The ever-shifting lines between belonging and not belonging

The ever-shifting lines between belonging and not belonging

Sadly, many pioneers of the Indian English literature of my generation cannot carry on writing. Due to my bondage with him as a brother, Bhai, with Saleem Peeradina’s fragile health, as agreed with him, I invited Pramila Venkateswaran, featured at iGlobal before, to stand in for him. The poet laureate of Suffolk County, Venkateswaran is not just an acclaimed poet but is also Peeradina’s student.

I am what I appear

To them: a country without borders. My space
Is their turf. I surface, with no place to hide

Except just below the skin.

Saleem Peeradina writes about the skin not to emulate racial prejudice but to find a human in his body primal. In the poem chosen by Peeradina and in the comments by Pramila Venkateswaran, we can see how the poet works with this meaning.

In one of his interviews, he explains his process: “In any given place you can construct a habitat to have a temporary home. Standing in the doorway, you can take your measure relative to the vistas stretching around you. Waiting at the window, you can watch for flares in the sky. The periphery is in constant motion; the center moves when you break your stillness. My writing emerges out of this condition of being.” If in his earlier poems Bandra and India are the locales, the poems in Final Cut (2016) move on to embrace objects and fruits, while simultaneously he takes us through an escapist’s fling of imagination as in his poem The Lesson here.

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Saleem Peeradina was born in Mumbai, India, in 1944. The author of five collections of poetry, and a prose memoir of growing up in Bombay, The Ocean in My Yard (Penguin, 2005), he was editor of Contemporary Indian Poetry in English (Macmillan, 1972), one of the earliest and most widely used texts in courses on South Asian literature. He currently lives in Michigan and is an Emeritus Professor of English at Siena Heights University. His fifth poetry collection, Final Cut, was published by Valley Press in June 2016.

So, here it is, on behalf of Saleem Peeradina, Pramila Venkateswaran responds to my questions.

Venkateswaran’s help on the poem

In a variation of the traditional sonnet, “Body Primal,” in its two stanzas of 6 lines each, mirrors the disjunction between the making of the body and the “body lost in search of itself.” We see the poet’s ambivalence between praise and disgust for the body: It is “fragrant” as well as “misshapen,” curious and narcissistic, freedom-loving and lost. The word “soul” is not used, which makes us wonder if this is so because this poem is written by an urban poet wondering about the materiality of the body. But even if the poet does not want to hint at any religious inquiry, the poet shows us the human being’s ability to engage in a philosophical quest about its origins and purpose. The poet offers us an ironic view of the material reality of the human being, with its mix of biological fact and psychological development, blended with the possibility of own unmaking.

Using fragments to create this poem mirrors the “parts” coming together to form the body’s apparent “completeness.” The line break after the preposition, “in,” ending the first stanza, makes us take a deep breath before the list of favourable aspects of the body in the second stanza.

Internal rhyme, the repetition of “s” and “sh” sounds in the first stanza and “l” and “ing” sounds in the second stanza, alliteration and assonance make “Body Primal” musical, although the poem edges on uncovering the dissonance of the body.

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Q

Your poetic journey began in the company of legendary Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jassawalla, and the other contemporary poets of post-colonial Indian English literature. How does your poetics differ from theirs? Or does it? I mean, what is Saleem Peeradina’s voice?

A

Saleem Peeradina was part of the group of Bombay poets who changed the course of Indian English poetry. The 70s and 80s were the decades that witnessed this change in voice, subject, form, and other aesthetic choices and innovation. Each of the poets had their distinctive style, which brought to the fore the versatility of English and the poets’ range of language, form, and sonics. While Nissim Ezekiel’s poems exhibit dry humour, wit and irony, Arun Kolatkar’s poems are musical, blending the physical and emotional landscape with the voices of the region, and are ironic in expressing the human condition. Saleem Peeradina’s poetry in the 80s, which we see in First Offence, shares with Ezekiel the Eliot-like crafting of language, blending with the regional language and tone. Peeradina’s distinctive style was a description of the minutiae of urban life, ironic insight on everyday life, and spotting the sublime in the mundane.

