by Arjun Rajendran
140pp, ₹499; Westland
Arjun Rajendran is a poet to watch. Not just in terms of the laurels that always seem just around the corner for this veteran of three poetry collections and one chapbook, but also on account of his Mad Max persona that comes through in his poems. I have been following his writings with keen interest, and I realise that he is at his best when he is free to roam the outlying galaxies and when he can conjoin the everyday with the outlandish- as evinced by the hugely entertaining and inventive Roshogolla Conspiracy that he has been posting on social media. While going through the obligatory route for most poets, that of exploring the self and its many consciousnesses in his first collection Snake Wine to presenting a psychedelic world in The Cosmonaut in Hergé’s Rocket, Rajendran has presented us with some of the best examples of modern Indian poetry. His poetry imagines the banal aspects of life waving purple octopus tentacles while quoting Nietzsche.
One Man Two Executions is a significant collection of poems in terms of its interpretative reach and its creative imagining of a period and of a man.These methods of reading are of critical importance in a country that is merely waking up to its archival potential. The book is divided into three sections: Pondicherry, The Girl in the Peapod and Were It Not For- a division that on the first reading seems to rise from a desire to maintain order, maintain pruned hedges that cleanly and neatly divide words and worlds. On second reading, we realise that we were deliciously mistaken.
In Pondicherry, Rajendran presents the persona of Ananda Ranga Pillai, a Dubash- translator for Joseph Francois Dupleix- the French Governor General of Pondicherry. Apart from these forays between languages, Pillai was also an integral part of the French trade and commerce of those parts, a diplomat and a participant in the governance of the colony. Pillai meticulously kept diaries that carried accounts of the day-to-day affairs of business, taxes, maritime complications, social issues and above all, his personal opinions of political events.
The diaries of Ananda Ranga Pillai are monumental pieces of the history of colonization of Pondicherry and carry within them vital information regarding the way the French ideas of colonial subjugation took root and blossomed as observed from the practices of trade and tax monopoly in Pondicherry to the Françafrique that it perpetrated much later in Africa.
It is these diaries that Rajendran, upon a suggestion from his father, took up to examine and then with which, proceeded to change the idea of Life Writing forever. There are various ways to document a person’s life, in the form of plain biographies, autobiographies, works of public art- statues, paintings, murals, cinema- but I consider poetry to be the most difficult form of chronicling. Simply on account of its non-linearity. Sure, it is possible to write a straight forward, stiff ballad, but where is the art in that? Apparently, this question seems to have crossed Rajendran’s mind as he creates a whirlwind account of ships, lascars, dubashes, begums, the nuances of trade, power, socio-structural tumult, in order to bring to life the Pondicherry of the dubash’s times. It is very interesting that these diaries were translated from High Tamil to French and then to English and now, the English version is what will be serving as a guide to translate these diaries into modern Tamil.
I went to the Internet Archives to read the diaries after reading One Man Two Executions and I could see the events that he described unfolding before my eyes. The verses guide one through the snarky asides, the astute observations, the political acumen that Ananda Ranga Pillai leaves in his diaries.
One incident that stays in the mind is the wife of the Governor-General writing to the Muslim invader Mahfuz Khan in 1746. Rajendran presents:
Behind the letter to Mahfuz Khan—berserk by the looting of Fort St. George—is a governess,Christian. But mainly a mollusk
rarer than a reverse spiralled conch—a woman who can write.
The mace-bearer sent with portraits and china plates to appease
the warrior, also carries the epistle: intended as sister to brother, a gamble of intention against etiquette, words aimed to arrest
flintlocks, assuage ransack before Muhammadans battle the flag, before cannon balls punish fort walls with slaughter; and the bereaved
knock on taverns, tombstones, hulls: for peace, never pleasure.
Outside a tent on the Ariyankuppam’s banks, horses steal sleep.
Inside, a silhouette burning a seal releases ambergris—he reads his only letter from a woman, its sisterly plea. A candle underneath.
The diary entry Pillai made about this incident, reads thus,
…the second was fair copied, and Madame Dupleix sent it by her mace-bearer, accompanied by a present consisting of two portraits, and two china plates, not worth four cash in all. Now, what shall I say as to the good sense of the husband who allowed his wife to write to Mahfuz Khan, without a thought of the fact that the rules of Muhammadan etiquette regard with but scant favour a woman as a correspondent; and without considering whether a mere letter from her—wife of the Governor of Pondicherry though she be—was the most likely means of diverting from his purpose one who, to punish the French…. When Madame Dupleix was about to dispatch her letter to Mahfuz Khan by her mace-bearer, she called me to her, and exclaimed: “Rangappa, my letter to Mahfuz Khan will set matters right.”
To this, the wily, diplomatic dubash assures her that the only reason Mahfuz Khan has not retreated is that he has not yet received the letter. Yet, unable to stop himself, it seems, Ananda Pillai suggests the Madame wait till her husband’s letter reaches Mahfuz Khan. She takes offence at the suggestion and reminds Pillai that Khan had earlier referred to her as his sister. Pillai then muses that it was really none of his business and decided to flatter her “without stint or measure, and took leave.”
These readings reveal the art that Rajendran has applied in the miniaturizing of these events, the people and the world that was laid out before his eyes through these diaries.
While a lot of attention automatically falls on the Pondicherry section while discussing One Man Two Executions, the other two sections are relevant to the architecture of the book. The headiness of love and the mode of address of the narrator in the poems, signify a never-ending coming of terms- of falling in love, of the first tendernesses and the minutiae that the tangibility of love inevitably brings. Rajendran’s lovers go on trips, ask philosophical questions that Feynman seems to know the answers to, love each other in French, in pronunciation marks such ascédille, through internet searches and geography.
The last section seems to have woken to the possibility of mortality, of an afterlife in the void- making every moment alive count. Politics, disease, the pangs of growing up, the shooting pains of death- the poet has placed them all on a carousel and sent us along for the ride. Mad Max is back and he proceeds to give us insider information about Why Aliens shun India.
- The erotic sculptures in Khajuraho temples gave ‘em a complex about their sexual mettle
- Distressed the ancients could travel faster than light-speed even without spliffing weed
And thus he goes on, ending with, “The inedible grief of crash-landing in a Bollywood script, after attaining nirvana through Stanley Kubrick”
The subtle way in which Rajendran lands these verses merits a silent applause.
One Man Two Executions is not for the airport-hopping reader who hopes to have an espresso shot of culture and class through reading truncated, reheated verses of Instapoets. It is for those who walk around with a fireplace in their chests and are simultaneously at home in desert storms. This book is a serious application of imagination to histories – cultural, political, personal and national and I am sure that in the coming times, it will be cited as a sterling example of how poetry is a form of history keeping. I do realise that the book can be enjoyed without the ghosts of times bygone reading it with us, but the pleasure of discovery of the meanings of the lines, the knowing expression that seeps in when a familiar incident is being read in verse, make one happy.
And I’m sure, that’s what Arjun Rajendran wanted as well.
Sonya J. Nair