Continental Drift, Destination Vows

As events played out recently, I had the sweet fortune of being the celebrant for a very private exchange of marriage vows (yes, y’all read that right ! 🙂) It was for a lovely couple, very good friends we’ve known for many years. I also had the privilege of solemnising a unity candle ceremony, as well as being a witness later in the presence of an officiant, authorised to lawfully seal the union. It has been a most wonderful experience, in these grey and hazy times.

Later, I wrote a poem to mark the occasion, a tribute to their nomadic lives as they work for the betterment of children’s lives the word over. I tried to capture what it means to be a couple, while being part of the United Nations, separated often by geography and time, which will resonate with those that are involved in long distance relationships. It is a poem on how love sustains across borders, time zones, long separations, days, months, years… a few aspects of the story are deeply personal to our friends, the rest being poetic license. I’ve tried to add a touch of their organic world and weave in some of the countries they have lived in … I have experimented with the first person narrative style which in this poem, stands for either of the couple speaking to the other.

The theme song of this intimate ceremony was an enchanting instrumental based on Verve’s classic bitter sweet symphony. I have italicized what I borrowed from the song. There’s also a bit of Bizet’s Carmen at the end, which too has special significance.

The last month has been a whirlwind of sorts and when beautiful things happen around you seamlessly, like a river flow or you yield to the river perhaps, then surely, life is blessed.

The poem has been arranged to appear like a wave (best viewed on a large screen or tablet), given that a precious friendship was seeded in the aftermath of a Tsunami.

All photographs used with permission
        
        Cause it's a bittersweet symphony, that's life..
     
      bloat of whale song, birdsong, petulant -

    the rattle of tanks and thunder,

   giant waves cascading cymbals on shores

  for heartbeats lost

   in native lands.

    I'll take you down the only road

     I've ever been down.

      You know the one

       that takes you to the places

          where all the veins meet ..

                  those hopeful rivers

                       merging sinuous sentiment

                  into the shapelessness of ocean

             s   p   a   c   e    beneath the breast,

      a vast rhythmic rise

in tidal moons,  waves licking shores

  now awash in stories loosely anchored

    to transient shoals,

          then exasperated,

              sedimenting the ocean floor

                 in breezy metaphors of flying fish,

               fish like mammals breathing our air ......

             The reef edge was always steeply laced

           in a filigree of the statuesque -

       Coral corralling within aragonite bridal veil,

 feelings in free d

                             i

                              v

                                e

Rewind to retrospect:

     Small Giant Clams

         netted and harboured secrets

           to the future we never dreamed of

              except in stories that read as life itself,

               long after the deed is done.

             Washed ashore briefly on coral sands,

         we were a tsunami of affections

   seeking anchorage to archipelagic sentiment,

creating little islands of purpose,

islands of recreation,

 sand banks of spirituality, floating islands,

   floating plankton, floating algae, swimming

     in the shallows like the time

       I almost drowned     

         in fever

           and pulled you to seaweed depths

             but you came up gasping for air,

               to a soul clarity,                               

                  we both did ..

                  Time flew, like I flew, like a raven

             off the ark, to the ruins

        of an ancient fairy tale,

    where salt water couldn't drown

a covenant struck in a yielding heart,

the only living thing which I thought existed

    in the semi arid of those lifeless blunders

         that overstay their welcome on the dunes.

             The stars of the desert as brilliantly

                  luminous as our eyes, blinking binaries

                      when I looked for you in asterisms and you

                         looked to me

                                                and we

                               found ourselves                       

                                     under a red blanket.

                                          You came with a sprig in your beak

                                                to drier sands,
                        
                                                    where we etched

                                                        the holy books of faith

                                                           to our own religion

                                                              under a blanketing sentiment ..

                                                            feelings relocated, landlocked,

                                                        then clarified in three layers of lake

                                                  amid a thousand cichlid kisses

                                        darting under a blazing fire.

                               Those sun burnished hearts

                   south of the equator strangely rhyme

        the same, while venous blood flow upwards,

  downwards and across

that expansive meter

    of grassland, where we fostered

        the lives of children like it were

           a spiritual mandate.

               Those leached affections pooled

                    into a reservoir of love, a lake

                         that turned clear as crystal    

                              in that turbid genesis ..

