The Veiled Suite

The Veiled Suite by Agha Shahid Ali, published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2009

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Once in a while you come across a book that changes your expectations from literature, endows you with a new sensibility and rediscovers for you the enchantment of words. The Veiled Suite, the anthology of Agha Shahid Ali’s collected poems is one such rare masterpiece.

What does one look for from an anthology of poems by a poet one has only infrequently read? Ideally, ecstasy. That inexplicable sense of joy, wonder and overwhelming emotion you feel when you come across expressions, lines or texts that almost transport you to a different world – a world where words branch out in constellations of meaning that almost illuminate the unexplored recesses of your own heart and clothe you in showers of light. Agha Shahid Ali does that.

Even those even remotely acquainted with Ali’s poetry know that he is a master of melancholy and a miner of nostalgia. This is something that keeps coming back in his early collections such as the Half-Inch Himalayas where we see a typical nostalgic longing for one’s homeland, common to many diasporic authors, but with a rare appreciation of the pluralities that often go missing from the imaginary homelands that migrants conjure, as evident from the following lines on his grandfather where Sufi mystics merge with Napoleon, Plato and Socrates:

Grandfather, a handsome boy

Sauntered towards madness

Into Srinagar’s interior.

In a dim-lit shop he smoked hashish,

Reciting verses of Sufi mystics…

As he grew older, he moved toward Plato

Mumbling, “Philosopher-king”,

 

Napoleon on his lips…

In his cup,

Socrates swirled. (56)

 

The same plurality appears in “The Season of the Plains” where the memory of the Kashmiri speaker’s mother merges him with Thumri singers of Benaras, one Hindu and the other Muslim, and their longing for Krishna:

…the monsoon, when krishna’s

flute is heard on the shores

of the Jamuna. She played old records

of the Banaras thumri singers,

 

Siddheshwari and Rasoolan, their

voices longing, when the clouds

gather, for that invisible

 

blue god. (44)

Remarkably such syncretic tapestry is accompanied by monsoon on other occasions as well and the rains provide Ali with the occasions of penning some of his most beautiful lines where nature and psyche find themselves interwoven in glittering synaesthetic craftsmanship that virtually renders the rain alive to your senses:

 …now when

Malhar longs to stitch the rain,

 

Wrap you in its notes: you elude

completely. The rain doesn’t speak,

and life once again closes in,

 

reasserting the earth where the air

Meets in a season of grief. (55)

Rain reappears again in The Country without a Post Office, perhaps Ali’s most celebrated anthology, where it also merges with a remarkable and potent yearning whose very simplicity makes it radically contrast the world of blood, fire and death which constituted the matrix of Kashmir in the nineties: “O, those days of peace when we were all in love and the rain was in our hands wherever we went” (195). Significantly, this ‘we’ in Ali’s poetry is never either a Muslim brotherhood or any singular parochial sect. This is why the fratricidal violence in Kashmir evokes a heart-wrenching cry of lament from Shahid who even imagines himself as Ishamael, a name that embodies within itself those cultural intersections that oppose any singular vision of identity and the violence that it entails:

In the heart’s veiled temple all statues have been smashed

No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

 

He’s freed some fire from ice, in pity from Heaven:

He’s left open – for God – the doors of Hell tonight.

 

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee –

God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight. (195)

The same inclusive ethics again registers itself, drenched with rain, in Shahid’s tribute to Hans Christian Ostro, a Norwegian hostage killed by militants. Lamenting his demise, Shahid identifies him as the oxymoronic “Blessed Infidel” for whom Kashmir can only conjure a tearful, spectral farewell:

…. And draped in rain

Of the last monsoon-storm

A beggar, ears pressed to that metal-cry

Will keep waiting on a ghost platform

Holding back his tears, waving every train

Good-bye and Good-bye. (237)

However, Shahid’s vision is never restricted within Kashmir. His poetry recurrently moves along a multilocal trajectory where Kashmir merges with such places as Sarajevo, Chechnya or Palestine and weaves a network of solidarity in suffering that even poetically unbalances the existing geopolitical structures of power. This is precisely why he can claim, “By the Hudson lies Kashmir, brought from Palestine” (297) or ironically trace the geography of separation by recalling the movement of River Indus which flows across India and Pakistan without bothering about borders and LoCs:

So what is separation’s geography?

