Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Really? Is this happening again to India?

My dear students,

Such a joy to report that my students share my blog: look at my posts and the number written by you. The trend started with sharp questions from Amith Prabhu (SIMC), which I tried to answer in “Working one’s way up and other queries”. Gauri Gharpure (Ranade) then sent me a quote about poetry and on an off-chance I decided to carry it because it had to do with "clarity" an issue that concerns journalists, “The Clarity of Poetry”.

Then came two excellent pieces from Smriti Mudgal (SIMC), who has her own blog, "Ambaree" in Hindi. She sent in a highly personal memoir about her love afair with the people of Mumbai: “Mumbai: a people with a sense of purpose”. Smriti then paid a fond tribute to her favourite school teacher: “To Chitra Ma’am … with love, Smriti”. Such is the stuff my blog is made up of (two prepositions at the end of one sentence!?!?!).

And to carry forward the torch for poetry, Baruk Feddabonn from Bangalore asks, “Should You Read Poetry?”.

My colleague, Abhay Vaidya of DNA, Pune, also replied to Amith with, “No room for gifts in journalism”.

Dr Vivek Pinto, my friend from school in Mumbai, who is currently in Tokyo, has also been emailing provocative and thoughtful links (see “Mumbai attacks: one man’s freedom-fighter is another man’s terrrorist”) faster than I can upload on a section of my blog, “Dr Vivek Pinto - Links”, devoted entirely and separately to his contributions.


Now Baisakhi Roy-Tandon, a 2003 SIMC alumnus, who describes herself as “a home-maker, new mom and an avid knowledge-seeker” has sent in a poem, “Ennui.” I have touched it up, here and there, as usual.

Previously, a reporter with The Indian Express, Baisakhi is “sitting on the sidelines, reading up voraciously on history, past and present.” Check out her blog: “Kissing Kin” (“Be well, good, nice, old-fashioned”)

Let Baisakhi introduce “Ennui” in her own words:


By Baisakhi Roy

‘Ennui’ was inspired by a feeling of hopelessness when the Mumbai attacks happened. I was far away in Gaithersburg, Maryland, USA, watching my precious city burn, as it had so many times in the past.

I almost laughed, “Really? Is this happening again?” Will we become another conflict zone like the Gaza Strip and Bosnia? Will it take another 50 years, to live in a peaceful India? This is what we have become: a mess of unresolved issues, a mess in which the glorious legacy of India has been lost and forgotten.


This is a time to gloat;
we are such pieces of work.
This is how we go about
our daily ennui.

We bathe in the sun;
We love, eat, and try to gain respect.
We amble,
gnawing into space.

We hate the sound of white noise,
”This is mine. This is yours”.
We croak, until hoarse.
Scratch, until we bleed.

We send our children
into prompt assemblies
to ask for wisdom:
Good thoughts, words and deeds.

We build our castles
and etherise our air.
Then ask for allegiance
to our whimsical gods.

We broker peace,
Sober in solidarity.
But hide our rancor
To light a wayward fire.


Can you see the budding poets lurking among the journalists? Read the journalists who feel and write like poets. Join them. The pages of my blog, “Against the Tide”, shall be open to you, my dear students. For what greater joy is there for a teacher than to see one’s students go ahead, shining bright.

Your support is my strength.
- Joe.

Pune, Wednesday, 28 January 2009.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Should you read poetry?

My dear students,

When a student of mine from Ranade Institute, Gauri Gharpure in Kolkata, sent in a quote on poetry I used it in the post, "The clarity of poetry" because as a journalist I have been obsessed by clarity. I had no idea then that some of my readers were great admirers of poetry.

One of them, Baruk Feddaboon, based in Bangalore, has his own blog called "bottle broke" Click on the pic below to get into "bottle broke"

"The clarity of poetry" got eleven (11) comments. But it was the diversity of the comments that astonished me, considering this was not a blog for poets. One of my readers, Baruk Feddabonn, who is not one of my students from any of the places where I teach in Pune, had early on introduced himself and I kept thinking to myself, "Here is my Eklavya." So I asked him to do this piece on poetry for journalists.

I have touched up the piece here and there, as is the time-worn custom among subs. I hope Baruk will understand.

By Baruk Feddabonn

Should you read poetry? Hell, I don’t know. Can I tell you why or how to read poetry? Hell, I don’t know! What I do have to offer are a few thoughts on what I have, over the years, got from poems.

The following five pieces:

1. What is Real?
2. Hope
3. Perspectives
4. Weirdness
5. Language and Poetry

are based on poems and bits of poems, some well known, and some not so well known. I do hope these poems help in convincing you that poets are not necessarily the useless buggers they are often made out to be!

1. What is real?

“When Prime Minister Gujral
planned a visit to the city
bamboos sprang up from pavements
like a welcoming committee.

But when he came, he was
only the strident sounds of sirens
like warnings in war-time bombings.”

(When the Prime Minister Visits Shillong the Bamboos Watch in Silence; Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih)

I often hear attacks on poetry for not being ‘factual’. Somehow, not being factual is seen as a bad thing. But honestly, what are facts? And how important are they? A lot of poetry deals with the metaphorical and the imagination. Things are alluded to; often not ‘directly’ spoken of. But is that wrong?

In common language, we speak of the sun rising. ‘Factually’, that is untrue – the sun does no such thing. Nor does it set. The ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ of the sun are our human explanations or metaphors for the natural phenomenon of the earth moving around the sun!