                                  the celestial was most surreal          

                                      when I woke one day to the milky way

                                          obscured by the million lights

                                             along a river,

                                         dazzling a grid of avenues and streets

                               and I know that to this layered night

                 was hitched the hem of your sunrise

       and your cape of night stars

the one that would course through time

   to find me with stories

     etched in constellations,

         of warlords and poppy fields

            where the only rebel was the heart

                for it floundered on land carpeted

                    in the brightest, sometimes the whitest

                        snow, ravaged by battle tanks, redeemed

                             by roses along savage roads

                                 and land as soft as noni

                              and my heart yearned

                    under the same sky,            

              yours and mine,

      separated simply

by the geography of employment.

   It takes a while to find one's feet

         in the clayey soil of mangroves

             skirting the bay where tigers

                 tread to glide and humans barely stand,

                       for the passage of time

                             has been cobbled in death

                                  trod by the advancing cavalry of years

                            of those we knew who never grew any younger

                        and now, will never grow older,

               but we had each other,

       our days vivisected

 to a standard operating procedure,   

so we thought, zooming through

  the virtual multiverse        

     which sagely conspired to confine

       breath to national pleura ..

          deaf to the ventilating heart,

              blind to the diminishing 'soul'?

          Are human lives as poetic as mangroves -

      inhaling through aerial roots ?

  Or a stone cold reclining Buddha -

  His holy feet rubbed in gold leaf

     having little use for a Midas touch?

        Illusions of habitat, these ..

           Reality is solely etched in our partings,

              our separations, our prolonged confinements.

                Our measured lives

                    reluctantly succumbed

                        to the everyplace invisible

                           punctuating our complacency,

                              like a sardonic smile

                                  lurking without a body,

                                      seeking host.

                                        The world at its loudest SOS

                                     made every moment a past tense,

                              as crepuscular as terse beliefs

                      situating ambition in twilight, that future we all desire

               but never really have.  So we

    defied time,  shredded tense

   planned a grand escape, to elope

      with the moment itself.

         They told us that

               love ..     is a bohemian child and

                   he never, never knew a law,

                      but strangely, love's law

                         kindled this union as certain as a flame       

                     lights another and coruscates the void.

       That's,  the only road we know,    

the tangible of bright, the space w i t h i n,

   limitless as the horizon on a globe

       I'll take you down

          the only road I've ever been down.

              You know the one that takes you

                  to the places

                        where all the veins meet ..

Polk Salad / Poke Sallet to the Haiku of Richard Wright ~ an exploration

Poisons come in all manner or form and the ones found in the plant body of Pokeweed are potently toxic. Fatal in large amounts, in smaller doses though, they are sufficient enough to make one seriously ill. The ingestion of any part of the plant might result in symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, and rapid heartbeat. As someone noted of poke-sallet or Phytolacca: “It will clean you out from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet.” [1] The dish Polk Salad (made from its young leaves) itself is a form of survival cooking, a necessary thrice boiling out of toxins, like the purging of demons. Now what does Pokeweed have to do with Haiku one might ask …

As part of the Sealey Challenge [2], I took up the only poetry book written by artist Richard Nathaniel Wright, well known American author of Native Son and Black Boy, [3] who began writing Haiku towards the end of his life, thousands of them during his grueling battle with Amoebic dysentery and it quite melded with the Pokeweed I chanced upon during a marshland walk recently.

Phytolacca occupies that twilight zone between being totem and mascot of  poke-sallet themed festivals in Kentucky to noxious weed turned rare famine food. As a vermifuge (anthelmintic – medicines used against worms) it has had its use at a time when people were constantly plagued by gastrointestinal parasites, but today, it occupies disturbed land and is actually great food for songbirds. Native to eastern North America and the South, it is used as an ornamental in horticulture and is of some utility in biomedical research although for most part it is considered a pest or weed as it is poisonous to wild animals and livestock.

Phytolacca americana, also known as American pokeweed, pokeweed, poke sallet, dragonberries is a poisonous, herbaceous perennial plant in the pokeweed family Phytolaccaceae [4].

The berries develop from flowers that arise on elongated inflorescences called racemes; beautiful, symmetrical, predictable patterns like Haiku emerge, engorged on metaphor it would appear, they ripen to a debilitating crimson philosophy. Thus, they are quite unlike a traditional Haiku in construction, but if the flowering of Pokeweed is used as an analogy to  poetic process, it develops more like a trenchant Senryu.

