Category Archives: Of Books

Some Thoughts on Reading Robert Ludlum’s The Paris Option

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It is always a game of wits between the reader and the author of a thriller / detective novel. The reader is always in the know that the hero will remain un-killed, though a little hurt, and that the villain’s plan will not succeed. The reader also knows upon picking up the novel that the apocalyptic crisis promised by the villain will be smoked by the hero, ultimately. This much is certain. But, because the author of a thriller / detective novel also knows what his/her reader knows, this author tries that extra bit to keep the reader from succeeding in predicting what is going to happen and/or how it is going to happen. Now, as a lay reader my attention is not on the failure of the author in outwitting the reader, but it is on his/her success, because my paisa-worth entertainment depends on the author being able to outwit me. If s/he fails, the reading is a bore. While as reader I try to see through the author’s tricks of setting my adrenaline racing, I do not relish being successful in those attempts because, if I do, the fun of reading is gone.

Robert Ludlum's The Paris Option

Now, let me reflect a little on that last phrase I used above – “fun of reading”. No doubt, the fiction industry depends so much on this ‘fun of reading’. I think, the variety of fiction is really the variety in the kind of ‘fun of reading’ a novel offers. And even the individual authors of a particular genre try to offer as different a ‘fun of reading’ as possible. In a thriller such as the kind Robert Ludlum writes, racy action is the key. But, racy action is actually a sequence of rapidly occurring crisis. So in such a novel, action that counts is the cusp-action. If there are too many incidents separating two cusp-actions, the novel will begin to drag. The author has to ensure that on every page there is a reminder of the looming mini-crisis, and also frequently remind the reader that these mini-crises are not an end, only an introduction to one facet of the apocalyptic crisis. The novel in fact works only because of the success of the mini-crises, and not so much because of the final one. Even, these mini-crises are to be narrated with a narrative style that anticipates danger to the hero and his/her minions very often, and that keeps the attention of the reader on the activities of the hero that promise not a solution but a complication to the problems the hero confronts. I think this is the basic building block of the thriller – this indirection. I mean, the reader is allowed more and more to see the complications building up but not the solutions being thought up. One of the sleights of hands that the thriller novelists depend on is the imbalance between the complications faced by the hero and the way they are solved – complications elaborated in great details so that the mass of details weigh heavy on the reader but hero’s solutions are covered in swift strokes, the pacy sentences here hide the paucity of details.

When I am reading Robert Ludlum’s novel, I do not allow myself too much space for noticing all of the author’s tricks. For example, in the course of reading this novel, The Paris Option, I was somehow continuously imagining how this would be cinematically represented. I noticed a couple of times how the author spends pages giving details of a character before reporting that character’s response to some statement by the other characters. As a reader, I spend a lot of time between reading the statement and reading the response to it. In between, I learn a great deal that fills me in on the motivations, psychology etc. of the characters. But a film cannot use time in this manner. I didn’t enjoy this discovery, because it shows the author’s hands, magic recedes, enchantment breaks.

Now, just imagine how this enchantment holds the reader. It is more than an enchantment – it is a chain, it is even drugging. Due to this ‘enchantment’, as a reader, I dislike thinking on my own, because the moment I do it, I lose the ‘fun of reading’. That is, the thriller novel invites me to find it extremely alluring to suspend my ability and faculty of thinking. It promises me that if only I agree to suspend my urge to think for myself, I would have ‘fun of reading’, I would find it a pure entertainment to read, I would find reading magical, ‘enchanting’. Thus reading becomes a way of fun, and fun becomes a way of ‘not thinking’, and thus begins the habit of ‘not thinking’ and concomitantly also the habit of finding ‘fun’ in everything that I ‘read’ – visually and experientially and intellectually. In fact, ‘not requiring to think’ becomes the code for ‘fun’.

Of course, reading some other kind of novel reverses this process and leads me to associate ‘thinking’ with ‘fun’.

Tipu’s Rockets!!!

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William E. Burrows in his This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, has the following description of warfare at Srirangapattana.

The first major battles with rockets that involved Europeans occurred during a revolt against the British which began in 1781 in the Mysore region of southwest India and lasted through 1799. The Indians fired crude but effective rockets against British regulars during battles at Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799. “No hall could be thicker,” a young English officer named Bayly lamented in his diary. “Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them.”

