Writing the Wrong
For Someone I Miss,
But Never Met
I never knew Reetika Vazirani. I saw a picture of her , her lovely open face, wide eyes, and smile captivated me. I was envious of her as a writer, of her success and in awe of the way she, in a few lines, encapsulated entire universes of emotion and experience. Take the above poem for instance. I was looking for something of hers to share with you all and came across this. I think it is apropos because Bangladesh recently celebrated her independence, but also because it, by mere coincidence, captures the essence of something I am working on as a fiction writer. When I read this poem, everything becomes sepia tinted for me-like in yellowed photos from the early 20th century. I can see the sunlight glinting through the chik in the classroom, or hear the drone of the fan whirring above clear as a bell. I am suddenly privy to the Headmaster's life and journey. This is Reetika's gift to all of us-the gift that all great writers give.
By the time she was thirty four she was a published poet-no-mean-feat. A tremendous one actually, especially for an Indian-American writer. I am not much for poetry, mainly because I can't write like that and it frustrates me-- but her words haunted me.
Independence by Reetika Vazirani
Mussoorie, Uttar Pradesh, India, l947
When I am nine, the British quit
India. Headmaster says, "The Great
Mutiny started it." We repeat,
The Great Mutiny of 1857
in our booming voices. Even
Akbar was Great, even Catherine,
Great! We titter over History. His back
turns: we see his pink spotty neck.
Sorry, the British leaving? we beg.
"This is hardly a joke or a quiz --
sit up and stay alert," he spits.
"It is about the trains and ships
you love and city names. As for me,
I'm old, I'll end in a library,
I began in trade." But you must stay,
we tell him. He lived here as we have lived
but longer. He says he was alive
in Calcutta in 1890. He didn't have
a rich father. A third son, he came with
the Tea Company: we saw a statement
in his office. The company built
the railroads to take the tea "home
to England" so that Darjeeling and Assam
could be sipped by everyone, us and them.
They sold our southern neighbor Ceylon,
silk, pepper, diamonds, cotton.
We make a trade of course. In England
there is only wool and salt and
snobs and foggy weather, Shakespeare.
So when she killed herself on July 18th, 2003 it completely shocked me. Her death in itself was terrible, but the way in which she did it was unfathomable because she took her three-year-old son with her. She slashed his throat and wrists and then her own on the kitchen floor of the house she was minding in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She did it, many speculate, to send a clear message to her partner and the father of her son, Pulitzer award winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa , whom she suspected of cheating on her.
I do not know if this is true. Only Reetika knows.
But I was angry at her for killing her baby, whom everyone, including poet laureate Rita Dove, said she adored. I felt personally attacked because I so admired her. The sheer brutality of the event was a betrayal to everyone who had been touched by her words. How could someone who so understands the yearnings of the human heart, who works through them for herself and you as the reader in her poetry, commit such an act of cold blooded murder? That is what I thought then. Now I think I am starting to understand. Not justify, no way, but see clearly.
Before I sat down to write this, I watched my son sleep. I am pretty sure that when children sleep peacefully that is the closest we get to seeing an angel in front of our very eyes. If you don't believe me, try it sometime. So I am watching him sleep-he had driven me nuts the night before-he is intelligent and this comes with the job description and I start thinking about Reetika and what had gone through her mind. I have been having a hard time in Dhaka for many reasons, and found myself walking away from myself and the essence of who I was, even as a mother.
This is very very dangerous and it happens to women all the time. It does not mean we commit suicide or kill our sons but it means we can get so lost that we never quite make it back. Our emotions rule all, and not the good ones. We trust people we have no business trusting and stop trusting ourselves. We imbue others with both attributes and flaws they do not possess but most importantly, we short change ourselves and lose sight so fully, that others lose sight of us too. They start to patronize us because we are not respecting ourselves and it further feeds into our own insecurities. Passionate people get the raw end of the deal, they get the bad rap and are rendered irrational. That is what happened to me here and that, based on what I have read about Reetika's life, happened to her as well. Though I must acknowledge that she was mentally unwell--we all are to a certain extent--but hers was an extreme.
When you read her poetry the melancholy is apparent. The wistfulness, and longing is palpable. I don't know about you, but that is how I expect poets to be; lugubrious, yearning, pale and stoic, like Robert Frost or a bit consumptive like Shelley capable of suddenly keeling over dead in a row boat in the middle of a lake that sort of thing. I think that is why I was always secretly relieved I had no aspirations of becoming a poet and maybe even relieved that I do not possess a corner of the talent needed to be one. It is a painful existence I thought.
Reetika was not much older than me when she died and she was more successful and more talented and she walked away from herself. She was loved but it was not enough. Love alone is not enough. Her friends say that she loved Jahan, her son, so much she did not want him to live without her, thinking that he would suffer, but she simply could not stay on this earth with him. The pain, irrational or otherwise was too great Though I cannot abide by that I understand it now.
As I watched my kid sleep, I thought, thank God, I am a die hard optimist, thank God I can laugh at the absurdity of this roller coaster ride. Thank God I still have huge dreams, the hugest, mind you because honestly there is no point in having tiny ones. And thank God for Reetika Vazirani's talent and words and beauty.
My struggle or Jihad is that I want so badly to be above everything and transcendent and now know that my heart at this point in time is a purely muscular organ, solidly grounded on earth, committed to the world. Not quite what Rumi or Hafiz had in mind. Admitting one’s limitations is the first step to healing I hope.
Reetika's death says this to me, because I am a woman, a writer, a mother and a romantic fool: do not lose sight of yourself, do not lose yourself in someone else's eyes, even your child's. Do not walk so far away you cannot find your way back. I wish Reetika had a compass that stood her in good stead. The irony is she is actually a facet of mine.
I urge you all to read Reetika's books of poetry: White Elephants and World Hotel (Copper Canyon Press)
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