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Helter by skelter

Debasish Lahiri |

A diaspore sunders the self, from itself. The love and longing of these partings and withheld arrivals is the original warmth in the ribs of writing. Compared to this, the diaspora of multinational location is a mere crack in the wall hidden by the wallpaper of writing. A writer of the diaspora bears the burden of two diasporas, a burden that shapes the fissure and drives the fuse of ideas that surface as doubt, critique, longing or a mere wish and are as much internal to the writer as to the exteriority that she has to negotiate.

Usha Akella&’s Rosary of Latitudes bears the standard, as also the mark, of the twin diasporas. To better illustrate the nature of her heroism in confronting the diaspora within and the parallel celebration of the diaspora without, I look to Amir Khusrau&’s romance of Duval Rani— Khizr Khan, where he writes how “one who breaks free from love&’s fetters/is deserted by wisdom in his affairs”. The brand of love is a strange one, concedes Khusrau, since the “searing of the soul seems gentle” and “all the suffering for the sake of love/was born from the heart and also killed by it”.

   Rosary of Latitudes challenges us, further, by reminding us that our languages are coded. Society is forbidden, by a thousand means, to mingle them, to transgress their separation and their hierarchy: the discourse of history, that of philosophy, poetry, prose, minutiae, report, critique, anecdote and ledger must be kept free of desire. Bridges must remain immanent. There is something entrenched and estranging in the law of genres akin to diaspora that Akella&’s book seeks to redress.

   The very conception of the book gives us a pause. Every bead on Akella&’s chain is a threshold. It is a step in a steep staircase that you ascend or descend, quite like the sun&’s scaling of the ladder of latitudes, like a spider ascending the shuttle of many-hued yarn, always in pursuit of certainty, always beside itself. One can immediately see the brilliant appositeness of her epigraph from Dante&’s “Paradiso” in his Divine Comedy,  “Thou shalt leave everything beloved most dearly… Thou shalt/prove… how/hard a path it is to go up and down upon another&’s stairs.” As the sun rides the latitudes, its sojourn, its straddling of that unseen threshold creates days and nights of its own: the soul&’s night and day. Akella&’s book can be read as one such journal of day-by-day, a testament to being a weather-beaten conduit of many potentates’ reign. 

   So why does she choose latitudes? The answer could be that she was struck by the poetic cavernousness of the conceit. The rosary needs to be told, latitudes are gutters from whose recesses tales of a telling nature emerge as voice. The answer, however, I think, lies elsewhere. You hurdle latitudes, you swing down longitudes. Latitudes are the sideling gait of a rattlesnake. Latitudinal shift is both displacement and progression. Latitude is freedom, to the uttermost. Witness Akella&’s voice in the eponymous poem that heads the collection, which is “a young girl&’s quick step” skipping latitudes like ropes, “safe”, however, “in the fortress of my skin”. She lets us know that “all the latitudes are the unread lines of my love letter”. And love letters can catch a continent by the scruff of its isles, estrange a city from itself and befriend the anonymity of remarkable plazas.

The significance of the brief biography of her driftage that Akella provides for her readers should not be lost upon us. From her birth in India to the first tillage of her muse in Australia to her marriage and waftage to the USA, there is a case for tracing an ascent of latitudinal steps, like going up the steps of a mighty palace. Further, the indenture of marriage and its power to evacuate the will of a woman is impossible to miss. So for Akella, initially, it was more exile than anything else.

   The pleasures of diaspora, the recuperation of the will, comes slowly over the many passages, some random, others planned over the years. The dizzying track of travel needs to tender no apologies. It is necessary to throw off the attentions of those who would catch and ossify her voice, in a formulated phrase. As she writes in the introductory essay, “Salut au Monde”, “The seminal transit came when I was twenty-seven. An arranged marriage, a leap of faith across the Atlantic.”

   Akella&’s poetry sings what she cannot keep; what becomes absence. Loneliness, detachment, transitory hope, muted despair, the agony of being in time are articulated amid the overwhelming vastness of the settings that are not places but a destiny.

   Rosary of Latitudes is 160 poems and 24 beaded bubbles of prose, ready to disintegrate into more poetry. In Akella&’s work names write worlds. Prose serves as induction: a type of handmaiden to verse. It should not have, though it pleases me infinitely. Keki Daruwalla has fixed his canon firmly against poeticisms in prose writings. In his Foreword, he notes the emotional mire they produce, besieging the canter of descriptive language. It is a topic many will like to comment on, but few can, like Daruwalla. In commenting on the poeticism then, perhaps I will commit some.

