Life & Letters

16 February 2013
At once Indian & British, Hibernian & Bengali debashis lahiri pays tribute to Bashabi Fraser

IN Mythistorema, Greek poet George Seferis recalls waking from a dream with his “marble head” in his hands. It is weighty and he has no place to put it down. Its eyes are neither open nor closed. It is trying to speak but can say nothing. The cheekbone tears through the skin; what was at first stone becomes flesh and bone. The poet has not asked for the burden and is not free to discard it. Seldom has this process of burthening been fraught with such self-tortuous moments in the writings of Bashabi Fraser. The “burden” has been a liberation for her and no amount of worldly travail or personal loss can bring her to discard it.

In attempting to write about Fraser’s poetry, I increasingly become a backward-heading, forward-looking Benjaminian angel of history as I try to grapple with the widening vistas of her writing that rise from deep and often sheer emotional wells and broaden into intellectual concerns as rivers do when they approach the ocean.


Didymus, that hoary grammarian of Alexandria, wrote 4,000 books and was nicknamed “brass-bowelled” because of his prodigious digestion of intellectual matter. He was also called “book-forgetting” because he contradicted himself from book to book or ascribed works to authors — living, dead or imaginary – rather randomly. Seneca, no less, took strong exception to his practice of secondary literature, in an epistle to Lucilius, where he raged against the parasites of literature, the “learned” critic. The criticism, theorising and investigation which such men as Didymus produced, and which even today such men as I unwittingly attempt to further, was a subject of immense suspicion to Seneca. It should alert us to the danger that besets literature with undue attention from “knowing” critics.

Works of poetasters interpose verbiage between a poem and the reader — something we have forgotten to care about in an age of proliferating interpretations that serve to expertly bury the original impulse in a living line. Pedantry is a cuckoo in the nest: the poem is crowded out. Or it becomes a text, and the text a pretext for mere speculation. Such speculation, on language, prosody, historical context, audience and author, has a place, but only if the poetry is in place. I propose to keep the poetry firmly in its place, and much as I want to get into the house of words, I hope to take off my dirty boots beforehand.

Bashabi Fraser’s journey, for such it has been, an organic cartograph of exfoliating relationships with the world and its creatures, has both reinforced and defied the discourses of geography and culture as limiting structures in the process of making sense of the world, of ourselves. Her journey can only be described as a continuing saga, one with laughter and tears, long travel and longer sojourn, a few battles of grit and gore, but well fought, cultural icons visited and rediscovered in intimacy, all of which leads to a certain destinal quality in her work: the quality of being like the breakers near the coastline, sweeping one further out to sea only to return us home with the next surge.

A look at Fraser’s biography would confirm this idea in her poetry. She’d had Scottish influence in her family in the shape of her grandfather and greatgrandfather, being deeply affected and marked by the attention and love of a Scottish benefactor who had almost developed a filial bond with her grandfather. In the ’60s her parents met Arthur Geddes, son of the great Scots architect and town planner, Patrick Geddes, who had been invited to restoreVaranasi and the entire riverfront on the Ganga to its former glory. She would later go on to edit the correspondence between Geddes and Rabindranath Tagore, two kindred spirits.

This uncanny way of coming back relegates a studied intellectual surprise at rediscovery to the rear of any engagement while she moves on to the next moment of recognition in the knowledge that such moments would direct her course, making her journeys an effect of the incipient moment. The connections that emerge in her poetry are, thus, pre-emptive. And her attitude is always one of looking forward to it rather than being caught in their wake unawares, or forced to come up with suitable exclamations, platitudes or defences. These are redundant in Fraser’s poetry.

It is thus that she is so at home, without the term being made to sound as final and immobile as it does in Diaspora Studies. The combined effect of displacement — which always foregrounds the tyranny of having to have that original place from which and to which diasporic movements are directed — and acculturation, which is like living in a house with all the blinds down and the windows sealed, with the fear that something has already entered you “when” the blind “was” down, has been dismal. The combined effect has been that of guilt, that phantom of the diaspora.

Fraser’s poetry has been willed into this diasporic rut by critics as the easiest way to catalogue her work, find her a place on the shelf and a number. Like some overtasked librarian who follows a system of arranging books ad nauseam without much care what he/she sorts, critics of diasporic literature have consigned many a work to lie on those guilty shelves. Diaspora has often a subtle, not too well-remarked moral quality to it. Probably produced in the minds of Western critics by an unconscious conflation of diasporic wanderings with those of the cursed Cain, the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman, this idea of moral interdiction and incessant global movement came to be rescued with kinder, more hopeful models drawn from the Biblical texts of the Exodus.

Fraser has outgrown this guilt-trap and the easy way in which she can connect anecdotally, through reminiscence and association, things on the banks of the Ganga or the Tay stand testimony to a new definition of “home”. There is nothing prior or post, dogmatically demanding a morsel of her life and writings, no allegiance that is understood only in its breach. Her poetry is a celebration of this myriad-sounding self: at once Indian and British, Hibernian and Bengali, local and global, intimate and immense, personal vignette and the history of a nation. She has been very like the rivers that have been her favourite subject since her earliest poetry in the late ’90s: epic in retrospect, lyrical in its immersion in the moment.

This bold new brand of diasporic writing has another contributing circumstance in the shape of Fraser’s ceaseless throwbacks to Scottish literature.

Hers was not the gloomy prescription for all Scots that Hugh MacDiarmid penned in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle about “comin’ to conclusions/Wi’ the demoralisin’ dearth/O’ onything worthwhile on Earth”. Scottish literature has always been polyglot. The linguistic influences of the Highlands, the Lowlands,Norway, England, France and Rome have all shaped the language, thought and style of Scottish writing.

