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Poetry as Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

A lizard in a blizzard

Got a snowflake in his gizzard

And nothing else much happened, I’m afraid.

But lizard rhymed with blizzard

And blizzard rhymed with gizzard

And that, my dear, is why most poems are made.[1]

When I was young, I used to get a kick out of seeing words rhyme. Reading Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, I would enunciate the rhyming bits out loud for fun. Later in high school, I marveled at Shakespeare and his dexterous lines which stoked the imagination and inspired lofty notions.

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme[2]

Poetry, in contrast to everyday speech, has an eye for beauty. She has a penchant for the pretty phrase, a fancy for things well said. With her, language is revered and words are caressed and carefully ensconced in a metrical mold which lends rhythm and musicality. 

While I was in college, I listened to a recitation of a narrative poem my grandfather had written in Kannada (my mother tongue). The tune was captivating, the story was beautiful, and it made an unforgettable impression. Never before had I experienced (or given much heed to) sound and sense so intimately connected in my mother tongue. As Alexander Pope describes poetry: 

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,

The sound must seem an echo to the sense[3] 

Poet, Navaneet Galagali

Thereafter I began to realize – like the proverbial frog in the well – that other languages contained profound treasures of literature and poetry that my anglophone worldview wasn’t privy to. Unable to resist the siren call, I set out to learn my mother tongue.

A few years down the rabbit hole, I acquired Kannada and Sanskrit and delved into the literature with zest. When I moved to the bay area, I was fortunate to come across a poetry meetup group where I met some birds of the same feather. We started meeting weekly to partake in virtual poetry gatherings using the Facebook group Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, where I found encouragement and an outlet to share the poems and translations that follow.

The best romance poems employ a subtle art of suggestion; without being coarse, they indicate rather than explicate. In this Sanskrit verse from the 7th century, we see a poet’s tasteful portrayal of conjugal matters:

(The sweet-talk of newlyweds)

दम्पत्योर्निशि जल्पतोर्गृहशुकेनाकर्णितं यद्वचः तत्प्रातर्गुरुसंनिधौ निगदतस्तस्यातिमात्रं वधूः । 

कर्णालम्बितपद्मरागशकलं विन्यस्य चञ्चूपुटे व्रीडार्ता प्रकरोति दाडिमफलव्याजेन वाग्बन्धनम् ||[4] 

As the newlywed couple whispered through the night, their pet parrot overheard the words exchanged. The following morning, in the presence of elders, it began repeating what it had learned. Hearing this, the wife was mortified and she grabbed her ruby earring (which resembled a pomegranate seed) and thrust it into the parrot’s beak to silence it.

Here’s another verse in Sanskrit which makes a delightfully wry observation:

(A courtesan and her lipstick)

उपभुक्तखदिरवीटकजनिताधररागभङ्गभयात्।

पितरि मृतेऽपि हि वेश्या रोदिति हा तात तातेति॥[5]

A red color is left lingering on her lips from chewing betel leaves. When her father dies, that courtesan, not wanting to smear the red from her lips, cries “Taata, taata!” instead of “Pita, pita!” (both words mean father). i.e., Even while mourning the death of her father, she is mindful of her lipstick.

Brevity is the soul of wit” runs the common adage. Taking it to heart, this nifty triplet in Kannada claims to encapsulate all love stories:

(A summary of all love stories)

ನಾನು ಅವಳನ್ನು ನೋಡಿದೆ

ಅವಳು ನೋಡಿ ನಕ್ಕಳು

ನಮಗೀಗ ಎರಡು ಮಕ್ಕಳು[6]

 

I looked at her,

She smiled at me.

Now we have two kids. 

Poetry – and by extension, Art – seeks to elevate the connoisseur from the clutches of the mundane. In the process, ordinary emotions are rarefied and become things of beauty. Love, compassion, anger, sorrow, or any of the palate of emotions when expressed through the medium of art achieve a sublime dimension and unequivocally yield aesthetic joy. The joy of course, is an end in itself and needs no further recourse.


Navaneet Galagali is a software engineer in the California bay area who slyly siphons away time for his excursions with literature and music. His present obsessions include Sanskrit and Kannada literature. He is also learning Hindustani classical vocal music and Tabla.

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