Usha is the fast emerged figure in the poets of Indian diaspora with serious conviction and commitment. Any poet worth the name when seen with an exegete’s eye appears as a teasing puzzle. Usha has acquired considerable fame as a powerful exponent of Sufi Mysticism. She came under the influence of Jalal-ud-din Rumi, the 13th century Persian sage, saint and versifier of great fame. The corpus of Usha’s (she prefers to sign as Usha only, not her full name Usha Akella) work is not very bulky, considering what she intended to put across. Sufism is not far distinct from Vedanta. Sri Swami Sivananda of the renowned Sivananda Ashram (Rishikesh) summarized Rumi’s basic teachings thus: “Be pious. Eat little. Sleep little. Speak little. Be virtuous. Destroy evil qualities. Annihilate lust. Bear patiently insults and injuries done by others. Shun the company of wicked men. Keep company with wise sages. Do good to people. Shun siddhis as they are hindrances in the spiritual path.”
From moolaadhara to anaahata is an ardent journey, a travel of exploration with individualised maps. It is elevating gradually and progressing towards a destination. This spiritual journey from anaahata to sahasraara is a matter of divine grace. The destination is a state of filling the hridaya, mind-heart with aardrata, a state of the divine ‘wetness’. Hridaya and aardrata are not easily translatable for hridaya is not the mere cardiac muscle and aardrata is something more than mere ‘wetness’. One way of understanding ‘aardrata’ is to conceive it as the end achievement of an imaginative effort conveying the sensation of inducing a condition of mind of the reader. When he comes thus far the reader gets closer to the divine, for, it is declared rasO vai sah – the refined feeling, only rasa is HE. In its elevated sensibility, the mind of the artist attains receptive plasticity where impressions get fixed effectively to be communicated easily. Prayers are supposed to be sent up in a well-trained and carefully prepared mind where the individual is ready to feel the ‘divine’.
The tears in the nature of things inspired and gave impetus to creative minds all over the world down the ages. Devotion to God and living a life of rectitude with implicit faith in Him constitutes bhakti. A recital of a devotional song or the reading of /listening to a devotional text would lead to a condition of this wetness. This said, devotional compositions particularly in the imaginative-poetic mode transport the reader/listener as it did first the composer/visionary. The devout oftentimes have tears eddying in the eyes where ‘aardrata’ is triggered. This leads to a kind of lighting up of a rare and unique awareness called ‘ananda’ a higher mental and spiritual feeling transcending mere joy, physical comfort of feeling of experiencing a unique luxury.
This said, to the poet Usha’s progress towards maturation. Usha has obtained distinction as a poet of Indian Diaspora. One concrete evidence is the Poetry Caravan she has thought up and come out successful in organizing and leading enthusiastic, public spirited and forward-looking poets in the U.S. Writing poetry with imagination and conviction is one thing and leading a novel movement or organizing a caravan of imaginative expression is quite another.
Very fortunately Usha got the first commendation for her poetic work from Doreen Starling, who not only saw her ‘No” as early as in 1994 but also contributed later a foreword to Usha’s first collection of poems Kali Dances. So Do I published in 1999. Later in 2008 the much impressed reader of the delineation of the ardour in Sufi faith in poetry, Rajeevan of Kerala, published The face that does not bear the foorprints of the world, Usha’s second and certainly her most significant work in his Monsoon Editions. In a succinct foreword to the volume Sharifa Norton, teacher and guide of the Sufi Order International, has written that Usha’s book ‘journeys through an alchemy of love in the tradition of the Sufis in which personal love is gradually transformed, through a process of ripening into the ultimate love of the Divine, the relationship of the lover and the Beloved’.