In the helpful afterword by Hakutani and Tener, the editors of Richard Wright’s ‘Haiku, This other world’, the authors maintain that  Wright’s work was more Senryu than Haiku because he struggled to develop austerity in them i.e. the absence of philosophical or metaphysical comment, the absence of intellectualisation or imposition of an excessive rationality [5] Haiku essentially stresses non-intellectuality, a Zen kind of humour, lightness, a lack of sentimentality, profusion of joy and a deep connection with Nature. 

I understand Haiku to be more of a practice in the ‘where, what and when’ rather than the ‘how and why’, while Senryu is more of a mock Haiku despite the similarity in 5/7/5 syllabic arrangement, they are more logical and less intuitive. Hakutani and Tener suggest that the major themes in Wright’s haiku reveal his desire to create another world in which his black and white focus would be part of his feeling for nature, that he writes more often about death and the setting sun, about the moon and loneliness, about scarecrows, the rain, about farms and farm animals, about birds and insects, and about spring, the season of blossoms and blooming magnolias.

Traditional classical haiku thrives on the connection between man and nature, and has as its central focus, nature centred feelings of unity and harmony similar to Zen philosophy, which also stresses the experience of the present moment in life or in nature. Within the seventeen syllablic construction itself, two entirely different experiences may be joined in sameness: spirit and matter, present and future, doer and deed, word and thing, meaning and sensation (Hakutani and Tener). Haiku embodies Yugen. Wabi and Sabi. Yugen is a delicate principle of philosophy in Zen Metaphysics, applied to art to denote the mysterious, underlying the surface. Sabi is related to loneliness, a quiet graceful beauty, and Wabi to the uniquely human perception of beauty stemmed from poverty. Japan’s greatest Haiku poet, Matsuo Basho [6] is known to have used the aesthetics of Yugen, Wabi and Sabi. His poetry majorly illustrates that if a poet’s feelings were conveyed in haiku, then those must have been aroused by nature, the four seasons, flowers and even the moon.

Yet, the poems of Richard Wright, some of which read as Senryu if viewed under a classical lens, feel like an amalgam of the antithetical, of subtle beauty with a strong flavour, like Pokeweed. Then again, isn’t intrinsic harmony of being, simply a matter of perception? Aren’t our words merely an inadequate contrivance for harmonising that which we are unable to reconcile, given inherited ideas of beauty and perfection? A plant like Phytolacca, viewed from the principle of Yugen, is perfection in symmetry yet a potent poison. What poetic form could deny the clear beauty of a dangerous inflorescence, its inherent toxicity that would arouse  the emotion of fear or an action to self preservation, a serious aftertaste of misgivings. Even devoid of metaphor, Pokeweed is nature at its finest, benign in form but threatening a perilous interaction. Whether it be Senryu or Haiku, words do little justice to the thoughtlessness recommended in classical Haiku, no matter the strict adherence to form and yet words are all we have.

I have selected some of Wright’s Haiku to share, which I hope are not of disservice to what the author accomplished, given his own understanding and exploration of the form. Reading Wright’s process and the illuminating afterword provided by Hakutani and Tener has been useful in my own education on succinct verse.

Long myths of pokeweed.
Healing colours of marshes
are poison berries.

~ davina

References:

[1]~https://www.saveur.com/poke-sallet/

[2]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wright_(author)

[3]~https://lithub.com/the-sealey-challenge-an-expansive-way-of-reading-poetry/

[4]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phytolacca_americana

[5]~Richard Wright, Haiku – this other world, pages 255, 279, 282

[6]~https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/basho

Seize the day !

At breakfast one day ~ a friend taught me the art of poaching eggs the right way. It requires that you sieve off the very watery white before you poach the remainder of the yolk and  white in boiling water. She poached the perfect egg while I only made the crepe and assembled it. Team work !

Quick edit ~ had to format the poem 😬 posting again!

They heard the sun rise 
in the crack of a shell

as the day's aspirations
spilled onto a strict griddle

and sometimes the sun simply
cocoons itself in a fever,

poached in the liquor of dreams
of yesterday but not today,

for they scramble up the momentous
orbs, defining time in the ribboning

of yellows and whites until it congeals
into the brilliance of light on a plate.

They call it breakfast.
What injustice a word can do.

