“Pick a story and see where it will lead you”: Reconfigurations of the Cultural Narratives in Sujata Bhatt’s Selected Poems
Manika Arora is a research scholar in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh. Her doctoral thesis is entitled “Dynamics of the Image: A Study of Sujata Bhatt’s Poetry”. Her research area includes Contemporary Poetry, Indian Writings in English and Literatures in Translation.
From long-lasting to temporary and fluid ones, from oral to written ones, the formation of culture includes all varieties of narratives. Folk-tales, oral storytelling, legends, classical, popular and everyday narratives together formulate the distinct character of any particular culture. The paper examines the fundamental engagement between the aesthetics of the poetry and the debate(s) of culture and its (re)making with a singular focus on Sujata Bhatt’s poetry. Bhatt is a contemporary Indian English poet residing in Germany. The poetic tension, between this rootedness and fluidity, has given an unusual and distinctive idiom to her work. The paper takes into account the images that delve on the parameters of cultural belongingness yet look at it from an objective distance, establishing Sujata Bhatt as a ‘critical insider’. It analyses how the images in her poetry become a locus of cultural assimilation, pertaining to the cosmopolitan approach that provides a novel treatment to the familiar subject. The paper attempts at exploring how her poetic idiom exposes the hidden and silent narratives, participates in the reconfigurations and reconsideration of the popular and established myths, tales, lore and other cultural narratives, and is implicated in the process of rewriting Indian cultural narratives.
Keywords: Cultural narratives; Cultural memory; Myths; Folk-tales; Reconfiguration.
Cultural narrative, in very simple terms, is a narrative of the culture, its people, focusing on certain domains of the culture. The narrative is a way to organize experience and endow it with meaning. The truths varying within each religion and its cultural idiom are made understandable, accessible and persuasive largely through the medium of stories. A story can reinforce as well as disrupt the conceptions of what the world is about (Narayan 1989). There are various traditional, folk and community narratives living in a culture. Also, there are modern and urban narratives. From long-lasting to temporary and fluid ones, from oral to written ones, the formation of culture includes all varieties of narratives. Jonardon Ganeri offers the category of ‘cognitive story’ to account for such wide-ranging prevalence of narratives in the culture. He argues that a cognitive story is a story that we tell ourselves to make sense out of our beliefs and to shape our inner life (Ganeri 2012 171-172). It is the story through which we structure our understanding of the world, a truth about how, when and why we believe the way we do. It leads us to have our own perceptions of the goings-on of our minds. That is why we always have an implicated reason about what we choose to value and how.
Myths occupy an important place in the cultural narratives. Myths are narratives that are both formative and reflective of social values within a culture. There are certain aspects of a culture that myths reflect and certain aspects that myths construct. Folk-tales, oral storytelling, legends, classical, popular and everyday narratives together formulate the distinct character of any particular culture. From the tale-telling sessions by the older women feeding the young kids in the evening in the kitchen, as Ramanujan mentions, to the bedtime stories by dadi nani, the Indian tradition is rich of stories to be told in each situation (Ramanujan 468-469).
Since there are stories available for each situation and for each one, stories, in India have also become a part of the learning process as exemplars and models. For people in India, understanding comes through imitation, and the imitation only through understanding. Therefore, stories play an integral role in creating the grounds where the two connect. Moreover, these stories and legends that a culture possesses act as a mechanism to preserve its sense of order (Balagangadhara 82-91). Further, the story-telling in India is a performance, here, stories are told performatively as part of action other than just the utterances (Ramanujan 470).
Sujata Bhatt’s poetic idiom reconfigures the already constructed and circulated narratives from mythology, folklore as well as everyday domain. Drawing images from her early experiences in India, her poetry becomes a part of cultural evolution. Driven from Indian cultural ethos, these images are suggestive of rootedness in her poetic self. However, her position on these narratives is global. Her poetic images have a cosmopolitan approach that provides a novel treatment to a familiar subject and becomes a locus of cultural assimilation. The idiom hints at the fluidity of her poetic self. The poetic tension, between this rootedness and fluidity, leads to an unusual and distinctive idiom to manifest the poetic thought. Also, this poetic conflict leads to a reconfiguration of some of the established cultural aspects.
