Llamada: from Spanish – “call”; the opening of a dance in flamenco
Early in the morning we receive a phone call about my grandfather’s passing after a long battle with Alzheimer’s &, ultimately, renal failure. Mindlessly I stir honey into a glass of lukewarm water and remember an old lore that claims how the dead briefly return to their most loved ones as birds before flying into some distant echo. Suddenly in my window, the guava green plumage of a rose-ringed parakeet, the coral of its beak almost lambent and pointing skywards. Here is the scarce episode of nearly two dozen parrots gliding in tandem like a colossal green kite.
This was as true for my grandfather as could be—always occurring in multitudes, always a leading into; foresight & afterthought. Always the elegant 6 feet form stationed between a hint & a harbinger. The earliest memories of my childhood which aren’t stained by the profanity of neglect and violence are solely woven around my grandparents. It is a difficult remembrance because as a psychologist, in each loss I befriend, I am looking for succinct algorithms of grief that allow me a tunneling into the ache without making it unnecessarily cinematic or riddled with myth & pomp. We exceed the world when we believe it before we see it. But the fact is I can’t remember him without the pageantry of his poetry circles; winter turning the casuarina trees more cursive at night—a bright darkness enveloping us all inside its gray-black tinsel of leaves.
There is this image of him in his impeccable Nehru bandhgalas and jodhpuris, reciting Ghalib couplet after couplet in a stunning trance. The elegant emcee of a chiaroscuro mushaira received at a house buzzing like an army of mosquitoes that lurked in the terrace garden. A boisterous master of tazmin—a modulated Urdu rhetorical device borrowed from Persian poetry where each poet in a gathering has to work a line from another poet into his own recital. His grinning wit was a throwback to the 17-year-old boy who cycled for two hours one way to hear his favourite communist poets read, risking arrest from the British government and severe beatings from his own father.
We can’t see our own faces until we choose to trust the mirror.
A mushaira or a mehfil arrived in the Indian subcontinent with Mughal invasions in form of poetry symposiums deigned as a silver lining for the innumerable wars that flattened its robust topography. This was a practical method to make poetry more public, rescue it from the clutches of an elitist taxonomy & allow it more classifications, wider rooms, commoner themes. I recently watched an old veteran of mehfils perform a really snarky poem about his desire to wear shorts in public. Yes, that. My mother commented that if you muted the volume or for those who didn’t understand Hindi/Urdu, the video could easily be whitewashed by western media as if this were a fundamentalist making threatening speeches. His body language was electric with satire. In my meager understanding of Urdu, I thoroughly relished the precise jabs at modern fashion by this toothy septuagenarian. From ghazals to critiques, from butchers to journalists—this gathering aimed to unmake echelons in favour of greater and greater ground swells.
India is a country rich with contradictions; communal and doctrinal; the geography of its body as divided as it is conjoined. In the bold tesserae of diversity, the deft schisms of politically inflamed sectarian violence between the two major religions: Hinduism and Islam. So it was a great insight into the healing power of performance poetry when this devout Hindu grandfather of mine would band with Muslim friends and create untainted spaces for artists to meld and forge the metal of their faith in verse. Even today in smaller cities, prolific Hindi and Urdu poets serve high voltage mashups of “kavi sammelan” (a poetry reading in Hindi) and mushaira in one powerpacked event. It is like elegantly flipping a bird at the establishment that wants to make borders out of bodies. It means to humanize the namelessness of that common, burdened citizen who is lost between vote bank politics, governmental austerity drives, open air riots and meat ban murders by rabid vigilantes.
Once he received a threatening phone call that his house would be burned if he continued these cancerous acts of “debauchery.” He hung up, looked at my mother—his partner in crime, his Krishna, the implicit charioteer—and smiled:
Poetry is a molten language. Warm with its kinesis, I am already on fire. What else is left to be kindled?
He summoned his losses through this volcanic language. He sat with them the way he sat with stray dogs every evening: he fed them, patted their mangy fur, left each a tin cup of clean water. An economist who was educated to be terse, objective, worldly in a very unambiguous way, he said he came to poetry to name each loss, to get intimate with them; to measure the distance between erasing and forgetting. To recognize the difference between choice and force.