Into this mélange of influences, Fraser’s language, with her lucid switches between native Bengali and Scottish words, adds another rich strand. It is her finding of a truly powerful cosmopolitan linguistic culture in Scotland that prepares for her a nest for her sensibility. I use the word “nest” in the sense it was used by Gaston Bachelard, that prophet of phenomenology.

Tracing a river to its source, as any reading of From the Ganga to the Tay, Fraser’s latest book, would amount to, can be both etymological, a study of proper names of rivers, and aetiological, a search for the causes of things. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid brings us up close to a woman writing on one of those sheets of linen called pugillares, Biblis, granddaughter of the Maeander river. Fraser’s innovative adoption of the riverine motif, which on hindsight seems an even more astute choice, started early in her poetry. In a poem that first appeared in her debut collection, Life, in 1997 and was later republished in the collection With Best Wishes from Edinburgh (2001) called “A River’s Little Story”, she speaks in the voice of a river that seeks “with burning fervour to trace life anew,/With wondrous visions and beauteous dreams”. The river in the poem is clearly feminine and its addresses to “man” are deliberately gendered. “Man delights in counteracting my rash proud ways/With many a scientific feat/But when heaven weeps, my roaring deeps/Abound anew, and men acknowledge defeat./Victory is mine, oh joyous battle won —/As I laugh and rave/In gurgling waves/And rage overland and lea/… Flowing on – onward in glee —/A mad lone woman who weeps with pain/When all efforts are lost in vain!”

In her latest work, which comes with the subtitle “a poetic conversation between the Ganges and the Tay” and is called “An epic poem”, the gendering is much more complex. The opening lines of the poem have Ganga linking gendering and engendering in a process that posits a transfer of agency in the reshaped world of Hindu mythology. “They call me Ganga./The story of my birth/is a glorious myth./I am a dream/of Lord Shiva’s/rising as a stream./My tandava /a liquid secret still/splurging from/his knotted hair./My feminine will/ released to roam/… while the Destroyer/sleeps”. It is a language replete with the power of sexual assumption and abdication.

What diaspora watchers have failed to respond to largely has been the incorporation of a postmodern turn, unconsciously, or otherwise, by an increasing number of writers thus bracketed. The postmodern, like the earlier modernist avatar in literary and cultural theory, is often not the new and the unique position explicable as a fruit of the condition of man in the present but a determined mining of old, neglected questions, that dangerous underground to the terra firma of Cartesian reality. If birth were, therefore, to be seen as a marker of individual identity in the world, the birth of the Ganga is rendered complex by there being not one but two births to contend  with: the birth of the Bhagirathi at Gangotri and the birth of the Ganga as a deep sororal association with the Alakananda that lasts down to the Bay of Bengal. Fraser leaps to the parallel from Scotland with the Fillan, the Dochart and the Lochay performing the same role in the case of the Tay.

The projection of birth as a discourse into the freely expanding realm of associations and linkages is both old and new. The Puranas talk of rivers being twi-born and the deferral of origin to a set of parallel processes meeting at discursive nodes is patently postmodern. As Fraser suggests, rivers cannot be held to their origins, pilloried for having been identified, and, in so doing, suggests her own position as an artist brilliantly. If origins and ends were the stuff of myth, Fraser’s poem subscribes to flows and movement. From the concept of myth as possession she shifts to myth as incipience, one that needs renewal and rewriting. As the river Tay echoes in her poem, “I was born/to widen and deepen/my goal/and reign.” To understand this liquid history of mobility we have to take recourse to some ideas found in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty suggests that inside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly inside and one is wholly outside oneself. The world is wholly inside because the body has incorporated the skills and practical knowhow of how to go about doing things in the world. Like Nietzsche, he sees the body as providing the basis for one’s orientation to the world.

Putting this in perspective with regard to the rivers that go about making their spatial histories by their engagements in and haunting of cultural and political realities (wars, famines, deluges, the jute trade, et al), it has to be understood that the proliferation of the river from being a geographical phenomenon to being a historical, political and cultural one is a result of this “outsideness” of the riverine body. The river, therefore, is not an object, or a fixed point of reference in the world. It is rather a mobile subject, that is, in Merleau-Ponty’s words an “original intentionality” (like those of Shiva, Thor or Odin or the rivers themselves) that makes space possible. The mobile body of water is, thus, the condition of the possibility not only of our experience of space, prior to geometry’s abstract concept of space, but also of all expressive drives and all acquired views which constitute the cultural world.

Moving slightly backwards to her earlier collection, Tartan and Turban (2004), the blurb talks of exotic flowers growing in “auld Edina”, signalling the easy instancing of connections between Indian and Scottish locales, food, dress and realities, that the volume serves up. In fact, the title and the eponymous poem refer to an interesting and forgotten episode in Scottish history. It was Sir Walter Scott who, to add “aboriginal” colour to George IV’s “jaunt” to Edinburgh in 1822, invented the cult of the clan tartan, arguably one of his finer works of fiction.

Once again, quite unerringly, Fraser inserts the fluid cultural markers with the energy of parallel traditions, the bagpipes from the Highlands mingle without a false note with the raucous drums of Holi to create an unique ensemble of “abandon”, to “play as Radha-Krishna” for “today is Holi”.

Bashabi Fraser’s is a rare voice. As she puts it in her poem Life, she is the “keys of the piano to the music-mad musician” and a “plague to the devoted physician”. Hers is the measure “that touches the lips of man/And gives him his share of joy and strife/In his own memorable episode of one outstanding life”.