On a Leonine Occasion

I am surrounded by Leonine folk i.e. those with their sun in Leo. My mother is ruled by this sign. My husband and a very dear friend of ours, are too, and we celebrated a birthday for them both yesterday. Chocolate cupcakes marked the occasion. This poem is dedicated to my husband and also to my Mother; big cats both !

Sun signs are a bit cliche and all that, but they make for interesting assumptions, like in those MBTI personality inventories . I find it amusing that Fixed and Cardinal Suns (all elements) are the majority of my closest friends, at least those that I feel I can trust and depend on, must be the temperament 😂 Then again, one is more than simply a Sun sign or a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator . That said, this is for the two remarkable Leos in my life !

The leonine mane of the Sun sparkled gold
the day you were born to the rulership of light.

Swift as a ray, warm bright amber purpose
steadies your every step. Lion heart is as large

as a savanna, throbbing with the pulse of life
like in a wildebeest migration. Fiery charms

in the depths of your embrace move in fluidly molten
sentiment that solidify to an igneous character,

the rock you can depend on to steady the soul
in any fickle wind. Yours isn't the abrading

of airy tempests but the braid of brilliance
that tethers the sail to the mast,

steers the prow through the wasted breath
of gales, to defined shores,

harnessed to the purity of a rising sun
to emerald glades and shimmering turquoise realms.
One of many birthday cakes this August !

The Golden Fleece

There are plants that look like a tangle of golden threads. These holostemparasites lack the green of chlorophyll and the ability to photosynthesize but they have unique structures called ‘haustoria’ that penetrate into the vascular tissues of a host plant to access their nutrients, specifically into the phloem tissues, so they are phloem feeders [1] They lack roots and leaves and I was very disturbed to find a mass of them atop a patch of Ivy. Yesterday, there were two tangles and they spread so fast,  I had never thought golden dodder to exist anywhere around this area. Cuscuta campestris , as this species is known in the botanical world, most certainly startled me on my walk.

Cuscuta campestris

Researchers are unable to explain how Cuscuta evolved. They have since placed the plant in the family Convolvulaceae, unlike the Cuscutaceae that I had learnt of during my degree. The plant is phylogenetically close to the tribe Ipomoea that contains all those popular twining species we know of, like Morning Glory and Sweet Potatoes, and here it is, amassed on Ivy, making me uneasy and yet, I marvel at the nature of being.

One simply requires removal of its golden twining stems and pruning of the host plant, so that the garden looks less of a mess. Yet, the plant is an ideal species in research due to its lack of differentiation of plant tissue like other complex Angiosperms. The plant can even create a bridge between different plants for transmission of diseases from one host to another, which can be of immense importance in scientific investigations. The haustorium though, remains little understood as a specialized outgrowth that is unlike any other found in the plant world as also does the fact that Cuscuta isn’t typically host specific.

Dodder haustoria penetrating host stem. | Credit: Spike Walker. Wellcome Images. Light micrograph of a transverse section through dodder (Cuscuta sp) and its host stem, showing haustoria penetrating the host tissues.

In the manner of man’s anthropomorphizing ways, Dodder has been described as possibly the most intelligent plant using taste, smell, movement and touch to manipulate other plants, and hijacking and transferring its genes, large molecules like DNA and RNA, including viruses through its specialized structures. Dodder is also able to use messenger RNA to track the condition of the host plant or to alter it which is similar to horizontal gene transfer between plants and microbes used for the genetic modification of plants species [2]

It is a very unusual holoparasite that even produces greenish to white flowers arranged in a cymose inflorescence. The seeds of Cuscuta campestris may have arrived on the patch of Ivy, dispersed by wind, water, birds, other animals, or by man with machines and planting material contaminated by dodder seeds. Children too, interestingly, can be agents of dispersal in that they tend to ferry the plant stems across a distance [3] The plant is of no economic importance and is considered a noxious weed and here it is, sullying the garden and I don’t know what to think.

So I wondered of each haustorium embedded, producing biochemicals that could dissolve phloem components of the Ivy for absorption, without in fact dissolving itself. Was the Ivy in pain? Was the Dodder, a sadistic plant? Its simple stems had matted the surface and would shade the leaves of the Ivy if left to its own devices, reducing photosynthesis and eventually killing the plant. On the other hand, the Ivy itself seems like an opportunist, crowding out the surface, because horticulturists simply appreciated its cosmetic allure in having climbed historically valuable edifices and now deem it a useful ornamental.