The poem “A Different Way to Dance” dwells on the popular myth of Shiva cutting Ganesha’s head unaware of the fact that Ganesha is his own son. He, later, replaces it with an elephant’s head following his realization of Ganesha being his own son. This narrative has been an integral part of Indian mythology. Taking its poetic subject from this popular tale, Bhatt’s poem explores the other side of this narrative. The image, “sometimes the elephant head of Ganesha/ dreams of the life among elephants it knew/ before Shiva interfered” (CP 115), focuses on the unheard aspect of the popular myth. The image gives an entirely new take on the prevalent narrative. Giving agency to the elephant, the idiom also brings in various ecological concerns of the present day. As Ramanujan argues past is not a stable entity rather is always in flux. It keeps changing itself as one attends to it and gets new meanings every time it is approached. As the saying goes history does repeat itself and hence, some parts of past knowledge becomes all the more relevant in the present and provides new parameters for the present to be studied. In fact, sometimes, the one who studies or observes the past also becomes a part of it and the new meanings, ironies, paradigms and perspectives are added in the understanding of the past (Ramanujan185).
The image, powerfully, brings in the anguish and longing of the elephant that has been dislocated not only from the life it earlier knew but also from its own body. The repentance of Shiva, thus, becomes his interference in the life of the mute creature. The life of Ganesha was restored at the cost of that of elephant’s. But, certainly, this is a story no one talks about. Further, the image of the elephant yearning for “…the smell of wood- sandalwood, teak/the smell of tress…the smell of his newly found mate/ the smell of their mounting passion—” (CP 115) interrogates the redemption of Shiva and the revival of Ganesha’s life and also hints at the supposed supremacy of human’s life over an animal’s. Bringing in the yearnings and loss of the animal, the images problematize the validity of this myth. Also, it indicates that it is not only on the rooted and stable ideas that culture works on but also through the process of assimilation does culture really evolve. The acts of revision have, indeed, been an integral part of culture-making.
In a similar poem, “What Happened to the Elephant?”, a child is imaged asking this question. The image of “…framed postcard/ of Ganesha on my wall” is juxtaposed with “…a rotting carcass/ of a beheaded elephant…” (CP 117). This juxtaposition brings in various important discussions of culture-making through its prevalent narratives. Whereas the former image is celebrated in our culture, the latter image has no place in any of the cultural narratives. The rotting carcass, here, can be perceived as an analogy of some of the cultural violent amputations, where the survivor is fondly remembered and highly popularized, and the dead is either idolized as sacrificial goat or is simply forgotten. The juxtaposition of these two images also brings into the light a poetic conflict within the poetic self. The familiarity of these images with Indian ethos suggests the position of the poetic self of being an insider and is indicative of her belongingness to the cultural sphere of India. Whereas, her interrogating the integral aspects of Indian culture underlines her position of being an outsider and hints at her objective distance with the cultural ethos of India. In the poem, reconsideration of the age-old myth takes place through the eyes of a curious child who asks an innocent yet an important question “What happened to the elephant?” The child, here, can be seen as the new cultural stance on the otherwise ‘rotting’ or dying aspects of culture. The “rotting carcass”, thus, becomes a signifier of the cultural elements that are declining or need to be brought in the discussion, or reshaped, or simply need to be getting rid of.
Oral story-telling occupies an integral part of Indian culture. Given the richness and variety of the epic as well as folklore tradition in India, there has been an extensive exchange among all these narrative traditions. The folk narratives have provided a local perspective or regional world view to the tradition of epic in India, the living interpretation of folk and other oral traditions has provided a counter-narrative to them in the new social set-up. The study or examination of the prevalent oral narratives and folklore within the alternative traditions provides various correctives to them. Such exchanges and interpretations have added a critical ambivalence in the understanding of these narrative traditions (Hiltebeitel 1999).
