|HER WORLD||Sunday, April 18, 2004, Chandigarh, India|
The poet as
lingo and Gen Then
does not succeed
TO speak of Anna Aakhmatova (1889-1966) as simply a woman poet is to belittle her achievement. Or to speak of her as a Russian poet of the last century is to confine her artistic range to one country. Akhmatova was neither a woman poet in the narrow militant feminist sense in which the term is understood today, nor just a poet of Russia alone. She inherited the tradition of St Petersburg Classicism which itself derived from the European literary heritage at large.
Her poetic involvements went beyond the domesticated lyricism of conventional feminine poetry and embraced larger questions of political and social inequity. Though essentially a poet of ‘the keening muse’, as Joseph Brodsky described her, Akhmatova rose above personal sorrows (too numerous to relate here) to create a disciplined yet many-layered work of haunting reverberation.
It is a long-standing belief that out of suffering under totalitarian regimes new forms of literature and art emerge. Nowhere is it truer than in Stalinist Russia where repression produced distinctive poetic responses such as those of Pasternak, Tzvetaeva, Mandelstam and Akhmatova. One has only to read the two memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (both 1970) to discover the depths to which Stalin’s terror drove talented artists of his generation.
Like these memoirs (in which she figures prominently), Akhmatova’s poetry is the outcry of an unhappy, intelligent and educated person struggling, first with her poet- husband Gumilyov and then alone, against the torments and deprivations inflicted by Stalinist purges. Every atom of her poetic being is saturated with misery and grief not comprehensible in normal terms.
Rejecting her status as a nun or a whore (Stalin called her both), she continued to write the poetry of longing and regret, of hopes betrayed and promises belied. In this sense she was no different from others who wrote about loss and suffering- the Austrian poet Nelly Sachs for one who wrote of the terrible consequences of the Holocaust.
In an early poem she laments: We aged a hundred years, and this/happened in a single hour:/the short summer had already died, /the body of the ploughed plains smoked. Here the doom-laden later years are anticipated with something of a calm resignation—a trait that was to stand her in good stead in life as she endured social and political catastrophes and fought endless persecution by the secret police.
The October Revolution, though universally hailed at first, turned into a nightmare and gradually devoured dissident men and women of talent. Akhmatova’s second husband and son were taken away as was the poet Mandelstam. Her grief becomes the collective grief of all the suffering wives and mothers awaiting news of their loved ones. In the 1930s and 1940s her poetry becomes a brooding, almost mystical meditation on death, love and other human affections.
These themes have universal inclusiveness and lift her verse above mere sentimental mourning. As it turns out, love becomes the ground bass of her entire output. The one constant note in her verse, as it experiments with a variety of metrical forms and content, remains that of controlled terror, of ‘ fearful symmetry’ in Blake’s sense.
Poems such as Anno Domini, Poem Without a Hero, Leningrad Quatrains fuse an awareness of the ongoing terror with a will to triumph over private tragedy. Even when she writes poems to eulogise Russia’s war effort (designed primarily to secure her son’s release), one notices a defiant solicitude for the victims rather than a self-pitying fatalism.
"And the stone word fell/on my still-living breast. /Never mind, I was ready. /I will manage somehow/Today I have so much to do:/I must kill memory once for all, /I must turn my soul to stone/I must learn to live again". (‘Sentence’). Or, "Mary Magdalen beat her breast and sobbed/ His dear disciple, stone-faced stared/His mother stood apart. No other looked/into her secret eyes. Nobody dared". (‘Requiem’).
Anna Akhmatova’s best-known sequence, Poem Without A Hero, celebrates her dead friends such as her husband, poet Mandelstam and many others who had fallen prey to Stalin’s brutality. Its epic sweep brings to mind Pushkin’s Boris Godonov and fellow poet Alexander Blok’s Twelve; but in spite of its range of interests, it retains the concentrated charge of a testament: "And in my dream it seemed/ what I was writing was a libretto for somebody, /and the music refused to stop. But a dream—is also something real, /soft embalmer, Blue Bird, /the parapets and terraces of Elsinore". (‘the other side of the coin’).
Akhmatova’s is a ‘poetry of witness’ that defends the individual against all forms of coercion. Such poetry does not go into ‘holes of oblivion’ as Hannah Arendt would put it, but nags our guilt of connivance with tyrants like Hitler or Stalin. It invokes religious symbolism to reinforce the language of extremity and to compensate for the fragmentation of social vision caused by the turmoil of the times. Five years before her death she could justifiably claim: "No foreign sky protected me. /No strangerwing shielded my face. /I stand as witness to the common lot/ survivor of that time, that place".
The poetry of witness draws upon what
Akhmatova calls ‘the invisible ink’ of others to strengthen its
claims to authenticity, not as a substitute for ones tattered memories
but as a reminder that others have gone down the same path as oneself.