So, while walking through the city, I come to the edge of cracked asphalt and recognize this choice in the wildflower trying to knuckle its way through the concrete flotsam that doesn’t want to welcome its birth. We plant these poems—as seeds, as curled up roots to a voice that is still sleeping and we wait. An academic on twitter was debating my friend about how poems don’t have a cultural currency. I sent her a link to Dalit poetry movement of India with a “Compliments of the Mothership” smirk.
Recently I read at my own version of a mushaira. A poetry fest where I performed with six new poets in the presence of an immaculate narrator: Arundhathi Subramaniam. Each poem, each performance was an oath, a hex, a long road home. Someone spoke about the contradiction between the sweet rivers of his mother’s village versus the saltiness of this neon city he had slowly—even if with great vernacular difficulty—learned to call his home. Another chanted a guttural Om as she recalled her daily chase of Bombay’s treacherous traffic and her yoga teacher’s glib sermonizing about signing armistices with her own self before she got into any hand-to-hand combat with her steering wheel .
I read a trove of fragments. It is called Smoke Celluloid. It is my verbal kabuki about the cities that have flown through me and continue to tug at my calves with their cowbell cacophonies, vulgar billboards, sardine-can piazzas, LSD-infused skylines; their temples, brothels and murals.
Every time one of us finished reading, there was a brief moment of spectacular silence. It is like watching a giant wave arrive from a distance—its slow, majestic crawl; a steely blue cerate for the tired eye. The moment passes and the room is a precise philharmonic of coordinated claps.
Six voices embroidered six tapestries and the seamstress at the center then collected each swath of fabric and transformed them into one gilded garment.
As the readings concluded, we asked each other and Arundhathi the inevitable question—
Why write poems?
To survive. Beautifully.
A small bird in the shape of an amen escaped this haphazard apiary of my throat and I remembered that in urdu, zubaan is both—tongue and language.
Poetry allows me to remap these blueprints of belongings I was born into. It grants me a blankness, a compass, a grasp over a silent page to practice my dynamic cartography. It lures me, it devours me, but most importantly—it allows me to confront myself. I rub it like a balm over my Achilles’ heel. It serves me a right hook when I war it too close. It tells me—I am through you as much as I am from you. This is duende. Beyond the cultural appropriation that the term has endured for as long as the song of my gypsies has wandered this earth. This is the deep song of a cante jondo in my native vein. This is a reminder that the other half of me is Roma Spanish. Migrant, nomadic: a sculptor of peripheries whom Lorca called “the most aristocratic of my people.”
I learned the a classical Indian dance of kathak as a child. A strict regimen of lessons through all my weekends between ages 8-12. My teacher would talk to us about other forms of dance and discussed the theatrics of a body flowing between flamenco and kathak. Secretly, I just wanted to be a bailaora—a flamenco dancer—and often marveled at the similarities between the two. Despite having a Spanish father, I had lived with my Indian/Afghan mother all my life and all my awareness of being Roma reminds of of what the Indian poet Arun Kolatkar once wrote:
A low temple keeps its gods in the dark. / You lend a matchbox to the priest. / One by one the gods come to light. / Amused bronze. / Smiling stone. / Unsurprised.
This is a part of me I had to discover in backward motion. Lyrics to flamenco songs can trace their origins to gypsy storytelling; synoptic, nearly 300 hundred years of history curated in teasing rhymes, cathartic dirges and a bloodrush of the much documented (and satirized) Spanish passion that silhouettes everything from love to warring government oppression.
I watched these singing poets and learned two very important lessons:
- You could sing a poem.
- Every passion worth having contains infinite vulnerabilities.