The tales of animals especially monkeys are prevalent too in the various fables and folk-tales. Developing on the grounds of this critical ambivalence is the poem “Two Monkeys” that revolves around the image of two monkeys eating chapatis and conversing with each other. However, the poem opens up another aspect of such popular fables. The verses “‘Must we behave like monkeys?’…‘Can’t we learn something else?’” (CP 485) suggest a deep yearning in monkeys to escape from the human anthropomorphism of animals. The animal narratives usually employ certain ‘essential’ characteristics to the behaviour of animals. Attachment of these attributes to them is another kind of captivity. Tired of being categorized and conforming to human expectations, the monkeys want to get out of these fables. To ascribe the characteristics and behaviour patterns of human to animals is a common phenomenon but the ethical conduct that is imagined on animals is usually specific to culture. Taking into consideration the animals of Panćatantra, they have already been well-defined within the spectrum of Indian culture. Monkey, a familiar sight in India, is seen as a playful, but fickle and foolish creature in the fables (Olivelle 1999).
Chandra Rajan argues that in Panćatantra, the two worlds of human and non-human come in contact with each other; the relationship between the two is established by various connecting links in the forms of social or political organizations. She suggests that it is not possible for us to see who we really are since we get involved in the everyday acts of living. In fact, one is unable to perceive any pattern or meaning out of them until it is presented to be happening to the others. And Panćatantra does this very effectively. This projection, thus, works by placing the world of animals and nature in the world-view of human, and by ascribing human characteristics, behaviour, emotions on non-human entities. This is to define a different or ‘the other’ world on the standards and parameters of the ‘self’ or to make identification of ‘us’ with the ‘other’ possible. Thus, the natural world is reduced to function as a metaphor for the human world (Rajan 2006). Thus, questioning if they must behave like the ‘monkeys’, monkeys in the poem attempt at freeing themselves from their mythical and cultural associations. Their desire to learn something else asks for letting loose the wildness of their being.
Continuing the same discussion, the poem entitled “The First Meeting” narrates a conversation between the narrator and the King Cobra. The poem images the snake annoyed with people’s prayers and offerings of numerous bowls of milk, “Everywhere I go people pester me/ with their prayers, their hundred bowls of milk a day” (CP 21). Tired of its mythopoeic adoration, the snake requests the narrator to let it be. The image brings into the question human imposition of certain behaviour to the animals in general and snakes in particular. Indian philosophy sees divinity in each being. In fact, it is the spiritual oneness that connects the entire universe. It is, therefore, a common practice to worship animals and plants in India. However, the image, here, interrogates this popular practice creating the new markers for culture. Drawing on the commonplace image and idea, the poem brings in the novelty of approach from the given temporal and spatial distance of the poetic self. The poem concludes with the image of the snake giving a counter-narrative of what should be done with it. The snake speaks:
I want to live in your garden,
to visit you, especially those nights you sing,
let me join you.
And once in a while, let me lie around your neck
and share a bowl of milk… (CP 22)
Portraying the old and popular image of a snake lying around the neck of devotees, the image in Bhatt’s poem provides an altogether new viewpoint. Moving beyond the realm of spirituality, which has, overtly, been associated with India, the poem “The Kama sutra Retold” (CP 26-28) brings a new Indian perspective of looking at the Indian life and experiences.
Kāmasūtra is an Indian classical text that acknowledges the sensuality of an individual. It lays down the sūtras of kāma, desires of an individual. The text celebrates the eroticism and pleasure of the body. The text itself acts as a counter-narrative to the disseminated narrative of India being a domain of spirituality. It is important to note here that the doctrine of caturvarga or four concepts in Hinduism gives an equal significance to artha, a pursuit to attain wealth, dharma, religious and moral duties and kāma, the desire of body. According to this doctrine, moksha, the final release, is the ultimate goal of one’s life. As Bimal Krishna Matilal argues, by giving equal importance and rank to all three goals of life, kāma, dharma and artha, this doctrine does, in a way, break the stereotypical religious and mystic image associated with Hinduism (Matilal 145-146). Although it is the domain of spiritual that is understood as the ultimate and final, sensuality as an important part of life has been addressed too in Indian ethos. Matilal, further, argues that not only that sexual pleasure is accepted as the highest form of pleasure but also is considered as honourable as well as prestigious in Indian philosophy. To give evidence to his argument, he quotes from Brhadārarnyaka Upanisad that puts side by side the transcendental delight with sensual pleasure.
