Friday, January 7, 2011

Response to Usha Mukunda's "Discovering Kabir"

Thanks much Usha for the warm and detailed response to the book. I am particularly happy that you have documented the responses of young adults to the book. Thank you Dakshayini, Yamuna and Rishon for reading the book.
"How did the book begin?" is always a welcome question to the author. The answer I am afraid is going to be tad long.
My husband ( a musician) and I used to have these gatherings at home to discuss much loved poets with friends (many of them artists themselves). In the line of Bharathi and Meera (whose poems we sang, discussed and danced to), we took up Kabir next. It was Linda Hess' translations of Kabir's poems which opened my eyes and heart to him. I was so enraptured by the man's courage, vision and well....insanity (!) and there was so much drama around him that I decided to record my responses to him as a play. I wrote a short skit with just two characters- a warp and a weft. My sister Bindhumalini and I played the roles. Huh...well I was obviously the warp. The play had the threads singing out Kabir's dohas, his ideals and anxieties, not as his admirers and proteges but as an outsider who loved Kabir yet couldn't resonate in his frequency or subscribe to his beliefs. The warp and the weft became many things in the play; Hindu-Muslim, India-Pakistan, Mullah-Pundit.....but never Kabir. (I think he was still grey in my mind then). Sandhya Rao and Radhika Menon of Tulika were my special guests that day for the Kabir session and they called me the following day to ask if I would be interested in writing a book on Kabir. I, in my ignorance said yes immediately. Later when I began reading up on Kabir, I realised whatever authentic information was available on the poet could be summed up in just two lines. So what do I write? Where do I find him? How to cope with the complex-simplicity of the man and simple-complexity of children for whom I was going to write? I put the thought of book out of my mind and simply began to immerse myself in his dohas. 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, one year and I still hadn't put pen to paper. I knew only two things about this man. He was a poet and he was a weaver. One I seemed to know, the other I didn't. So I took up weaving classes. Thanks to G.Gautama, Principal, The School KFI, I was able to learn weaving at The School under Mr.Nagalingam. Weaving is such an intricate art, with so many intermediary processes and skill demands. One simply has to concentrate or risk losing the thread (literally). Frankly it is the loom which showed me a glimpse of Kabir. It is the loom which taught me creative introspection. It is the thakli, the dye, the loom, the warp and the weft which spoke to the image of poet Kabir in me. I married the weaver and poet as warp and weft to draw out a fuller picture of Kabir. I really believe like Thiruvalluvar (also a weaver), Kabir's couplet (two lines) is born out of the material at hand and his vocation. Warp-weft + tightness + brevity + introspection = Doha/couplet. Maybe a reason why the loom features so strongly in my book. Also I thought they stayed closest to Kabir and were witness to his bursts of poetry.
By now two years had passed and I was still only dwelling in the man. I hadn't written a word. The publishers checked now and then and I had a stock answer.."heh-heh, not yet". Then one day I completely gave up the idea of writing a book. How did it matter? The man had percolated into me and had (to put it very crudely) "screwed me in my head completely". Death and the value of here and now was resonating in me strongly. For awhile I even did drastic things like trying to fit all my needs into a small bag and living out of it, distinguishing between needs and wants, reducing needs, meditating regulary, walking and what not. The man does that to you. Unlike other Bhakthi poets we know, this man wants to take you along. He wants to share his truths with you. I weep as I write this for I am connecting to his compassion once again. Most enlightened souls wish to immerse themselves in thier bliss and loathe to come out of it to share it. But Kabir? He keeps shouting out to you- "Listen to me good ones". The man must have been a child to have so much faith in human goodness! More than anything I connected to his loneliness, the frustrating loneliness of a poet and a social visionary.
One day I simply began to write. I decided to take out all characters/events/landscape out of his poems itself. Where else to go? The legends can be, I decided. It took me only six months to write the book, but to get there took little more than two years. Somewhere in the middle, Sandhya told me they only hoped to get a picture book on Kabir for younger children. A novel was not what they were expecting. By then I had written until Midday portion. I must admit I was mildly agitated- I should have taken a clearer brief from the publishers. I waited. The agitation went off in an hour or two. I resumed writing. By the time I finished the novel, the thought of publishing was a distant worry. It wouldn't matter even if the book didn't see the light of day. For this particular book, the process was the reward and I was completely satisfied. But as is with all intense creations, this book also found its medium, its people (the writer, the publisher, the reader) and is in circulation. Tulika was particularly sensitive and supportive of the book. The editors Sandhya and Deeya were like Sahridayas.
It was a very difficult decision for me to "kill" Kabir and make him vanish that way. But to take a thread from his teaching and go in search of him like Dhaga is what I wanted myself and my readers to do. This, I decided would be the most fitting conclusion to the book. In fact if you notice, it is Kamali who grasps Kabir's teachings in its essence and she is the only one in the entire book who does not spew/recite/appropriate/recall even one doha of his. She lives the Kabir way and does not preach/remind herself of "his way" through his dohas. She simply lives the Kabir way, which is where I want to be.
Kabir was a fortuitous encounter. Yes. A life enhancing one.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A pen, an ink bottle and a filched filler

