March 21st is World Poetry Day. Yes, it does seem as if there is a growing number of these “World This” and “World That” days to celebrate as each year passes. My theory is that our world continues to evolve and change at such an exponential pace that many aspects of people’s lives that they enjoyed and loved even just ten years ago are in danger of being superseded by shinier, newer things. So, we create these annual days to celebrate, not without some self-indulgent nostalgia, our own fading pleasures. And, well, nothing wrong with a bit of fun, is there?
Poetry has been a lifelong pleasure for me. I don’t read nearly enough of it but, whenever I come across a good poem, it affects me deeper than any other kind of reading. For over a year, I reviewed a poem a week in a series titled “Weekend Poem” — mostly a non-technical close reading, really. As an agnostic, this observance of a weekly poem was the nearest I came to a kind of religious or spiritual practice. Additionally, my appreciation for language and different cultures grew because the poems were selected from around the world. So, I may try to get back to some kind of similar routine, possibly monthly, with poetry on this site too. Let’s see.
In the meantime, here’s a poem for World Poetry Day. As today is also the Persian/Iranian New Year — Nowroze — let’s celebrate one of India’s Parsi poets. Parsis are an ancient Zoroastrian community in India. They migrated from Iran, starting from the eighth century onwards, to escape persecution from Muslim invaders. Mostly, these migrant groups settled around the Gujarat and Sindh areas, but soon extended further into the Indus Valley, integrating and assimilating mostly peacefully, while still retaining their religion and customs. In particular, they thrived during British colonial rule because of their shrewd commercial instincts and intellectual ambitions. In the 1970s and 1980s, around the time this poem was likely written, Parsis and Iranis (the other Zoroastrian community) were very much integral to the fabric of Indian society. Today, they are successful in many countries and across many industries. That said, their numbers in India are dwindling — only about 60,000, half as many as there were in the 1940s (two-thirds of them are in Bombay/Mumbai).
A bit about the poet and his peer group: Keki N Daruwalla is one of the famous quartet of Parsi poets — the other three being Adil Jussawalla (Oxford-educated, and often called “the missing man” because of the decades-long gaps between his poem publications), Kersy Katrak (one of the original ‘Mad Men’ of Indian advertising, he had also been ordained as a Zoroastrian priest before deciding against that career option), and Gieve Patel (artist, playwright, and a practising doctor). All four poets wrote in English, though Daruwalla is the only Delhi Parsi among them, the rest being from Bombay. And, while each has had several poems anthologized (with the exception of, perhaps, Katrak), they are not recognized as they ought to be for their many contributions to Indian literature — at least not outside of literary circles. Several of their books are out of print too, sadly.
Keki Daruwalla, now in his late seventies, is still going strong as ever. Throughout his law enforcement and foreign intelligence careers and even after retirement, he has published many books of poetry, novels, short stories, and essays. He is often invited to literary events as one of the grand old men of Indian literati — I saw him on-stage at the 2015 Jaipur Literary Festival, where he was also Jury Chair of the very generous DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (which went to Jhumpa Lahiri for ‘The Lowland‘ then).
In October 2015, he returned his Sahitya Akademi Award — India’s academy of letters — to protest that the organization had not spoken up about the persecution and killings of particular Indian writers by right-wing extremists.
His political leanings are not surprising, given that he was born in pre-Independence Lahore, then a part of British India and now a part of Pakistan. His literary inclinations, along with his love of cricket, were inherited from his father, who, after the India-Pakistan Partition, moved to Junagadh, Gujarat, as tutor to a Prince (and to a whole bunch of other places in India after that). The story of Junagadh’s accession to Pakistan and then integration into India is quite fascinating, and Daruwalla has framed his 2015 novel, ‘Ancestral Affairs‘ around it. In 1979, he was a Special Assistant to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, traveling around parts of the country with her. He went to Oxford University for a year in 1980 to work on South Asian politics. He has written about both of these and other political events extensively in his poetry and prose.
[Side-note: In India, most artists cannot help being political, whether they choose to be or not. And, by “political” here, I do not mean that they are necessarily affiliated with any particular organization/party. Creating art in India is a political statement in itself because of the ways in which many religious groups and political parties easily take umbrage at the slightest provocation. And this, despite the sad fact that, for the average Indian, art and culture is mostly Bollywood. Certainly, poetry and literature barely exist in the margins, despite the many literary festivals across India these days. Daruwalla himself has said: “Nobody cares for poetry today. If you ask someone whether he will buy a book of poems or a sachet of condoms, he’ll buy the latter.”]
This poem is from Daruwalla’s collection, ‘The Keeper Of The Dead‘, for which he won the aforementioned Sahitya Akademi Award. In 1982, he was asked by a magazine to choose and comment on one of his poems. He picked this because of a) his love for the Browningesque dramatic monologue, and b) his admiration for Emperor Ashoka, about whom this poem was written. He went on to describe other aspects of the poem that made it, in his opinion, his most significant work to date.
In third century B.C, Emperor Ashoka ruled most of the Indian subcontinent. He was, in his time, among the most powerful rulers in the world. The turning point in this man’s life came after the Battle of Kalinga. It was one of the bloodiest in world history — 150,000 Kalinga warriors and 100,000 of Ashoka’s own warriors were killed so that a nearby river ran red with their blood. Thousands of people were also deported.
