Consolation of Poetry
today's column to my husband's friend and contemporary,
Ambassador S.K Sharjil Hassan whose unexpected and untimely
death due to a heart attack a few weeks ago left all of
us within his wide circle of friends in a state of shock
and disbelief. He was a youthful and gracious man, physically
fit and full of an unbridled enthusiasm for life, and death
seems like a cruel mistake, a wrong role for him. It even
feels wrong that we should be grieving for this light-hearted,
ever-smiling person. Even though we are praying for him
as if he were truly gone, in our hearts we do not really
believe he is gone.
meeting with him was when my family visited Moscow and we
were guests at his ambassadorial residence. I mentioned
this in my articles from Russia at the time, and I reiterate
here that our Russian journey was enriched and made unforgettable
due to the friendship and incomparable hospitality of Sharjil.
Sharjil, an English Literature graduate, I was the 'Bhabi'
whose column he professed to be an avid reader of. With
the news of his death my column went silent for a while.
How else could a columnist register grief for the transition
of a special reader? Today in this very column, I send out
my prayers to him at his eternal address and offer my deepest
condolences to his wife and family. May his soul rest in
has passed like a courier with urgent news…."
Normally I do not like to read anything in translation,
but sometimes it doesn't matter, especially when you are
reflecting on the transient nature and passage of Life,
and the quality of Time, which encloses it. Life strikes
me as being itself a many-layered poem that can never be
read in the original, a language that no one speaks fluently,
and which has come down to us only in translation. Every
day we translate life; we decipher its symbols, images,
similes and metaphors; analyse its rhymes and reasons. The
poetry of life lifts its folds of meaning in the same way,
as do the veils of foreign poetry in translation, revealing
and confounding at the same time.
has passed like a courier with urgent news./But that's just
often read one of my favourite poets Wislawa Szymborska
(from whose poem the above line is taken) and yet, I find
that the same poem or the same line says different things
to me at each reading. This is, of course, true of any good
poet, any great poem. Also, actually, this is true of any
sensitive reader, who becomes almost a co-writer, a partner
in the experience of the poem, its most important translator.
The act of reading poetry reveals the reader as much as
it does the poet. I can pick up the same poem and read it
as a totally new one given the mood and circumstance in
which I re-read it. Thus even if the poem is translated,
say from its original Polish, the ultimate translation and
transformation is the one it undergoes during its passage
through the prism of my sensitivity at that point. A poem,
like a grain of sand, exists not in itself but in my reading
isn't that true of life, too? Until I reflect on it consciously,
give it a context and a meaning, does Life have a shape?
It's my human eye that views it; my imagination that composes
and then translates its incoherent poetry. "We call
it a grain of sand,/but it calls itself neither grain nor
sand./It does just fine without a name….." But
it is in our human nature to give things names, to read
and write the poetry of our fragile existenece.
distracting myself from the confusions of life by reading
poetry of the special kind that Szymborska writes-----deep
as water in a running stream, limpid in meaning, and quenching
to the thirsting heart.
window has a wonderful view of a lake,/ but the view doesn't
view itself./it exists in this world/ colourless, shapeless,/
soundless, odourless, and painless/ The lake's floor exists
floorlesly,/ and its shore exists shorelessly/……...
And all this beneath a sky by nature skyless."
convenient and painless for inanimate nature to exist without
being aware of its own existence, its own limitations or
its untapped poetry, leaving it to us poor mortals who are
blessed and tormented by our imagination to give the world
of nature its meaning and rhyming scheme. We who are not
floorless, shoreless or skyless but full of our own humanity
must weep and laugh at not just our own precarious condition
but that of other humans and other creatures. We live their
lives; die their deaths. We empathise, we versify, we endlessly
compose castles of love and compassion from the grains of
sand visible hourglass.
us. We read Time as if it were a man-made, clockwork thing,
and not the fine flow of eternity through an invisible hourglass.
second passes./ A second second./ A third./ But they are
three seconds only for us."
time is a human invention, a human contraption. Time both
limits us and also, paradoxically, liberates us from its
confines by enabling us to contrast it against and thus
conceive of timelessness; it draws edges and boundaries
to shape to our mortal existence, and by doing so defines
for us the great Beyond. We measure the span of our lives
by human hours and seconds, and also in terms of memories
and remembering which are products of our exercise of filing
time into timeless images and symbols. Without imagining
Time we would not be able to appreciate the idea of Eternity,
that most poetic of concepts. (If we accept the confining
concept of Death, the final frontier of human time-span,
then there has to exist its anti-thesis, Eternal Life, the
source from which Time emerged!). The human consciousness
is the greatest poet, life's great composer.
the question still nags soundlessly: apart from ourselves,
who views us from across the floorless, shoreless lake,
calls us human? When one of us passes away into the great
oblivion, does someone receive that news, or not?
has passed like a courier with urgent news,/ But that's
just our simile./ The character is invented, his haste is
make-believe,/ his news inhuman."
I would translate 'inhuman' as neutral. I could bear to
think of nature as being indifferent; I could walk under
a sky 'by nature skyless', whose blind, inverted bowl only
I humanly identified as 'sky' but which provided no shelter.
Today, I read 'inhuman' as that mysterious unknown which
I do not hesitate to call divine.
we have indeed invented the character of Time, and perhaps,
life arriving and departing on its wings is only an illusion.
But instead of the terror of the void, I feel that we are
enfolded not in a blank, inhuman abstraction, but in an
element that in spite of being sightless, colourless, shapeless,
soundless, odourless, painless, shoreless, floorless, skyless
and timeless, is a loving Eternity. Perhaps, life and death
are but grains of unsifted sand in a boundless desert or
a limitless beach "in which the sun sets without setting
at all." At least this is my translation of Szymborska's
poem 'View with a Grain of Sand', translating it not from
Polish into English but from the poetry of words into the
poetry of both our essential mortality and immortality.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004