By Sahana Maddali
The security guard at the NISSAN showroom said, “Mundhe left,” and sure enough, Prestige TAKT emerged around the bend. It’s an expansive grey building with glass doors, and right through the entrance, to the left is the British Council Library.
Toto Funds the Arts had organised a poetry workshop. It was being held in a room at the end of an annexe that began next to the bookshelves. The room was rectangular and had close to 20 chairs arranged in a comfortable oval in the middle. Some tables, presumably used for conferences, had been pushed against the veneered walls, and a water canister stood in the corner. The large windows offered a pleasant view of the deep green garden outside. It was 10 AM.
A man in jeans and a beige blazer was talking to the handful of people who had already turned up. He had handed out books that everyone was flipping through. A couple of them had unusually long names – Look We Have Coming to Dover! and Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Toy-Machine!!! One was a hardcover, with powder blue illustrations and orange lettering – Ramayana: A Retelling. The extremities of the cover were almost touching; most pages had been torn out. The girth of the spine was made up by the tell-tale edges of the missing pages. Colourful Post-Its written on with a fast hand had been slapped onto the remaining few.
The man’s salt-and-pepper hair, cropped short, was shaped like the bow of a cruiser right above his forehead. He seemed kind, unassuming and an easy conversation-maker. He would occasionally push back his spectacles to a comfortable position over the crook of his nose.
The pre-workshop chit-chat was about breakfast. “For the two days that I’ve been here, I’ve had dosa,” he said. He said dosa with a deft ‘D’ and a whistling ‘S’. “They gave me something green today though, and it came without the potatoes; yes, aloo.”
The way he spoke reminded me of a friend who once said, “If I had a British accent, I would talk all day long!”
Sarita Vellani, of TFA, appeared at the doorway. As the man turned starboard to face her and say, “Are we expecting any more people?” I realised that he was Daljit Nagra. All the books we were holding had his name on them.
A girl with straight hair and black slippers asked him which Indian dish was most popular in Britain.
“Chicken Tikka Masala, it’s very famous back home. Sorry? Yes, of course, very spicy. They think that loads of spices are what give Indian dishes their flavour, but that’s not true is it? My family is Punjabi, and I’ve tasted some non-spicy, flavourful dishes. Are people used to eating cereal in India?” he asked.
“Yes, Kellogg’s, usually. Expensive, but that’s the most widely available thing here,” said Vellani.
“English breakfast is served in cafes and restaurants,” a girl in a denim vest added, “Eggs, bacon, toast, jam, baked beans, waffles. And tea.”
It was nearing 10:30 AM when Nagra suggested we begin—“Let’s start off by having everyone share their favourite poets,” he said. T.S. Eliot, Kamala Das, Wordsworth, Tagore, people answered. Someone mentioned Alex Turner – an artist from the band Arctic Monkeys. I surprised myself by saying Pablo Neruda; I didn’t think I would be offering anything to the discussion. The names of Indian poets were being mentioned too – it was going to be an all-inclusive discussion.
“That’s good, but do none of you read works of modern poets?” Nagra asked us. Most of us had assumed wood-faces. Nagra took it as an incentive to open up debate. “A poem sets a mood. To fragment it is to kill it,” he said, describing how a poet tries to convey this mood. “Structuring a poem is what modern poets are moving away from. You can’t call it a sonnet just to call it a sonnet anymore. You must read Liz Marie and Jorie Graham’s poems,” he said, as we were served a round of coffee, chocolate cookies and 50-50 crackers.
“You see, people don’t want elitist poetry anymore; poems are wonderful even when they are easily comprehensible,” he said, “However, many still have divided views about this.” I supposed that the rules in non-elitist poetry are slack: one can take endless advantage of poetic licence. I chomped on my cookie wondering how a supposedly ‘loose’ poem would be received by audiences of different languages and cultures.
As though in answer to my thoughts, a young man in a grey-ish khadi vest spoke. “Indian poems written in regional languages are restricted by a sense of culture. For example, poems about sex would not be accepted as readily in, say Marathi, my mother-tongue, as opposed to in English,” he said. His opinion was met with a lot of wide-eyed agreement.
Amongst us were present two Kannada writers, one of whom was a poet. Everyone was curious to know more about his poems and he was asked if he had translated his work into English. The poet said he didn’t fancy the idea; he believed the flavour of some Kannada words would be lost, and more importantly, he wanted to increase readership in Kannada through his writing. The other writer said he worked at an IT firm, and that even though he was expected to communicate only in English on a daily basis, it gave him immense pleasure to write purely in Kannada.