The Royal Laboratory at Woolwich Arsenal was therefore ordered to design and develop a dependable war rocket that could be produced in large quantities as standard equipment for the artillery. This was done by William Congreve, a Cambridge-educated socialite who was an intimate of the Royal Family and whose father was commandant of the Royal Artillery and Woolwich’s comptroller. Congreve had studied law and run a newspaper. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, and in the aftermath of the battles in India (and in anticipation of others with France), he responded by turning his keen intellect and imagination to inventing a better rocket.

After at least three years of experiments, Congreve published A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System, in November 1807. Even then there were those who fretted about national security and the danger of leaks, and since Congreve was one of them, he happily “sanitized” his report. “In the following pages I have cautiously avoided any disclosure which might lead to a discovery of the interior structure and combination of the rocket, on which all powers depend, this rule I have observed for obvious reasons,” the inventor wrote with evident pride.

Noting that the Indian rockets had had a range of less than a thousand yards, Congreve designed one that traveled twice as far. It was an iron cylinder stuffed with seven pounds of compressed powder, and it weighed thirty-two pounds. The breakthroughs were using metal “carcasses” instead of paperboard; refining the powder through granulation machines to give more predictable results; and using pile driver presses to compact the powder so it was a denser and therefore more even-burning charge. He also incorporated noses into his design–warheads, in today’s jargon–that could carry a variety of munitions, including incendiary, shrapnel, explosive, or shot. Other models would follow in relatively quick succession.

Congreve realized early that rockets were particularly suited to naval warfare because, unlike cannons, they did not recoil and destabilize the ship. He therefore suggested that his 2,000-yard model be used as part of a plan, soon accepted, “for the annoyance of Boulogne” by the Royal Navy. Ten boats were fitted with incendiary rockets for an attack on the French port city on November 21, 1805, but a fierce storm prevented the attack. A second attempt, on October 8, 1806, was successful. “In about half an hour above 2,000 rockets were discharged,” Congreve reported with evident relish. “The dismay and astonishment of the enemy were complete–not a shot was returned–and in less than ten minutes after the first discharge, the town was discovered to be on fire.” The rockets were used with even greater success to shell Copenhagen in 1807 and then other European cities. And Congreve was at least indirectly responsible for the national anthem of the United States. On the night of September 13-14, 1814, his ubiquitous rockets were used to shell Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, causing the “red glare” that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Thanks to Anoop Sarkar

Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli

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Below is an extract from my article on Rama Mehta’s novel Inside the Haveli. The article was published in South Asian Review vol. 30. No. 1. September/October 2009. pp. 286–301. It is titled “Emplotment of Aristocratic Nation in Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli

Visit SAR here.

In South Asian debates, the nostalgic mode of cultural memory deploys binary oppositions such as ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ so as to defend the perpetuation of cultural orthodoxy. The terrain of postcolonial debate has witnessed the resurgence of this kind of defence of cultural orthodoxy in the name of critique of modernity often. One of the sites for the assertion of cultural orthodoxy has been the space of ‘nation’. In as far as ‘nation’ is a modern form of sociality in South Asian societies it is fraught with issues of derivation. One familiar trope in the critiques of nationalism is the one based on its ‘alienness’. Such a critique is usually predicated upon a defence of cultural orthodoxy: the brahminical patriarchy. The charge of ‘alienenss’ in such critiques is a reductive examination of the phenomenon of nationalism ignoring the plural conceptions of nation. The labelling of nation as a derivative discourse legitimizes a hegemonic notion of cultural interaction whereby the reconfigurations effected in the concept are devalued. These critiques of nationalism ignore contestations of nation and nationalisms by rendering them as singular. Thus, an important critical engagement evident in past and present mass movements is negated by this critique though it has acquired greater visibility.

Nations are not imagined into being in abstraction but through associations based on shared practices and dissociations based on differentiations. These two processes are never complete or coherent, thereby leading to an unstable production of identity that is forever in the making. This instability in and the continuous production of the collective identity hence characterises nation as a field of contestations. ‘Nation’ as a collective identity is continuously under construction and forever pluralized. Beginning with this constructivist notion of nation, this paper examines the configuration of collective identity in Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli. The argument I present here is that the novel valorizes feudal aristocratic patriarchy via a plea for preserving the local tradition by ignoring the class and gender refractions therein.

