REVIEWS OF WRITERS WORKSHOP BOOKS BY *GITA VISWANATH
Rufai, Syed Tahir: In the Name of Mashouq
Kolkata: Writers Workshop, 2020, Pages: 77, Price: Rs 150/-
Inward Gaze: Sufi Musings of Rufai
A random quiz question such as, ‘Name one Sufi poet,’ would result in a whole generation of young Instagrammers chorusing ‘Rumi.’ There’s something about his writing that seems to have captivated the restless, social media-obsessed youngster. Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet was the founder of the Mawlevi order of Whirling Dervishes. What used to be a reclusive order is today open to the world with bands of Whirling Dervishes doing tours all over the globe showing their dance form to enchanted audiences. In the midst of a revival of interest in Rumi, even if it means through social media, we have a young, 21-year-old Kashmiri poet, Syed Tahir Rufai’s collection titled, In the name of Mashouq. Rufai who draws his lineage from the Sufi turuq (order) of Rufai is an alumnus of Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. This collection bound in pocketbook style with the trademark handloom cover of Writers Workshop, Kolkata, follows his novella The Flying Sparrow published in 2017.
Writing in English, Rufai makes a departure from, yet carries forward a hoary legacy from the Valley – that of Sufi writing. Influenced by poets such as Bayazid Bastami, Mirza Bedil, Fazl Haq Khairbadi, Kabir, and Moulana Rumi, the tradition of Sufi writing dates back to the fourteenth century in Kashmir with Lal Dedh (Lalleshwari) as the trailblazer. Several Sufi poets have not had formal education; and some are even unlettered. Yet one can perceive the influence of one Sufi poet on another which they attribute to divinely-bestowed mystical powers. Knowledge is separated as Elimal Yakeenwhich is knowledge gained from books and Aeinal Yakeen that is knowledge derived from day-to-day observation. 1
One of the characteristic features of Sufi poetry is the universalisation of thought, emotion and divinity. Seldom can you tell the geographical or cultural moorings of a poet from his writings. Same is the case with Rufai. Had the bionote not mentioned the fact of Rufai’s Kashmiri origins, the reader would not have known about it. His themes centre around numinous concerns such as time, death, God as guardian, longing for union with the divine, oneness of devotee and God and the search for God through the erotic – themes that are universal in scope and not necessarily pinned to a particular geographical or socio-cultural milieu.
It is not uncommon to eulogise the divine in erotic terms in mythical and liturgical traditions across geographical and religious barriers. In Bhakti tradition, the rendering of God in erotic terms is part of poetic convention. Whether it is Meerabai from Mewar or Kanhopatra in Maharashtra, devotion to God is expressed through the vocabulary of the corporeal. Faith, religiosity, prayer and devotion are embodied experiences in the Sufi tradition.
Cosmic love is attained through bodily expression in a hierarchy of love that separates desire from love, the former being a lesser but necessary step to attain the higher realm of fulfilment that comes with union with God. Thus, the relationship with God is personalised and made intimate. With the devotee as male and God too perceived as male, the erotic love in Sufi poetry for the large part can be understood in terms of homoerotic love.
Untitled and bearing only numbers, several of Rufai’s poems reflect such eroticism. For instance, the lines below from Poem No 2 could easily be identified as belonging to a love poem. The “Poet’s Note” at the beginning guides us towards the Sufi leanings of the collection. Rufai states that behind the poems “hide the learning and understanding and a long wait to form a connection with what I can call ‘the divine strings.’”
Let me fall in your arms
I need your warmth
We have been separated
For so long
The days without you
The nights without love (pg. 10)
An intense devotional longing for physical proximity with the divine is a distinguishing feature of Sufi poetry evident in Poem Nos 62 to 65. In No 63, Rufai expresses his longing in these lines:
O lord! Return me to this earth
Turn my loads to dust
So I can be
Where my beloved is (pg. 74)
A Sufi’s most important task is to please God by working on his fitr (Arabic for innate nature). The four pillars on which rested this task were repentance, sincerity, remembrance of God, and love of the human and the divine. This was in opposition to qanun (law) which belonged to the external domain of rules regarding worship, transactions, marriage, judicial rulings, and criminal law.2 Poems No 8 and 61 engage with this prominent Sufi theme, namely that of oneness with God. In order to achieve oneness, a Sufi has to pass through a tortuous route of abstemiousness and penance to attainihsan (perfection of worship).