   Mercator&’s capacious voice, more witness than utterance, stands looming over Akella&’s lines. She acknowledges as much. And although the Foreword argues in favour of the “Travel Poetry” tag, I believe tags are for luggage. More tags may score more with airlines, bringing frequent flier mileage, but “travel” poetry, if such a category exists, is all about sojourn, not transit. And the briefer the sojourn, the more profound.  All writing is a reflection of the soul&’s travel, Heraclitus would remind us.

   To the poeticism then. “In silence they work at play”, the sentence uncoils itself, like a trap sprung. In her first prose nugget on Turkey, “Up or down the stairs”, the very first paragraph yields the tenacity of poetry that hastens you to tarry. Its set pieces arched with the wait for the return of words, the declension of familiar refrains building up to the unfamiliar, startling idea or association.  This is also prose.

   This is also a poeticism: its best is its worst. If one were a believer in the credo that prose merely has to show, to assume the shape of the random in its infinite adjustments to its subjects, then Akella might seem a little disappointing. But I have always been of the opinion that style is what works. For a writer, what comes naturally ought to be cultivated, fiats about economy notwithstanding.  The poeticism is not the enactment of a prosthesis, limbing the limbo of seeing. The poeticism is not the painted veil hiding a failed transcendence: it is the thing itself. “He will carve wood, coaxing the wood to tell its secrets and the wood will show you stairs in the soul of every man by which you can either go up or down… Orhan is a magician who knows silence is yeast.”

   In the same little piece, Akella ends with a fortissimo passage of hyperbole, “If only countries could write their names like this by each other on sand knowing that the water will erase them anyway.  What matters is that they were written next to each other and no common language was needed to do this.” Verlaine had warned poets about this in his poem, Art Poétique, “You must not scorn to do some wrong/in choosing the words to fill your lines” (“Il faut aussi que tu n’ailles point/Choisir tes mots sans quelque méprise”).

   Perhaps the rivets come off the long hatch that closes the faultline running under Turkey that prompts Akella to pause, in prose, longer than any other place in the book. The faultline being cultural, the one separating the East and the West. In her piece entitled “Two different slippers walking in one direction”, she is waylaid by an old wives’ tale. She abandons note-taking in favour of wonder. The meanest, most mundane street corner in a modern metropolis like Istanbul is still capable of “epic” inflection. As though a bit of water on the sidewalk would launch her into how in such a way must Darius once have stooped and crouched to drink from some small roadside pool the day he fled before the might of Alexander&’s phalanx.

Talk veers round to the “Gorgeous streams of tulips (that) flow in the city as Spring claims the air”. The past and the present of the tulip propels us into the knotted temporality of the city. This is so reminiscent of DH Lawrence in Etruscan Places, where he uses the Greek versus English debate about the merits and demerits of the Asphodel to get us closer to the spirit of Cerveteri, the ruin he is visiting.

   Whether in her Turkish pieces or in the ones about Italy, Egypt and India, the prose writer wrenches the pen away from the poet liable to brooding on the masquerades of the past, the heart&’s past and the head&’s, for today is yesterday&’s tomorrow. Modern marvels and their surcease occupy her in equal measure.  The language ranges from the technical and terse to the puckered and encomiastic. St Marks in Venice, that gold dovecote by waters, tender and dazzlingly green; where a salt-breeze sweeps away the gondola&’s narrow wake prompts Akella to mingle the bodily with the phantom as an effect of light, “They materialised from the buildings as if the building dissolved into flying rocks. Feathers fluttered from the sky and the glass glinted as flaming jewels. Do they play Vivaldi?, I thought as I heard music in the air.”

   “Rumi&’s poetry entered like a crisp autumn wind,” Akella writes at the beginning of her essay. “It will go where it must go.” Autumn&’s flint and steel angrily struck the sparks of golden days. It was a time when trees stretched out: rakes gathering armfuls of the sun&’s hay. That golden autumn wind had scattered her everywhere. “It gathered the dying leaves in my soul and swept them aside. Stirring an inner tornado…”

   This ferment led to a book of poems and the seeded desire to visit Konya to pay her respects at Mevlana&’s memorial. “A strange and stubborn notion that I should visit as a poet and not a tourist took root.” After another enthusiastic commentary on the poetry of the master poet, Akella&’s own poetry takes over. Of particular beauty is that scene conjured up in her poem “Rumi Mausoleum” of how “The pilgrims come/drunk on your wine,/a hieroglyph of footsteps/on the courtyard”. We can spend not weeks, not months, but years parting from such a scene.