Inside the Haveli is Rama Mehta’s only novel though she has published academic books and children’s fiction. Her works of fiction for children are Ramu and Life of Keshav. Rama Mehta’s academic books include The Western Educated Indian Woman (1970), The Divorced Hindu Woman (1975), and India: Now and Through Time (co-author) (1971). The novel was published in 1977 and thus 1970s is the period in which Rama Mehta published all her works. Significantly, the novel and the non-fictional books have common concerns as they all circle around the issues of women’s relation to tradition and modernity. The particular intervention that this novel made in the contemporary debates about the conflict/continuity between tradition and modernity was enthusiastically received. This is apparent in its positive reception. The novel won the 1979 Sahitya Academy Award and was heralded by established critics such as Srinivass Iyengar:

Inside the Haveli is a sensitive piece of realistic fiction, even an authentic sociological study, and it is written with a naturalness and poise that are disarming and effective at once. The evocation of scene, character and especially of atmosphere is almost uncanny… The balance between repose and movement is well sustained, there is romance but no cheap sex, there is tension but no violence, and there is a feeling for the values and verities.[i]

Published at a time when in India the desire for modernity was strong even as pride in tradition was fierce, Inside the Haveli is a novel that sets up a face off between tradition and modernity and it is seen as offering the best of both the ‘worlds’.[ii] Its popularity seems to be not so much due to resolving the conflict between tradition and modernity, but for favouring tradition and maintaining a conservative outlook, both in ideological framing of the narrative as well as the style in which it is rendered. That the novel’s ideological framing of modernity can at once gather up pedagogic import is suggested in the praise showered on it by Viney Kirpal:

Rama Mehta’s intentions in writing this novel are to help the western educated Indian reader regain his belief in his own traditions… The resolution of the novel is that Geeta gradually grows away from the westernised perception acquired from her education and learns to appreciate the dignity, solemnity, meaning and worth of indigenous traditions[iii].

This paper proposes to examine closely the deployment of the thematic of tradition and modernity and explore how this stages ‘nation’. The analysis of the novel takes into account the institution of two temporal and spatial categories in the novel, one representing the traditional aristocracy inhabiting the haveli and the other representing the world outside it which is integrated into nationhood. The novel then goes on to valorize the former, defending its socio-cultural practices by glossing over the inherent oppressiveness. Contrary to its initial claim of common bond among the inhabitants of the old city of Udaipur, the novel reveals processes of othering within the old city based on class and gender. It ends up contesting the horizontal life effected by nation on behalf of the aristocracy, the defence of which is made in the novel by defending its traditions. The novel, however, effectually silences the dissent based on class by portraying the generosity of the aristocracy. Thus, in this novel, contestation of nation as a modern collectivity is undertaken from the point of view of the aristocracy. It deploys the thematic smoke screen of the conflict between tradition and modernity only to naturalize the perpetuation of patriarchal hierarchy.

Inside the Haveli demarcates its narrative paradigm by instituting a division between the magical time of traditional community and the flat horizontal time of nation-state. The former derives its enchanting character in its difference from the memory-less domain of the latter. The novel opens with a highly resonant description of Udaipur’s ‘Old City’ in its distinction from the new township: “Udaipur was once the capital of the state of Mewar; now it is only a town like many other towns in Rajasthan.”[iv] (3) The contrast invoked in the words ‘once’ and ‘now’ introduces the nostalgic and rues the levelling of Udaipur with ‘many other towns’ in the time of the nation-state. The insertion of Udaipur into the flat horizontal plane of nation-state is viewed as undermining its magical uniqueness.

The novel characterises this ‘magicality’ as being generated in the now through a memory of the past: “But the change in its status hasn’t diminished its beauty, nor the air of mystery that hangs over what is now known as ‘Old City’.” (3) There is a suggestion that the diminution in the status is occasioned by the integration of the state of Mewar into the Indian nation-state, into becoming one among the many towns of Rajasthan. The likeness to other towns is seen here as a diminution in status. Thus, the coming of the nation-state (the state of Mewar has been dissolved into the Indian nation-state at the time of Indian independence, and the beginning of the novel is twenty-five years from that time) has brought about a reduction in the status of Udaipur.

