haibun

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July 2018, vol 14 no 2

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Bob Lucky

A review of beyond the horizon beyond by Kala Ramesh.

Kala Ramesh, beyond the horizon beyond, Vishwakarma Publications, 2017, 204 pages, 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches, ISBN-10: 1973245183 ISBN-13: 978-1973245186, listed on Amazon.com.

In just over a decade, Kala Ramesh has made a significant contribution to the English-language Japanese short-form poetry world, as a practitioner and teacher. Not surprisingly, the first time I read through beyond the horizon beyond, I found what I expected. There were many excellent haiku and haibun. The haibun are for the most part in the memoir camp, domestic sketches, except for few towards the end. "An Hour Passes" and "The Knot Remains" are written from the point of view of a widower who perceives himself as a burden on his family. "The Blue Jacaranda" is from the point of view of a former maid in an old-folks ashram trying to reconnect with the family she served for so many years. Two of the haibun, "Into the Future" and "All That's Left," are in third person. Perhaps three? "The Fire at the End" creates a sly "Twilight Zone" tone with its narrator directing the reader's gaze: "Let's move our focus to the man sitting on the park bench" (141).

When I began reading it the second time, looking more closely at craft and searching for favorites, I was completely sidetracked by a sociolinguistic realization: these are Indian haiku and haibun, and unselfconsciously so. Consequently, my review of the book is partly a musing on language.

This isn't the comedic stereotype of Indian English delivered by Amitabh Bachchan's character in the film Namak Halal, nor is it the considered rendition found in some of Nissim Ezekiel's poems, such as "Very Indian Poem in Indian English" or "Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.". In fact, in only one of the haibun, "The Knot Remains," does Ramesh even come close to replicating the rhetorical and linguistic idiosyncracies of Indian English (IE) or South Asian Englishes (SAE). These are Indian haiku and haibun because they are thematically and culturally grounded in India – growing up in a traditional Indian family, popular culture and literary references, foods, flora and fauna, and, especially in Ramesh's case, Indian classical music references. Except in the case of technical terms from Sanskrit and some musical terms, Ramesh generally doesn't gloss any of the culturally specific terms. Another exception is the haibun "The Moon's Company," which is explicitly explaining a Hindu rite. My point is this: Indian English-language Japanese short-form poetry has come of age. It no longer has to self-consciously try to be Japanese or flatten itself out to some international variety of English. This jibes with the trajectory of Indian English predicted by many linguists. It, or some variety of it, could well be the default English by the end of this century based on economic growth, population growth, and the increasing demand for English instruction in India.

My thoughts are circling around the concept of kigo. The expression you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy doesn't apply very well to haiku. Once haiku left Japan it adapted to fit its new environments. There was a transition period when many English-language haikuists appeared to be 'copying' Japanese haiku – cherry blossoms and kimono, a little Zen profundity, Mt Fuji. At some point, such an approach becomes more of an exercise than an artistic endeavor. As haiku spread throughout North America, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, haiku began to accommodate new worlds – lorries and lorikeets, hotdogs and the 4th of July, Boxing Day and the Thames. (And this doesn't begin to touch upon haiku in various other languages, from Brazilian Portuguese to Twi.) And now haiku has become a literary tradition of sorts in other former British colonies. These developments enrich the world of haiku, in my opinion, but they also create a temporary problem for readers.

Kigo (and I'm using the term very loosely) speak volumes, literally, but we don't all speak the same language or variety of English. There are now numerous online journals publishing haiku and haibun from authors all over the world. The quality varies. For editors, based on my experience, it is sometimes difficult the find the line between a poor grasp of the language and a cultural variant. Some authors, aware of this, will supply their haibun with copious explanatory notes, but that's a bit like trying to explain a joke; in the end the humor is sacrificed, the blade is dulled. One way or the other, many readers are left on the far shore of a cognitive ocean. What allows these readers to cross over? Time and volume. Over time, as more and more Australian writers began to publish haiku and haibun, the flora and fauna, the linguistic flavors, and the flipped seasons of the hemispheres became familiar, less exotic. This is the case, I feel, with Indian haiku and haibun. It has reached a tipping point by dint of the sheer number of Indian writers publishing in international journals. And the readers of such works are coming of age. The internet doesn't hurt; readers who want to dig deeper can do so with relative ease.

"All That's Left" is an example of a haibun working on different cultural levels.

The cow dung paste caressingly patted in her hands and slapped across the outside walls to dry in the scorching Chennai heat, this mother to seven children then moves on to other chores until the day comes to an end, her tiny corner kept ready for the family’s early morning bowl of thin ragi porridge. She rests her tired feet on a stiff cotton pillow, as her body yields to the soft korai grass mat spread on the mud floor.

the desert ...
and all that’s left, the sky
with all her stars (144)

For the casual reader, it's no effort to realize making cow dung patties is a chore, ragi porridge is a food, and korai is a type of grass. And that is enough to connect to this woman. A closer reader will learn that the dung patties are used for fuel, that ragi is type of millet, and korai is nut grass. (With a few minutes to spare you can also watch a video or two about how the mats are made.) These aren't kigo, but the reader who bothers to peel back the layers is going to have a richer experience.

There are several pop culture, music, and literary figures in the haibun here – Madhubala, Raheem, Mullah Nasruddin, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Iqbal, Ghalib, Aishwarya Rai, Sania Mirza, and A.R. Rehman – as well as religious, musical, and yoga terms – Kali, Diwali, Gita chanting, sapaat taans, kalachakra, shunyata, nirguni bhajan, etc. I would imagine two decades ago most of these people and terms would have been explained in a footnote. It's interesting that the one person who does get a footnote is Madhubala in the haibun "Grandfather" (136), an Indian film actress from the 1940s.

There's irony in the haibun "Moondram Pirai – The Third Day Moon" in the context of this book. Ramesh laments a perceived disconnect with her culture, but the entire book is almost an homage to it.

My mother would want us to find the third-day moon. “It’s most auspicious to see it,” she’d insist. Every month this ritual would be followed most religiously. Only on the third day the moon becomes visible to the human eye, as a faint half circle. We would clamour and shout, our fingers pointing here and there, imagining that elusive silver line to be all over the sky.

When my kids were young, not once did I show them or ask them to search for the moondram pirai. Why was that? Maybe in a Mumbai flat one doesn’t go searching for a non-existent moon from window to window. Had I become so westernized in my thinking that all the Indian values I grew up on had lost their significance? Most likely, while looking after two kids, I lost touch with nature for a short while ...

the raga blooms
as he lengthens the note
pin-drop silence (149)

This is a book that bears close reading and re-reading.


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