“Yeah, so it looks like the acceptance of a poem is affected by how modern the place is, and how accessible the world of literature is over there, doesn’t it? Some literature may not reach a vast audience because of the language it’s been written in, or because there’s no books or Internet available in a certain area. Also in the case of English, it has always been seen as this sort of colonizing or invading language, that’s taken away character from the language it has mixed with. But this idea is fast fading now,” responded Mr. Nagra.
To further explain, he offered perspectives about the regional tongue making appearances in his poems, as is evident in his debut collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover! He spoke enthusiastically about the different kinds of English in the world; he was stressing his words with round motions of his hands, just as he had done while talking about dosa.
“People can say ‘English is mine, wherever I come from’,” he commented about the marriage of the English language with other languages. An image of my college professor calling it a ‘mongrel tongue’ appeared in my head. “To write in the so called ‘Correct English’ is to divorce yourself from the regional tongue, and therefore a large historical context that comes with it,” he said—“Yes, another cup of coffee would be nice. No sugar for me this time, though. That was really sweet coffee!”
I had a feeling that I was one of the few people learning new things from the discussion. A lot of people seemed to have opinions of their own on the subject, broadly in agreement with Nagra’s. They nodded, smiled and spoke often. Later however, Melvin told me that he didn’t think one could always ignore the structure of a poem, because he felt that writing poetry was a conscious activity, needing thought and planning.
A man in his thirties, who had been listening keenly with arms folded over his maroon shirt all the while, asked Nagra if he had to will himself to write poems, or if they just came to him. The two-time recipient of the Forward Poetry Prize said, “Sometimes I need to will myself to write them, at other times the mood catches me. Before I published my first book, it used to take me about three years to find myself happy with a poem, but now it’s come down to one year.”
My understanding of poetry is paltry. In reality I find poetry difficult to interpret, and don’t considered reading poems as ‘fun’. Consequently I’ve not tried my hand at writing poems, except for the ones I was forced to do for the Creative Writing certificate course I was taking in college. His candidness about his struggles with poems made me more confident and hopeful about my writing. “Remember that the reader looks for themes to connect with. While writing a poem, try to keep it alive for as long as possible, it’s what I try to do. Pay attention to the occurrence of the poem rather than try to perfect it,” Nagra advised. He was reminiscent of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi when he said, “The place you write about must be the most important place for you in the world at that moment.”
We’d spent the better part of two hours in conversation when Nagra suggested that we should get down to a fun activity. Everyone readied their pens over white sheets like steeds at a contest. “Think of the first house you lived in,” he said. He paused and let everyone poke their noodles. “Okay? Now draw an overhead view of its shape,” he continued. Scribble, scribble. “Done? Now draw its rooms, with straight lines, and perhaps thick lines for doors and windows,” he said. Scratch, scratch. “Right. Now fill it in with memories, smells, sounds and any objects that mean something to you.” After a few minutes, he said, “Each one of you has got a map to work with. Write a list-poem or a poem about an object or memory from this house you’ve worked on. Yes, absolutely, write in whatever language suits you. We’d love to hear them read out too,” he finished.
The activity was met with much enthusiasm. We broke up into groups of three to discuss our ideas with each other. “Don’t analyse your memory, just present it,” he added helpfully, “And don’t tell the reader what to think.”
We gathered around again a short while later to listen to a few of the poems. Sumitabh was the first to read out his poem, written in Bangla peppered with English words.
Napthalene er intoxicating ghran
Day juriye amar premik pran
Caterpillar jeno rail gadi
Station tar shari shari
Amar chhotto jibon…
The intoxicating waft of naphthalene…
Suffuses my love laden soul…
The caterpillars seem like rail-gaadis…
Their stations here and there on the walls…
And my little life…
His caterpillar drew many smiles. A couple of poems in Hindi were read out too. A girl from MCC brought to life her home in the windy and picturesque Khasi hills, and the unexpected twist at the end had people sniggering. Parvathi’s poem was about a hot-water bath, her mother’s urges to be quick echoing throughout. Mine, a poem about my brother’s memory of my baby-hood, was the last for the day. Nagra offered his views and words of praise, and it was decided that we could disperse after a group photo.
I was out of the Prestige TAKT at 12:45 PM, having acquired a fascinating perspective on poetry, first-hand. The workshop had had more dialogue about Indian writing and poetry than I’d imagined. To define a unique style of writing for myself, I would have to shamelessly let the languages I’ve grown up with – Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Kannada – flow into my writing. I can’t fake an Oxford vocabulary and now value that. After debating whether to attend META Schools, I chose to deal with my hunger pangs and walked off towards M.G. Road to catch a bus home.