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Q

Many of your earlier poems journeyed through plurality—I mean invoking and making multiple images work as a collective. Your later collection of poems has dealt with the singularity of objects and fruits. Is this reflecting, in any sense, your transition from the plurality of living in India to the commodious space of the USA, where you have a home now? Please, take us through the transformation your creative work has evolved, with any hows and whys.

A

Cultural dislocation became the fodder for Saleem’s poetry after he moved to the US. His altered physical space contributed to the turmoil most immigrants experience. His concerns were: Where do I belong and how? How do I fit in with American ways and how do I not fit in? How do I make meaning of the new kinds of experiences that now dominate my life, even circumscribe it in certain ways? These quandaries emerged for him mainly in his family life, bringing up his daughters in the white-dominated Michigan of the 1990s, where Indians and Muslims were as alien as one can imagine. The essay, “Giving, Withholding, and Meeting Midway: A Poet’s Ethnography,” published in Distant Mirrors: America as a Foreign Culture, as well as the volumes of poetry, Slow Dance, and Final Cut were his responses to the mystery of the ever-shifting lines between belonging and not belonging, between desire and loss. He carves his reality so finely that he approaches simplicity: “For me, this night blooming into day is enough” and “All I own I fit into a single bag” (“Slow Dance”). In this new space of simplicity, Saleem began to focus on objects and birds that surrounded him. It was a Zen-like move to brush away the dust and etch pure lines. We see in Saleem’s poems, “Exhibit 1,2, and 3,” on Hiroshige’s art, ekphrasis brings to our attention both the minute details of the paintings as well as Saleem’s interior vision. Witness the description of the recluse and the merging of the object of the gaze and the poet’s inner window: “The figure of a wanderer // or recluse, modestly miniature drifts into the scene / Standing there to tell us…/ I am nothing” (“Exhibit A). Such Hiroshige poems become the commentary on his poems about small things—birds and objects. The poems “Persimmons” and “A Conference of Crows,” flare from the minute sensory description to larger truths about life; the microcosm contains the macrocosm. The slow development of the taste of the persimmon fruit unfolds a mystery: its chalkiness needs to settle in the mouth long enough to reveal its sweet aftermath. This means one has to wait patiently for that final burst of sweetness long after the fruit is eaten. Thus, this poem becomes a koan. Similarly, in “A Conference of Crows,” the poet describes the history of crows and warns us that to “heed the call of the crow,” one has to know their loyalty and how they protect themselves from human unkindness.

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Q

With an illustrious life and achievements you have to your credit (please bring that in conversation), do you ponder over the ephemeral nature of all things in your retirement? Or about the opportunities found or lost, success gained and forgotten, and what will survive?

A

Upon retirement, Saleem was excited by the poems he was writing. He was intrigued by the simplicity of humble objects, fruits, birds—seeing the universal in the particular. Since he was always interested in various subjects, retirement afforded him the time to delve into the writings of authors such as E. O. Wilson, Atul Gawande and Jennifer Hecht, among others. “I have an inexhaustible curiosity for discovering new worlds both interior and external,” he says. “The View from Seventy,” “The Lesson,” and “The Curious Case of the Custard Apple” as well as the poems about objects are inspired by books ranging from medicine to astronomy. His advice in “Tips on Eating With Your Hands,” can be taken for writing poetry or living one’s life: “you’ve got to stop watching / What you are doing to do it right. Loosen up, / And lose yourself in the meal.” More than pondering the ephemeral, like a Zen master, Saleem dives into experience and presents it to us as art. The latest volume of Saleem’s poetry, Final Cut, may not necessarily be final, since poets write in their minds all the time. We hear Saleem’s poetry in his conversations about poems and poetics with his family, poetry community, and his international audience.

Yogesh Patel MBE runs Skylark Publications UK as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. Also honoured with the Freedom of the City of London, he is a recipient of many awards and has read his work at important venues like the House of Lords and the National Poetry Library. Published in numerous journals and anthologies; and with films and LPs under his belt, his collection of poems, The Rapids, is just published by The London Magazine. By profession, he is a qualified optometrist and an accountant.

In this regular series for ‘iGlobal’, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.

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