Questions of approach

Vahni Capildeo concludes her account of her first visit to India. The third part of a longer essay (read the earlier parts here and here)

Detail of brickwork in the Qutb Minar

Detail of brickwork in the Qutb Minar, Delhi. Photograph by Jenny Mackness

Stray gods

The invitation to the Almost Island Dialogues 2010 — “around innovation, the making of the new, the originary” — featured a photograph of the goddess Durga in process of being sculptured, and a prose poem/essay by Sharmistha Mohanty on how “in something forming and not yet formed, something not yet made but still in the making, in the unfinished, there is hope.” The “excavation” of sources in different cultures, of an originary that might have become “recessive,” of the past as living, was to be set forth in ten- to fifteen-minute “provocations” by Sharmistha Mohanty, Tomaž Šalamun, Vivek Narayanan, Eliot Weinberger, Charu Nivedita, Xu Xi, Anita Agnihotri, Joy Goswami, and me. Then there were to be readings on the Annexe Lawns of the India International Centre . . .

The goddess intrigued me. Depictions of Hindu deities, for me, have traits of inhumanity that do not allow the viewer to lapse into self-congratulatory repose before an adored form. There is energy in the whirl of multiple arms or weapons, something unnerving in the bright blue or gold face or wide red and black eyes, which act on me at least like exhortations to reflect in ways that are not little, comfortable, or bounded.

The Hong Kong writer Xu Xi wondered how to locate the originary of the surface in a culture obsessed with surfaces, claiming that her writing is “straightforward” and “like reality,” without what seemed to be the Indian naturalness of everyday reference to myth. Hong Kong writers, she felt, were always somewhere else, at least in their heads. Yet she spoke, too, of trying to illuminate that surface by a light from within. After we met, there was one afternoon when we paused for a moment under a dome of the early medieval Qutb Minar. All four doorways were doorless. Terraced perspectives streamed away and I knew in my heart that these landscapes, absent from the history textbooks of my youth in Trinidad as from Xu Xi’s in Hong Kong, must have been at the travelling origins of the manicured wildness visitable in English and French stately homes. The textbooks fell away as I was absorbed by the rich foliation of the brick, wrought with a level of detail that made it seem a kissing cousin of rosewood.

It is my habit to be silent in such places. Xu Xi’s habit was to speak. She shook comparison into comparison until the time and place that we were in became striped with her simultaneously existing recollected journeys . . . There was a trick of time to her surfaces, then, just as unsettling as the Durga Ma image; perhaps more like maya, illusion, so often understood negatively but also the creative play of the god Vishnu.

Tomaž Šalamun, a treasured poet from Slovenia and profoundly treasurable, had observed a rupture in his own development into a poet, which he said he would not have needed to make if working within a mass of multifarious traditions such as the Indian. Yet he, like Xu Xi, embodied what he claimed to lack. His vision of his creativity was of being devoured internally by an accumulation of word-worms, that worked and digested all that came their way; when they had something new, they shrieked with joy . . . Now Tomaž was walking in teeming silence with a look that could only be described as radiant. It quietened my own word-worms merely to be alongside him. Poetry seemed more possible. The forms forever agitating somewhere in my imagination fell away appeased, like animals not normally well treated. The vastness of the Qutb Minar settled into my brain like a revolution of patience. Sharmistha Mohanty slipped her awareness of inscriptions like a shade of energy over the bricks, dispelling the blank touristic glare whenever it threatened to settle.

Eating one’s words

As it turned out, these dialogues of past and future crystallised into a continuous present over four days. We would meet early for breakfast in the strict opulence of the India International Centre restaurant, where the service was perfected in a manner that felt antique but alive (the manners could have transferred to or from a luscious black-and-white movie or an official Residence of some earlier century), tablecloths deserved the name of napery, and my system was thrown by the richness of what looked to me like dinner food. Toast was an option, but so many of my companions were tucking in to bowls of antemeridian dhal . . . I had to try things I did not know. Sharmistha’s handsome filmmaker husband, Kabir Mohanty (floating hair and flashing eyes), calmly helped us sort out coherent menus. The South Indian options were most exotic to me: idli, slightly fermented rolled-up rice-flour clouds served with a to-me then-unnameable grainy crimson substance, now ranks high on my dream list of condemned person’s last meals. There was a stiff oblong card placed on the tables, inscribed with prohibitions. This was the first “provocation” to a gaggle of verbal types. As the words flew faster and the giggles made the rounds, my table repeatedly found itself told off. The reprimand was silent. A pyramidal presence of correctness, the waiter would open his eyes at us, lift the card from the table, and deliberately replace it. The high point of line-crossing occurred on the last evening, by which time my set had become so established as the locus for laughter and suchlike misbehaviour that the waiter, stalking across for the card ceremony, quite failed to notice that at a neighbouring table one of the most intense and volatile writers had taken a knife and fork to the table linen and also a few bites out of the thick weave of the napkin.

