Still from Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito
hat do “signatures” and “thumbprints” have in common? Can a thumbprint, to begin with, “thumb its nose/at all signatures?” History has always shown that it is the signatures of the powerful that have victimized the thumbprints of the powerless. But in Kedarnath Singh’s Thumbprint poem a curious reversal takes place. It is the “thumbprint,” like Plato’s idea of the bed, that “composes/the letters of the alphabet,” which are then imitated in an imperfect way by:
“The piece of chalk
It is the thumbprint as the idea which finally survives “inside/a sheet of blotting paper” after the chalk work is erased from the blackboard; after the ink is spilled from the quill; and after the termite has devoured all the letters of the alphabet in all its black and brown characters.
But the absurd emptiness of the world has to be meaningfully filled. And utilizing the talent bestowed upon him, Kedarnath Singh sets out in his Signature poem to arrange and rearrange the world in a determinedly defamiliarized way, quietly “picking up” things “left lying/here and there” and setting them up “in a new sequence” and then“ signing my name” as its author. Even Kabir’s proverbial swan, “the directionless bird” has the poet’s hope and desire tangled up “in its wings” before it flies away and we are left to speculate either in Kabir’s dohas or Kumar Gandharva’sulatbhasmi swaras!
In The Carpenter and the Bird poem the poet inaugurates the discussion: Why is the carpenter sawing logs? What does he intend to do with the wood? He doesn’t understand the wood but he allows his instinct to “stray/into the log’s roots” and cause severe disturbances. There is no poetry in his prosaic labour. That is why the carpenter “makes a bird lose the seed/it had been pecking” and very soon the bird itself becomes a victim to his saw as it desperately enters the wood looking for its lost seed. And what does it matter if “the world is falling down” on “either side of the saw.” A bird is being killed as it goes in search of its seed, but there is no other motivated seed that would prompt the carpenter’s murderous actions.
It is a reckless response to a desperate concern and the result is “a shrieking” inside the wood and then a silent collapse of seedless beak and ruffled feathers.
Banaras and Other Poems
What you would normally not find in a conventional love poem Kedarnath Singh includes in his On Reading a Love Poem beginning with the startling image of “where are the ducks?” He goes looking for them, first “in the third line” and then, “perhaps the fifth.” He fails to find them, but the question lingers, why ducks, and that too in a love poem?
But didn’t J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye go looking for ducks in the frozen winter of New York’s Central Park at midnight? And didn’t a whole family of ducks suddenly migrate to Tony Soprano’s swimming pool and spend the entire weekend with him before migrating in the first episode of The Sopranos?
Who knows why ducks flew into Kedarnath Singh’s imagination? But once they did, he allowed them to descend upon the page, bask for a while in their unusual poetic significance, and then they were replaced by “that woman/standing in the twelfth line/waiting for a bus.” What we are suddenly made to notice here is how “the lines” in the poem “actually connect” and literally impose the theme of love on the subjects featured in them.
This woman’s poetic significance, however, actually begins “from the seventeenth line” as a “little sunshine/falls on her shoulders” making her “happy” till she reaches “the twenty-first line” and then “like every other woman (she) disappears.” But another woman promptly appears “in the nineteenth line/slicing potatoes” allowing this love poem to continue and become “more and more silent/more solid.” Now, the smell of freshly sliced vegetables not only keeps this woman alive till the “twenty-second line,” but also allows her, in a strange reversal at the end, to literally and metaphorically step out of the poem “and break it to pieces.”
It is as if this woman deliberately snatches the poem away from the poet, and breaking up all the images that were hugging the lines, ends up offering, him (and us) in return, only sliced potatoes and vegetables that seem to assume more importance, or maybe the only valid importance, relating to other kinds of speculations about love.
edarnath Singh’s vision of Benares that confronts us next is unique because it is “filled and emptied out “of all that it contains. It is introduced first in Venetian terms where everything remains “exactly where it was”: “ the water, the boat, and Tulsidas’s wooden sandals.” Half of the city seems to exist and declare itself;the other half assumedly doesn’t.
