Ranjit Hoskote on why poet CP Surendran is 'a suture for a sacred wound'
[Book extract] He bears witness to derelict polyphonies of affect, animates them into a condition of sayability, steering them towards what must be written.
- Total Shares
CP Surendran does not entertain an unduly optimistic belief in the human animal’s ability to redeem itself from its failings. The universe of his poems demonstrates a cyclic rhythm: it alternates between brief redemptive moments of insight and resistance on the one hand, and the gratuitous violence and melancholy self-flagellation that more typically define the human condition, on the other.
CP’s awareness of the suffering that falls to humankind’s lot echoes the cadences of the "Order for the Burial of the Dead" from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, 62: "Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay." Locating the individual on a scale of evolutionary possibilities that combines a pragmatic Darwinism with a residual theology, he recognises our constant struggle to be "something more than the apes", even as we manage to be "something less than the angels".
This struggle is accentuated by the elusiveness of that traditional source of radiance and consolation, the Divine. In "There Was a Man in the Land of Uz", a poem resonant with Biblical cadences, CP addresses his Deus absconditus:
- Invisibly inked, your writs are mysteries,
- Unravelled by the sun and, as often the moon, mostly sad
- As infants who never saw light; the cruelty of it all
- Pointless as a bomb dropped in an anatine pond,
- Numbing as the mother sundered from her child,
- No matter what Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar try
- To say in your praise and win your case.
The prime mover of cosmic and individual destinies remains inscrutable, manifest only through unpredictable, inexplicable, catastrophic blows aimed at the innocent. CP’s recent poetry is informed by a shifting, Manichean interplay between light and darkness, belief and doubt, affirmation and lament: his key trope, enshrined in the title of this substantial collection of his new and previous poems, is that of Available Light. I find myself asking what the sources of such illumination might be: natural, as in the sun and moon he invokes in the poem from which I have just quoted; or artificial, as in his late-night or early-morning confrontations with fate, foible or circumstances; or, as we may divine from the poems in which he addresses such historical tragedies as the Holocaust, the interrogator’s lamp? Or perhaps CP’s Available Light is some combination of all these, as experienced in a space of confinement or concealment.
Photo: Speaking Tiger Books
The poet himself recalls the term from its use by Satyajit Ray in an interview with Shyam Benegal; the legendary filmmaker told his younger contemporary in the world of cinema that the factor of available light, modulated through a system of reflectors into bounce light, had opened up and marked out the "possibilities of realism" for him. CP associates the term, also, with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of taking photographs in natural light, without recourse to artificial devices such as the flash, which he likened to using a pistol in church. "And, of course," says CP ruefully, "the supply of light grows smaller as we grow older."
For me, the phrase is forever associated with the influential cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s last book, Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (2000), a collection of essays that testify to their author’s practice of combining a salutary skepsis and an enduring empathy in his lifelong study of culture, those "webs of significance" that human beings produce together. Ray, Cartier-Bresson, Geertz — all these emphases are relevant to our mapping of CP’s journey.
The Bombay of the late '80s was hospitable to a number of young poets who were beginning to make their way in the world; we were working on what would become our first manuscripts while also finding a berth in the domains of cultural journalism, academia, or the visual arts. I first met CP at the offices of the afternoon newspaper, Mid-day, where I had gone to meet Jeet Thayil; we had read together at Meher Pestonjee’s salon in Colaba the previous evening, and he had offered to publish my poems on the cultural page that he edited.
CP was Thayil’s colleague on the editorial staff. He seemed to have placed himself at a distinct angle to the world; although this, in itself, would have occasioned no surprise, since all of us were pursuing tangents of various kinds from the conventional stabilities of life. What distinguished CP was that he seemed to be robed in an impenetrable despondency. Later, I would learn that he was recovering from the collapse of his first marriage, which his wife had unilaterally ended after moving to the USA. I would get to know CP well and our camaraderie and friendship continued across other contexts — newspaper offices, poetry readings, literary festivals — and eventually The Times of India group, where we both worked for a number of years.