Kali Dances. So Do I is basically an autobiographical poem covering a period of time in which there were doubts, questions, musings, rebellious and unconventional feelings. The eye for intense observation and a faculty for highly individualized expression are in evidence everywhere. The poet quite understandably tries to give a wholesome unity to her poems in the volume and divides these into three sections. Section 1 is called Ascending: Poems of Affirmation. This affirmation placing implicit faith in Shakti (the female principle in the inseparable unity with Shiva) in and by itself is a great promise against the milieu of negation. Then this delineates an ascent too. The second is Dances suggesting vibrant movement and the third So Do I which has the end piece Begging Bowl. Kali (another name for Shakti) is omnipotent and all-pervading. She is not present only in Dakshineswar. Here Kali speaks to the persona hereinafter called the poet that she will coil back to Her when she realizes in her the undeniable element of the Supreme Being in the Upanishad mahaavaakya, Grand Declaration, ‘Aham Brahmaasmi”, I am the Brahman. Having said this, the poet looks back with her remembrance of things past: the drawing room, where she happens to be the centre of handicrafts on display. The Granny exudes the smell of pain balm of Telugu make Amrutanjan. Mother’s migraine and aunt’s gorgeously heavy Kanjeevaram pure silk sari are remembered and the first suitor who comes seeking the young woman’s hand. The hideous groom gets an emphatic “NO”. When asked if he’d settle in Australia, he said ‘probably’ - there she doesn’t want to remain. The first ‘no’ is the curtain raiser to the electrifying narration. The reader sees the poet emerging as an independent, spirited, hurt (for being seen only as a female) and sensitive INDIVIDUAL. The ‘WE’ are members in the poet’s household who come under the poet’s scalpel like scanner. She loses count of her ‘no’s – may be seventeen or thirty and concludes “I am still learning to be a woman”. The poet remembers vividly the menarche:
So now the flesh quivers on the threshold,
The melting snow into the pristine flow,
The old story of woman becoming flower, man becoming seed
(For a friend … p. 9)
Nurtured on alien soils where personal feelings are respected and individualism is held in high esteem, where personal choices are absolutely unquestioned, the poet emerges as a new woman, self-respecting, assertive and vehemently independent. In Step Out of the Fire, she voices her disgust and anguish for the unfair deal to the fair sex:
Sita haunts us still,
gaunt, pale prisoner of the Ashoka,
white, weary, eternally waiting,
for him to claim her,
sent into the fire,
stepping out unscathed
demure, virginal, chaste
she haunts us still
Oh! Indian woman in boundless freedom step out of the fire,
It is said that you cast no shadows.
(Step Out of the Fire p16-17)
Proudly and justly so, she rises ‘on a culture that stood on the corpses of women too long.’ After ages a time has come when an Indian woman manifests in a powerful, self-asserting avatar of Shakti unlimited and sublime. The emancipated woman untwists and uncoils the three knots (of ceremonial wedlock) to emerge in effulgence. Desecration is all of a piece with the poet’s faith after deep cerebration and absolute and unlimited liberty of thought. In this poem the poet considers the act of Vishnu’s hurling his potent wheel to chop Sati’s body of the five elements into fifty-one shreds. The legend, call it a myth or an episode in the holy purana tells us of the places where the shreds fell and came to stand as places of pilgrimage. The poet considers Vishnu’s act desecration and mentions other kinds of the worship of the female flesh. The fact is that not all people take the myth literally. Myths are respected where faith lasts.
In the poem One Hears, the poet lists the unsavoury reality of friends and relatives where dissembling and dissimulation are strikingly rampant.
And the phone rings and rings till it rings in your head
and you lie awake expecting it to ring
with fear of one more invitation to dinner
one more relative’s voice that hides venom
and extends love because we have been taught
to be bound by blood ad forgiveness
(One Hears, p.29).
Double speak and double standards break norms of decency even at the level beyond the familial and inter-personal, at the national level. Tatvam Asi: On India’s Fifty years of Independence is painful befuddlement: The poet is at a loss as to how to know her motherland, the Bharat that was. She wracks her brain as to how to know her, how to unveil her face and how to piece the puzzle that is India now. She is full of idiosyncrasies, inconsistencies, inequalities, paradoxes and irrationalities. The poet comes out of her bewilderment and decides:
A timelessness that weaves through the chaos,
That is the India that I shall sing of.
