February 26, 2003

of books and nations…

alienation through work

to me it really makes no difference
helping you in the kitchen
but sometimes i now miss
these hesitant half-moments
leaning against the doorpost and looking at you
the way you put a breakfast together
with your whole body

you always measured out the tea
pinch by pinch
in the hollow of your left hand
and with your teeth
tore a packet of sliced cheese open
the frigidaire door
you shut with your thigh
and crushed the bulky egg cartons
with your wooden soled shoes

you always pushed with your elbow
saucepans off the cooker top
and placed others on it, hardly to be lifted
with both hands

you always had these pan handles
in one hand
and a cookie in the other
and a cloth slipping off your shoulder
when any liquid spilled on the floor
and you with bare toes
pulled a floorcloth out and wiped it up
as if a lathe were underneath your foot

and puffcheeked like a sleepy angel
with a slightly distant look
you always blew on the boiling milk
and the five-minute eggs you put
hot into the breast-pocket of your bathrobe

it was always such a relief
to notice how with complete confidence
you could take a hold on anything in the mornings
self-oblivious and with an agility
which made me feel at one with you
at first sight

now when i stand beside you in the kitchen
and in my own way
attentively cope with things
i no longer have my eyes on you
and since we really began to be together
i have stopped feeling deep down
how it really is
when you and i begin a day

i am closer to you perhaps
but you are always
half an hour
ahead of me now”

–karin kiwus, 1976.
translated from german by christopher middleton.

i have been reading a lot lately. novels, short stories, translations… and this was one poem i just had to share with all readers of entelechy.

among some of the refreshing changes that i saw in this country when i first came here — such as the unending motorway, superstores, roads with pedestrian priorities and huge shopping centres with facilities for the disabled (complete with braille-buttons in elevators, beeping traffic signals, talking newspapers, footpaths that slanted to the road for wheelchairs and many more), toilets with machines that dispensed sanitary napkins, tampons and condoms for a tiny fee, internet booths, pay-and-fill petrol pumps and self-checkout tills… — the (huge!) library is probably one place i would find it difficult to live without.

since they’re owned by the councils, membership is free and based on where you live and what you do for a living. you can sometimes take up to eight books on your (library-) card, and of course, if you don’t renew my books in the given three-weeks’ time (by phone or in person) you pay a fine.

—back home in bombay, libraries are privately-owned, and you need to pay a monthly membership fee when you join one, and a deposit. unless your library is in the city, you might not find a variety of books to choose from, apart from the local magazines or comics. besides, you can keep a book just for a day or two. —

most often, praveen and i rush to the library about 10 minutes before closing time (i wait for him to return from office so he too can select his books), and yet we manage to get an armload of books punched on our way out. he prefers more of the ‘visual’ do-it-yourself, or how-stuff-works, or the-hobbit-in-pictures’ kind of books since he’s who i would call a ‘loo-reader’, while i pick the chitra-bannerji-divakarunis, the helene wiggins’, the jostein gaarders, the isabel allendes, or a mix of short stories because… well, i have all the time in the world! until of course i find that so elusive job i’ve been hunting for 😉

this friday i was on my way out and spotted a rack full of books, about 17 in all, belonging to the same title. now this was unusual, i thought. or perhaps it was owing to a habit i guess most of us living abroad would relate to…of widening your eyes as if to say “oh really? now what could this be about?!” i hurriedly picked up a copy and rushed to the smiling library-attendant, who was cleverly guising her anxiety to get home.

it was only yesterday that i saw the book again, when i needed a break from divakaruni’s prosaic yet engrossing vine of desire. the book is a sequel to sister of my heart, which perhaps is the only divakaruni title i haven’t yet laid my hands on. (for those in india whose grandparents or mothers fight for their space in front of the tv for the suhasini-ratnam-production anbulla snehidiye, the programme is an adaptation of the the same book. i think.)

i digressed. always happens when i read too much of the same author.

coming back to my ‘curios’ pick, it turned out to be a collection of short stories and poems, translated from many languages around the globe. aptly named rearranging the world, the cover had a maps-collage, and it was only when i began to browse through the book that i understood its intentions. a ‘new audiences’ project by the arts council of england, the book was published in collaboration with the british centre for literary translation (bclt) to develop new readerships for literature. interesting. (more about the book here)

looking closer, the ‘maps’ occurring on the cover and through the book, were actually pieces from loius van swaaij and jean klare’s atlas of experience…where fictitious areas are marked by themes from life…birth (true nature), youth, marriage, and so on. the literary translations (from various cultures) in turn represent these themes. for example, the poem above was from the ‘marriage and family life’ theme.

as with any short-story-collection book that i have laid my hands on, i quickly leafed through the poems and the anecdotes (and skipped the stories for later), when i suddenly realised i was perhaps absent-mindedly looking for pieces by indian writers. i shrugged when i couldn’t find any, this must be a european-only collection, and went on to read the introduction, another habit with books.

two pages later, between the preface and just before the book began with the ‘birth’ theme, i found a single page with two bright stanzas that compelled you to read. the poem had no title, and far below, in bold type and italicised was the text… “translated by joe winters, from ‘song offerings’ by rabindranath tagore.

oh i’m soooo proud to be an indian! 🙂

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