The change in the status nevertheless is only a limited ‘loss’ because, the novel goes on to assert, its ‘beauty’ is undiminished. The result of this contradiction is the production of magicality: ‘the air of mystery’ that ‘hangs over’ the city. The severance is neither complete, nor is the flattening all-penetrating because this mystery, this nostalgic production of the magicality that sustains the past through remembered practices sets up the ‘old city’ as distinct. Therefore, “the wall still divides Udaipur into two halves. The new township is beyond the old wall and the city within it.” (3) The topographical division also marks a deeper distance as the ‘old city’ and the new township are enveloped in the novel’s narrative prose in distinct zones of time. In two paragraphs of contrasting visions of each other, the novel points to the distance in terms which focus on the continuity with the past for the old city and an absence of collective memory for the new township. (5) In the first of these paragraphs, the view of the township by the people of the old city is presented:

They have seen the rows of neat houses on either side of the broad tarmac road. The air is clean and in it there is no cow dung smoke but there is no soul in the new township. Its people have not memories of what Udaipur was like, they are newcomers, they don’t have common ancestors. They don’t belong to the soil of Mewar. (5)

This view of the township as a body without past, without memory, without soul and without roots is an index of the collective identity invoked in the novel. It is an identity that is specific to Udaipur, issuing from the memory of its glorious past (“No one in the city can forget those days when Udaipur belonged to the people” (5)). Unlike the old city, the new township is a conglomeration of people without collective memory, ancestors, common customs and a sense of belonging. Thus, the old city and the new township occupy different horizons of collectivity, the four hundred years old wall signalling the distance. Though this wall is crumbling, there are big gaps (presumably symptomatic of the ambivalent space where the old city and new township form continuity), it still ‘divides’ Udaipur.

The view of the old city by the people in the new town is less penetrating. While the description of the new township seen by the people of the old city is detailed enough, the description is minimal when the people in the new town see the old city: “They are puzzled by the wall–enclosed havelis… There is no way they can look into the courtyards… The town people leave the old city, without having fathomed what goes on inside men’s and women’s apartments of the haveli.” (5) The differentiated visions of each other, one penetrating while the other puzzled, sets up in the novel a preferred site of narrativization. The old city from now on becomes the closed off horizon of the narrative universe. The narrative dismisses the new township, never to venture into it, though its presence continues to index the ‘crumbling’ wall and the growing gaps in it.


[i] K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Indian Writing in English. rev. edn., New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1985. p. 753.

[ii] See R.K. Asthana, “Tradition and Modernity in Inside the Haveli”, in R.K. Dhawan, (ed), Indian Women Novelists, vol. IV, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991. pp. 193-201.

[iii] Viney Kirpal, “How Traditional can a Modern Indian be: Analysis of Inside the Haveli” in R.K. Dhawan, (ed), Indian Women Novelists, vol. IV, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991. p. 176.

[iv] Rama Mehta, Inside the Haveli. (1977), New Delhi: Penguin, 1996.

“Urdu is very much alive in contemporary India”

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Words Without Borders have focused in their current issue on the Urdu fiction from India with a delightful bunch of stories including those of Qurratulain Hyder, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Zakia Mashhadi and others. Muhamma Umar Memon has edited the issue and has written an introduction. An excerpt from the intro:
The partition of British India in 1947 took its tragic toll not only in human lives and displacement, but also in culture. Like everything else, the Urdu language, an unmistakable product of India, in which all Indians participated without regard to religion or creed (of the three most celebrated Urdu fiction writers of the twentieth century, one was a Hindu, the other a Sikh, and the third a Muslim), also split apart in the frenzy of linguistic nationalism, with distinct religious identities foisted upon it. So now it is a language of the Muslims and Pakistan—Indians believe that and, worse, even Pakistanis believe that. Nevertheless, Urdu is very much alive in contemporary India. And not just among its Muslim minority, roughly the size of the population of Pakistan, but also among the expatriate South Asian communities in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. The total tally of those who can speak Urdu runs into several hundred million, a greater number than the combined speakers of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.
An excerpt from Hyder’s story “Beyond the Fog”:
Throughout the day English sahibs, memsahibs, and their baba log cross the bridge on mules and horses or riding in rickshaws and dandis. In the evening, the same bridge becomes the site of milling crowds of Indians. The swarm of rushing humanity going up and down the slopes huffing and puffing looks like the surge of a massive tidal wave. Movies starring Esther Williams, Joan Fontaine, Nur Jahan, and Khursheed are playing in the local cinemas. Skating continues in the rinks. In the ballroom of the Savoy the Anglo-Indian crooner and his band will soon start “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.” Drums will be struck; maharaja and maharani log, nabob log, bara sahib and bara mem log will start dancing.
Following is an excerpt from Sajid Rashid’s story “Fable of a Severed Head”:

5:40— verar local express

Shifting his heavy, red canvas bag from his left shoulder to his right, he looked up at the Churchgate Station monitor and scurried toward Platform 3. People were practically running to the platform to board the 5:40 local. Women office workers were scrambling into the ladies’ compartment, pushing and shoving, being pushed and shoved in the wild crush, barely managing to keep their stride under the weight of their dangling purses and shoulder bags, as if this was the last train. Dog-tired from the day’s grueling work, he only wanted to plop down by some window and let the fatigue of the day, indeed of his whole life, slowly ooze out of his bones.

SAGE free access

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SAGE has announced its annual free access period. If you have registered you can access all SAGE journals till 15 October 2010. If you havent registered, you can register now and access the journals. You can read full articles online or download pdf files. Access to such prestigious journals as Journal of Commonwealth Lit, Journal of Consumer Culture, Theory Culture, Memory Studies, etc etc.

Procedure is not complicated. Registration is free, folks, so ENJOY.

Links:
If you are a member go here:
http://online.sagepub.com/browse/by/discipline

if you are yet to register go here:
https://online.sagepub.com/cgi/register?registration=FT2010-1

Kancha Ilaiah’s New Book

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Kancha Ilaiah is a fascinating thinker and writer. He first made waves with his book Why I am not a Hindu. Parts of that book even appeared in the famed Subaltern Studies. He has to be credited for his concept of ‘dalitization’ which is a very useful sociological concept. He is often difficult to agree with, as his ideas take liberty with facts referred to. But, his works always will provide you insights that are uncommon. He is provocative. Ilaiah is a must read. Here is a review of his new book by Anand Teltumbde, which appeared in Tehelka. Although Teltumbde is critical of this book, you will notice he admits to Ilaiah’s strength of observation. Teltumbde is a fine thinker too. Check out the review.

KANCHA ILAIAH is known for books with explosive titles like Why I Am Not a Hindu and Buffalo Nationalism, but with spiritual content. This book, his latest, follows in the same tradition. At a time when many intellectuals are morbidly worried about the resurgence of Hindutva, Ilaiah boldly sees Hinduism on course of its death because of its “failure to mediate between scientific thought and spiritual thought”. The book is a reflective account of his own journey through castes and communities and highlights everyday clashes of caste cultures and conflict between “the productive ethic of Dalit-Bahujan castes and the anti-productive and anti-scientific ethic of Hindu Brahminism”.

The contents page would catch the fancy of any reader with its catchy phrases like ‘intellectual goondas”, “spiritual fascists”, used for Brahmins and “subaltern scientists”, “meat and milk economists” for the Dalit- Bahujans. The first thing that crossed my mind is that the marketing wing of any publication house will be simply overjoyed with brand ‘Kancha Ilaiah,’ with its potential appeal to the vast market spanning three out of four spiritual worlds (Christian, Islam and Buddhist, excluding Hindu), to make use of his phraseology. Indeed, with his passionate promotion of Dalit-Bahujan and outlandish interpretation of mundane details of life, he has created a unique place for himself among subaltern writers.

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POST-HINDU INDIA: DALIT-BAHUJAN SOCIO-SPIRITUAL AND SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
Kancha Ilaiah
Sage Publications
316 pp; Rs 295

Reading this book gives you a feel of travelling in a Maglev train — an illusion of running on rails but in fact levitates over a thin layer of air. While traversing through its arguments, the book creates an illusion of being based on truth but is distanced from it by a thin layer of prejudice. There is an overdose of culture and spirituality which could intoxicate readers without them realising it.

If one is not so ‘spiritually’ intoxicated, one suffers from mundane doubts nibbling at his intellect: is this conjoint term ‘Dalit-Bahujan’ sociologically viable, given the huge load of material contradictions between these two population groups that have been precipitating into most heinous caste atrocities? How and why did these worthy ‘spiritual democrats’ or ‘spiritual revolutionaries’ come to emulate the caste hierarchy of Brahmins, the spiritual fascists, within themselves and zealously preserve it? If the Dalit- Bahujans were so accomplished in terms of their scientific and technological prowess, how could they be enslaved by a handful of scheming and spiritually degenerate Brahmins for millennia? The book succeeds in establishing the superiority of Dalit-Bahujans, but doesn’t it essentially follow the very same Brahmanic ethos of superiority-inferiority?