He did not enjoy himself. Therefore, people do not enjoy (are not happy) all by them
selves, i.e. alone. He wanted a second, a companion. He became as big as a man and a
woman embracing each other. He divided this body into two. From that, the body of
husband and wife was created. Therefore, said Yajnavalkya, this body is one half of
oneself. It is like one of the two halves of a split pea. Therefore, the empty space is
indeed filled by the woman. He was united with her. From that, people were born.
(Brhadāranyaka, 1.4.3, qtd. in Matilal 146)
Patrick Olivelle’s detailed discussion of the term Ānanda in Indian tradition underlines the varied connotations of the term (Olivelle 1997). From the feeling of ultimate bliss that devotees experience in their devotion of God, or mystics experience in their samādhi to moksha, the final goal of an individual’s life, the term carries the wide range of meanings in diverse Indian religious traditions. He observes that in the domain of theology and religion, the term ānanda has been very prominent since the fifth century C.E. Also, he points out, the term is connected with the pleasure associated with drinking, dancing, and music as well as the joyous state of ecstasy. Also, the term ānanda has several sexual underpinnings.
Similarly, J. A. B. Van Buitenen also argues that the term ānanda is connected with the joy of drinking the soma or the orgasm begetting a son or simply, a joyous knowledge of oneself as well as the bliss that is the brahman and the ātman (van Buitenen 27-36). Exploring in detail about the usage of the term in religious as well as sensual vocabulary, Olivelle concludes that there exists an “explicit and unambiguous connection between ānanda as orgasmic rapture and ānanda as the experience of brahman/ātman” (Olivelle 1997 174). It can, thus, be established that both sensuality and spirituality are integral in Indian thought and go hand in hand. Bhatt’s poem, “The Kama Sutra Retold”, however, further problematizes the perceived understanding of this classical narrative. The poem images the first spontaneous sexual encounter between the two lovers, where, “He’s surprised/she wants him/to kiss her…she’s surprised it feels so good” (CP 27). Bringing in the spontaneity of their sensual experience and their surprise at the newly experienced emotions, the poetic image, provides a counter-narrative to the laid-out protocols of Kāmasūtra.
Sanjay Gautam explores the relationship between pleasure and identity, especially gender identity in Kāmasūtra (2013). Kāmasūtra has been established as a celebratory treatise on pleasure and eroticism in Indian tradition. In popular discussion, sexual pleasure is perceived as subordinate to one’s gender. How one could experience pleasure is dependent on one’s identity as a man or as a woman. While a man was seen as an active agent or subject of pleasure, the woman was seen to be locus or an object to be enjoyed. This representation was also, it was argued, in accordance with the teachings of dharma that assigned to wife the duty to offer pleasure as part of her obedience to her husband. However, it is interesting to note that within the text of Kāmasūtra, the onset of the pleasure-wheel (raticakra) marks a loss of the sense of self or one’s identity, an event of complete ‘de-subjectivization’(Haksar 2011; Gautam 2013). For the one who enters into the pleasure-wheel, neither knowledge (śāstra) matters nor the order (krama) (2.2.31). It marks a state of spontaneity where the laid-down protocols of erotic become totally irrelevant and unnecessary.
Other than the myths and folk stories, the discussion of culture also includes the intimate and private narratives of its people and their lived experience. There are stories in a culture that get lost or are silenced, “a story that gets lost on the way home,/ but the silence burns within the girl.”( PT 2015 77). Carole S. Vance examines the juxtaposition of pleasure and danger associated with the female body. She argues, “[t]he tension between sexual danger and sexual pleasure is a powerful one in women’s lives. Sexuality is simultaneously a domain of restriction, repression and danger as well as a domain of exploration, pleasure and agency” (Vance 1). Female body becomes a site for the specifications of societal suppression, control, violence and the sexual aggression in the form of rape or molestation. As speaking about such crimes is perceived as a social stigma, the demonstration of power or control over the body of the female is done in silence and is endured by the women in silence as well.