(Tatvam Asi… p.31)
There is no point in singing of past glory that Bharat was. Flux and thirst have overtaken values and rectitude. Between professions and the practice falls the shadow.
A long sojourn abroad, first Australia in the early years and the U.S. in youth, gave the poet valuable insights into the contemporary Indian actuality as well as an understanding of the Absolute, Ultimate Reality. She looks at things we always see around us day in and day out but she gives succinct descriptions of the reality around in her own way whetting our own perceptions. She could be caustic, debunking, hatred-oozing, and contemptuous or slurring. Never once dos she fall into insincerity or shallow showiness or verbosity. Her pain and befuddlement are real and so are her feelings of discontent and modernity.
Woman usually thinks that a man’s gaze measures her essence but the poet as a woman defies this. In her poem ‘Being Woman’ her self-esteem can be gauzed:
I do not measure my essence by man’s gaze any longer
is looking into the mirror and knowing my mother
still stands firm even though
I have torn her womb in two
to come into the light
and that too I stand a while
examining my reflection.
(Being Woman, p. 47)
This when read in conjunction with what she said about her mother in the poem Departure, in the long poem NO convinces the reader of the poet’s authenticity and sincerity. Poetic inspiration is ignited here entirely by disparate things at this stage in the process of maturation:
A neighbour’s cough will spasm a poem,
A daffodil will bloom on a page,
Garlic will startle a stanza,
And poetry will whisper on our feet
While walking daily routines, these few days
I journeyed to the bud.
The poet’s journey entails pain and laceration. Aftermath shows it all:
hold me, falling star of the night,
clasp my feet to the ground
and I understand
that I must recur in darkness
like the black moon
to uncover my light
The lone eight line poem comes at the end of section 3. It is necessary to quote it in entirety:
Here I go again
using my poetry as a begging bowl
for you to toss in fame
in quarters of applause
and pennies of nods
and dimes in laughter
my heart is aching for Nirvana
Those who are familiar with the Buddha’s begging bowl would surely connect this poem with that legend. By simple association, the Begging Bowl and Nirvana link us to Buddha. The Buddha, we are told, threw away his stone begging bowl, the last of His earthy possessions to make His Renunciation complete, perhaps as a step to Nirvana, the condition of total coalescing into ABSOLUTE ALL-EMBRACING LOVE. This poem opens up wide vistas for interpretation to the second volume A face that does not bear the footprints of the world.
Usha Akella’s second collection of poems, A Face that does not Bear the Footprints of the World. is a sequel to the earlier collection Kali Dances and so do I. Expressed normally the title of the new book simply suggests a person in the making – a personality that is unfamiliar with the ways of the world or the world itself. This unfamiliarity is not a negative attribute or an uncomplimentary description. It refers to the pristine purity – a kind of tabula rasa. The full blossoming of the flower is a matter of deep understanding, sharp insight and inclusive wisdom. Wisdom is not easy to get: it has to be gleaned grain by grain. Language and tropes are charged with power. In the poet’s expression the phonemes are charged with electrifying intensity.
Usha has read her poems to audiences both in India and the US where she landed because of a concatenation of circumstances. Though it is not always easy to get into the depths of an imaginative artist’s meaning just by listening to it once, poetry reading cannot be dismissed as a futile exercise. The way a poet puts across a feeling in his/her reading communicates the contours of the artist’s thinking, belief and imagination.