It is ridiculous to see the number of pens in my house, standing in colorful clusters here and there and of course scattered everywhere. But pick up one to write when you need to note down that telephone number or address urgently and they will all go virginal and frigid and refuse to flow — classic case of “ink, ink everywhere, not a drop to use”. Ironically, I can never learn the colour of my pens by their inks but only by their caps (this subject to them wearing their respective hats). Sometimes I feel it is my stubborn writers’ block that has transmogrified into pens around my house. They simply cannot write though they are writing instruments, just as I am a writer without being able to write. The pens in my household, I hate to say, are more sheaths than mighty swords.I primarily think it is “problem of plenty”. What the hell, when I was growing up, there would be just one pen in the entire household, which would be enshrined either upon a high shelf or inside the out-of-reach shirt pocket. One pen, one bottle of Bril ink and one filler palmed off from some ear drops bottle. Nobody but nobody was permitted to touch that pen, lest the slant of your hand and your unique pressure of pen on paper changed the nib’s personality. Each one tweaked and regulated his pen into an amiability that suited his right-left slant and thick-thin writing preference. The pen was as personal as that once upon a time. Only best friends could share globs of ink and pen.If ever you were given the task of filling the pen with ink, it was a task worthy of filling your entire Sunday morning with and in a manner that would put Tom Sawyer to shame. I remember extracting bribes from my cousins for each go at pressing the filler’s head. Fifteen ml of ink filling was worth three gooseberries, 10 extra turns at the swing, three not-out chances (cricket gaajis) and one pair of fancy rubber bands. Pens could make life good. My Sunday business however folded after pens (such as Hero) began to arrive with inbuilt filling mechanisms. One could just press and pull ink into these hateful pens from the bottles without risk or mess and without having to cultivate bhaya-bhakthi (fearful devotion) towards the fragile glass and precious ink. That skill and dexterity to lift and pour carefully into the waiting mouth of the pen, drop by drop is an extinct talent today. I was permitted to touch a pen only after coming to class VI. It was an important occasion — almost like poonal (sacred thread ceremony) or puberty. Mine was a green Camlin and with a glass window beneath its neck, where you could check the ink level. At the end of each day I would measure how much I had written, not by counting the number of filled pages, but by tilting the pen to see how much ink I had consumed — a habit I carry even today in a different manner though. I measure the distance I travelled in my car not by the meter, but by the red needle in the fuel gauge.I think for me, the romance went out of writing when the stiff-collared, antiseptic ball point pens became permissible in schools. I used to bleed along with my ink pens, tame the nib’s sharpness or match mine with it, wrangle with the instrument, cajole them into being my sixth finger, take care of them and be possessive about them. Putting an ink pen to paper was a piercing act of love, an intercourse. I think everything just got worse when I abandoned all pens to write with both hands. No, I am not ambidextrous. I write with a computer.