Monday, June 22, 2015

Review of Kabir the Weaver Poet by a friend from Pakistan

Kabir Das, the 15th Century Enigma

Book review

By Rumana Husain

Title: Kabir the Weaver – Poet

Author: Jaya Madhavan

Illustrations: Saudha Kasim

Publisher: Tulika Publishers

No. of pages: 140

Price: Ind Rs 150.00

ISBN: 978-81-8146-168-1

In February this year, I received a gift. Sent by a friend, Kabir the Weaver-Poet was signed

by the author Jaya Madhavan, with a personal note for me saying she was glad to connect

through her book, and that “Kabir is calling! Are you listening?” I am sure my friend had

coerced her into writing the note. In addition, tiny doodles by the author, of a smiling sun,

flying birds and another little bird perched in the top right corner of the page gave me

immense pleasure even before I had started reading. Having finished the book in just two

or three days, I continue to find ‘sant’ Kabir an enigma. Interestingly, the book is

recommended for readers from age 12 upwards.

The mystic weaver poet’s mysterious life story is not only about his powerful poetry, or the

philosophy that he preached, but is also about his courage and his social vision. Kabir was

born in Varanasi (Banares), India, around the year 1440, to Muslim parents. But early in

his life he became a disciple of the Hindu bhakti saint Ramananda.

A lot of drama surrounds Kabir’s life as well as his death, as the saint arduously tried to

bring the often clashing mores of Islam and Hinduism closer together. He was disdainful of

professional devoutness in any form, which earned him the detestation and persecution of

Varanasi’s religious authorities. It is said that when he was denounced before the king

simultaneously by a Mullah and a Pundit, he was spared execution but banished from the

region. He subsequently lived a life of exile and died in 1518 at Maghar near Gorakhpur in

Uttar Pradesh. Madhavan’s novel, however, gives a different version of his end.

As I read the book, I marveled at the simplicity and skill with which Madhavan has dealt

with the complex issues of intolerance, communal hatred and mob fury, among others.

“Hindu kahat hai Ram hamara, musalmaan Rahimana,

Aapan mein dou lade maratu hai, maram koi nahin jaana.”

“Ram is our beloved, say the Hindus, Rahim is our beloved, say the Muslims.

The two kill each other, yet no one understands the actual truth.”

In the chapter, “Kabir refuses to hide”, the young tight-rope walker Kamali tells Kabir that

she used to “die a thousand deaths everyday. Dying of hunger, of fear, of thirst, of sorrow,”

and asks the saint, “Does anyone know what dying really means?” to which Kabir replies:

“Marta marta jag muva, ausar muva na koi,

Daas Kabira yun muva, jyun bahuri na marna hoi.”

“We all die a thousand deaths everyday.

But we don’t know how to die so that we won’t die again.”

Jaya Madhavan is based in Chennai, and is an award-winning children’s novelist, poet and

comic strip writer. Her short stories and poems for adults have been published in Unisun’s

anthologies and in the South Asian Literary Journal. She is also a columnist for the New

Indian Express.

The few minimalistic illustrations in the book, by Saudha Kasim, are pen-and-ink drawings.

The ones that are of an architectural nature are the most appealing, meticulously drawn

with hundreds of parallel lines and hatchings.

The innovative approach utilised by the author in casting the tools of the weaver saint's

trade as animated narrators in the novel is fascinating. Dhaga, the thread - the main

protagonist, Takli, the bobbin, Warp, the set of lengthwise yarn held in tension on the loom,

Weft, the yarn inserted over-and-under the warp, Spindle, the long pin on the spinning

wheel for making thread, aren’t all disconnected raconteurs. These loyal friends of Kabir

are not only integral to the loom on which he weaves his magical fabrics, but their lives are

deeply linked with him. They are a playful lot. They often squabble amongst themselves

too, and it is through their eyes and words that the reader gets an insight into Kabir's life

and the effect of his succinct dohas or couplets, on the people around him.

In the author’s brilliant as well as vibrant weaving of the plot, integrating fact, legend and

poetry, the reader finds herself waddling in and out of Kabir’s daily life as weaver and poet,

and then gets intertwined with the stories that form the background of his dohas. Perhaps

Kabir’s poetry too was born out of his craft.

Kabir was a social critic par excellence who did not deter from showing the mirror to

hypocrites, boldly ridiculing every aspect of organised religion. He offended the religious

bigots of his time by speaking uncomfortable truths, by his rejection of their dogmas and

his provocative poetry. At the same time his incredibly compelling calm and composure is

in sharp contrast to the high drama played out by the Pundit and the Mullah in Banares,

which is a treat to read.

It is regrettable, and not a little ironic, that the pundits and mullahs of our times too, Hindus

and Muslims / India and Pakistan, continue to exploit religion as a means for acquiring

wealth and power by inciting communal loathing and hatred. Banares of the 15th century

seems no different at all!

“Kabir is calling! Are you listening?”