The great bathroom question

There would be time for a quick shower, perhaps (at least two, more like three or five, quick showers daily kept us watered and tendrilled), before the dialogues proper. Though the conference accommodation was “posh” (an English colloquialism I still cannot utter naturally), the plumbing arrangements showed that different ways of washing were in common use. I wondered just what these were, and whether they were responses to new pressures on living space or related to customs that had persisted in the Indian diaspora in Trinidad. (I knew the persistency had to be the correct answer, especially given some Islamic views on purity and self-irrigation, but as ever with India I forced doubt on myself.)

There was a hand-shower installed next to the toilet, whereas paper was comparatively far away. I had noticed this device in other buildings in Delhi. I remembered my grandparents in Trinidad, not in the countryside but in respectable urban Woodbrook, keeping a floral enamelled bedpan under the bed and a bottle of water in the toilet to cleanse the nether regions. After all, they were less than one lifetime away from India. Older family members, ghee-nourished and unfit in cardiovascular terms but yogically flexible, were legendary for squatting on the toilet seat, believing that other postures were unhygienic. Even some of the children of my generation were taught to use our left hand for unclean purposes, reserving our right hand for clean purposes such as eating, reading, or switching on the light in the evening when the Lakshmi mantra was recited.

The hand-shower was clearly a space-saver substitute for a bidet. What of the sturdy plastic stool, large bucket, small canister and metal rod with row of hooks inside the shower cubicle? Reluctant out of uncustomary shyness to use the very cheap laundry service, I appropriated these to hand-wash my clothing. But were they really for the differently abled to shower in comfort, or were they for ancient-style lavations, pouring water over oneself as one would have done (god or mortal) since time immemorial in rivers? I suspected the latter. Unable to accustom myself to the bathtub-with-no-mixer-taps culture in my British university town, I had (sometimes for years), without much thinking about it till encountering these plastic items in the posh Delhi accommodation, diverted my inherited brass lotahs from religious or ornamental functions and kept myself clean, jugful after jugful runnelling over my skin’s renewable silts: an obvious solution.

All the time in the world

For the dialogues we arranged ourselves at a fifty-two-seater table: so long, I had to count: with microphones that had to be jabbed when one wished to take a turn. Three hours later, supported in a medium of near-unbearable brightness (light, dialogue), we would wander out and perhaps take an afternoon trip or run errands, before the evening readings and a night that would not wind down.

The evening readings took place under a very tall tree. There was minimal lighting. The extraordinary intellectual stamina persisted. Accustomed to five-, ten-, and fifteen-minute poetry slots at poetry events, and to shutting up when offered the explanations (social, scientific) as to why people who chose to attend could not be expected to concentrate longer than that, I sat down and felt the short-twitch, acidic muscles of my attention expand, extend, relax for readings of thirty, forty minutes and more per writer. There was such a longing and such a willingness in the audience to participate (yet not uncritically) in a quality of listening; to inhabit a space of voices. It was not selflessness. It was like an agreement to be temporarily unselved, like sharing the experience of being in another yet perfectly natural element or atmosphere: darkness, say, or snow or heat or water. The occasional cry of a peacock reminded me that this was India. Mostly at those readings I was conscious of being within a medium that was being created newly, partly from shared and unknown pasts: a present continuous, into which sources streamed and pooled out: Tamil, Bengali, Slovenian, Chinese, and other . . .

Bad behaviour

Unnervingly I was one of the first three to present my “provocation.” As soon as I had done so, Eliot Weinberger’s mike light shone ruby, and he absolutely laid into me with a beautifully impersonal critique. I drew breath, looked up and down the table, and laid into this eminent man in turn. I soon realised that he enjoyed being the resident sceptic, the curmudgeon at the feast: this treatment had not been specially aimed at me. The aggression was exhilarating (the gods of destruction are a third of the pantheon) and more than balanced by the equally candid delivery of beauty: Eliot’s poems/essays, starred with birds and thoughts, gathered themselves into shape as they were read, rightly slowly, into the roosting, acute, bird-pierced night.

The best lesson I learned at Almost Island was that what would be “bad behaviour” elsewhere was more than acceptable here. It was admirable. It was even called-for. Freedom.

It was as if the god descended from time to time at that fifty-two-seater table. One of the writers would blaze and stutter into speech. This was especially the case with Tomaž Šalamun and Joy Goswami. On those occasions it was as if the thing-that-writes within the writer really had the chance to speak. It was not polite, it was not argued, it was in no way predictable. One was in the presence of energies, and the words were forming even as thoughts form in the most hidden processes of the creative mind. In so many other contexts . . . in the academic context, in the public lecture hall . . . this could not have happened. There would have been coughing; interventions; the equivalent of the men with white coats, the professional tamers and belittlers, would have arrived, like handlers called to the scene of an escapee tiger in a busy road. In the ancient Chanson de Roland, the great Emperor Charlemagne weeps at the death of his reckless hero-nephew. This weeping does not lessen his manliness. His ability to feel and express the emotion is of a piece with his greatness.