The poem is about that which we do not understand except in the language we know of or the stories we hear, whether those be scientific, cultural  or mythological. This tangled mess of Dodder, that I reluctantly call beautiful,  demanded a divine origin and the Greek myth of the golden fleece seemed most apt. (I have added notes below, on the story, that make for interesting reading) The poem is an attempt at a synthesis of our limited knowledge through the creative lens of our collective illusions.

The Golden Fleece of Dodder 

The world was upside down for a gilded moment,
like roots seeking sun, a golden fleece over Ivy
and your tangled mess lifted to the heavens.

This savage union demanded you twine so,
salivating ecstasy within sentient stratum.
Do you feel, as you kneel and grope leafy vines,

the same as when Poseidon had his way
with Theophane, to let out his inner beast
and make you in his image.

You wore it for kingship, golden, fibrous,
for now you walk over your leafy subjects,
taxing their sunny labours and feeling svelte.

Your weave is the hurried knit of a harried tale
and children playing Argonauts,  will snip at your aphorisms
to pass them on in manner of plundering recruits.

They constellate the land like you seed the stars
in the myths of man; What fascination holds such simple staff
that morphs to serpent on yielding strand?

Notes:

In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece is the fleece of Chrysomallos, the winged ram with golden wool, which was held in Colchis. The fleece, a symbol of authority and kingship, figures in the tale of the hero Jason and his crew of Argonauts, who set out on a quest for it by the order of King Pelias, in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. Through the help of Medea, they acquire the Golden Fleece. The story, of great antiquity, was current in the time of Homer (eighth century BC). It survives in various forms, among which the details vary [4](Wikipedia)

The ram was fathered by Poseidon in his primitive ram-form with the nymph, Theophane, the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. The golden ram saved Phrixus, the son of Athamas the Minyan, a founder of Halos in Thessaly but also king of the city of Orchomenus in Boeotia (a region of southeastern Greece) and the goddess Nephele. The ram took the boy Phrixus to Colchis and in essence, this act returned the golden ram to the god Poseidon, and became the constellation Aries. Phrixus settled in the house of Aeetes, son of Helios the sun god. He hung the Golden Fleece preserved from the ram on an oak in a grove sacred to Ares (Mars), the god of war and one of the Twelve Olympians. The fleece was guarded by a never-sleeping dragon with teeth that could become soldiers when planted in the ground. The dragon was at the foot of the tree on which the fleece was placed. In some versions of the story, Jason attempts to put the guard serpent to sleep [4](Wikipedia)

References:

[1]~https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17429145.2010.541945

Takeshi Furuhashi, Katsuhisa Furuhashi & Wolfram Weckwerth (2011) The parasitic mechanism of the holostemparasitic plant Cuscuta, Journal of Plant Interactions, 6:4, 207-219, DOI: 10.1080/17429145.2010.541945

[2]~https://jonlieffmd.com/blog/plant-intelligence-primer-update-2015

[3]~https://keys.lucidcentral.org/keys/v3/eafrinet/weeds/key/weeds/Media/Html/Cuscuta_campestris_(Golden_Dodder).htm

[4]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Fleece

Image Credit:

Picture Credits~https://mappingignorance.org/2016/08/22/parasite-plant-check/

The Field Of The Embroidered Quilt

An embroidered bed spread inspired this post today, a story that was set in motion when a dear friend of ours had to make a hasty exit from Dhaka this week as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was getting ready for a complete lockdown. She had earlier lived in places considered very difficult and stressful, where one could be expected to leave within the hour in case of an emergency, but never quite predicted the present day Covid-19 scenario, in peaceful countries like Bangladesh for instance, where movement has been compromised like it may be in zones of conflict. As per a recent government circular, in view of the  current surge  in  Covid-19  cases, beginning the first of July, movements  all  over  Bangladesh  have been  strictly restricted for one week with exception  to  movements  related  to  emergency  services  e.g.  health  services, police  stations,  fire  service,  electricity,  food  and  water  supply,  gas/fuel  supply, pharmacy, internet and telephone services.


As an expatriate, meeting or connecting with family members who live in different time zones has never been easy, more so during these times. Human society grows increasingly insular with invisible walls in place and now, through disease. Something about the pandemic makes me apprehensive for global diversity through free movement or perhaps that’s been an idealistic notion all along. In any case, our friend is safely with us until things stabilise in Dhaka.


