Literary Shelf

The Tradition of the Poetry of Exile

The word exile carries with it the historical association of persecution and uprooting. The tradition of the literature of exile is older than history. The theme and poetry of exile are found in the Old Testament of the Bible (ergo in Koran):

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,  
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
– (Psalm 137; King James Version)

The poetry of exile is found in the Hindu purans. Given below is Shiva’s yearning for the city of Varanasi (Kashi) from which he was exiled:

What all the ice on this mountain is inadequate to do,
That burning will surely subside  
If even the breeze coming from Kashi touches my skin,
Once I was separated from my wife– Sati
That pain was allayed when she came back as Parvati.
Alas! the pain of separation from Kashi torments me more.
Ah Kashi when again shall I get thy gratifying touch,
When will thy cooling touch cure me of this fever instantly? 
Oh Kashi, who wash the sins of men, the fire of separation from thee
Has made the moon at my head burn like fire with ghee
It took the daughter of the Himalayas to cure my previous separation
If I don’t get your darshan o Kashi I shall always be tormented. 
– (Kashi Khand, Skandmahapuran, 44.14-19)
[Translation from Sanskrit by Rajnish Mishra]

The theme of exile is found in poetry from all over the world. Poetry of the pain of separation from one’s place of origin has a rich tradition. It entered the stream of modern poetry during the transition of the socio–economic systems from agrarian to industrial. The hunter–gatherer had less opportunities of getting rooted to his place. A farmer could stay rooted to a place from his birth to death and roots, once sprouted, went deep into the soil and connected the man to his place. The strength of his bonding was such that uprooting could only be effected by a natural or geopolitical change of extreme nature. So, the exile, uprooted and pining, is not commonly found in poetry of that time. As the Industrial Revolution altered the socioeconomic structure of the European (and later world) societies, brought in its wake urbanization and rural emigration, and the literature of exile was born. The most well–known example of this genre is from nineteenth century England, John Clare.

May it be mine to meet my end in thee;
And, as reward for all my troubles past,
Find one hope true-to die at home at last!
– (‘Helpstone’)

An equally well–known example from Urdu poetry is his contemporary Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’, the last Mughal Emperor who spent the last years of his life in exile in Burma wrote a moving ghazal in the memory of his home (land).

Nothing appeals to my heart in this deserted land.
How can it find peace in these times on this land?
O my yearnings go, dwell elsewhere,
Where’ll you live in this besmirched heartland?
I was given four days of life to live. Two were
spent in yearning for, two waiting for my land.
O Zafar, the unfortunate for your burial,
Two yards were not to be had in your beloved land!
[Translated from Hindi by Rajnish Mishra]

Clare and Zafar, both died in 1860’s. The theme of exile lived on. In fact, the twentieth century saw the number of artists in exile increasing. Bertolt Brecht, a German exile, beautifully captures the irony of hope in transience of the state that ends up being permanent in his poem ‘On the Term of Exile’:

No need to drive a nail into the wall
To hang your hat on;
When you come in, just drop it on the chair
No guest has sat on.

Don’t worry about watering the flowers -
In fact, don’t plant them.
You will have gone back home before they bloom,
And who will want them?

If mastering the language is too hard,
Only be patient;
The telegram imploring your return
Won’t need translation.

Remember, when the ceiling sheds itself
In flakes of plaster,
The wall that keeps you out is crumbling too,
As fast or faster.
– [Translated from the German by Adam Kirsch]

The twenty–first century did not witness any change in the geopolitics of the world, hence in the state of the exile. The same pain is found in poems of exile from Tibet, Kashmir, Albania, Afghanistan, Sindh, Bangladesh, Greece and the list goes on. Let’s talk about Aga Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri poet in exile in the United States. His poems of exile have a haunting simplicity of images.

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished
– (‘A Pastoral’)

It is this tradition of poetry to which much of Rajnish Mishra’s work belongs. He is an exile, but unlike in most of the poems mentioned here, not from his nation but from his city of Varanasi. His poetic oeuvre and imagination have been shaped by pain and separation. His poems show his place and times very vividly and clearly yet his city is not restricted to one place or time, as in ‘My City and Yours’:

My city, is your city, and theirs.
My city is stuck with what it’s given.
My city as shown, as true, as real,
yes it is all,
and not.
The spirit, the life,
the transience, the sorrows,
the joys, the filth of flowers,
and all that’s seen or not, at all hours,
For the world to see, is my city simplified,
palatable, presentable, made easy.
Multifaceted? Never.
Simply, ‘city for dummies’.

His devotion to details, and his transcendence of the same make for a curious combination of contraries, as in ‘Time and Life to Death’:

Disgusting, the filth,
reflected sometimes, on faces.
Cow dung, house waste,
refuse and grime,
Scattered, removed,
then scattered again,
repeat performance,
seen and felt
on skin, in nose, on feet through eyes.
Yet feet go on,
undaunted, eternally,
as time and life run to death,
from flesh to fire to ashes.

His poems return to the Holy Ganga repeatedly:

My river rests, soundless;
no wind blows.
Darkness, a distant din,
wave–twinkling bulbs -
Those bulbs, the stars
and the distant glow
of city lights, orange-red
over silver-black sands.

Rajnish Mishra belongs to the tradition of exile, and lives at a time and place that are not here and now.


More by :  Tripoth Chakraborty

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