I have attempted elsewhere — in the introduction to Dom Moraes’ Selected Poems — to convey something of the cartography of our lives in those years, the places we inhabited, the mentor figures who played a vital role in our formation:
By the late '80s, the orbit of Anglophone poetry in Bombay could be mapped around three major centres of gravity: Nissim Ezekiel’s book- and paper-strewn office at the PEN All-India Centre, on New Marine Lines, near Churchgate Station; Adil Jussawalla’s apartment at Cuffe Parade, or the offices of the various journals for which he acted, successively, as literary or features editor; and Dom Moraes’ apartment at Sargent Road, Colaba, or the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Apollo Bunder, where he would arrange to meet people by appointment. Young poets hoping to be received into a larger tradition, or more mundanely to receive criticism or find avenues for publication, found their way to one or the other, and rarely all three, of the figures who comprised this impressive troika.
Even at this time, it was clear that CP’s practice was strongly premised on the candour of a personal life that is exposed and examined, sometimes pitilessly. In his poetry, as in his novels, non-fiction, columns, essays and film work, the individual is pitted against a hostile world — he is not heroic in a grand manner so much as he is a self-doubter who must survive both the world and his own self-destructive impulses towards frenzy or despair. In such a predicament, poetry might serve as a lifeline, a possibility of understanding if not also healing. This is what I wrote about him in 2002, in the Introduction to a Viking anthology I edited, Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets:
For CP Surendran, whose insistent abruptness of rhythm barely contains a deep-welling, anguished rage, poetry is a security perimeter guarding the consciousness against the siege warfare of intimate relationships and social arrangements, the random strikes of destiny. Poetry is a promise of the recovery of wholeness after trauma for Surendran, a covenant of resurrection; in "Starters", he achieves a rich fusion of the sacred and the profane in the briefest of strokes:
- I reach for my first drink,
- The fountain flowing out of my head,
- Dark ink.
The early CP adopted a bohemian self-image, a radically nihilist attitude towards the world. He was ready to embrace catastrophe. He was committed to colliding with the world. Thinking back to this period in an email conversation, he recalls, "What troubled me about myself was my sense of doom. I am not quite sure where I got it from. There is a poem I’ve written about my asthma. They had given me up for dead when I was 40 days old, because my face had gone completely blue. And then miraculously I was able to breathe again. I trace my sense of death and foreboding to that event; also the delusion that I am all alone. It’s a little like Lazarus. How to tell what happened? My essential nature is adversarial. I don’t find the world a hospitable place. After all, it had given me up for dead!"
In considering CP’s sources and inspirations, and contextualising his work, I find myself revisiting his complex, ambivalent and conflicted relationship with his father, the celebrated rationalist and Left-wing Malayalam writer Pavanan (1925–2006). Over the years, CP’s attitude towards his father and his generation of writers, with their undimmed faith in Communism, has undergone a shift from adversarial critique to empathetic acceptance. "Most of my young life was not well directed, and I had taken to alcohol at a rather young age. For a long time, and unreasonably, I held my father responsible for all of it. He was the president of the Kerala Rationalist Association for some 20 years, a very active Kerala Sahitya Akademi chief for a long time, a great chronicler of Kerala in the60s and the 70s, a great critic, too," says CP.
"To be fair, I think I was an ingrate. My revolt with myself must have spilled over all around, and I must have hurt my father a great deal. I remember once his coming over to Bombay while I was doing a series of Sunday Review columns called 'Low Life'. He happened to read one of them — the Times was not easily available in Kerala then — and urged me not to continue with it, because he found it too painful to read. In retrospect, I still am not clear if my revolt was against him or what he represented: Malayalam and its strange and, with some exceptions, rather conformist literature; his terrifying optimism in the very human project of the enterprise of meaning, his circle of great writers and political leaders, who had all suffered political repression and come out of it smiling. The underground Communist movement in my father’s young days had a terrible time."
The CP of the present is more measured in his approach to the world, less welcoming of apocalyptic destinies. Shock has had its day. It no longer forms a major part of his repertory; instead, his writing is marked by a recognition of the seesaw between atomisation and solidarity, on which the individual must balance: "I don’t believe in constructed identities like the nation. I do believe that I am empathetic as well; why else do I find myself writing for the wretched underdog?"
In another exchange of communications that we had last year, CP reflected: "It does seem to me that the first half of my poetry is a way to come to terms with the shock of one’s birth. The second seems to be an attempt at fleeing death. In between somewhere there is the social world to deal with. And the word complicates that too."