The one that exists, the poet reminds us, does not need any support because it has already passed into that chamatkara realm of wonder. But the part that doesn’t exist needs to be supported by the daily enactment of its prayers and its rituals like the ones we witnessed so memorably in Satyajit Ray’s film Aparajito, though the irony there was that it was precisely through Apu’s chamatkara gaze that Benares was progressively revealed to us from the phelwaan doing his early morning exercises to the evening’s last aartees.
His poems have a way of evoking other visionaries besides Ray. Kabir and Homer’s Penelope, for instance, are both a part of his “mother’s brooding on (the poet’s) loneliness” in his poem Between Needle and Thread. Squeezed between the two selling implements she is shown slowly “stitching time” into “some frayed old kurta” of the poet, and because she has been doing this “for the past sixty years” she becomes, both, Homer’s Penelope weaving and unweaving “the loom” that she uses as a weapon against her suitors as she waits for her husband to return from the Trojan war, and Kabir’s “Jheeni chaddariya” slowly woven, length upon length with her thoughts about wool “being harsh,” and about death “being tender,” and in sleep resembling Kabir’s favorite bird, the swan, draped in a white sari with a black border.
Similarly, in An Argument About Horses, when the poet, invokes that one day statistics will “rise/and trample down the horses,” Dickens’ Gradgrind denotative definitions of the horse from Hard Times is once again powerfully reinforced in all its absurd factual insistence, destroying the beautiful connotative definition of that nobler animal supplied by Sissy Jupe’s circus upbringing, leading to Kedarnath Singh’s chilling conclusion, where “for a long time/after that/there was no more argument.”
That other denotation, of arithmetic also becomes a tragic miscalculation of partition in his poem of partition Recalling 1947. Nur Miyan, a valuable childhood Muslim friend, one day, disappears from the familiar life of “hawking kohl” in the bazar and the hours spent with him under “the tamarind tree” in the “local imam’s estate” in the Madrassa to an unknown somewhere either in a “Dhaka” in Bangla Desh or a “Multan” in Pakistan.
His absence, however, cannot be either counted in the “multiplication table for nineteen” to fit history’s fanatical inevitability or can be determined arithmetically by the counting of “how many leaves“ are” falling every year in Pakistan.”
Before history all kinds of arithmetic are always found wanting, but if this is weak then what can remembering depend upon? The poet, in Look at the Man, tries to offer a solution. He says he feels good about:
“human beings crossing a street
because it gives me
a sort of hope
that the world that exists on this side of the street
may well be
a little bit better on the other side”
Why? Because such an act inspires him to abandon remembering the past and look forward only to the future. But when I place these lines besides Henri Cartier Bresson’s evocative photograph of the sculptor Giacometti being surprised by a sudden burst of rain in the middle of a road-crossing and trying to cover himself inside a hastily awkward overcoat, Kedarnath Singh seems to have forgotten that crucial spot in the middle of the road!
What happens to us when we are hit by the unexpected right there? Where we came from and where we are going suddenly evaporates because we seem to be stranded, and like Giacometti, we have to adjust, and that adjustment always comes with some kind of awkwardness that seems to squeeze us like Kedarnath Singh’s mother. It is the middle that determines each crossing and not its origins or its outcome.
Alberto Giacometti rue d’Alésia, Paris, 1961 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
This empty street takes us to the next poem, Blank Page. This page, according to Kedarnath Singh, has its own history which one has to come to terms with before inscribing an entire script on it called poetry. For in the blank page’s ancientness there is love; in its emptiness one can glimpse a reminder of freedom. But there is also the presence of hatred to be considered. And when a blank page offers itself to the rough “saltiness” that produces “blood,” it also admits to its tactility, the “civilized scratches” of “fingernails.” “But “after all our words” have expressed what poetry was designed to make them say, “this simple and (this) terrible thing,” that we are inevitably left, finally with, is a “blank page” where the whole process has to be repeated all over again.