Everything is just that mystery,

everything is this roar that deafens:

this stream has branched off from the Indus

in Little Tibet, just to

find itself where Porus

 

Miles down, (there it will join the Jhelum)

lost to the Greeks. It will become

in Pakistan, the Indus again. (276)

Significantly, such aesthetic gems are also designed and crafted through Shaid’s recurrent deployment of ghazal form which also highlights the postcolonial dimension of his poetry as he effects a beautiful cross-pollination between his Urdu and Persian literary heritage and the English language. In a post 9/11 world where the air is rife with the rhetoric of civilizational clashes and a politics of xenophobia and jingoism, Shahid’s poetry offers an alternative aesthetic space – a non-local unbounded space, “a map of longings with no limit” where every here opens a window there and thus creates a syncretic, deterritorialized voice that embraces multiplicities. Perhaps the most telling example of this art is an English ghazal on Arabic where he claims:

This much fuss about a language I don’t know? So one day

Perfume from a dress may let you digress in Arabic…

 

When Lorca dies they left the balconies open and saw

On the sea his qasidas stitched seamless in Arabic…

 

I too, O Amichai, saw everything just like you did –

In Death. In Hebrew. And (please let me stress) in Arabic.

 

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: Listen, listen

It means ‘The Beloved’ in Persian, ‘witness’ in Arabic. (372-73)

Agha Shahid Ali’s poetics thus traverses forms, authors, languages and continents with a seamless interplay between love and loss and as he “move[s] in [his] heart between sad countries”, we too are moved to bear ‘witness’ to his journeys.

– Abin Chakraborty

Fear and Loathing in Dark Chambers

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Me commenting on any aspect of cinema is like an amateur art-critic passing supercilious remarks on the techniques of Monet. Deriving inspiration from the like, I will go ahead with this anyway and entitle myself to be ludicrously biased towards my own opinions, completely disregarding the passion and the ideas that motivate many movie-makers to create and share something significant.

Movies demand a chunk of time out of my life. From the moment I enter the cinema hall, someone seems to declare in an inaudible voice, “I’m going to scoop two hours out of your life, and you are going to WATCH me do it.” This, for someone like me who has an almost pathologically obsessive concern about her life-span, is disconcerting. I get the feeling of having entered the dentist’s chamber whereas going for a movie only has the possibility of turning out like a bad date that you do not necessarily walk out on because, well, you have already placed an order for the food and you know damn well that the other person is not paying for it.

My own intransigence plays an integral role in my distrust for movies. I tend to shut out the narrative at the first moment of my disapproval of it. Also, if I fail to appreciate the movie, I feel like Alex bound to his chair before I run out of the theatre, or I quietly sob away and perish underneath the burden of the helplessness of realising how two hours of my life is being stolen right before my eyes. Needless to say, I dread either of the feelings. However, cinema does have an incredible appeal to people to suspend willingly their belief or their disbelief. Most of the time, I tend to let my guard down and allow the director to manipulate my mind by volition for the whole duration of the movie. Since I seldom look forward to reinforcing the sense of vacuity in my life by surviving a bad movie, I usually resort to trusting the director with my time. Cinema gives us a peek into the director’s mind, their thoughts, their (just for the sake of sounding fancy) weltanschauung. Ironically, one must risk some amount of their time acquainting oneself to the style of a director before saying, “No, thanks.” And thus persists the having-the-cake-and-eating-it problematic.

Paradoxically maintaining my tendency to digress, let me articulate another problem I face at the theatres. There is never a good time to pause and ponder over something! It is a pity to inhabit a three-dimensional space in linear time. The movie keeps running at its own pace, not caring two hoots about my thought-process. Unlike reading a book, movies at theatres do not allow me to manage my time at my own will, and I detest running along. Perhaps that is the reason why I prefer watching DVDs at home. Of course the experience at the theatres is just as majestic as the multiplex advertisements claim, but I would rather choose my moments, reflect and relive them over and over again if I so wish. I would rather that the timeline of the movie does not clash with that of my life, thus making my life feel more controlled than it already is, and I say this completely aware of the absurdity of my demand.

