It has been a while since we brought you an edition of poetry. A lot has been happening in the interim. All over the world. A second wave of the pandemic is sweeping through, regimes are in for a change in America, Britain is still rummaging around seeking an equitable answer for its dilemma. Meanwhile, we have learnt that there is “too much democracy” in India. I have heard of too much food, too much money, too much power, too much evil…but too much democracy is a new one. And rather problematic too. How much is too much? Much has been made of this muchness.
And it was also during this time that there were storms gathering on the southern and northern parts of the country. Too much of a coincidence? While Cyclone Burevi ravaged parts of South India, uprooting trees, electric poles and homes, up north, farmers were gathering in huge numbers to protest against oppressive farm laws. To stop the government from uprooting their livelihoods. To use up a bit of their bountiful democracy. They have come and camped. Women, children and men. In tractors, trailers and other assorted vehicles. With enough food to lay siege to the capital and with more food on the way. They grow it after all.
A few years ago, I read about the havoc caused in the lives of potato farmers who had signed contracts with PepsiCo to supply potatoes for chips. The intricacies of corporate stipulations put paid to the financial securities of a lot of farmers. To ask a farmer to grow potatoes of a certain size is probably the plot of an absurdist play. No one can dictate how much vegetables ought to grow. Least of all potatoes. There is a reason they prefer to do their growing underground. They have got used to too much democracy.
Now there is an elected government telling farmers that they don’t understand the benefits of the laws that have been drawn up without — consulting them, including them and going by the nuances,— them. The MSP has been the cushion that has broken the fall of many a farmer and has assured them of securing a projected income. As someone who comes from a family of farmers, I know the struggles undertaken to make ends meet. The back-breaking labour, eyes that have spent more time looking at the sky than at your family, the inability to appreciate the poetry of off-season rain, the mathematics of water sharing, bund making, bund breaking, census of rats, rodents and related pests. And at the end of it all, when the crops come home, it is bliss. Till it is time to start again. It is not a wonder that my family doesn’t farm anymore. This generation is faint hearted.
It is an interesting age to be alive in this country. The most intelligent people govern us. They know everything- about everything. The farmers do not know about farming, the minorities don’t know about citizenship, students do not know how to study, teachers do not know how to teach, comedians don’t know how to crack jokes, they only offend the apex court…I can go on…but there is poetry to come.
What sort of poetry must one write at times like these? When your trust in governance is a sliver of soap under a waterfall and humans have been battling the cold and, in some cases, old age to wrest some form of control over their own destinies. When the world’s largest democracy realises that it has too much democracy,what sort of poetry do we write? Angry? Mournful? Witty? – there—now there is too much of choice. Perhaps we should ban buffet spreads as well.
India in these last couple of years reminds me of America in the Vietnam era. When much of the populace was out on the streets protesting and asking that the violence stop. The tone-deaf regime is yet another stark, staring similarity. It is quite telling that in the ages that followed, amidst all the protests, the activism and the cultural upheaval, what stood out was a music festival in the middle of nowhere, on a sprawling farmland- a festival that set out to sell tickets, but then became free, where the audience helped construct the stage and some stayed back to clean up after. Where for the better part of a weekend, there was music, music and more music. Well, that and a lot of psychedelic drugs and love. Woodstock in 1969, brought the biggest names in music who set anthems for lost youth.
Queen, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Ravi Shankar and Santana were there and so was Janis Joplin- with her persona- a voice way older than her age and pain that knew no name. “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”, she sang in Me and Bobby McGee, a rendition of Kristofferson’s words. And listening to it in these days of constricted throats, I am inclined to believe.
And if it is the power to convince that I am looking for, then I needed to go no further than young Debarshi Mitra, who writes,
You close your eyes
and draw a blank.
The fog is everywhere
The past continues
to keep you at bay.
Your dreams begin
to turn yellow
like the flame
of a distant star.
(On a Winter Night)
Debarshi has an extraordinary voice that manages to get one to follow it down tricky rabbit holes. Reading the selection for this feature made me think of the scenarios in Alice in Wonderland and numerous smoky memories from past lives. The range that he presents is immense, using the gaps between the words in the text to fashion new narratives.
The night thickens
around the bush
not a footstep
to be heard
to the undergrowth.
Cities, lives, time, he animates them all and sets them free- there, there it is again- that word. It stains the air we breathe and the flights of birds and the borderlessness of thoughts. The ecosystem that Joplin’s voice occupied seems to be where Debarshi’s poetry resides. The grit, the silk, the strobe lights are a part of his soul too.
There is a great deal of Cyberpunk influences in his poetic imagination and I am sure that William Gibson would appreciate the folds and neural pathways that he lights up with his ability to surprise. And he does surprise in more ways than one. even when he is extravagant in the length of his poems, he is frugal with the amplitude. The stillness of his poetry is commendable. And while he is a physicist at IISER, he also writes poems. If that is not the freedom to be, then what is?
He says, “I’m a theoretical physicist by day. My specialisation is Condensed Matter Physics. My two primary interests:poetry and Physics emerge from similar concerns, that is of understanding and gaining insight. While Physics allows one to build theoretical models for natural processes, poetry offers new ways of interpretation and defamiliarization of lived experience.”
The quest to be unsettled, to be ruffled is an artistic endeavour and Debarshi is the eternal journeyman. The bohemian in him is a kindred spirit to all the songs sung, all the notes played and all the colours that mushroomed at Woodstock decades ago. Those are the songs that last- full throated, bloody and unabashed. His voice belongs to jazz music and vinyl records.
When the common man out on the streets resists with all his might, then the powers that be must sit up and take note. That is the ultimate rule of a democracy. In a land where increasingly symbology, citizenship, history, love, the right to marry- much of what makes us who we are is being dictated, food is a very important frontier. For a regime to dig in its heels and wait out the siege in hopes that a bitter winter will send protesters away, it must be that convinced of its righteousness or of the weakness of the intentions that oppose it.
Perhaps India is ready for its own brand of the Woodstock. A place to sit back and wonder how everything has gone so wrong and when. To throw strictures to the winds and also the rules that govern love- to dream of times when in the span of the same year, migrant workers did not have to walk away from the capital and farmers did not have to march in. There wasn’t too much democracy in that, was there?
“Who you are is what you settle for, you know?” – Janis Joplin
Sonya J. Nair