As he surveyed the aftermath, Ashoka was approached by a woman, who told him that she had lost her father, husband, and son in his battle and was left alone in the world. She asked who she was to turn to. Her grief, and that of others around him, led to Ashoka’s moment of epiphany and made him the first, and possibly only, ruler in the world who turned away from war after having won a major conquest. Various long-surviving ‘Edicts of Ashoka‘ give written accounts of how he shunned violence and embraced Buddhism. For the forty years following this battle, this Emperor led his subjects through peaceful, harmonious times of progress and prosperity, while also driving a widespread acceptance of his adopted religion.
What I like about this poem is that a Parsi poet, Keki N Daruwalla, has taken a significant moment from ancient Indian history, about how the Hindu Emperor Ashoka came to Buddhism, and made it globally relevant. And, he has done it in beautifully-rhythmic iambic pentameter with everyday language and descriptive imagery that stays with you long after you have finished reading. No, this is not a joy-filled poem about puppies, sunshine, and rainbows. But, it is a poem that takes a single moment in history and helps us see it with fresh eyes. When a poem expands our thinking and understanding in new ways, it affects us deeper, cognitively and emotionally, than we can ever know.
The poem starts with Ashoka asserting to his scribe, Kartikeya, that what he is about to tell him does not come from pride or humility but atonement. Yet, there is an upfront awareness that his words will not be enough to wipe away all the blood that has been shed. The battlefield images invoked are vivid, gory, and alive.
The instructions are to put thoughts into plain words, simple language — without aphorisms, or preamble, or royal decrees and rules on how to live, or formal addresses to other kings, or even appeasements to the gods. Ashoka knows, only too well, that the people he is trying to reach do not have basic food, or shelter, or the comfort of their loved ones, who are now dead and cannot even be cremated ritually due to lack of fuel. So, fancy words, ideas, and exhortations will mean nothing to weary survivors who have lost nearly everything. Ashoka’s deep empathy and compassion shine through.
Instead, he wants his scribe to write clearly about the sorrows and futility of war and enslavement among people who have been peacefully living according to their familial duties and community/profession practices.
Ashoka struggles to articulate the full extent of his own sorrow and pain for what he has caused and seen. He wants people to know that he can only offer them his quiet surrender so that they can do with him what they will.
He urges his scribe to write these messages on every available surface, etching them deeply — “cut deeper than the cuts of my sword” — so that no force can make them disappear.
The last stanza is particularly moving. Despite everything he has said, Ashoka knows the enormity of the task of communicating his grief to his people across the vast rivers of blood flowing between him and them. That final image of “words like a tide of black oxen crossing a ford” is so visually arresting.
Here’s hoping, on this World Poetry Day, that other leaders around the world might follow this Emperor’s humble, compassionate example.
The King Speaks to the Scribe
(third century, b.c.)
First, Kartikeya, there’s no pride involved,
nor humility; understand this. I speak
of atonement, that is, if blood can ever
be wiped away with words. We will engrave
this message on volcanic rock, right here
where the earth still reeks of slaughter.
A hundred thousand courted death, mind you.
The battlefield stank so that heaven
had to hold a cloth to its nose. I trod
this plain, dark and glutinous with gore,
my chariot-wheels squelching in the bloody mire.
Nothing stands now between them and destruction,
neither moat nor bridge nor hut nor door-leaf.
No lighted tapers call them to their village.
It is to them that you will speak, or rather
I will speak through you. So don’t enunciate
the law of piety, no aphorisms
which say that good is difficult and sin easy.
And no palaver about two peafowl
and just one antelope roasting in my kitchen
instead of an entire hecatomb as in
my father’s days. There may be huts where
they have nothing to burn on the hearth-fires.
Spare me the shame. And no taboos, please,
forbidding the caponing of roosters
or drinking of spirituous liquors,
the castration of bulls and rams and
the branding of horses. So listen with care,
Kartikeya, and I will tell you what to write.
First talk about the sorrows of conquest
and other miseries attendant on
enslavement. In all lands live Brahmins,
anchorites and householders, each enmeshed
in the outer skin of relationships,
that network of duty and herd impulse
through which each charts his particular furrow.
And the sword falls on such people and their
children are blighted, while the affection
of their friends remains undiminished.
Mark that, don’t talk merely of raping and slaughter
but also of separation from loved ones.
And about my sorrow what will you say?
How will you touch upon that weed-ridden lake-floor
of my despair and keep from drowning?
Say simply that of all the people killed
or captured, if the thousandth part were to
suffer as before, the pain would overwhelm me.
Tell them I have abjured pride, the lowest
can abuse me now and I shall not answer.
Let the dust of humility cover my head.
Even the tribals, dark and bullet-headed,
the blubber-skinned, the ones from whom our demons
and yakshas have borrowed their faces,
I invite to my fold. Let them turn from crime
and their aboriginal ways and they will not suffer.
Cut deeper than the cuts of my sword
so that even as moss covers the letters
they are visible. Write whatever
you chance on. Don’t look for a white-quarter boulder
Anything will do, a mass of trap rock
or just a stone sheet. And the language simple,
something the forest folk can understand.
I am not speaking to kings, to Antiyoka
and Maga or Alikasudra. And no
high-flown language. I am not here
to appease gods. Even they must be ignored
for a while and their altar-fires turn cold.
Men don’t have enough fuel to burn their dead.
Mind you, Kartikeya, between me and them is blood.
Your words will have to reach across to them
like a tide of black oxen crossing a ford.