It has been an extremely busy week and I missed posting, although my writing continues with the same intensity. Blogging sometimes takes on a retrograde flair and the writing moves inwards, given perhaps, severe blog fatigue. Then comes along a bed spread from Bangladesh; I believe it merited a post, because it is very much like poetry.
Earlier in May this year, I had posted a poem on Sashiko, [1] which is the art of reinforcing fabric through running stitch embroidery in Japan. In Bangladesh, rural women have long engaged in a similar pursuit of reinforcing the fabric of old sarees (a traditional garment worn by women) through running stitch embroidery and motifs in a form called Nakshi Kantha [2]. In West Bengal in India, kantha is still a very popular form of embroidery as is the Tepchi straight stitch of Chikankari in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Our friend brought me this beautiful specimen of Nakshi Kantha on a huge bedspread that looks so divine, a result of many hours of painstaking needle work by hand. It has artistic motifs  or ‘naksha‘ (in Bengali) all over, an intricate border and a straight stitch runs through the entire fabric.

In earlier times the kantha stitch was used to embroider red, blue and black patterns on [usually] white fabric, by women, during their leisure time or on rainy days. Sometimes years were spent converting old sarees or dhotis (Men’s traditional garments) into thick, embroidered quilts. Designs were outlined by needles and thread and simply filled in, each product distinctly different from another. Today, patterns are stamped or traced and Nakshi Kantha is produced commercially. Traditional designs are influenced by religion or the environment. Motifs in this form, range from lotuses, wheels, solar or lunar depictions to the tree of life, birds, kalka or paisley, and leaves too, that can employ a vast variety of stitches, with the basic being the running stitch or Kantha, followed by Chatai or pattern darning, Kaitya or bending stitch, weave running stitch, Jessore stitch (a variation of darning stitch), threaded running stitch, anarasi or Holbein stitches as well as the herringbone stitch, satin stitch, backstitch and cross-stitch.

Quite a few of these stitches found expression on the bed spread I feel so privileged to receive. The pictures include the bag it arrived in, which in itself is a fine, hand embroidered work of art, on a fragment of a colourful saree. Kantha is used to embroider various articles of daily use ranging from quilts, prayer mats, covers for the Quran, bed spreads, wallets, kerchiefs and other such.  Essentially,  kantha is an expression of creativity, an embroidery of a poem on a lazy day or perhaps an intense passion. As the writer of one blog [4] said about this form “kantha making is very rewarding. The concentration and contemplation that is required in building the harmony in color, design and execution is akin to a spiritual exercise. The kantha maker has to put all her energies into a single basket of mind and execute the design. At the end the kantha means more to the maker than to the viewer. Hence it is a lonely art and is totally bound by the whims of the artist.” It makes me think of what poetry is to me along the lines of a creative solitude and a solitary pursuit. It is the kind of embroidered expanse you hold in your hands and wonder how you threaded those words into existence, those patterns and hues that make you happy, yet sad that there is no undoing an old design, you balk at the thought of repeating one too, so you simply start over with fabric, thread and a new pattern, in a spurt of growth, like life.


I took the opportunity to put the spotlight on a narrative poem written on Kantha by Bangladeshi poet Jasimuddin [3]. Popularly called Polli Kabi (Folk or Pastoral Poet) he was a Bengali lyricist, composer and writer widely celebrated for his modern ballad sagas in the pastoral mode where his  Nakshi Kanthar Math is considered among the best lyrical poem in the Bengali language. As a key figure for the revival of pastoral literature in Bengal during the 20th century, he also wrote poems, ballads, songs, dramas, novel, stories and memoirs. I don’t know Bengali but it is a language that resembles my mother tongue Konkani, which is spoken in Goa along the Arabian Sea Coast, perhaps because of words that share similar roots in Sanskrit. Jasimuddin’s poem Naskhi Kanthar Math or ‘Field of Embroidered Quilt’ was published in 1929, pre-independence India. An extraordinary book, it sold more than half a million copies before independence. 

