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Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.
Before books were invented, knowledge was transferred through poetry. Verses were memorized and recited, as for the oldest books on the planet, the Vedas. They are known as the shruti texts, shruti being to-listen. They survived for centuries as chanted verses even before writing was invented. Reading has suffered in the digital era, as voice and video become the most popular form of communication. Yet, there is an opportunity to revive the ancient oral traditions again. With voice and embodied presence, plus technology, we can now reach more people, near and distant. Try adding poetry to your Diwali celebrations and see how it goes. We tried it and are happy to report it went well for some of us.
A group of poetry lovers have gathered to bring poetry alive by reading poems to each other in small gatherings for the past five years. Earlier this year, we decided to read poems to an audience, with an online poetry reading program called Irshad. When the president of SACHI gave us a good review for it, we felt emboldened. In the oral poetic tradition of the Indian subcontinent, the listeners have an important and active role because poems are literally offered to them. They are expected to participate not just by listening, but also speaking up in the pauses between the poet’s reading with a word or phrase of appreciation – by repeating the line of the poem or simple compliment, such as “Wah!”, “Bahut khoob!”, “Kya baat hai!” This is called “huasla-afzayee” courage-encouragement. Poetry is the way history’s lessons are made alive and made available for reinterpretation for contemporary times. Poetry engages not just the cognitive brain for sense-making but also the heart and embodied presence, with the language of emotions, tones, rhythm, cadence, metaphors, and musicality, and all manner of poetic craft.
For the past eighteen years, the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce (Cupertino being the city at the heart of Silicon Valley, the headquarters of Apple) has hosted an annual Diwali Mela, with a cultural stage for community organizations. Our group, the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, was welcomed there by the chief executive officer of the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce Anjali Kausar. Six poets and two supporters in key roles as our sutradhaars helped make the performance possible. Sutradhaar is not just a compere, but literally, one who acts as a string that holds the pearls together, as if to make a necklace. Pragalbha and Manish Doshi helped the poets rehearse and prepare before the event, organized us on the day of, complete with ensuring we had photos and videos, and even food, all as their labor of love.
Our experience was that we had an attentive audience of over 75 people, willing to appreciate and participate. The poets read in Sanskrit, Urdu, and Hindi, some original work, some ancient and some modern poetry. After the event, we enjoyed a potluck picnic in the nearby gazebo. A spontaneous discussion about the female characters in the Ramayan arose amongst the poets, as some of us discussed whether these could still be considered role models or even relevant in the current climate of feminist uprisings. This is part of the charm and beauty of oral poetry, that it opens up conversations where each individual’s interpretation of the poem can be a basis for discussions, debates, and learning by exchange of ideas in a friendly space of art appreciation. The popular saying that history is written by the victors, has a corollary. Those who did not win, will write their versions in the stories and poems, that will be remembered, as the many perspectives on the issues at stake prior to the battle and winners and losers. These multiple nuanced stories are engaging with room for complexity, paradox, and contradictions to co-exist. Poems also require each listener to interpret and make meaning of their own, bringing in their own experiences and expertise. These multiple stories are a way to get to a far richer understanding of the world than one single story.
As you are celebrating Diwali, find some poems to suit the audience you are celebrating with, and try it out. You may be surprised at what rich conversations and new understandings it reveals. We need ways for collective sensemaking and good-natured arguments as we relearn how to be relating again. Learning across the various divides — political, generational, religious, economic, and others — is the need of the hour and poetry is a good way to bridge the distance with care. Poets claim poetry can be healing. Why not revive the oral poetic traditions for Diwali? After all, Ramayan has been written in verse by Tulsidas and Valmiki, and hundreds of versions are still in circulation across India.
Dr. Jyoti Bachani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, with degrees from London Business School, UK, Stanford, USA, and St. Stephen’s College, India. She translates Hindi poems and edited a poetry anthology called ‘The Memory Book of the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley’.