Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Poet in exile

Joseph Brodsky was a poet in exile far away from his mental space and homeland. He herded his soul through untold suffering just to write what he had to. The stalinist Russia hounded him all his life, branded a social parasite and sentenced to many years in labour prison. Even after he fled the country, the propagandist maze and treachery continued when they never let his parents to leave Leningrad. These excruciating experiences were like million merciless rays cutting through his soul to introspect and inhale the rarified air beyond the mortal realms of suffering.

From March 1964 until November 1965, Brodsky lived in exile in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia. On June 4, 1972, Joseph Brodsky became an involuntary exile from his native country. After brief stays in Vienna and London, he came to the United States. His contemplations on the adopted language again shows the literary persona built around the concept of exile, loss and freedom.

On the essays about his parents in Less Than One (1986), he said - "I write this in English because I want to grant them a margin of freedom: the margin whose width depends on the number of those who may be willing to read this. I want Maria Volpert and Alexander Brodsky (poet) to acquire reality under a foreign code of conscience, I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements. This won't resurrect them, but English grammar may at least prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state crematorium than the Russian." He was reinventing a language to breathe in the spirit of creative freedom and insisted that language needed poetry not because it can outlive the poet, but it can mutate unlike the rigid and unkind human monoliths that attempted to judge, filter, manipulate and smother dissenting and differing voices.

Reading Brodsky is a personal experience, even when his poetry stays within the traditional and classical perimeters. He recounts the reflection on history, religion and personal life with an intimacy that gives you the reader a unique opportunity to view the dynamics of an artist's mind. The words laid out are so palpable, that you can fell the warmth and depth of his creative genius.

Reading Brodsky is deliberating on the concept of time and the language as a tool to sculpt on it. According to him, Time is the enemy of man and everything man has created and holds dear: "Ruins are the triumph of oxygen and time. Time clings to man, who grows older, dies and turns into "dust" – "time's flesh", as Brodsky calls it. One of his books of poetry is called A Part of Speech. Man – in particular, a poet – is a part of a language that is older than he and will live on after time has settled the account with language's servant.

*Man is attacked both by the past and the future. What we experience as unpleasant and negative in life is, as a matter of fact, a cry from the future, which is trying to break ground in the present. The only thing that prevents the future and the past from merging is the short period constituted by the present, symbolised by man and his body in "Eclogue IV: Winter" (1977):

… What sets them apart is onlya warm body.
Mule-like, stubborn creature,
it stands firmly between them,
ratherlike a border guard: stiffened, sternly
preventing the wandering of the future
into the past. …

I read him in 1992, before he died in his Brooklyn Apartment. I could read only a few of his works: Urania(1987), Watermark(1992) and Selected Poems (1973). But they left some indelible impression on me and a belief in the transcendence of poetry, after all that I mistrusted. Here is a poem from Urania where Brodsky mulled over death as space created by the absence of body, but still limited by memories and images that carry them. Notice the wide sweep of imagery and private but empathetic tone.

To Urania:
Everything has its limit, including sorrow.
A windowpane stalls a stare. Nor does a grill abandon
a leaf. One may rattle the keys, gurgle down a swallow.
Loneless cubes a man at random.
A camel sniffs at the rail with a resentful nostril;
a perspective cuts emptiness deep and even.
And what is space anyway if not the
body's absence at every given
point? That's why Urania's older sister Clio!
in daylight or with the soot-rich lantern,
you see the globe's pate free of any bio,
you see she hides nothing, unlike the latter.
There they are, blueberry-laden forests,
rivers where the folk with bare hands catch sturgeon
or the towns in whose soggy phone books
you are starring no longer; father eastward surge on
brown mountain ranges; wild mares carousing
in tall sedge; the cheeckbones get yellower
as they turn numerous. And still farther east, steam dreadnoughts
or cruisers,
and the expanse grows blue like lace underwear.

Brodsky was a person who you would hug before you bid adieu in silence to feel the warmth in the air around.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Rain is not just a metaphor

The elements of nature and human lives have an intricate and symbiotic relationship. The endless cycles of birth and death, day and night, rain and sunshine, meteors and bursting stars in the galaxy have a benevolent scheme of karmic existence. The creation and destruction we percieve as mere mortals might just be an infinitesimally insignificant plot, however nature, humans and their astral destinies are inextricably intertwined.

Watching Indian-malayalam movie Piravi(1988) presents a realization of this cosmic vision. The director, Shaji Karun perhaps made the most stunning debut with this film after Ray's Pather Panchali. His experience behind the camera with the charismatic Aravindan often reminded another great swedish director-cinematographer duo Bergman and Sven Nykvist. His works for Kanchanaseetha, Oridathu, Chidambaram were stunning.

Piravi(Birth) is based on the real life incident of a missing architecture engineering student and the travails of his grieving family coming into terms with its social and spiritual aftermath. The plot revolves around the engrossing presence of his airy spirit in and around the house and almost kafkaesque disposition of the political and bureaucratic systems. What endears the viewer is however the dense and sensitive portrayal of rain in its contemplative moods juxtaposed alongside the characters. Treating rain beyond the limits of a metaphor enables the movie take on the eclectic questions of life and death in an intimately personal setting.

At the beginning of the movie, you find Raghava Chakiar starting his endless repetitive wait at the bus station for his son, Raghu who failed to come for his sister's engagement. Raghava Chakiar comes to know from newspapers that Raghu was taken into custody by the Police for political reasons. He travels to the capital and meets the higher Police officials. But they feigned helplessness as there is no proof that Raghu was taken into custody. Raghu's sister realizes that he probably would have died in police custody after being tortured, but cannot bear to tell this to her father. The old man's grip on reality slowly slips and he starts dreaming that his son is with him.

The movie embellished this linear tragic story with an outpouring of blissful cinematic expressions on deliberations on the karmic cycles of father and son, sibling relationships, longing for the lost, organic symbiosis of nature and human, the house as a refuge and a haven for concepts of architecture and dreams... Everything unreels for the viewer in a quiet relentless flow of images, voices and silences piling on each other: boatman and the river, last bus arrivals, lightning, thunderstorm, the rain drenched landscape, the wintergreen and the different moods of rain underneath the sky and the conversations between Raghu and his sister. Such is the mastery of Shaji on the medium that each image, nuances of cinematic technique would grow on you in silence taking its time.

Raghu never appears in the movie except for a brief flashback when he was very young. His presence looms large in the movie and the hearts of his grieving family, like the rain that loomed over the horizon in the beginning, drizzled for a little bit and steadily became the downpour of pain and memory, and still reminds you that life still holds key to the crossed destinies of nature and humankind.

At a different level, Piravi strikes at the core of state oppression and the indifference and cruelty of its various manifestations, especially police brutality. The ominous presence of Orwel's big brother amongst the life of ordinary folks is prevalent. Yet another level, the movie has a lot in common to Gabriel Garcia Marquez' No One Writes to the Colonel (1961). The images of the Colonel's endless waiting at the post office for his pension to arrive, losing son during the time of volatile political uprising and the ship that brings mail across the river evoke a similar perspective on the vicissitudes of the world.

Shaji, trained in the school of Aravindan inherited his deep understanding of indian philosophy went beyond the premises of Marquez to etch the poignant story of an old man in search of his missing son. I must mention about the actor, Premji who was 80 when he portrayed the father responded with a preformance that was brilliant and astonishing. He internalised the elements of the movie in total and pushed the limits to perfection.

Watching Piravi is a timeless affair, and you know that rain is not just a metaphor.

Saving the World!

It came about in this way. During the children's revolt of the sixties and the seventies, I was just old enough to understand what t...