It’s not me breathing
It’s you breathing inside my heart (pg. 16)
The tortured devotee thus becomes a recurring trope in Rufai.
I was breaking
Whilst the cover of me
Was pretending stone
The inside of me
Broke into pieces
Why did I turn away? (pg. 26)
The spiritual connection between the devotee and God that forms an intrinsic part of Sufi mysticism is established through bayʿah (pledge of allegiance) to a Sufi Shaykh, (one who is authorized to teach/guide). Such a pledge, it was believed, helps a Sufi to demonstrate his allegiance to Muhammad, who takes them on the path to divine realisation. The cage is a symbol that is used to connote claustrophobia in several poems. One needs to break the shackles of the cage in order to achieve the ultimate bliss of God. In Poems No 46 and 54, the poet, trapped in the cage of his body cries to God for succour. There is a strong death wish in several poems as death is seen as necessary to attain union with God.
Here I am, beloved, here I am
Come to my voice
Rescue me from my cage (pg. 64)
The last poem numbered 66 is a blank page wherein the poet invites the reader to fill it. “Please find your own meaning in Poem 66” (pg. 8). Here’s mine:
From Rufai I learned
Seek with passion
Seek with doggedness
Whatever God may mean to me.
Srivastava, Harshita: Corona Diary, Before & Beyond, Kolkata: Writers Workshop, 2020, Pages: 65, Price: Rs 200/-
The pandemic has set the creative juices flowing for artists and writers. We have seen a plethora of publications based on Covid in the last year in various genres. The virus and the consequent lockdown foregrounded situations that we had never faced before. The resultant changes in socio-cultural-economic spheres led to the revelation of aspects of human behaviour that caused great interest among creative persons. Long hours of silence, emptiness, and reflection on the one hand combined with a flurry of activity in the digital space on the other became an ideal breeding ground for thought and creative output.
‘Corona Diary, Before & Beyond’ is a collection of poems by a young Masters student, Harshita Srivastava. The longest section of the book, titled ‘Corona Diary’ is sandwiched between sections termed as ‘Before’ and ‘Beyond.’ We may now safely attribute the initials BC to Before Corona and/or Beyond Corona!
The section titled ‘Before’ contains love poems addressed to the moon or the lover, poems on the theme of betrayal, and rain poems that lead to contemplation and resurfacing of memory. The opening poem of this section is a love poem disguised as an address to the moon. Rain is a trigger for memories or the lack of. The poems in this section have images that evoke life and joy, such as buzzing wasps, cooing cuckoos, warm coffee, stars, fireflies, etc. The use of alliteration in phrases such as breathes a blemish, files and folders, corners and crevices, fly or fall provide a musical quality to poems in this section. However, some poems also articulate betrayal in poignant ways with various moods of anger, sadness and reflectiveness. In ‘Before Another January,’ sharp anger is expressed in the following lines:
Tie those laces
And chase only those
Your lone birthday wishes, (pg. 19)
The desire to record details in minutiae, as in the following lines:
Look! There’s that smile
Hiding in a corner of
18:56:43 – 12.09.07 (pg.12)
takes on a sinister role in the Corona Diary section, where every poem is titled by date in diary-writing style and the luxury of detailing that comes with silence and inanition of the lockdown gets stark.