The poet Jasimuddin Photo by ~Jennifer A. Cutting, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. 1951 Source: Wikipedia


Featured in the poem are scenes of rural Bangladesh, its traditions, struggles and way of life and begins with a drought scene where the villagers pray for rain at a socio-religious ritual. At this event a young man called Rupai meets a village girl named Shaju in a classic case of love at first sight. The lovers get married in the story but the bliss does not last long for when thugs come to loot the crops of the villagers which results in a conflict, five people die and Rupai is wrongly accused of their murder. To escape the situation, he sees no other way but to flee from the scene and leave his beloved wife. Although rural customs and festivities like the harvest, fishing and a wedding, have been emphasised in the poem, in addition, the love story itself is very tragic, for in an attempt to protect her, the couple are torn asunder by Rupai leaving.  Shaju embroiders in solitude, a quilt in Kantha, depicting stories of her life with Rupai, a quilt that she asks her mother to lay on her grave when she dies. She does eventually die heartbroken, pining for her beloved, without ever seeing him again and the quilt is accordingly placed on her grave. Later in the poem, the villagers discover the dead body of a man wrapped in the coverlet, atop the grave, which is identified as that of her beloved Rupai.


It is the kind of story that captures the imagination of everyone that loves stories woven around themes of love, idyllic countrysides, seasons, passions, conflicts, tragedy and redemption. Excerpts below are from E.M. Milford’s translation of Jasimuddin’s poem, featured on a blog [4]. I managed to translate the original Bengali text through Google Translate which did help me thread the narrative and understand the gist of the poem better.

Jasimuddin brings to life, the pulse of the rural landscape and of its denizens in a way that was befitting of the Nature Cult of other famous Bengali poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam and yet, he very openly spoke of the struggles of rural folk, the sordid aspects of rustic life without denying the subjects of his poems, their basic humanity.

Black is the pupil of my eye,
Black the ink with which I write
Black is birth, and Death is Black
Black is the universal Night.
Black is the Son of the Soil and yet
Victor is he of All!
He who with gold
Has credit small.

Yet, the melancholy of grief and illustrating for the reader, the sameness of it across age and other divides, is his most famous Bangla elegy, Kobor (Graves) from his composition Rakhali ; where in a dramatic monologue he expresses the searing depth of grief of an old man speaking to his only surviving descendant, his grandson, at having lost all his loved ones to death, especially the loss of his wife, whose grave he tends to for thirty years. [6]

“এইখানে তোর দাদীর কবর ডালিম গাছের তলে, 
তিরিশ বছর ভিজায়ে রেখেছি দুই নয়নের জলে।“
“Here, under the pomegranate tree, is your grandmother's grave;
For thirty years my tears have kept it green.”
(Graves by Jasimuddin,Stanza 1, Line:1-2)

Poetry is best understood through the language it is composed in, a translation may not do it justice although it enables a reader to appreciate context, as well as the immediate concerns and passions of those that are separate from us.

Some of the poetry requires that one understand the cultural context as well; for example, breaking bangles and tearing clothes as mentioned in a stanza of Nakshi Kanthar Math,  is a symbol of bereavement and grief at being widowed. When Rupai expresses grave remorse at having to leave his wife, he symbolically compares it to leaving her widowed.

Weeping, his wife says,
"Tell me what has happened. Where have you been hurt?
Let me see! Where is your wound ! Is it very painful ?"
"Painful is my wound, my sweet, but not in my body.
I have tom your sari, broken your bangles,
Broken your anklets, broken the necklace round your throat.

Further in the poem Nakshi Kanthar Math, the act of submitting a life event to embroidery is also described just as it happens in the lives of those women that continue to embroider in Kantha for their personal use. In fact, as our friend tells me, women in Bangladesh have sought to steal time for themselves through the very act of embroidery, even if in the company of other women so they could find some solace in such a collective, away from their familial pressures. Current times have turned a mostly solitary domestic art into a cottage industry, pushing some women towards entrepreneurship.

Spreading the embroidered quilt
She works the livelong night,
As if the quilt her poet were
Of her bereaved plight.
Many a joy and many a sorrow
Is written on its breast;
The story of Rupai's life is there,
Line by line expressed.