Estrella Morente often hulks over my heart:
En el espejo del agua Me miro y me peino el pelo, Unos dicen que nones y otros que pares, y otros que pares
Ay, no te arrimes a los zarzales – Los zarzales tienen púas Y rompen los delantales
Fatigas, fatiguillas dobles pasa, pasaría aquel Que tiene el agua en los labios y no la puede beber
In the mirror of the water I look and I comb my hair, some say single, and others say a pair
Ay, don’t go close to the bramble patches- brambles have prickles and tear your apron
Problems, double problems come to one who has water between their lips but can’t drink it
The poem is a horse tracing the distance between the river and the mountain. It allows me to get comfortable with the rituals of letting go. I am spent on the poem. It hungers after me. It is both—occurrence and witness. Comes back, now and then, to visit my hand like an alley cat but for most part asks me to remember that within life, everything we desire to own is merely a partial inhabitation of mirages, eclipses, mirrors positioned at the mouths of labyrinths.
Flamenco has four distinct elements: cante-voice, baile-dance, toque-guitar, and the jaleo, which roughly translated means “hell raising” and involves handclapping, foot stomping, and vocal encouragement given to performers when the audience calls out such phrases as ezo!, arsa!, olé!, toma!, vamo. It is a reminder that the song, lyrically and musically, is not solitary.
Suddenly I can feel the Delhi drawing rooms transported to the caves of Granada. Once again I invoke the mushaira where there are no visible boundaries between the performer, the poem (in this case, the lyric) and the recipient. There is a form of cante jondo called carcelera—a prison song characterised by a hoarse vocal quality called voz aﬁllá demanded from the male singer. The content makes demands and the performer has to allow a full possession. Flamenco in its inception is a séance for voice. It is a chant, a primitive howl that attempts to inaugurate the animal within the angel. Then came a sequence of sounds—taps, claps, clicks, grunts, moans even. Breath released from the pit of your belly as a bull that has impaled the matador. The incantatory nature of performance in a cante jondo is the only way I have of recognizing some form of divinity within myself and in those who help me happen.
When I think of a cante jondo, I think that to write is another, more acceptable way to cry or laugh, perhaps. Sometimes a line sneaks in and startles me out of my complacent knowledge. Sometimes I am mired in guilt. Why aren’t I writing or speaking this in Spanish or Hindi or Urdu? When I write in English, do I betray the embrace of my first language? Am I a traitor to my zubaan? Sometimes I wonder if I treat these first language/s like a grumpy second generation child treating their clumsy parents in a public space. I avoid its gaze, I mumble pithy responses to its endearments. I decline its questions with an impatient head nod. Is this language, like a quiet, giving parent, only going to be loved or respected once it is dead? Am I going to poise its words only as an epitaph?
A wonderful Afghan poet who primarily writes in English is a close friend of mine. A few months ago she was asked to read at a prestigious poetry festival in London and she politely declined.
Zahara, what if I pronounce lines from my own poems incorrectly? This is not my language, after all. I don’t know if I have the ability to fulfill what they expect from me.
We never do. This is the fear of the so called subaltern. We who were not born into this language but were fostered by it, even if reluctantly. I watch social media debates and pour over literary essays about white poets who hijack non-white identities. When you kidnap a marginalized group’s status, you can’t just acquire the travel magazine gloss of the peregrine; you have to enter the entirety of the disenfranchisement. When you take my name, you must also take my vantage. You must go back to my past, its lamp and limp, amble through the ruins of my childhood home I can never visit again, shelter my grandmother’s embarrassed stutter as she spent 3 hours at American customs because she had in her innocent ignorance carried mangoes for her firstborn son who hadn’t been home in a decade. You must learn the operant conditioning of my own anxiety when I ask white friends of mine to “correct” my work as a matter of habit. Even when you take only the name, you must take it in all its versions, not just the one that will get you the spotlight. You must take the name when it immediately gets airport security with their arched eyebrows calculating how much of a flight risk it might be. You must take the name that is immediately reduced from a lush blue hesper palms to a plastic bonsai because pronouncing it is too much of a struggle. You want the wingspan of the name but you don’t want to risk the arrow that follows its trajectory.
Lately, I have started reading about the art of glassmaking/glassblowing in general and Antonio Neri in particular. A sentence calmly slipped into my consciousness earlier—
Glass must have been attractive to alchemists for one reason in particular: unlike silver, wood, and clay, it was made, not found.
That is why I—the Other, the exception, the sometimes unexpected—came to poetry. To make because I couldn’t find. To risk the shards. To speak with fire. To shape glass. To make once. To keep making.Photo by jikatu