It is not always the movie that is at fault: I admit that sometimes I have the attention span of a squirrel. Now, that which is more unnerving to me is the moment the movie fails to retain my attention. Suddenly I become aware of how I am sitting in a dark room full of strangers, the number of steps I would have to tackle to make it to the glaring and alluring “Exit” signboard, or I wonder how amazing it would be to walk through the walls of the multiplex and pulling off a Nelson on them [Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons: the one who points and laughs at people]. The metatheatricality of my existence and the limitations of reality join hands to add to my prevailing misery.

Jokes apart, I believe that cinema has a power not shared by too many other media of expression. It has the power of being able to create something fantastic: it gives me a ticket to the other world, the one that I can only imagine but can never invite the next person to travel with me to. Cinema is the stuff that dreams are made on. Having said that, I must clarify that I do not wish to abnegate directors who intend to convey an important message through their films. One can simply not deny the impact of the visual and its efficacy in being readily received. So when Ritwik Ghatak says that he employs cinema as an instrument for propagating a message, I sincerely acknowledge that. In fact, I think that it is a brilliant method for reaching out to the mass, making people see and evoking feelings that they might otherwise not have seen or felt. But for me, and this is just a personal opinion, I look forward to the newer things one can do with the medium. In cinema, it is like taking a plunge into a painting and finding oneself living and breathing in another world, especially with the developments in 3D effects. The cathartic effect of cinema on my life is irrefutable. I would possibly end up identifying with the characters in the plot and living their life through the course of the movie. So if, by the end of it, I find myself drained out emotionally, I would prefer to have lived a screen-life that I could not have lived in reality and save my rage to yell at newspaper reports or to shake my fist at the clouds for things that go wrong in the real world.

– Kamalika Basu

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The Door

The Door by Margaret Atwood, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007

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Image source: zaraalexis.wordpress.com

The Door makes for a perfect read on a spring afternoon. Divided into five sections, the fifty odd poems touch upon various themes, ranging from the private, to the personal, to the public, and back to the private where, once again “the door swings closed”. The poems in the first section reverberate with loss and longing when the speaker, in a child-like voice, mourns the death of a pet cat, or describes the dwindling figure of her ailing mother. Critical analysis of the poems would yield a potpourri of discussions regarding agency and representational politics, but one does not even need to go into close readings of the poems in order to encounter (and enjoy) Atwood’s voice – sharp and clear – echoing through the “exploding / syllables [that] litter the lawn”. The politics of the self mingles with larger politics, swimming through metanarratives such as feminism (and even perhaps questioning its usual tropes). Conscious of being an onlooker – an outsider, a distanced gaze – the speaker observes a woman learning to write for the first time:

“She looks up, smiles

as if apologizing,

but she’s not. Not this time. She did it right.

 

What does the mud say?

Her name. We can’t read it.

But we can guess. Look at her face:

Joyful Flower? A Radiant One? Sun on Water?”

Atwood’s poetic persona, often overshadowed by her fame as a novelist, seems to reassert its position of importance when the poet herself writes of poets: the speaker turns to the figure of the poet, trying to grapple with the incredulity of poetic creation before endorsing how the poet cannot but be a poet. The trials and tribulations, as also the thrill, of being a poet is what makes her explode certitudes and look between the interstices of life itself.

Atwood’s romanticism goes hand in hand with her cynicism when she dwells on the subject of war in the latter part of the book. The lines which immediately follow a poem titled “War Photo 2” are:

“Even if you had remained alive,

we would never have spoken.

I can’t speak your absence for you.

(Why is it then I can hear you so clearly?)”

 

She de-familiarises our familiar objects of use such as the classic shirt, teetering us back to the horrors of war:

“White cotton T-shirt: an innocent garment then.

It made its way to us from the war, but we didn’t know that.

….

and the white, white flowers we hold out in our fists,

believing – still – that they are flowers of peace.”