William Carlos Williams had warned us that “So much depended,” upon how we interpreted things like A red wheelbarrow glazed with ice and white chickens running round it. Kedarnath Singh offers us a Broken Down Truck,The Bridge of Majhi, and The Spade for our varied contemplation.
Contextually, a truck is an extension of the bullock cart in any typical Indian landscape. And when a truck breaks down, one expects it to be fixed by man’s repairing capacities. Kedarnath Singh expresses this when he says: “For me it’s quite comforting to imagine that by tomorrow everything will be fixed.” But when the unexpected happens and the broken down truck is still “standing there staring at me” a de-famailiarization of it presents itself to the poet’s eyes.
As he moves closer to examine the wreck, he suddenly realizes that the truck is being fixed, not by man, but by the evolutionary principle of growth in nature. “A little creeper” is noticed “edging along the steering wheel.” And near the silent horn, “a small leaf” is seen “hanging down.”
This overwhelming ruin of machinery is being given a new identity by the regenerative presence of nature. The truck seems to have “entrusted” itself, not to the healing touches and efforts of man but “to the grass” which seems so eager to offer it a new metamorphosis.
Such a strange instance of growth! It emerges not only out of the stagnation of broken metal, but connects the poet to “my city…my people…my home.” It is thisnaturalized version of the truck that enables the poet to now recognize his own origins spread between city, people and home.
In its broken down state, the truck only encouraged “looking,” but in its naturalized regenerated one, it insists on an “astonished looking” that includes, in addition to the poet, the overwhelming presences of the city, its people and the poet’s home spread around it.
e are reminded of William’s “So much depends upon” conjectures once again in The Bridge of Majhi which is presented not only as a feat of engineering construction that “can be seen from my village,” but also as one that repeatedly can be imagined and mystified by the villagers, so that in addition to the actual” bridge of Majhi spanning across the river” there is also the other “one hanging within the people’s” imagination and the poet wonders, which one “is greater.”
The first fact that emerges in the poet’s investigations about the bridge is that it stands outside history as far as its origins are concerned and:
“This question still bothers
the people of my village.”
But it is a question worth asking, and when the poet dramatically poses it, he receives a variety of responses that mystify the very subject in question. For Grandma, the bridge was built “before you were born.” The aged chowkidar however seems to disagree. “Before even that” he offers as acunning rejoinder. For Bansi, the boatman, the bridge “was discovered” suddenly one fine morning “just when Lal Mohar/reached out for tobacco” and for Lal Mohar,” the bridge came into view/through the space between the bull’s horns.”
All of these epiphanies strengthen the bridge’s mystified presence. But when the time comes for summoning up actual statistics (that Gradgrind moment again), these are deliberately calculated in differently offered ambiguities. The bridge is never allowed any certainty of its own. The “pillars” of the bridge, for example, cannot be counted or accounted for. “Nineteen” says Jagadish. “Twenty” observes the barber. But some pillars “of the day disappear in the night” and others “get added at dawn.” The villagers like to think of their bridge in this way. They “have no accounts” of its history or its construction and have made their bridge deliberately into an empty signifier that can be built and rebuilt by their individual and collective imaginations almost on a daily basis. So much so that the poet’s imagination also gets infected by the villagers and he enquires “where is Majhi” and where “is its boat”
A strange kind of Alice in Wonderland pathetic fallacy starts to creep in when the poet wonders how bridge would appear to the “fish, alligator, porpoise and turtle” who live in the waters around it and what if, one day, the villagers woke up, and discovered that “the bridge (just) wasn’t there.” But they would continue to see it and believe in it because they have already internalized it, and what exists in one’s imagination cannot be so easily obliterated. Once again the poet returns to William’s. “So much depends upon” conjectures here.
