Monday, September 22, 2008

Dual Personality of the Poet

When I was in Phaltan, a small ex-princely state near Pune in Maharashtra, one of my poet-friends Santosh Pawar, kindly decided to stay overnight with me and give me company. He lives in a small nearby town called Dahiwadi and has written a very good long poem ` Bhramistacha Jahirnama' which won him Abhidhanantar prize for Rs. 10,000/- some years back. Commenting my works, he said that there was strange duality about me. As a person I am loving, warm and affectionate but my poems are more arid and devoid of feelings. He pointed out that you love kids, family and friends but your poems are so dry and unfeeling. Well, well I was too tired to respond to it and said that I really don't know the reason for this. A similar view was expressed by some other friends in Valsad. They remarked that the person in my poetry is not the person they know. Not that this duality is something very profound or something. A famous and classic statement about this problem would obviously be TS Eliot's and his so called `theory of impersonality'. He makes the distinction between `the man who suffers' and `the man who writes'. The man who suffers has to take a backseat if he wants to transfer and communicate his feelings effectively. The feelings have to be `depersonalized' so that the reader can make them his own. So much so about the classical Eliotian/symbolist theory of communication of feelings in art. Then you have all those French neo-Symbolists ( so called structuralists and poststructuralists) with their notion of writing as `ecriture', as a practice of exploring symbols for their own sake rather than for the sake of communication. In ecriture the duality between the `man who suffers' and the `man who writes' vanishes because `man' vanishes. Man becomes yet one more symbol in the game of symbolic exploration. But obviously Santosh was not referring to the problem of artistic communication but to the duality within me as a human being. I asked myself: does the poet Sachin Ketkar want to avoid Sachin Ketkar the person? Is my writing, a yet another way of escaping the fact that I was constantly being threatened by my emotional self which seeks to submerge me? Poetry as a means to evade my self? The poet says you cannot allow yourself to be submerged and yet be a poet. There is a deeper split in my poetic self , probably, because the poetry becomes at once two contradictory things: means of articulating feelings and at the same time means of avoiding them. One forays into dangerous zones when one faces oneself. Yes I am in some way a sentimentalist : ` a man of feelings', but at the same time my poetry becomes my survival strategy, a coping device. My poems are unfeeling because I have too much of it in my life! I try to transmute my pain, emptiness and suffering into images, metaphors and symbols. This alchemical faculty is a gift. Probably like Derridian take on Plato's `pharmakon', a toxin that cures, a cure that kills. Interestingly, I find myself reading Eliot often and wonder at his relevance today for me. His meditations on art, craft and passion of poetry are probably the most profound ones I have ever read.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Ghati in his Ghats

The ghati is in his ghats. In Panchgani after a long time. I am here for a national seminar on Postmodernism in Indian Fiction in Phaltan and I grabbed up this opportunity to catch up with Shirish and Nanda at Panchgani.
Panchgani is the land of five plateaus a ravishing tourist spot in Maharashtra and my association with this place is well over fifteen years since Nanda and Shirish joined Sanjeevan Vidyalaya as art teachers. There were times when I almost come here every year in my vacations. Now after my marriage this is the second time that I am here. I love this place for its silver oaks, schools, dense rain forests, its plateaus, valleys and mists. If you are a student here it is an entirely different world here and I would have loved to study here.
Arrived at Pune in the morning at around eight. I had boarded Indore Pune express after completing Amogh’s birthday bash yesterday. In a nostalgic mode, I asked myself how emotionally close I am to Maharashtra though I have not actually stayed here for a stretch of time. The earthiness and ordinariness of common people in Maharashtra is different from the counterpart world in Gujarat. Though I have always considered myself a ` Gujarati’ person speaking Marathi, I felt that it is Maharashtra which gives me that at home feeling. It is strange not to belong to either world.
Will leave for Phaltan, the land of Nimbalkars tomorrow morning for the conference and I am going to talk about `postmodernism’ in Indian fiction in English. My argument would be the postcolonial novel of Rushdies and Diasporas is not the true postmodern novel, because the postmodern spirit, as discussed by Lyotard is the true non-conformist avant-garde art which does not play it to the gallery. The Post colonial novel is novel which is to use Vilas Sarang’s phrase, ` prisoner of market place’ and prey to international fads. The themes of migrant experiences, diasporas, national allegories, colonial experience etc are done to death by the post colonial novel. I will talk about Suniti Namjoshi and Vilas Sarang as people who truly embody the postmodern spirit.
The previous blog entry was about reduction in medication and increase in physical exercise. But a week ago I went to consult pulmonologist regarding why I feel out of breath after climbing stairs. He did lung test and diagnosed `moderate to severe’ asthma and put me on a heavy dose of steroids and strict diet regime. The medication has unsettled me completely. My sleep hours have diminished but I feel more energetic and productive. But breathlessness shows no sign of improvement even today.
During the first week of medication, the doctor said that I would feel extra hungry and I would have cut down on sweets, fried, salty and spicy stuff. Ashwini put me on salad diet and after a week I shed almost seven to eight kilos of water! Now I am worried if I wont undo the loadshedding and become unmanageable....
I don’t know what lies in store for me in the future. Asthma has definitely returned to haunt my life in more serious ways after I moved to Baroda. And I am groping in the dark to latch on to something…… anything…

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Being All Ears-A Beginner's Guide to Stop Being Dumb in English

A Beginner’s Guide to Stop being Dumb in English
(But is Anyone Listening?)
Sachin Ketkar

We think learning a language is all about coaching that one mighty mouth we are blessed with and that two ears on the either side of our heads can take care of themselves. Remember what we did with our mouths when we were born? We let out a really big howl and hunted frantically for food. When it comes to using language, we have come a long way baby.

