Do you still read Neruda in 2021? How?
Can you separate the art from the artist when the artist happens to have raped someone? Reading Pablo Neruda in 2021 feels like cheating. A betrayal.
- Total Shares
Like a lot of English graduates in India, Pablo Neruda happened to me on an autumn morning, when Tonight I Can Write The Saddest Lines were read out in my class. It was the most beautiful poem I had ever heard. It was called the Twentieth Love Poem. It came from a collection called Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair. Suddenly, post-colonial literature became, for this class of undergraduates somewhere in North Delhi, the path ahead. That paper was my favourite. There were two other poets part of that anthology which was part of our syllabus in the second year, but Walcott and Atwood were yet to make us spare a look at them. Neruda had won round one. And he had won it fair and square, aided by some adolescent hormones.
"The same night, whitening the same trees. / We, of that time, are no longer the same."
These lines cut through us (to borrow that phrase from Bryan Adams) like a knife. Neruda spoke to us simply. Eloquently. On a late-October morning when a pair of pigeons cooed overhead, in a high-ceilinged room at that women's college, Neruda became our own. He was the poet who spoke for the ones we lost to fate, to adultery, to time and space. To distance. I fell in love. With a man long gone.
We were reminded, time and again, that the works we were reading were actually in translation. I spent hours in the college cyber cafe trying to Google the original, then tear the poem down to single words, and then translate them from Spanish to English, one by one, to stitch together the same poem. It was catharsis.
It was also the year a lot of us fell in love with men apart from this Chilean poet. A lot of us, for the first time.
So Neruda hit us like the heady scent of Nargis. Filling our nostrils, spreading to the lungs like cancer, till there was nowhere to escape. You gave in to this intoxication. You gave in to his poetry.
Months into my first job, I found a copy of Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair online. Ordering books online was still an activity I frowned upon; detested almost (hey, it robbed you of the fragrance of a bookstore!), but I'd been looking for a copy and it wasn't available in the pretty little bookstores in dull bland Noida. When the book was delivered, it was like holding a priceless heirloom in my hands. A piece of Neruda. Neruda's finest, some would argue.
For many years, through many heartbreaks, the Twentieth Love Poem saw me through. The book was there on the bedside table. That was its designated place. "Another's" ran the refrain when another boyfriend broke my heart yet another time. "It is the hour of departure," said Neruda, before A Song of Despair ended.
For many years, through many heartbreaks, the Twentieth Love Poem saw me through.
But the actual Song of Despair was yet to come.
It happened quite abruptly. It was 2017 or 18 and these green-inked memoirs of Neruda were being parsed through. He raped a woman - a maid - in Sri Lanka. A favourite poet, dead for years, had written about raping a woman divided by chasms of class and rank. The memoirs weren't new. The part about raping the cleaning lady had been in plain sight for over 40 years. And yet, probably because of our oversight or because we are taught to unsee everything but their work when it comes to genius men, the rape was hardly ever discussed.
Rape. That four-lettered word swallowed everything else.
What do you tell yourself?
'The man whose words saw you through your worst days raped someone.'
How do you say it to yourself?
In one fell swoop, everything that I'd held sacred; the memories of that October, the classes in college, the nights spent reading that one book, were all washed green. That cruel green, in which he so eloquently described the 'encounter'. It was betrayal. It was akin to never talking to a favourite person, never seeing them again.
I buried that book somewhere under other, newer titles. It was a very thin book anyway; not difficult to shove out of sight. It stayed like that for a few years.
Till last night, when once again, I went back to A Song of Despair. There was no trigger. Heartbreaks no longer need Neruda to get them over with. But just like that, a stray phrase somewhere reminded me of that thin book. That cursed writer. Those unforgettable lines.
I read those lines one more time. Like the memory Neruda wrote about. Like the lament he gave words to.
"The memory of you emerges from the night around me. / The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea."
I felt nothing.