The value of Kancha Iliah’s book lies not so much in its thesis but in the richness of its observations not only on the castes of India, but also on the many people and events in the world.

(Image of Ilaiah and the book are from Tehelka.com)

Derek Walcott – Two Poems on Love

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Bits of Derek Walcott here.from google images

Love after Love

 

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread

 

Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

 

Another take on love:

Blues

 

Those five or six young guys
lunched on the stoop
that oven-hot summer night
whistled me over. Nice
and friendly. So, I stop.
MacDougal or Christopher
Street in chains of light.

A summer festival. Or some
saint’s. I wasn’t too far from
home, but not too bright
for a nigger, and not too dark.
I figured we were all
one, wop, nigger, jew,
besides, this wasn’t Central Park.
I’m coming on too strong? You figure
right! They beat this yellow nigger
black and blue.

Yeah. During all this, scared
on case one used a knife,
I hung my olive-green, just-bought
sports coat on a fire plug.
I did nothing. They fought
each other, really. Life
gives them a few kicks,
that’s all. The spades, the spicks.

My face smashed in, my bloddy mug
pouring, my olive-branch jacket saved
from cuts and tears,
I crawled four flights upstairs.
Sprawled in the gutter, I
remember a few watchers waved
loudly, and one kid’s mother shouting
like “Jackie” or “Terry,”
“now that’s enough!”
It’s nothing really.
They don’t get enough love.

You know they wouldn’t kill
you. Just playing rough,
like young Americans will.
Still it taught me somthing
about love. If it’s so tough,
forget it.

A fragment from ‘Fragments of Epic Memory’:

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.

And this is the exact process of the making of poetry, or what should be called not its “making” but its remaking, the fragmented memory, the armature that frames the god, even the rite that surrenders it to a final pyre; the god assembled cane by cane, reed by weaving reed, line by plaited line, as the artisans of Felicity would erect his holy echo.

Poetry, which is perfection’s sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue’s brow, combines the natural and the marmoreal; it conjugates both tenses simultaneously: the past and the present, if the past is the sculpture and the present the beads of dew or rain on the forehead of the past. There is the buried language and there is the individual vocabulary, and the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery. Tonally the individual voice is a dialect; it shapes its own accent, its own vocabulary and melody in defiance of an imperial concept of language, the language of Ozymandias, libraries and dictionaries, law courts and critics, and churches, universities, political dogma, the diction of institutions. Poetry is an island that breaks away from the main. The dialects of my archipelago seem as fresh to me as those raindrops on the statue’s forehead, not the sweat made from the classic exertion of frowning marble, but the condensations of a refreshing element, rain and salt.

Deprived of their original language, the captured and indentured tribes create their own, accreting and secreting fragments of an old, an epic vocabulary, from Asia and from Africa, but to an ancestral, an ecstatic rhythm in the blood that cannot be subdued by slavery or indenture, while nouns are renamed and the given names of places accepted like Felicity village or Choiseul. The original language dissolves from the exhaustion of distance like fog trying to cross an ocean, but this process of renaming, of finding new metaphors, is the same process that the poet faces every morning of his working day, making his own tools like Crusoe, assembling nouns from necessity, from Felicity, even renaming himself. The stripped man is driven back to that self-astonishing, elemental force, his mind. That is the basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong. They survived the Middle Passage and the Fatel Rozack, the ship that carried the first indentured Indians from the port of Madras to the cane fields of Felicity, that carried the chained Cromwellian convict and the Sephardic Jew, the Chinese grocer and the Lebanese merchant selling cloth samples on his bicycle.

The complete text and a link to the audio of the lecture here.

A few links to Walcott books:

Selected poetry By Derek Walcott (at google books)

Another life By Derek Walcott (at google books)

Derek Walcott By John Thieme (at google books)

Derek Walcott: Politics and Poetics  Paula Burnett (at google books)

Conversations with Derek Walcott William Baer (at google books)

Nobody’s nation: Reading Derek Walcott by Paul Breslin (at google books)