It also asks successive generations to bear a similar cross. Not
surprisingly, the poet Marina Tzvetaeva does just that as she sculpts
in words the images of her own troubled destiny.
lingo and Gen Then
I vividly remember the day I lost my self-confidence. It all started with the caption in one of the daily newspapers, "Wham, Bam, Thank you Glam". That was the moment I was clean bowled because I could not make any sense out of the heading and much less of the text. Baffled at my inability to understand what I thought was English, I read and re-read the piece and finally did not go beyond the fact that it had something to do with rock music known as glam rock. To be sure, at that point I thought I was going nuts. Certainly, how else can you feel when you discover suddenly that you do not know the language you taught for over 35 years?
A couple of days later, another line quickened my pulse: Ever since Gwen Stefani of ‘No Doubt’ hit the scene with her lipstick-daubed, hair-akimbo mix of spa and pop, there have been a conveyor-beltful of girls grring out music. What on earth does that mean, I fumed? A youngster standing nearby smiled and said, "Well. That’s being in ‘wrap rage’. Relax, ma’m." "Relax" — another popular American expression, Wow! GenNow is comfortable with words like cool dude, hot cat, pill-popping stars, playing party-poopers, but they leave others gasping. This is where the thin dividing between the GenNow and the GenThen stands. GenThen, I discover, is their polite way of discarding you as an "old hat". Does the appellation "senior citizen" stand any chance here? I wonder if Shakespeare would like to change his line, Age I abhor thee.
So, right now, I am busy "splashing down under" before the GenNow discovers my shocking unaccomplishment. Let me make a "hip hop" with a "daub" of that new age lingo to my vocabulary so that I "get a fix on" the "flashy" usage and stay in the "fizz and biz" of writing and give "glitz and glamour" to my journalistic ventures. Well, if you comprehend what I mean by all this, hats off to you. But if you can’t, please do not ask me for further explanation. Candidly, I can hardly help you because I too do not. Better be "dictionary friendly" and grope through the pages. I for my part, I wish you luck.
Language is a living tongue with a dynamics of its own and words make a fascinating study. The connotation of language changes with culture and changing times. Samuel Johnson recognised this nature of languages as far back as the 18th century. In 1755 in his preface to A Dictionary of English Language he wrote, "No dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away; that a whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology, and that even a whole life would not be sufficient, that he, whose design includes whatever language can express, must often speak of what he does not understand."
That is what I am trying to do — grasp the elusive meaning of the language. However, while I could make sense of Jonathan Swift’s essay On Conversation where each paragraph runs into 250 to 300 words without a full stop, and while I could convey it to my students, the string of words used in today’s lingo just leave me clueless. When words and expressions acquire esoteric character, the "feel-good" factor vanishes, particularly if you have to read a line several times. So, I read, re-read and sit back to let "understanding happen"; then go off the tangent and brood, "how can understanding ‘happen’?" It can at best "dawn". These are "happening times", my young niece assures me, and the lexicon is swelling with popular versions like metrosexual, manscaping, security moms, leapling, testosteronic, sandwich generation, toxic bachelor, and a host of coinages that leave one flabbergasted.
With great assiduity, I ransacked many dictionaries. I even flipped through a dictionary of American slang but quickly shut it for it was bursting with pornographic meanings. One of the old, standard dictionaries came to my rescue with its "appendix" of new words. A metrosexual is an urban male with a strong sense of beautifying and decorating himself, security moms are mothers excessively concerned for the safety of their children, particularly after 9/11, a leapling is a person born on February 29 and a testosteronic is an archetypal masculine figure full of brawn but no brain. Sandwich generation is stuck up between their responsibility towards their children and their duties towards the aged. And don’t think that the generation XL is the deluxe model of some car; it is used for overweight young adults.
With the world whirring fast towards
a global approach, one cannot be a stickler for the old order. One has
"to be a game", as the young generation asserts. I gape
wide. Do they mean one has to be a "prey"? The expression of
the youngsters tells me that I got it all wrong. "Be game"
or "are you game" mean: "are you willing to do
something difficult and dangerous?" I know the expression has
"other" meaning as well. I had spotted it in the dictionary
of slang but I quickly hide my knowledge. Jorge L. Borges gives a
new-age mantra, "It is often forgotten that dictionaries are
artificial repositories, put together well after the language they
define. The roots of language are irrational and of a marginal
nature." Though we, the GenThen are at crossroads with our sense
of decorum corroding, we must take up the challenge, be "language
savvy" lest we turn "lingo-phobes".
