Finding your place in the family of things

Chintan Girish Modi

Poetry has saved me from drowning in despair and I believe that it can serve the same function for others too. After all, everyone is in need of something to hold on to – however ephemeral that sense of anchor might be. Can words offer that? Yes, of course! I refrain from submitting myself to one favourite poet though. There is such a wealth of poetry in this world that being polyamorous seems to be the wisest choice when it comes to the world of verse.

Lal Ded is one of the poets I keep returning to. The poems of this 14th century Kashmiri mystic have been translated by Mumbai-based writer, art critic, and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote. His translations appear in the book I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (2011).

Each of these untitled poems is called a vakh. Here’s one in translation:
Resilience: to stand in the path of lightning.
Resilience: to walk when darkness falls at noon.
Resilience: to grind yourself fine in the turning mill.
Resilience will come to you.

This book came into my life in my mid-twenties. I can hardly remember what it must have meant to that younger version of me, who was so full of passion and promise, but also so fragile and combustible, so fickle and impressionable. What I do remember is that this poem spoke to me then, and it continues to as I move closer to the end of my thirties – an age where I feel less sure about my certainties, and more at peace with seeing how life unfolds.

Illustration: Shilpy Lather

As I re-read this poem recently, I thought about how often resilience is misunderstood as submission – the response of a weakling who cannot stand their ground or speak up. With more life experiences under my belt, this assumption seems hasty and even laughable. Resilience comes from acknowledging that our external environment may be slow to change but we can take charge of our inner world and seek refuge in its warmth and spaciousness.

We can refuse to live as a hostage or a victim and remind ourselves of the riches that lie within. The poem cited above is not a call to retreat from the world. It is an affirmation of the courage that lies dormant, and needs to be awakened so that it can spur us to action.

How can teachers create the conditions for students to develop such an intimate relationship with poetry? Can it be taught at all? Is it perhaps enough to hint at its presence, and hope that students will find their way towards it when they are curious, thirsty, or looking to be rescued? The poetry that I feel mostly deeply connected to did not reach me through a textbook. I stumbled upon it. I imagine that it was looking for me just as I was seeking.

Mary Oliver is another poet I love the company of. She loved being outdoors and in the wild. I do not own any of her books, but they are easy to find online. In her poem “Wild Geese” (1935) on poetry.com, this poet from Cleveland, USA, who passed away in 2019, writes:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I discovered this poem as an adult. I think the teenage version of me would have benefited so much from it when I was bullied repeatedly and mercilessly for being fat and effeminate. Academics seemed to be the only avenue where I could excel. Therefore, even a minor academic setback appeared like a big failure. My self-worth was smashed to smithereens because I was made to believe that it was tied to marks and grades. Thankfully, I have no more school or college examinations to sweat over, but my heart goes out to all the young people who feel so defeated, helpless, and unloved that they end up taking their own lives.

This poem will resonate with so many teenagers who feel like misfits. It reads like a warm hug. It seems to tell the reader: You are not alone! There is a place for you to blossom and to flourish. Please don’t give up just yet. Poetry can help us tend to our wounds. It has helped me. We cannot transform others with a magic wand but we have the ability to soothe, nourish, and heal ourselves. Through the gift of language available to us, we humans can create thoughts that are empowering. Regardless of what we encounter in the world, we can promise to be kind to ourselves each day. We can steer ourselves towards peace and fulfilment.

There was a time when rage and righteousness made me believe that I had to fix others – people, structures, organizations – in order to be happy but that idea is past its expiry date. When we do not honour our pain and give ourselves the love we need, we end up hurting others. Why don’t we talk about these things in our schools? We should, shouldn’t we? I have a feeling that we would if we believed that the aim of education is to support self-enquiry.

This brings me to Arundhathi Subramaniam, a poet whose work I have been fortunate to follow for over two decades. Her poem “Arunachala”, which appears in the collection Where I Live: New and Selected Poems (2009) speaks to me with urgency every time I revisit it. Seated inside the ashram of Ramana Maharishi in Tiruvannamalai, the speaker is looking out at the sacred mountain called Arunachala. The reader gets to hear the inner monologue:

It will come again,
the fear of the darkening flesh,
of watching the self turn to rind.
But for now this is enough.

For somewhere here, I know,
is something black,
something large,
something limpid,
something like home.

When she wrote this poem, Arundhathi used to reside in India. Now she divides her time between India and the United States. Our physical addresses change, our tastes and preferences alter drastically, our appearances undergo a makeover, but that longing for home somehow never leaves us. Or maybe it does, in that fleeting moment when we take a break from the endless search for stimulation and novelty, and lovingly tell ourselves: “But for now this is enough”.

The author is a Mumbai-based writer, educator and journalist. He can be reached at chintan.writing@gmail.com.

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