We started soaking up language first with ears. Remember all baby talk spoon fed into our ears when they cuddled us? We aped our elders and after many disasters, we started making right noises. Which means it all started with our ears. Listening always precedes speaking.

This is one of the important reasons why people classified as `dumb’ are those who can’t hear other’s speech. Therefore they cannot mimic human speech properly.

My argument goes like this: We cannot speak English properly because don’t listen to English properly. We are English Dumb because we are English Deaf.

One of the reasons we are English deaf is because we simply don’t have enough of it around us. English is used only in a few places in our society. We don’t buy our parathas or pumpkins in English and English cuss words sound pretty dehydrated and tame compared to the best and choicest of our home-grown abuses.

The other reason is our schooling. The only time they paid attention to our ears was when they planned to squirm them. Nobody told us that the two muscles on the two sides of our heads were actually antennas, for instance.

What was even more terrible was that in school they thought English can be learnt from a book. Trying to speak fluent English by reading a book is like trying to be a fantastic singer by simply reading about it. If you think really think you can speak English fluently by reading Rapidex or Wren and Martin, you can also try learning to sing that way. Not that I mind. But please don’t expect me to turn up for your concert.

Many among us feel that if we can’t speak English fluently we are backward, unintelligent and stupid. What’s even worse, many among us feel that they are progressive, intelligent and smart if they can speak English well.

Spare a moment about all those Spoken English classes which have run over our town. They pretend to give us exactly what REALLY WANT and we really want is to SPEAK ENGLISH WELL. That means speaking English is the question of life or death for us. In all desperation we want to learn to speak and if someone tells us he will teach him to do other things, we feel we are being taken for a ride. Listening? But why should I bother about it all? I possess an excellent pair of ears and to my knowledge they are working perfectly well. Why should I bother to learn how to listen? Nobody taught me how to listen to any language or even music, for instance, and yet I think I am pretty smart at these things. If you think like this, I would only politely point out: think again and have your knowledge about these things rechecked. A person who is mediocre in one’s own language is the person who does not take listening to one’s own language seriously. And vice versa.

Then there is that other guy whom you bump into almost every day. He says, ` I can follow English well’ he says, ` I merely don’t know how to speak fluently.’ My response would be `Mate, you don’t really follow English well and that’s why you can’t speak it fluently’. He is often the same the person who would say, ` I can understand written English but I don’t have enough vocabulary to express myself.’

And pray what do you mean by vocabulary and where would you find this vocabulary of yours? Vocabulary consists of words and words are songs. You have to hear them and learn to sing them. What’s the use of the dictionary for learning songs? The best way to learn a language is by learning to sing it. And to learn how to sing you have to hear the song properly. One of the quickest ways of picking up English is by using our ears.

So lets be all ears to English in all its tangs and tunes. Let’s enjoy Indians surfing languages like a bored teenagers surfing TV channels. Let’s toast those grammatical curiosities and exotic noises that pass solemnly for English. Let’s watch the sloth of clich├ęs and threadbare expressions walk with exhaustion in our verbal forests. Let’s keep our ears pricked for a refreshing turn of phrase. Let’s tune ourselves into all clever and not-so-clever analogies and contrasts that surround us. Let’s carefully listen to how Barack Obama plunges into rhetoric and how Abdul Kalam serves his Masala Dosa English. Let’s notice how Laloo Prasad Yadav makes Bihari more interesting by speaking his imagination of English. Let’s pay attention to how Hermione Granger stutters and Harry hesitates or how James Bond speaks through his Scottish guns. Lets be curious cats with nine more lives asking why a particular speaker speaks in a particular way. The craft of listening is much more than improving English. After all, enriching our languages means enriching uranium of our lives.

So, by now if you feel listening is important please listen to what I have to say about listening itself.

I hold there is a deeper relationship between our personality and language and that acquiring a language almost amounts to acquiring a different personality. Listening is a dynamic process of understanding others and ourselves. It involves opening up to others as well as opening ourselves to ourselves. In short, listening is not merely a language skill but something more fundamental to our personality for our relationships. It is only when listening starts to fade away that a relationship is on its way out.

Though it may sound obvious, the listening artist is usually alert not only to what is being said, but is also alert to how something is being said. We should also listen with our eyes. The listening artist reads what is writ large on the speaker and his body language. She reads not only to the content of the speech but also the emotional overtones, undertones and fears. So let’s listen with undivided attention and multiplied curiosity.

I would like to end what I have said by pretending to be an expert in listening. I classify the dynamic process of listening into three types:

i) Listening to Spit: It is usually done to with a view to challenge, reject or question someone’s views. Much of the activity is premeditated and conclusions are drawn even before a speech begins. At its mildest it is listening with a Slant.
ii) Listening to Swallow is the opposite of the first type. It tries to absorb everything the speaker says without thinking much about it. It is a data grabbing mode, the mode of college students who start preparing late for their exams and very lately start attending lectures.
iii) Masticating is the superior and a very complex mode of listening. Listeners paradoxically involve themselves as much as possible while at the same time distancing themselves from the style and content of the speech. It is a balancing act which avoids the earlier two extremes and yet gets best of both the modes. Lazier ones and beginners can easily fall between the stools.

(A University Teacher by profession Sachin Ketkar is a fledgling amateur listening artist too)