   “To speak of the days of the festival would be like breaking a pearl necklace and examining each pearl for its worth and texture.” That is Akella&’s view of the Struga Poetry Festival. A good bulk of her global wendings were quite literally on the viewless wings of poesy: invitations to read her work from Macedonia, Turkey, Slovenia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Mexico and Kolkata. She shares this infectious optimism about the power of such festivals to forge, found and nurture not only poetic achievement but poetry that is still incipient.

   Akella&’s poetry assays forth like a commuter in the night-city, marking an abyss by the measure of street lamps. The air grows dark, like water, and all things living swim through it like fish, “On return from Medana I am sleepless with metaphors in my bed;/one place — a well in which another appears or disappears as reflection” (Ripe Fig). Kolkata showed Akella its streets, “dirty upanayanam thread(s)”. And at Belurmath on Swami Vivekananda&’s balcony she receives the gift of light and non-dualism, the Swami&’s original doubt, “Water becomes widowed tresses,/The moon is an orphaned bracket,/Racked by remembrance of/separation, I am unable to remember union.”

   Kolkata wrings out some of the best lines from Akella, or am I merely being provincial and partial to boot? Saraswati, goddess, muse, of the earth, earthy and the pinnacle of a poet&’s hyperbole, in several stages of robing and remembering, public and private, is noted “playing unheard music to/unhurried passersby”. The self-fashioning, the kicking up of one&’s class-ridden boots that was sub rosa to the intellectual Leftism of the late ’60s in Kolkata is brilliantly captured in a portrait of the Indian Coffee House, “here, everybody could be somebody,/or nobody trying to be somebody”.

Interestingly Akella may be conferred the title of a futurist by any modern-day Kolkata citizen. In her poem “Women of Kolkata”, she signs off with a prophecy,  “Mermaids of fire these Kolkata streets are your battlefield/and daily, the men fall… fall… fall.” Uncanny how Mamata Banerjee&’s rise and the fall of the erstwhile Left in Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in Bengal sang along Akella&’s dreamtracks. And, Tagore riles us. Akella could not have been more right when she wrote it, she seems even more vindicated now. The man has turned into a bugbear to frighten invention out of a Bengali. Or, he is that pill to rid you of earthly flatulence.  Either way, the Bengali is baited by Tagore, unabated. From mortuary vans to the inoculation of newborns, from rooftops to traffic signals, he is inescapable. “In dreams, his songs lift like butterflies disappearing into light…/the chains may never be off, the anchor undersea” (The Weight of Tagore).

   Even boundlessness is a bind and the most insidious kind of censorship self-censorship. Akella&’s authenticity remains unbreachable in Nicaragua, Venice, Paris and Dakshineswar because of her desire to imaginatively worm her way into origins, not content herself with shallow critique. Whether it is the Sandinistas or Kali, the bridges of Struga or the Day of the Dead in Mexico, she is vulnerable in her susceptibility to place and resolute in her gleaning of this binary of power and powerlessness. Sometimes it comes down to the questions. Her questions pare us down and prepare us for the “wonderment on offer”, “How is it stone can move us like water?/Return us words like windows” (Monte Alban, Oaxaca).

   “Destiny is a hoop that a child rolls on oblivious/on the pavement of her life, always bigger than herself.” As I read the lines, it felt like I had fallen into a slumber before Giorgio de Chirico&’s ochre and green daydream, “The Mystery and Melancholy of the Street” (1914).  The same small girl running with a hoop and a statue that is present in the painting only through its shadow. “Life is eternity at nine or twelve,/to live under a steeple of death” (Het Achterhuis). From Anne Frank, Akella learns to know how faces fall apart, how fear, beneath the eyelids, seeks, how strict the cutting blade, the art that suffering etches in the cheeks; how the black, the ash-blond hair, in an instant turns to silver. She learns how submissive lips fared, learns terror&’s dry racking laughter, and not merely under the Reich. “Go to Godhra!” she urges. “Go to Serbia! Go to Afghanistan! Go Go Go!” We come full circle.

   The jolt must come from far away to trigger earthquakes in the heart. So cheers to the dash, crash and rebound of “travel” poetry. A shoulder alien to Akella&’s controls the movement of her hand. In order to acquire such strength the jolt must come from far away.

My only regret is Usha Akella never made it to Greece. She might then have offered us a companion piece to the work done by Lawrence Durell. But that might be stuff for another volume. Helter by skelter is a plan, is a map. – No tongue: all eyes: be silent.