Books, 2014

During the golden age of vinyl, when shelves of record stores were filled with albums of songs from Hindi films, a patronizingly small space was accorded to the “non-filmy” album. I remember two of these—one was the eponymously titled Bachchan Recites Bachchan, the other I Write, I Recite, an album of recordings of Meena Kumari reciting her own poetry with music by Khayyam. In her sonorous, somewhat breathless voice, she spoke of love and loneliness. Quite like the tragedy queen she was in her films. That was 1972.

Now, Noorul Hasan, a former professor of English with interests from Thomas Hardy to Firaq Gorakhpuri, has brought together several of Meena Kumari’s verses, published in English translation for the first time. Most of her poems share the themes commonly found in Urdu ghazals and nazms—loss, solitude, the contemplation of death, the futility of words. Meera Kumari’s enduring reputation is that of a tragic doyenne. Her poems are not rooted in specifics, and are written in a rhetorical style that does not offer a reader much to hold on to. One is therefore obliged to juxtapose this with the context of her life for a full appreciation of the poems.

Hasan has also curated additional material that includes essays on her verse and several appendices with archival interviews and reminiscences that range from the fanboy thrill of meeting the Garboesque diva (by Afsar Jamshed) to the raking up of a mildly salacious past. Naushad Ali’s short biography, Actress Meena Kumari: From The Cradle To The Grave, summarizes her life—her beginnings as a child actor, her debut in the stunt movie called (of all things) Leatherface, her rise to fame as an adult actor with Baiju Bawra, her unrequited love for a leading man, her marriage with, and divorce from, a leading director, her slide into isolation and alcoholism, and the fixing of her image as a tragedienne with Pakeezah, all allow one to indulge in reading these into her poems: “Life is a scattered tale of grief/ And my story is nearing its end.” Hasan’s translations are accompanied by Roman transliterations that allow the multilingual (but Urdu-challenged) reader access to Meena Kumari’s original words, and these are very welcome: “Din doobe hai ya doobi baraat liye kashti/ Sahil pe magar koi kohram nahi hota” (Is it sunset or has the wedding barge capsized/ There is no hue and cry on the shore all the same).

Meena Kumari’s poems are steeped in melancholy, rarely allowing even a spark of cheer or good humour. She often acknowledges her own self-indulgence: “I sit and brood for hours/ About which heartbeat/ I should turn into poetry”. Out of her accumulated outpourings of angst she is on occasion able to convey an image of some beauty: “This night/ Was merciful like/ Miriam’s warm cloak/ And like a dreaming Christ/ Drowned in sleep—innocent”. While several of her ghazals tread familiar landscapes, it is her nazms, short and long, that yield the most. Here, she is at her most confessional: “My own dreams poisoned me/ My own imaginings stung me to death.”

Few books subvert their own title. Meena Kumari The Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema is one. In a sense that is what makes the book most engaging. Approached with the full awareness that this is a collection of poems by a famous actor of the Hindi screen whose image surpasses her performances and her life, these verses add to and sustain her persona. Her poems become enjoyable reading, evoking the many visual memories we have of Meena Kumari. Indeed, the book has several iconic images from her films. I would take issue with the opening essay, where Philip Bounds and Daisy Hasan describe her poetry as a critique of popular culture. Asserting that “her poems tell us as much about Bollywood as they do about herself” is clearly overstating the case, as their defence is entirely rooted in her life in cinema.

It is her later chroniclers, it would seem, who cannot let go of the baggage of her “filmy” career, instead of attempting to read her verses for what they are. Meena Kumari herself puts it best. The best of the “bonus features” that enrich this book is “My Likes And Dislikes”, a throwaway interview that she seems to have given to some film magazine. “A closed book is very enticing because it is silent”, she says, “but once you start reading it its entire character begins changing slowly and imperceptibly.” Like the famous Kuleshov effect of cinematic montage, this book, like the actor herself, cannot escape its proximity to Meena Kumari’s films, her times, and the long shadow she casts as an eternally suffering doyenne.

-Reviewed by Mustansir Dalvi in Mint Lounge, Sat, Jun 28 2014

Crossing Black Waters
Athena Kashyap
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2012

In her debut collection of poetry, author Athena Kashyap references “black waters” to evoke two separate “crossings”: the first, when the author moved to the United States from the country/city of her formative years, and the second, when her great-grandfather uprooted his family from Lahore and made the crossing to India.

Embedded in the poems, which move back and forth between the Indian subcontinent and America, is a longing for “home” that is realized in the mind. However, when the poet finally returns to her abandoned family home in Pakistan, she finds that what was left behind is just “half of everything.” Even the fulfillment of her longing is faltering, uncertain: “Of all the seeds planted / by great-grandfather in Lahore, / only trees remain— / clinging on.”

The backdrop of San Francisco, on the other hand, represents a more abstract existence, an occupation rather than a belonging, a perpetual halfway house. Kashyap declares her position succinctly: “I am knot.” There is a sense of slow loss in her America-centered poems, in a country where, according to the poet, she is so free that she floats away: “I am diluted, having left one world to live and travel in / others. My skin grows permeable, breathable.” It is at this plane of osmosis, of skin as filter, that the experience of America occurs. Her poems situated beyond the black waters absorb the local, but the specifics of a home left behind intrude: the taste of tandoori, of sweet Gujarati food, snippets of Hindi film songs, and the memories of Mumbai trains all collide with the present.

The poem “Zero Generation” addresses immigrant loneliness as a collective experience, in that it speaks to those who “long to belong, but also long to return / back to where we once belonged.” The desire for making a world in a foreign land is inherent, but described here is an immigrant experience that just does not settle, and Kashyap’s poems simmer at this cusp. She references a popular line from a film song, “Aye dil, hai mushkil jeena yahaan,” which translates to, “My poor heart, how difficult it is to live here!” While the “here” in the context of the song refers to Bombay, the author borrows the expression to refer to life in America. This move by the author achieves the effect of making the hard reality of urban living there—or here—universal.

Kashyap writes of sundering, separations, crossings, reunions, and uncertain reconciliations. The break with an imagined home is never forever; return is always a possibility yet remains unsatisfying whenever it occurs. Crossing Black Waters is a many-layered book about the simultaneity of multiple existence that is becoming more frequent in our modern world, where all our online networks are no substitute for being “there,” and being there is no longer an end in itself.

-Reviewed by Mustansir Dalvi in Jaggery Lit, Issue 1, Fall 2013

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