Teacups, domesticity and the gossamer threads of poetry
Harper Collins’ anthology of English poetry is a wholesome compilation and captures the intimate, sensory rhythms of the subcontinent with rare panache, writes Sumana Roy
Sumana Roy 3rd Nov 2012
Priya Sarukkai Chhabria
udeep Sen, the editor of The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, begins his Foreword with a quote referencing ingestion:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. There is no happiness like mine. I have been eating poetry. (Mark Strand, 'Eating Poetry')
Though it's left untreated in the rest of what Sen calls the 'Con/Text' of this anthology, the trope makes its appearance in the first poem itself: Aditi Machado's "Learning a Foreign Language". These words, from the concluding line of the poem, come italicised:
You're stuck in vocal paralysis till you're shot with drugs: a new word falling like a log so you can cross over, learn to say I love you/ have some tea?
The word – and the drink – is most often served with cookies ('Cha-biscuit' is an idiom unto itself) and a question mark with its stichomythic character of communication (Will you?-I will). Like in Machado, where the poem ends with the seemingly inevitable polite question, a section in Bhanu Kapil's prose poem, "Schizophrene", begins with it:
'Tea?' And when the chessboard appears, diamond-shaped from where she's sitting, and copper-edged in the Russian fashion, the girl drifts. I don't see her, I feel her.
Then, as if he, too, can feel the mountains pulsing through the walls of the house, her grandfather gets up. She gets up. They go.
It's the character of tea to begin and conclude social movements: "sitting", "gets up", "They go". One leaves the poem, goaded as we are by the title, with the thought that schizophrenia sufferers drink tea. That, and also the obverse: the reader of poetry, a tea-drinker, could be a possible schizophrenic. Tea, then, becomes a bit like poetry: "Ink runs from the corners of my mouth", to go back to Sen's invocation of Strand's 'eating poetry'.
From that suspicion to its status as "curio", a living fossil that can turn a room "into a museum of moods" in C.P. Surendran's poem "Curios".
It's three in the morning. The house rings with alarms, There's someone leaning On the doorbell. It's her After three years. He lets her in, Puts on some tea. She lights a cigarette With a match that might set The house on fire. She unpacks the weather Which is New York. They sit in silence. The room turns into a museum of moods.
The "tea" and the "cigarette" – both "curios" "on fire" – construct the geometry of a night's relationship. What is being consumed here, as a stroll through many of the affectionate poems in this anthology tells us, is an indolence that is necessary for brewing relationships; and hence the tea. This poem, I cannot resist noting, comes after Surendran's poem "Renunciation", where life, like the poem, breaks itself up into eating stanzas: "Breakfast for one" in the first stanza, "Lunch is a conceit of three" in the second, and "Dinner is a feat/ In rectitude" in the third. Tea – and two – is company. "Garam chai ki piyali ho/ Aur usko pilaneywali ho ...,' sang Salman Khan in the film Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega. Its tribute to the national chai index is recorded in a recent Reuters photo-essay titled "Chai Time", a series of photographs documenting India's tea drinking moments that include the Dalai Lama and Mamata Banerjee and Amartya Sen, the old and young, army men and monks, sipping and drinking, alone and together, from cups and saucers, on street corners and in fancy restaurants.
What is being consumed here, as a stroll through many of the affectionate poems in this anthology tells us, is an indolence that is necessary for brewing relationships;
imilar tea-drinking moments construct a unique map in this anthology of "English Poetry" (the code "Indian" is a teasing absence), a cartography of leisure that is often ignored in the busyness of the Forsterian 'And then' that drives fiction writing. In one of the ironies of literary history, while leisure is said to have given birth to the novel and the creation of a new readership, English India's engagement with leisure in its fiction has been minimal. A self-serious nation that calibrates its achievements in the Guinness World Records mode of superlatives talks only about 'matters of national importance' in its prose. Poetry is its release valve, as it were, its doodles. Just as a people's use of time is to be found in its teabag versus loose tea culture, so too perhaps the relation between a nation's prose and poetry.
For tea marks a certain trajectory of intimacy that is worth observing. In John Siddique's poem "Adultery", the lover says,
We do not kiss, don't go home, or make love, we drink tea – green for you, regular black tea for me. I eat, you say you can't.
The cups are separate, and so are the varieties of tea, and the differences in appetite ('I eat, you say you can't'). For 'the table is between us to keep us apart'. Adultery: the tea and the she.
Black. Green. And there's Jasmine. In Priya Sarukkai Chhabria's poem, whose title "Everyday Things in my Life" could provide a good descriptive tag to this anthology, a lovely collection of poems where the everyday is turned into curios in incessant epiphanies. In the first of these poems, the 'I' goes:
'I'll meet you here. In the meantime I check the mail, call the booksellers, iron clothes dowsed in yesterday's breeze and consume cups of jasmine tea'.
Chabria's poems are interesting for the way they catalogue the daily character of ingestion: 'Pastry flakes on white plates' begins Section 7 of the same poem. And the third section is like a Mondrian-like grid of the everyday:
Each square is a monosyllable, a sound, as if a gulp. Chew. Swallow. Eat. Really: 'How many more days/ Are we thus gifted?'. These words, when taken out of the grid, become a prosaic buffet of our daily bread. And so poetry. And this book.
A Mondrian-styled grid, written by Priya Sarukkai Chhabria
In the same poem, there's wine and there's sleep. What else does one need to calibrate leisure? A little more tea, and colours perhaps. Here is P. Raj Rao's "Life in the Flat": 'Oprah, Dr. Phil./ Hot showers and nightly shags./ Green tea and red wine.' Tea is both inside and outside, intimate and colloquial at the same time; again, like poetry: 'A few tea-shops opening for mourners/ Boys with rose-bud garlands waiting ...' in Reshma Aquil's poem "Tide".
To read this collection of poems is to eavesdrop on a subcontinent of gossip, to catch people with food in their mouth and sipping on the useless. One is just grateful for such an anthology, to see shadows of leisure in a success-steroid doping nation. Food and drink and sleep, and the circumlocutions around uselessness is such a welcome respite: 'A bright red boat/ Yellow capsicums ...', their colour in Sudeep Sen's "Mediterranean". A bit like tea and poetry themselves.
Two decades ago, the Bengali songwriter-musician Kabir Suman (then Suman Chattopadhyay) made a passionate plea to his lover with the words: 'Aek cup chai-ey aami tomakay chai ...' ('In a cup of tea, I want you', in Amit Chaudhuri's translation). Here we eat with the poet Gayatri Majumdar: 'We enter into the sweetest/ of the brown cookies,/ dig a hole/ and make provisions for the rains/ during the rains'. This delicious anthology is poetry in your teacup. I am tempted to call it 'Darjeeling'.