I sat gripped with fear and hope that Joy Goswami would be permitted to continue with his astonishing account of illness, hospitalisation, bereavement, and poverty. He had walked “in a frenzied state,” fragments of verse coming to him; wrestling with situations, the idea was to keep writing, it did not occur to him to think about the innovative or the new. For a time after his mother’s death he and his brother lived as milkmen, with two cows. His mother’s absence-in-presence remained vital: “She is here!” The body he has is what she gave him; she is with him for she is every part of him. I connected with the secret springs of emotion that otherwise for me were embodied in the deep-dyed characters of medieval literature: the past was living in me as this was happening now. I cannot recall if anyone wept, but the effect was like being in the medium of tears evaporating under the heat and light of concentration. “This pain is untakeable! Unbearable!” As Joy-da continued speaking, I realised that there was no question of permissions. All of us in the room were inhabiting the same medium.

The poems that Joy Goswami and his translator had recited at the evening event articulated great tenderness; they had shaped experience. The wildness emerged, not under the tree in the dark, but in the sunlight, when we were sedate and collected.

In the middle of our last day, quietly serving myself a piece of plain roti, I heard a voice high above me and behind me: “Beware of wounds.” I turned around and saw Joy-da. “Beware of wounds.” He told me with great care of the mental wounds that he prays his friends may not suffer, and of his perception of the writing mind.

What could I say in return? But there was no question of returns. Joy-da simply is henceforth a vital absence-in-presence to minds regularly assailed, yes, but since the meetings in Delhi now in continuing, not necessarily communicated, dialogue.

The Pantheon

I am not going to summarise here the arguments that were made: their diversity does not bear summary. There was the concern for one species of truth in Anita Agnihotri, Bengali economist and civil servant, who tried to make herself as light as possible so that others’ stories could pass through her, river-like, a huge collective account composing itself about those not known, those uprooted; waterside communities, disappeared forests, unnoted languages, people told to move for post-Independence “temples of civilisation.” Her work was with people who “walked for three or four days. The women were crying. The men were quiet.” Their oral traditions were destroyed in the dislocation: “The life doesn’t permit it. Life is very powerful. You get subjugated.”

There was the concern for another species of telling in Charu Nivedita, the wickedly inventive Tamil writer whose blend of classical and slang styles would be the despair of any translator who could not channel the spirits of Joyce, Nabokov, and Jean Genet. Charu’s speech ranged from “the time of screaming and howls of two thousand five hundred years ago, of Medea” that “still exists” (massacres are not unknown to him) to poker-faced tall tales of his vagabondage that might or might not have documentary value in addition to their truth of shock — “Your job is called ‘catamite’ . . . Going to bed with a person you don’t love is the greatest tragedy, I realised. So I quit the job” — and pieces of work-based advice, for example that eating oxtail soup desensitises the body against beatings.

Nor shall I treat in detail the work of the organisers Vivek Narayanan and Sharmistha Mohanty. For that I refer you to the Almost Island website and archives.

Three sayings, for if there were a last word, I couldn’t have it:

Ashis Nandy, on the “culture of cities that is coming up,” the “new phase of capitalism where there is a cultivated festive style”: “Do we have the right to lament? . . . If you lose your parents you are expected to get on with life. Any lament is seen as nostalgia . . .”

Sharmistha Mohanty, on the direction of the Dialogues on the new: “That hovering-around may be the only way to talk . . . because you can’t really talk about a core.”

Vivek Narayanan: “I don’t like the feeling of helplessness. Anything that is necessary to us, we will hold on to it.”

City to city

After the pocket of eternity that was the conference on innovation, it seemed unbelievable to have to quit Delhi. What of the fenced compound of djinns, about perhaps to be ruined by preservation, where the metal bars had been bent so that people could go in and offer petitions written in biro? There were piles of removed shoes here and there but few encounters with those who had vanished into the arcaded building’s unlit grottoes, coved with bats thicker than black Aertex. What about the shops just like old-time Trinidad parlours, where assorted people rested elbows on tables covered with oil-cloths and you walked up a couple of stairs to buy one can of a drink snapped off a for-sale-as-a-multipack-only or one cigarette out of a box to offer to the djinns, whose taste runs to whisky, tobacco, and the possession of young women?

What of the streets around the Jama Masjid close to midnight, or the alleyways where beggars perched here and there in an ecology of survival around the Sufi shrine where men, often in modern dress, embraced the walls, pressing in as if to bring their hopes and fears closer to the saint? Weren’t these there to be stepped into at any point when we stepped out of the words?

But no, we were flying off. Would Delhi be more than a trace rubbed into the memory, like the pale orange complexion-improving suncream from the nearest Sunday-opening bazaar?

I stepped into a plane with Sharmistha and Kabir and stepped out again and breathed a different air. The tang was strong, opening and closing my throat on a prawn and petrol cocktail.

From Almost Island to seven islands citied together upon the Arabian Sea: in the beginning was Bombay . . .


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Vahni Capildeo was born in Trinidad. She went to Britain in 1991, and completed a DPhil in Old Norse at Oxford in 2000. Her poetry includes No Traveller Returns (2003), Person Animal Figure (2005), and Undraining Sea (2009).