success does not succeed
ACCORDING to some of the women at the top of the pile in various fields, this ‘feel-good’ factor for women is only a mirage. Even those women who occupy the highest positions in their chosen careers – have a long way to go before they can claim that they are satisfied. It’s clearly a case of ye dil maange more. Jai Vaidya, one of the busiest family court lawyers in Mumbai, is the first one to shoot down the myth that women have arrived at last. "Gender equality is still a big issue for us," she says, "Though equality is a constitutional mandate, in practice, a woman is faced with a ‘different’ treatment every day. All the laws proposed for getting rid of gender offences such as sexual harassment, rape, dowry, bigamy and domestic violence are collecting dust on the shelves of the Parliament or are shockingly inadequate to deal with the present situations. Dowry and bigamy are still rampant because the offences are non-cognisable. Domestic violence—physical and verbal—continues unabated because our lawmakers cannot define it. I notice that small things in the family court, in divorce and separation cases, the position of women is still secondary. A woman who opts out of a bad marriage and lives alone is still ‘a bad woman’ in society’s eyes. Out society is alarmed at the growing number of divorces. In truth, the population of India has grown so much that in comparison, the number of divorces are still minimal. Women do not break up homes willingly as is felt by society. Women still do not have an independent identity. They are labelled wives, mothers or daughters. Of course, they want these relationships. Rinki Bhattacharya, daughter of Bimal Roy and head of the Bimal Roy memorial Foundation is a film-maker and an intrepid activist. Rinki, a victim of domestic violence herself, has fought against this evil relentlessly. "Women have decidedly made enormous strides," she says, "They have evolved as winners with an awareness of their rights and responsibilities. Society has not kept pace with their evolution. People around a woman still demean her and make every effort to bring her down. Her own family does not see her as an equal. There is suspicion, jealousy, rejection, all of which dog the footsteps of an ambitious woman who breaks the rules of tradition. Women at the to, or those who aspire to reach the top, are lonelier than ever before. There is tremendous resistance to their desire for freedom. "Experience shows that when women acquire power, they hardly ever misuse it. They are more willing to share it with others for the benefit of society. But a powerful woman is still the butt of hatred within her family and outside. Outside her home, in the workplace or office, she finds recognition because her competence and skills are translated into money. Employers look for outstanding women because the profit of their business ventures goes up the moment a clever woman takes up the challenge of meeting the goals of the company. But she gains only in money or material benefits. Her status remains at the old level. The story of Joan of Arc is repeated every day. The ‘stone throwing’ process begins first within the family and then is repeated outside. Women are given a life of indignity within their homes. This is where change must begin in the future."
Anu Ranjan, chairperson of the Indian Television Academy and the editor of GR8, the world’s first glossy magazine on the television industry, presented the Outstanding Women of 2004 show on March 8. Anu is not happy with what women have achieved. She endorses the views of other women interviewed for this feature. "Women must be considered totally on a par with men," she asserts, "Though they have ‘arrived’ in a sense, they have miles to go before they rest. They must have a sense of being complete human beings with dignity and freedom. Even in the most progressive families, I have been embarrassed to see women put down mercilessly or made to feel small, often because they are successful in the outside world. These stupid mindsets must change soon or women will become distanced from their traditional roles forever. When they are financially independent, why should they continue to take attacks on their dignity? They are as yet holding on to their roles as daughters, wives, mothers and generally the nurturers in society. But for how long? Their patience is wearing down. Society and law-makers must change fast."
Sonal Dave, director and Chief
Operating Officer of the HSBC Securities and Capital Markets, occupies
one of the highest positions in the finance world of India. Her views
express more hope than most women. "Women are heading jobs with
significant responsibility," she says, "When a woman has
achieved her objectives, of course there is great satisfaction. There
are great changes in the business world globally. There are
opportunities for women to develop their skills and personalities. My
wish list for future is that women should give back to society after
receiving so much from it. Their learning process must continue till
they are able to change society to make it more woman-friendly.
Already, they are recognized as contributors to their homes, families
and society. Their intelligence is respected at home and at the
workplace. They create wealth for the nation and their families and
help to develop the family with higher education and awareness. I also
wish that corporates would act on the basis of equal opportunity
without gender bias. Lastly, I wish that social change should come
because of women’s growing strength. They can champion any cause
they want and bring it to fruition."
IT was Shaw time at the Bombay Stock Exchange last week. The rousing reception that the shares of Biocon got at the bourse saw Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the Chairman and Managing Director of the company, become the wealthiest woman in the country. While the market value of Biocon rose to $1.1 billion, the net worth of Mazumdar-Shaw, who holds almost 40 per cent of the company, zoomed to Rs 1, 960 crore. This placed her way ahead of Sudha Goplakrishan, wife of Chief Operating Officer of Infosys Technologies, who with a personal worth of Rs 1,023 had thus far been the richest woman.
At a time when not many thought that investing in biotechnology was worth the risk, Mazumdar-Shaw chose to go where no entrepreneur had gone before and founded Biocon in 1978 with Rs 10,000. Today the company employs 1200 technical experts and holds 130 patents. Initially an enzyme research company, Biocon is today a drug manufacturer in the same league as Eli Lily and Novo Nordisk. In addition to making drugs to fight diabetes, cancer and cholesterol, it also conducts research and clinical trials for global clients.
Daughter of a master brewer in United Breweries, who, she likes to proudly point out, "invented the Kingfisher beer", Mazumdar-Shaw was born and educated in Bangalore. She took a Bachelor’s degree in zoology from her hometown before going to Australia for a Master’s degree in brewing, thus becoming India’s first woman "brew master". She now lives in Bangalore with her Scottish husband John Shaw who quit his job as a financial expert to join Biocon as Vice-President. — PT