 

The common thread that links the poems together is the strong undercurrent of compassion flowing through the lines. It is this very compassion that makes the poet reflect with as much melancholy on the death of a pet as on Death, or on lovers in their old age. Despite their irony and cynicism, the poems betray a certain compassion which tugs at the heart of a romantic. As you settle down on a couch, set your cup of steaming coffee on the window sill, and lose yourself behind The Door, the vividness of the poems silently and surreptitiously transport you to another world where you see eroded ecosystems, war-torn soldiers, possessed poets, and old couples hobbling their way through life. And all the while Atwood murmurs in your ears:

“That’s what I do:

I tell dark stories

before and after they come true.”

– Adreja Mukherji

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Anomalisa

Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015

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“Whoever is alone, will stay alone.”

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche New York begins with these prophetic lines that not only capture the essence of that film but also of Kaufman’s entire oeuvre. His latest film, Anomalisa bears no such preface; the film begins with a cluster of voices that tempts one to participate, only to end in a deafening blur.

Anomalisa marks the return of Kaufman after almost eight years and at the look of the film it almost seems he is a new man. Not new to collaborations, Kaufman ties up with Duke Johnson to create a stop motion drama, a technique that makes the characters look very similar to puppets but with more fluidity in their movements. But thought puppet-like, the protagonist disturbingly resembles us and so do his problems. Sitting in his hotel room, enveloped with ennui, the middle-aged Michael Stone is far closer to Bob Harris from Lost in Translation than to Carl Fredricksen in Up. A self-help author, Stone arrives at Cincinnati to deliver a talk and the film captures his journey to and from that place. Kaufman’s Cincinnati is a strangely adult world where not a single kid features. It is the domain of the adults, of their anxieties and the only toy shop that exists there sells sex toys. It is a city of closed doors, of failed relationships and within minutes you realize that Kaufman has not changed one bit. He is still scraping the old wounds and his protagonist still dreads being without somebody and concomitantly suffers from the inability to be with someone. Returning to familiar territory, Kaufman uses the Fregoli delusion, which is a belief that everyone else in the world is the same person in order to show the extreme self-absorption and the alienation his protagonist suffers from. Michael Stone is posited in such a world which makes him not only the quintessential Kaufman hero but puts him first in the line. He is engulfed by the same-ness, in the way people look and in the way they sound to him. His wife, his ex-lover, his child, the lift man all appear and sound the same to him, except Lisa, the girl with a scar on her forehead and who is never chosen over his friend. Lisa becomes the anomalisa.

But it is no love story. There is no hope. Alienation is the word that comes up time and again while watching the film and writing about it. It is sought for, assented upon, even struggled with. There are three voices that are used in the film. David Thewlis becomes the voice of Michael Stone, doing an absolute stellar job. He brings across the exact sense of boredom and the pathos in the character. For the rest of the characters, Tom Nooman lends his voice. In a plaintive tone he is at once accusing Stone as an ex-lover, as a wife, completely failing to understand him and seducing him as the rest. For Lisa, it is Jennifer Jason Leigh, sounding mellifluous as she sings for Stone in the hotel room and equally vulnerable as she finally falls prey to Nooman’s voice.

With puppets walking up and down the screen, Anomalisa may not share Kaufman’s language but shares his grammar. But this time Kaufman disturbs more, even disorients. By creating a stop motion drama, he immediately creates a distance from the audience and yet his world is deeply rooted in the real world we reside in. Anomalisa deeply confounds. It reveals the many facades that we live behind and how with a delicate push all may just come tumbling down. In a fascinating scene, the protagonist, while closely inspecting himself tries to dislocate a piece of his face. It threatens to fall off. Kaufman with unflinching brutality reveals how the spurt of celebration on finding a new love dies down not because love is too commonplace but because it is an anomaly and we are unsure about what to do with one. Therefore like Michael we return where we had begun: unloved but reeking of familiarity. We return not because we must but because we may. There is a choice and we choose the most convenient. Kaufman is a bitter man here and yet he earns our grudging acquiescence. Anomalisa is a deeply personal film which much like our most private moments that often spill out in public, asks in full view, “what is to ache, what is to be human?”

This may be Kaufman’s finest.

– Ishita Sengupta

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