Even as we acknowledge language as the carrier of an intensely private articulation, we also know it to be an abundantly, sometimes overwhelmingly and self-defeatingly social medium of communication; we know, too, that language can be brutalised, turned to an instrument of hate, viciousness, demagoguery, and annihilatory rhetoric. In the present collection, CP includes a long sequence of poems titled "David, Don’t be Sad", "That Was a Dream", bulletins of terror and nightmare charged with the memory of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, electric with the fear of a world that might rapidly turn into a concentration camp or a death camp.
CP’s long-term devotion to the work of Primo Levi and Paul Celan, both survivors of the Holocaust who were devastated by the experience and eventually took their own lives, is manifest here. One of the David poems takes its title from the title of a great memoir of those dark times, written by the German Jewish philologist and professor of French literature Victor Klemperer and published in 1947 from notes he had preserved while under the threat of extinction: "Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen, or The Language of the Third Reich: A Philologist’s Notebook."
Nazism, Klemperer writes, "permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously... Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all." CP’s homage to the victims of the colossal evil of Nazism, "Lingua Tertii Imperii", reads, in its entirety:
- The night at the edge of knife
- Extends remembrance endlessly.
- How they ran round and round
- In enormous shoes
- Of thorn, how they looked for ever
- For the ice of what’s gone;
- How the earth shook
- Under thrones;
- How a bullet emptied
- Them of the earth.
- How from helmets grass sprung
- Again in innocence of pain.
- How language,
- Leashed to that place and time,
- Barked and growled,
- And Cerberus understood.
The invocation of the canine guardian of the Greek netherworld leads us to CP’s favourite adjective in recent years: "Hadal", concerning Hades as well as the depths of the ocean, which was the title of CP’s third novel, cast in the armature of the classic spy thriller and published in 2015.
In CP’s telling, the netherworld is here and now: it extends itself through fugitive experiences, the ambiguities of selfhood, the betrayal of others. The oceanic depths, too, are within us: implacable, atavistic energies burst up from unknown depths within us, driven by our fears, compelling us to serve a sovereign and ruthless will to compete, survive and flourish; compelling us to instrumentalise feelings and relationships as we permit conditions of extremity to distort and deform the self. "Hadal" is also the title of one of his recent poems, which reads as follows:
- The waves white with what they witnessed
- Below return, bowing and scraping
- Along the shadows they throw
- On shore; back,
- Back to the silence thick as massed glass,
- To first fish, time cutting teeth in the dark;
- Ossified bones, hermaphrodite flesh, marine snow.
- The cold is without thought. Things alive
- Barely breathe. Your body sieves the sun
- To the last. Here you are: in your element,
- Feeding the sea out of your hand;
- The memory-pumping heart is salt.
- The sands rise from your pores,
- There the shadows start.
If the Book of Common Prayer suggests that we flee as shadows, CP sees us as revenant shadows, hurled back from the depths with sediments of knowledge and self-knowledge, animated by salt and water, drowned, broken, made whole again. One possible way of characterising CP’s career is to view it as a harrowing pilgrimage through a world in which the poet is both participant and observer, sometimes a barely tolerated insider but most often an outsider deciphering and decoding the structures of relationship, identity, belonging, neighbourhood, and community.
While it is customary to regard alienation as a negative and disabling condition, might we consider the possibility that it is, in fact, often a productive condition, offering us emancipation from the burden of representing or subscribing to a system, and disclosing insights that might otherwise have been concealed beneath the normalisation of social and political processes?
Indeed, as the anthropologist and anarchist thinker David Graeber argues, "The idea that alienation is a bad thing is a modernist problem. Most philosophical movements — and, by extension, social movements — actually embrace alienation. You’re trying to achieve a state of alienation. That’s the ideal if you’re a Buddhist or an early Christian, for example: Alienation is a sign that you understand something about the reality of the world."
In this spirit, CP bears witness to derelict polyphonies of affect, animates them into a condition of sayability, steering them towards what must be written: testimony, testament to what James Agee memorably described as "the cruel radiance of what is."
Anyone who looks directly at that "cruel radiance" is very likely to be wounded; for the poet is not only a pilgrim in a dangerous landscape but also a trespasser in secluded zones, psychic, cultural or political, that would prefer to guard their mysteries. As in Greek mythology, the guardian of such a sanctuary, usually a serpent or a dragon, inflicts a wound on the trespasser who has entered and violated the temenos. It is the wound of unbearable knowledge. In this not implausible origin myth for writing, it is a sacred wound, and poetry, certainly for CP Surendran, is an attempted suture for this sacred wound.