Kedarnath Singh’s The Spade has been left by “the gardener against the main door“ of his house. Whether this is a deliberate act on the gardener’s part or merely an accident we are not told, but “it’s being there/looks awkward” to the poet because the spade is an outdoor implement. Its integrity lies in its active sense of being which constantly embraces “the soil” and the “digging down to the roots.” But “this work” has already been “done” and what confronts the poet now is the passive “silent” version of the spade that mutely stands at the door “like a challenge.”
It’s that last word that provokes the thought that the gardener may have deliberately left the spade there to remind the urbanized poet of the strenuous worth of his labor that he feels is not being appreciated because of its blue collar spade-like intentions.
The poet’s implement, unlike the spade, is the pen that digs for meanings, but it doesn’t make him sweat or dirty his hands. Is there a hint then that he should try and take this spade instead and discover that other world of labor and sweat? But the poet merely “stands before the spade” and imagines “holding a spade on my shoulder.” He has still not taken that leap of faith that the gardener’s challenge is invoking.
While this prophecy is left unfulfilled in this poem, in the poem Hindi in JNV, it is fulfilled when the poet prophetically inhales “a smell of sweat (that) comes off the stone/the smell of that first wood-cutter’s body”/ and “it helps to sustain” his intellectual “modernity.” But the impetus is first initiated by the spade and this initiation first takes a wrong direction.
The poet makes the mistake of trying to find a place for the spade indoors and is soon made to see how the spade rejects every room. In the living room “it upsets” its harmony because a spade invents harmony only in the outdoor space of a garden. In the “freshly washed kitchen” its “dusty splendor” looks “quite helpless” and out of place. Shoving it “under the bed” in the bedroom also appears ridiculous because it has no secrets to hide. It does not merit being hidden because it has not done anything harmful or shameful.
So the question of “what on earth should I do with the spade” remains poised and unanswered. But it opens up a more difficult speculation—why does the spade, a primitive instrument look so awkward and out of place in the modern/urbanized space of the home? And it also involves the uncomfortable presence of a gardener, who with his pronounced appearance of labor would not be welcomed inside any of the house’s rooms, especially if one was to imagine him carrying that dirty spade on his soiled and sweaty shoulders.
In A Broken Down Truck, nature’s healing verdure which had disguised the truck’s rotten metal, had connected the urbanized poet with primitive roots to the city and home. In The Spade, however, that connection has been seriously impaired. The binary of the outdoors/indoors is not that easily overcome. We have still not attained that wisdom that can instruct us as to where we can find the right room for this spade and so much depends, once again, on when or if we will ever find it. That is the fear we have to live with..
And this fear is very well expressed in The Tiger where Kedarnath Singh invokes a Fahrenheit 451 temperature of the total extinction of books, letters, and paper on which knowledge today is desperately struggling to evoke its existence.
According to the poet, there will be no hands that will write books; no eyes that will read books; no presses that will print books. Reverting back to “the letter A” which “precedes the bouncing dancing letters PPLE” to spell APPLE: the first word that began the genesis of all knowledge in a Biblical Eden, has now become in Hell merely
“a song of life on the lips
of a dying man by a hospital window.”
But unlike the seventeenth century Dutch painter Vermeer’s windows that allowed light to enter in, in Kedarnath Singh’s world, neither a spade nor an apple, merely seen through a window can ever enter any room and the dying man inside that room knows that and will probably die with that as his final thought.
Darius Cooper teaches Critical Thinking in the Humanities at San Diego Mesa College, California, USA. His essays, poems and stories have been widely published in several film and literary journals in USA and India A sample: Between Tradition and Modernity: the Cinema of Satyajit Ray (Cambridge University Press).In Black and White: Hollywood Melodrama and Guru Dutt(Seagull Publications).Beyond the Chameleon’s Skill (first book of poems) (Poetrywalla Pub).A Fuss About Queens and Other Stories (Om Books).