She is a daughter beloved at home
When the embroidery begins;
Later a husband sits at her side;
Her red lips hum as she sings.
The self-same quilt today she opens,
But those days ne'er return;
Those golden dreams of joy have vanished,
To ashes grey they burn.
Stitch by stitch she carefully draws
The last scene of pain,

I was happy to learn of Kantha celebrated thus in poetry, as it does too the very act of embroidering a life story. It exalts the woman, who in the art of stitching together old fabrics, tries to reclaim her spirit through passionate needlework. It is as if Shaju, in an artful case of transference of expectations and her mortal being, places even the scene of her death and an eventual meeting with her husband in an afterlife, onto a quilt. The product of her passions is strangely prophetic as well. Life to some, may simply be the pursuit of what we find missing in our fabric of existence or an apathetic resigned denial that nothing really matters. In the case of the quilt, there is something poignant yet significant in how Shaju embroiders her past life onto a quilt and in a remarkable expression of agency, even proceeds to weave in her death. It is a story of profound grief, but it is also a tale of seeking pause while parsing life in hue on fabric, it is not a tale of apathy but a tale of creating meaning of something that is inexplicably difficult to come to terms with. It is only a story but for the ones that embroider to express themselves in Kantha and channel their creativity through it, there can be nothing more real than the very act of transcending the mundane through beautiful art. As someone who loves embroidery, I find it heartening that Bangladesh’s pastoral poet embroidered his most famous poem around the theme of a Nakshi Kantha quilt and I was able to learn of it thanks to the beautiful bed spread I received.

Yet, as Jasimuddin notes in his poetry, pastoral poems may give us a glimpse of what appear to be the concerns of others but it is what people actually do, that reveals what is truly important to them and that cannot always be transcribed into words. Sometimes, it can only be embroidered. This post is a tribute to those artisans, not to diminish in any way their creative passions that may not necessarily be reflected in works of beauty they are compelled to mass produce for commercial use. This is for quilts embroidered singlehandedly by them, in their own life stories.

What may we know of the secret sorrow
Of the shepherd in the field?
In vain we search in our joy and our pain
This secret of his to yield.
Our griefs written in verse and book
That those who read may know.
But dumb are the griefs of the shepherd boy
Which only the flute can show.

Not all is tragically bleak and sad in the poem, there is also poetry in the way people express their immediate concerns, like wishing for rain that means everything for the harvest and thereby for livelihood and survival. Verrier Elwin (anthropologist, tribal activist) [7] described these and other aspects of the poem ‘The field of the embroidered quilt‘ so succinctly, (especially of E. M. Milford’s translation) that provide for a glimpse of life in Bengal during colonial times: The latter part of the poem is almost unbearable after this, but that is as it should be. It is a proof of the skill with which the author has entranced us. This is no Shakespearean tragedy-the working out of tragic character to a tragic end, the awful designs of fate drawing to their desperate conclusion. It is the tragedy with which all .who know village life in Bengal are only too familiar; meaningless waste, fruitless despair, hopeless disaster against which man is powerless.· So does cholera suddenly invade a valley, so does the capricious weather destroy the crops or wild animals steal the treasured cattle. Yet out of this strange meaningless existence of loss and separation, hunger and frustration, the villager (as I have seen again and again and as Jasim Uddin portrays most beautifully) achieves the highest ends. His are the values of constancy and courage, love and hope.

I have chosen to include what appears at the beginning of the poem, [8] which a prayer for rain at a socio-religious ritual. It is a beautiful way to see the world even if the heavens are grey and the clouds are dark. This prayerful poem is a way of assuming ownership of sorrow at a drought, in how people demand from the heavens, rain for a parched Earth.

'Black Cloud, come down, come down;
Flower-bearing Cloud, come down, come;
Cloud like cotton, Cloud like dust,
O let your sweat pour down!
Blind Cloud, Blind Cloud, come,
Let your twelve Brother Cloudlets come,
Drop a little water that we
May eat good rice.

Straight Cloud, Strong Cloud, come,
Lazy Cloud, Little Cloud, come,
I will sell the jewel in my nose and buy
An umbrella for your head!
Soft Rain, gently fall,
In the house the plough neglected lies,
In the burning sun the farmer dies,
O Rain with laughing-face, come!'

References:
[1]~https://davinasolomon.org/2021/05/05/upcycling/

[2]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakshi_kantha

[3]~https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jasimuddin

[4]~http://sos-arsenic.net/lovingbengal/quilt.html

[5]~https://m.theindependentbd.com//arcprint/details/73517/2016-12-23

[6]~https://www.eajournals.org/wp-content/uploads/Thomas-Gray-and-Jasimuddin.pdf of an old man narrating

[7]~https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-177828

[8]~http://sos-arsenic.net/lovingbengal/jasi-poems.html#1.2.8.3