So while the Prime Minister was not ‘factually’ the sound of sirens, that line aptly describes the distance the rulers, even in a democracy, keep from the ruled – visually (bamboos on pavements) and aurally (sirens). And that ‘only’ – describes, better than an entire sentence, the alienation, which the poet felt. So while not ‘factual’, the poem is ‘true’.

And now you decide. Will you transcend the facts and opt for the truth instead?


2. Hope

“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”

(September 1, 1939; W.H. Auden)

Sometimes, switching on the evening news plunges me into despair. I see war, corporate greed and the non-stop destruction of the natural world. And this is only the news that is reported.

In the not-or-barely-reported news are farmer suicides, Bhopal victims and Binayak Sen. I watch the increasingly self-obsessed lives of the super-rich; the cynical manipulations of politicians and governments; the prostitution of religion to the dictates of power.

It’s easy to get lost in the darkness, at least for me, and I wonder whether it would not be easier, more practical, to pick up a gun. A messy proposition, yes, but maybe a simpler one?

And then I remember this poem.

Written on the eve of the Second World War, the poem by W.H. Auden speaks of the darkness and despair the world is under, trying to understand why. And though that question is never answered, there IS an answer – that what is important, in the end, is to see the “points of light”, and “show an affirming flame.”

I think I can try to do that!


3. Perspectives

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

(The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; T.S. Eliot)

A close friend and I are currently arguing on facebook. He feels, to quote, that “the Israelis have their heads better screwed on than the Palestinians do.”

I utterly and absolutely disagree.

I see the Israeli state as a creation of terrorist incursion, whether the original Israel of the Bible, where God apparently told the Jews to wipe out the Canaanites, or the Israel created in 1947 on the strength of British guns. This friend, by the way, is a reasonable person (as much as we can pretend to be), and hates war as much as I do. But the argument goes on.

Point: many people watch sunsets - on beaches, in the mountains, even from the rooftops of urban homes. Some of us photograph the sunsets. I doubt, however, that anyone has made such a grisly and unlikely comparison, as Eliot does. And while I appreciate the comparison – I find it humorous – I know many people who do not.

While no wars have been fought on what sunsets should be compared to, many wars seem to have been fought for, what to me seem, silly reasons such as country and religion. Then again, maybe you don’t think these are silly reasons. Maybe, we can all benefit from understanding each other’s perspective.


4. Weirdness

“Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.”

(Pied beauty; Gerard Manley Hopkins)

My grandfather was hardcore working class; when I say he built his house with his own hands, I mean that literally.

In a society dominated by an increasing desire for more power and status, Apu (Mizo familiar for grandfather) was suspicious of all things ‘big’ and ‘authoritative’, and proud, till the day he died, of working with his hands. Fiercely independent and bluntly outspoken, he made some very powerful enemies who almost succeeded in destroying him.

His name, appropriately, was Rualhleia, which loosely translated from the Mizo means ‘he who is not even’. He definitely had a lot of rough edges!

This poem by Hopkins reminds me of my grandfather, in its celebration of the strange, the common and the uneven.

We let others determine who we are and how we respond to the world. Being ‘acceptable’ is important, whatever the cost! Recently, I was berated by a colleague who thought it shameful that I did not, in my position in the company, drive a car.

I have been receiving a slew of emails telling me to forward them, if I am patriotic. I am constantly told that:
- the only hope for India is in the ‘new’ capitalist economy;
- I should be economically successful;
- I should buy more; from recognised brand names;
- crime is something the lower classes do;
- the army is good;
- beauty means fairness;
- I should want to marry, and have children, and care about what happens to the ‘family name’; and
- I should avoid 'weird' people who disagree with what society thinks of as 'acceptable'.

But I can’t do that. My Apu and I, we’ll stand by all that is “counter, original, spare, strange”.


5. Language and Poetry

“I am a venereal sore in the private part of language”

(Cruelty; Namdeo Dhasal; translated by Dilip Chitre)

“Poetry must be raw, like a side of beef,
should drip blood, remind you of sweat
and dusty slaughter and the epidermal crunch
and the sudden bullet to the head.”

(What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril; Mona Zote)

“I’ll go for words,
Words are my forte.

Words stab and jab,
Heal, hurt,
Mask, unmask,
Paint pictures.


(Power of Words; Malsawm Hriatzuali Jacob)

Language is fascinating. You know how they say a picture speaks more than a thousand words? Sometimes a sentence speaks more than a thousand pictures!

Language can be used like:
a warm gentle hand; caressing, hugging, loving;
a wall, to separate and segregate;
a whip, to subdue and suppress;
a rock, to retaliate.

Language can be like a scream of horror.

Language can be:
loving, harsh, angry, cold;
questioning, pleading;
full of laughter one moment, solemn the next.

Language can elevate the common; tear down the proud. Language can calm, hurt; goad, encourage; dream.

Language is like a knife – that can chop up food or slit a throat.


People ask me, “Why do I like poetry?”

I tell them, “Because poetry is to language what pottery is to mud.”

You may email Baruk Feddabonn at:


Henceforth, I will sign off, borrowing a phrase by Sushma Nair (nee Menon), a student of mine from 1992 when SIMC used to be called "Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication (SIJC)". She had had coined the phrase for me to use as the editor of Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, the house magazine of Deepak Fertilisers and Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd, Pune, where I worked in PR and Corp Comm (don't be shocked!!) during 1996-2003. Thank you, Sushma.

I hope the New Year 2009 is taking good care of you. Keep in touch by phone, SMS, email or through the evergreen postman.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, 16th January 2009.