During the lockdown, a lot of people reported observing things they wouldn’t have had in the hustle-bustle of daily lives. Several poems reflect such observation of the generally unobserved and ignored creatures or phenomena. For instance, ‘A line of ants’ (pg. 52) or ‘A fly buzzes, A beetle crawls, (pg.43). The pandemic also saw people becoming more attentive to nature. “A fluttering blue bird” (pg. 47) catches the poet’s eye. Poem 01.05.20 uses pathetic fallacy to demonstrate nature mimicking the sudden disorder of human lives. In one of my favourite poems 28.05.20, the poet watches a firefly as it appears and disappears. In an instance of personification, the dark air too is disturbed by the sights.
A lost firefly
The dark air,
As if tired
Of all the visions
By its light. (pg. 59)
Predictably, the lockdown features as a major trope with images of emptiness, silence and loneliness. For instance,
All bubbles filled
With anecdotes and mirth
Have burst and vanished
Into empty rooms
With lonely benches staring
A half-erased blackboard. (pg. 57)
Clothes are personified when described as crying due to disuse in 13.05.20 (pg. 52). Constriction, monotony, and the insecurity of humans that were brought forth during the pandemic is encapsulated in the recurring image of the cage. Even if trite, the image evokes the isolation imposed on us. There’s an immediacy to this section on Corona. Poems spring from the present lived experiences and are thus highly relatable. The eeriness of burning bodies comes across in 09.05.20 (pg. 50). A sense of disarray, disharmony and derangement is conveyed in several poems.
Seasons, months, hours –
All out of harmony. (pg. 48)
At a time when death became commonplace in the form of newspaper and television reports and visuals, cries in the neighbourhoods or social media posts of loss of dear ones, poetry cannot help but deal with this thematic. Several poems in the Corona section engage with death, some with direct reportage tone, some with irony and some others with befuddlement. The accompanying trope of memory also features in several poems. 08.04.20 has an eerie tone.
To evaporate into
The smoke of numbness,
As this strange
Stretch of monotony
Slithers around the neck,” (pg. 34)
The last poem of the middle section 01.06.20 is reassuring of human resilience even if it sounds prosaic like a pledge.
Rise we shall
Up, up, up! (pg. 61)
West Bengal from where Srivastava hails witnessed the devastating cyclone Amphan in the midst of the virus and the lockdowns. As a consequence, Srivastava in her diary-entry-like poems alludes to this natural disaster that only exacerbated human misery.
In odd languages,
The ones spoken in screaming silence. (pg. 59)
The section ‘Beyond’ has just one poem called ‘Colours Frozen in Icicles.’ It speaks of a changed world, a world that has “dark overtones” that overwhelm streets where “rainbows crept up and down” (pg.64). The poem, once again, ending with a question, “Little by little, one at a time?” (pg. 65) dwells upon thoughts of how to deal with an unprecedented situation using satire as well as reflectiveness.
The poems in all sections of the collection pose a number of questions, especially in the last line. For instance, ‘Attempts’ ends with “Do you still feel stuck?” (pg. 14). The concluding line of 06.04.20 (pg.33) is “Is she now imprisoned?” Perhaps questions are indicative of the poet’s attempts to grapple with difficult and complex thoughts. The interrogative mood also acts as a poser to the readers forcing us to think.
The three sections in the collection seem to stand as autonomous parts with little conversation among them. The Corona section, much like the current situation in the world, comes across as an interruption, a disruption of a life that could have never anticipated such an eventuality. And now I end with a little bit of nit-picking: gobbling on (pg. 64) in an otherwise well-produced, engaging book of poems.
*Gita Viswanath has a PhD in English Literature and Cinema from The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. Her novel, Twice it Happened, was published in 2019 by Vishwakarma Publications, Pune. She is also the author of a non-fiction book, The ‘Nation’ in War: A Study of Military Literature and Hindi War Cinema, published by Cambridge Scholars, UK in 2014 as well as a children's book, Chidiya. Her poems have been published in Kavyabharati No 28, New York Parrot, Coldnoon and Poetica 2, an anthology edited by Grant Hudson. Her short stories have been published in Muse India, Borderless Journal and Commonwealth Union. Her short films “Family Across the Atlantic” and “Safezonerz” are available on YouTube.