The poem, “A Secret”, exposes these secrets and the silences hidden in the lives of women and their experiences that:
...each daughter forgets
to tell her own daughter –
Or else, the mother speaks in whispers, using other words so the child thinks
it’s only a dream.
And years later, each daughter hides the memory somewhere, somewhere – where no
one will look. (PT 2015)
The poem reveals these hidden narratives through the brutal image of the daughter who returns home
...smeared with blood
as if she had cradled a dying bird,
as if she had stroked its sticky wings,
its crushed bones –
the redness different from that of seeds or berries… (PT 78)
The image is a reminder of the violent behaviour done to a female body in the social set-up that perceives it only a source of pleasure. Sexual assault is dangerous and yet it has become a major part of the social experience of women. The consent of a woman about her body and sexuality is not considered important. Where approval of a woman is not seen as necessary, the sexual desire of the other person is enforced upon her body. In fact, her body, her virginity and her sexuality are usually treated as a property to be stolen, bought or sold. Bringing these discussions, Bhatt’s poem presents the violence and danger done to the female body in the patriarchal culture, where sometimes the victim, herself, chooses to remain silent.
…as the mother gathers words
to explain – her daughter says, ‘Don’t tell anyone,
don’t tell, please don’t tell. It’s my secret. (PT 79)
When the canon building of literary history was established in 1950s, the articulations of the women, as they have been in conflict with the discourse of nationalism, were deliberately excluded from it. The poem, here, is an attempt to fill those gaps in the inside stories of the women in the living traction of India.
The nationalist narratives have celebrated Gandhi's use of fasting as a tool or, as he, himself, referred to it, a “weapon" or simply a political strategy that had been very significant in decolonizing India from the clutches of Britain. Bhatt’s poem, “Diabetic mellitus”, however, subverts the prevalent ideology and presents Gandhian theory of fasting in the frameworks of health and body-discipling.
Imagine, if Gandhiji had
had it – the wrong chromosome
perhaps – the inability to metabolise sugar – he would never have been able
to survive all his fasts –
Like you, he would have gone
quietly, in a coma –
It is interesting to note that diabetic patients are not advised to fast as fasting can cause their blood sugar level go, dangerously, low and can cause diabetic coma. Gandhi could survive all his fasts as he didn’t have the wrong chromosome. Joseph S. Alter discusses how Gandhi establishes the relationship of his fasting with the ideals of “…sensuality, Truth, self-restraint, and the production of energy through a kind of self-overcoming…” (32). For Gandhi only a brute doesn’t know the idea of self-restraint and what makes human a human is his capability of exercising it (self-restraint). Gandhian fasting is an instance of his ideal of restraint and discipline. The poem, here, however, brings the ‘quiet’ story of a diabetic patient who in her enthusiasm of following the footsteps of Gandhi had gone in a coma. The poem destabilises this relationship between self-restraint, nationalism and Gandhian fasting through the frames of hypothesis and through imagining a possible alternative reality.
In the similar league, the poem “Hey” punctures the naïve glorification of religious and moral ethos and the mechanical practice of visiting the places of worship. The poem addresses to a photograph of a temple and underlines the missing image of
with the swollen elephant leg
who sits by the pillar
crawling with gods and flies? (CP 47)
The image points out that the places of worship and the narratives about them are incomplete without the image of this man. Indian cultural doctrines emphasize on the inseparable nature of spiritual and ethical values, but there are various gaps in its practice. Focusing on this variation, the poem images the usual missing element from the snapshot such a place of worship. The real image actually remains outside the frames of a clicked photograph and gets a way in Bhatt’s poem. Encompassing the singularities and particularities of the lived experiences of people in Indian culture, images in Bhatt’s poetry restructure the cultural narratives from an objective and detached perspective of the poetic self. The socio-spatial study of these poetic images underlines a fundamental engagement between the aesthetics of the poetry and the debate(s) of culture and its (re)making.
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