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The Urdu Marxist poet HabeebJaalib once entreated with his fellow writers: Artists of this land/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light/Art ill suits the bed of Tyranny. /This doomed sorrow is our inheritance. The sentiment is certainly not new, as art has always found a way to write back to power. This sentiment has especially strengthened since the latter half of twentieth century when art began increasingly to engage with the body politic. ‘Bullet Train and other Loaded poems’ by Ravi Shankar N’ who goes by the non de plume Ra Sh must be understood to be located in the same tradition of ideological art. The slim volume of poems published by Hawakal comprises of 28 poems of searing anger and protest. The renowned poet and critic K Satchidanandan in his foreword suggests that the poems “expose the pornography of majoritarian totalism”. I am intrigued by the use of the word pornography, because pornography is primarily phallic in nature, and so the bullet train becomes a new phallus that moves in and out of the ‘bharatmata’, a performance that provides an orgasmic delight to the ‘nation’. In that sense, the expose is less about pornography, as pornography after all is dramatized, and divorced from real life. What the book confronts then is not pornography, rather a new dystopian reality, one that is a strange species of mutated democracy – one that exposes the innate conflicts of democracy. And how does the book do it? It basically maintains the formal façade of a poem – the line breaks, the alliterations, the half rhymes but subverts the underpinning base on which poetry rests – its lyricism. These are hardly lyrical poems – it is broken prose, anti-metaphorical and immediate. In their refusal to be lyrical, the poems draw attention to the impossibility of poetry after holocaust becomes routine.

The title poem ‘The Bullet Train’ premises itself as the first Aadhar linked poem in the world, alluding to the biometric identity project of Aadhar, which has greatly polarised opinions, and largely seen as compromising the privacy of the individual. Nonetheless, by referring to this favourite project of the current government, the poem alludes to the new species of nationalism: techno-nationalism, which has found an ally with right wing populism as it provides the technology of surveillance and classification. The song: merajootahaijapaani, which defines the euphoria and optimism of the immediate post-colonial era now is morphed as ‘Meri gaadihaijapaani’ (my train is Japanese) indicating the complete capitulation of the socialist state to crony capitalism in a globalised neo-liberal world. While in the original the heart (dil) is the ultimate arbiter of belongingness, now the train (gaadi) is the hallmark of patriotism.

The second part of the poem, however, points to the contradictions of right wing populism:

There is another Bullet Train
A 7.65 Calibre Make in India Model
That passes through stations with
Strange names like Kalburgi South
Pansare West, and Dhabolkar Central

The station names commemorate the rationalists and activists who were assassinated by Hindutva proponents for their opposition to the right wing revisionary science and history. The suspicion of modern science, and an endeavour to equate mythology to science best manifest in the veneration of gaumutr or cow urine, presents a stark contrast to the celebration of aadhar or bullet traintechnology. This paradox demonstrates that the right wing is an ally of crony capitalism as accumulation of data (to be utilised for targeted advertisements, shaping political preferences among other misuses), and the ease of travel is aimed to facilitate the benefit of crony-capitalist corporates.

Another poem ‘The Anthem’ alludes to the fetishizing of the national anthem which demands that respect be made visible by standing up for it. Armed with backing by the highest court of justice in the country, the anthem has become another marker of patriotism, even as most people can hardly sing it beyond the first line. The poem dramatizes an interaction between Tagore – the author of the anthem, and Bob Marley – renowned for his protest music. Both find themselves sitting when the anthem is being played, and confront each other. Interesting to note that while the poem is meant to demonstrate the ironic triumph of symbolism over substance, it also draws attention to Tagore’s speech who speaks in a decidedly Victorian manner: “I am Tagore…and who art thou?”. Even as Tagore returns after death, his Victorian English demonstrates the longevity of colonial subjectivities which equally outlast death, and therefore point out that the colonial legacies still determine legal and public consciousness, best proven by the fact that both Tagore and Marley attract the charge of sedition – a colonial law. The Kashmir conflict, which is also a residue of colonial legacies of failure, has been addressed in three poems: ‘The Valley of the Blind – A Crow Chronicle’, ‘The Snow Girls and ‘As If A’.

