Vijay Nambisan’s ‘First Infinities’ brings to life the old world and its many charms, including the joy of reading poetry in the rain, says Deepa Bhasthi.The other day, I looked out into the balcony and the 35-year-old jacaranda tree seemed happy. The sky was overcast, and I kept thinking of what a grand sound the word ‘tempest’ made. Spring has turned into a near monsoon with only a brief but brutal summer interlude this year. They say it is this cyclone and that depression in the Bay of Bengal. The famous Bengaluru weather is back. Untimely, yes, but welcome to us city-dwellers who don’t have to worry about the vagaries of rain that might, on the slightest whim, break our backs and ruin our crops this year and the next. But we now have a little farm, the size of a few palms. Maybe our vegetables will suffer. To start every story with the weather: we seem to worry like a fulltime farmer these days.
The tempest sky boded well for the new volume of poetry that had arrived in the mail earlier that day, Vijay Nambisan’s First Infinities, his first collection of poetry in 20-something years, the poems written over a few decades. One of India’s finest poets, Nambisan is one of those recluse-types, the sorts I rather love the imagery of. Alongside the ripping-off-you-own-ear madnesses of artist geniuses, the idea of a writer preferring his or her words to remain in a reader’s memory more than regular witty lines on Twitter or eloquent speeches feeds into a well-loved image we give our creative people. That they are a little not-normal, not-like-everyone-else. The kind of creativity that gives birth to literature and the finest arts is unconventional, but un-convention still requires adherence to a certain frame of being, some rules—to be able to be broken, after all, there have to be rules in the first place. I would rather be read than heard, said Anees Salim (I paraphrase), another famous reclusive writer.
Perhaps the romanticism of a reclusive writer is as distracting from the work in hand as is a PR-savvy wordsmith who employs every means available to him to spread the word of wares.
But seen as an afterthought, perhaps the romanticism of a reclusive writer is as distracting from the work in hand as is a PR-savvy wordsmith who employs every means available to him to spread the word of wares. Which brings me to the book of poetry that came in the mail.
First Infinities arrived on a day that seemed made for reading poetry. Later that evening, the best friend and I would make ourselves some milky ginger+cardamom+cinnamon tea and read aloud from the book while a storm raged outside. I had searched for the book on two popular online marketplaces. It turned out that the book was available only on the publisher’s website. That made me pause a moment, but the reviews—this piece is not a review—were promising enough.
This is how the purchase of this book went. I was asked to create an account on the website of Paperwall Media and Publishing Pvt Ltd. Another password to have to remember, sigh. Then I placed my order for one quantity of this slim book, part of their Poetrywala imprint. I was not offered a one-day delivery or a cash-on-delivery option. Refreshing. I was not told when I could expect to get the book, who would deliver and what time he would be at my doorstep. Ah, the old mystery of the letter box. And then I logged off and went on about my day.
That day of the storm and perfect poetry weather, the book came in a brick-coloured envelope with—oh how I loved this—my address handwritten in beautiful cursive. The writing of a stranger, all the way from somewhere, into my home. The bill, torn from a bill book and slipped within the pages of poetry, was handwritten too. In that little gesture of an older, slower, more human-touch-ed work, the book had already become endearing.
In that little gesture of an older, slower, more human-touch-ed work, the book had already become endearing.
Over that tea and with the bestie some hours later, I opened the book at random to the very appropriate ‘Elizabeth Oomanchery’, where the poem, in the face of a ‘celebrity’ writer, goes home. Poems die too, elsewhere.
The balance sheet of this book—the poems are selected and categorised under “Loss”, “Balance” and “Profit”—flits from mythological references of Bhima and Aswatthama and Kalki to Shakuntala to Auden and Whitman, stopping now and then to meet a translator to the happy-sounding ‘Snow’:
What is this without warning,
Falling and white?
And then Nila, beautiful Nila of many stories told during courtship, stories of orange suns upon pink skies, makes an appearance. Nila is a local name for the Bharatapuzha, a river full of fish and boyhood mischief and stolen romances of early youth. It flows across north-central Kerala before gently slipping into the Arabian Sea.
River we worshipped once
Stealer of spoiled sons
Deceiver, while she runs
What should we fear.
Somewhere in the middle, Nambisan talks of not believing in fancy names. will.i.am, iPod, the commercial twang to a nonsensical word or the other way around. He makes tea, turning the surface of water gold after bronzing it, burnishing it.
The balance sheet of this book flits from mythological references of Bhima and Aswatthama and Kalki to Shakuntala to Auden and Whitman.
Tea, that cup we had that evening, with the reading of the poems.
And in the cup,
Some say, the pattern of your life is drawn
If you have the nerve to turn it upside down.
He makes coffee too and it reminds me of Mahmud Darwish’s brilliant prose poem ‘Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut 1982’. Coffee is the one thing of normalcy, those five minutes of making it the time of sanity during war. War both within and outside glass walls. ‘Making Coffee’ reminds me of this, of many coffees. Coffee, the precursor of many loves and lies.
There is something in the making of coffee
That dulls the moral sense.
When the tempest is outside, the mood for poetry, for illicit-ness, for dulled senses, Nambisan gives me the best lines for that evening. From ‘To the Lord of the Dance’:
Destroyer, dance, and let me be
One with the earth your stamping shakes;
Let me be earth, let me prepare
The guilty stem and grasping root
And let all that would pass me, go.
Dance and drama. Love and un-love. Coffee and tea. The old world and its many charms beckon, in handwritten notes, in beautiful evenings. Even in tempests.
Let freedom go: Nothing remains,
Nothing is true till shadow’s end