‘The Valley’ relies on the motif of a bird as the central metaphor of the poem who embodies within itself the collective history of a people. It reminds one of Darwish’s ‘Al-Hudhud’ (The Hoopoe) where the bird is an embodiment of the Palestinian exile. The poem fuses geographies, a recurrent feature of the book, alternating between Kashmir, and Shreenagaram. The poem starts with a musing on the pellet (a supposedly non-lethal weapon that has blinded hundreds in the valley) likening it to pearl, and then abruptly moves to crows as harbingers of conflict and trauma. The poem then variously proceeds to locate the crows as reincarnations, and then chroniclers of a land where crows are massacred by the pellets. This disjointedness and fragmentation is an apt performance of the collective trauma inflicted by the Indian state upon the valley. The overwhelming nature of trauma which manifests in its belatedness signifies a loss of meaning, a rupture of communication as the experience exceeds language. The crow – a scavenger, then feasts upon the carrion of meaning and history as trauma makes testimony impossible. Moreover, in a clever play of words, the poem manages to insert a reference to erotics of nationalism: “I removed 69 pellets from his heart.” The term 69 is a popular slang for mutual fellatio, and underscore the masculinist and patriarchal lineages that determine popular imaginations of the nation as a female, and the patriots as hyper-masculine figures who feed off the violence inflicted on Dalits, Muslims and other subaltern. ‘The Snow Girls’ and ‘As if A’ must be read in conjunction. Though, ‘Snow’ risks erosion of female agency in resistance as it restricts them to passive victims of state aggression, by its depiction of paradisiacal imagery, and the invocation of edenic fall, the poem points out the failure of collective Indian imagination to move beyond stereotypical depiction of Kashmir as paradise. This fetishizing of its landscape erodes the people who inhabit the land, and privileges the land over its people. ‘As If A’ points out to this myopic depiction:

As if a land named Kashmir was not a heaven under stars
As if a heaven named Kashmir was a hell open to rape.

This collective myopia in turn feeds violence against the oppressed which is the subject of ‘How to Lynch a Man’. The title draws attention towards the institutionalisation of torture, indifference and hate as a means to overcome guilt and failure of the society to protect its underprivileged. The poem reads like an instruction manual which attests to the routine and frequency of violence and descent into collective barbarism:

It is really simple, what you need first is
A man, preferably alone, poor or looking
Poor…
Belonging to a lower caste or is a muslim.

The amplifier ‘very’ evokes an emphasis and a reassurance that is terrifying in its attestation of the impunity enjoyed by such elements. It testifies to the nexus between the state and the militia who employ lynching as a reminder of the subalternity of Muslims, Dalits, Tribals and the like. Interesting to note here, that Muslims is placed after lower caste. Numerically Muslims are more likely to be lynched than lower caste Hindus, and so ideally Muslim should be the first category in the classification rather than the last. The placing of Muslims last, however, testifies to the triple subalternity of Muslims who are not only the poorest, and underrepresented, but also undesired and reviled. In fact, as the Sachar committee report indicated Muslims lag behind Dalits in terms of economic and social progress. The Muslim subaltern exists neither for the state, nor the people, and therefore their lynching is only a residue of the routine demonization and exclusion of Muslims from public consciousness.

At a time when the country is at the cross roads of history, one last chance to redeem itself, the book lists out the pitfalls of hysterical nationalism. Far from the din of news channels, and cacophony of biased media, the book catalogues an alternate reality that is conveniently brushed off as propaganda. Along with Nabina Das’ ‘Sanskarnama,’ the two books validate NgugiWaThiong’o’s assertion that “In literature there have been two opposing aesthetics: the aesthetic of oppression and exploitation and of acquiesce with imperialism and that of the human struggle for total liberation.” Bullet Train and other Loaded poems has clearly chosen to be on the side of total liberation. It remains to be seen, whether the country will follow suit.

(Most of these poems were originally published in Countercurrents)

Huzaifa Pandit is the author of the recently published ‘‘Green is the Colour of Memory’ which won the first edition of Rhythm Divine Poets Chapbook Contest 2017. Born and raised in Kashmir, his poems alternate between despair, defiance, resistance and compliance as they seek to make sense of a world where his identity is outlawed. His inspirations in poetry can be guessed from the topic of his PhD: “Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Agha Shahid Ali and Mahmoud Darwish – Poetics of Resistance” at University of Kashmir. His poems, translations, interviews, essays and papers have been published in various journals like Indian Literature, PaperCuts, Life and Legends, Jaggery Lit, JLA India, Punch and Noble/Gas qtrly.


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