Usha’s poetic personality is both simple and complex. In a genuine poet the two apparently conflicting qualities are in happy conjunction, unity and complete harmony. Faith is individual and religion a part of culture. A person’s faith may go from one aspect of one culture to another. Understanding LOVE (n its highest sense) is a matter of faith coupled with maturity. This comes as a blessing from above. It is there in all world religions: Hinduism, Sufism, Christianity and so on. Usha believed, going by her averments, that she came under the influence and aura of the Sufi saint Rumi, that she came under Sufism and that her poetry is suffused with LOVE. But as she progressed in life and imaginative envisioning her poetic vision is and in the current book under study there is a convincing and impressive fusion of religions. Sufism is not very different from the faith the poet was born into. We have Swami Sivananda’s explanation of the essence of Sufism: “Be pious. Destroy evil qualities. Annihilate lust. Bear patiently insults and injuries done by others. Shun the company of the wicked men. Keep company with wise sages. Do good to people. Shun siddhis as they are hindrances in the spiritual path.’ Aardrata is the essence of love. Usha has divided her second volume (now under study here) into five sections: Song of the beloved; Love is sitting in the corner in tattered clothes; Tentacles of night; There is a seed and Anahata. A quick in-depth look into each convinces us of the process of crystallization.
The first section opens with the poem Beloved and significantly it is called the first gong. It is a poem of joy and enthusiasm.
The first time I head your name
It went down into the well of my being
I knew it as I knew myself, the first go
That echoed me back into me (p.12)*
An intense self-realization is triggered with a loud gong going deep into one’s being. Flowers bloom on the plant in the soil of memory. This is bliss, ecstasy, the proximity to Him, the Lover, a Divine feeling.
The next step is the coalescing of the self into paramatma, the Supreme Being. The prayer is:
Give the world your flesh, your ardor,
Come back to me with what is mine. (p. 13)
This ‘me’ is non-existent in real terms. Then, there comes the realization that there is no choice in the matter:
For some souls a passing by is enough,
Centuries dart forth and back in a glance,
The universe shifts and is recreated again,
The intellect is wiped out,
Some souls are Love’s playthings,
They are desired to Love and accept the hardest tasks,
There is no choice in the matter. (p.14)
The coalescing is imminent, inevitable too. The ‘face’ the blank tablet – not merely tabula rasa - the erased tablet – is the pristine and the perfect as LOVE, a Divinity.
For the realized one there is no significance or value for intellect. Realization is only radiance.
the intellect collapses,
the words do not matter, not sense
all that is right, and light and timeless becomes us,
I learn to accept this magic as the law between us. (p.16)
The reckoning is in terms of eons. The earth needs to refashion itself with Love as its inner strength. It is a process, possibly through passion and turbulence to understand ALL. The ‘I’ ‘You’ duality is transient, just a passing phase while heading towards coalescing, becoming LOVE. The husband-wife relationship leads to bliss when there is ripeness and fruition:
My heart, my name, your soul, our destiny, our story
(Emphasis the poet’s)
a patch work of remembering and forgetting,
a black void of agony sequined with stars
What is remembered glitters,
Hemmed with my calling, stitched with love,
Even the moon smiles from time to time in recollection of us… (p.20)
Surrender is total self-effacement, the firm step towards coalescing with Absolute and genuine LOVE. Estrangement and lamentation are steps to go up the not too easy ladder of LOVE. The wife coalesces into the husband.
Every corner I turned I turned for you,
every corner I turned the earth turned up in upheaval,
This I have done over lifetimes
as you play hide and seek,
That I will do till
scavengers tear my heat out,
and when they do
they will have to eat your name into mine. (p.23)
Some lines above bring to our mind the love of every gopika for Sri Krishna, and the effort to coalesce losing all individual or personal identity.
These are all brief glimpses of the realization of the everlastingness of LOVE. The last poem in the section Love is the light within light comes like a grand finale:
I should have known the Light within the light,
the beloved within the beloved
The exit of one has left room
for the universe to creep back. (p.36)
And then there is this question:
How can you know me if you don’t know this madness (p.36)
(Emphasis the poet’s)
The self-willed, spontaneous destruction of ‘Egosense’, ‘myness’, ahamkara voluntarily leads to bliss that surrender and self-effacement alone can yield.
The second Section Love is Sitting in the Corner in Tattered Clothes is yearning for self-effacement. LOVE sits here in a corner in tattered clothes with no thought of herself, her appearance or joy in her mind. The scene in the poem Love has forgotten herself is suggestively laid in New York City. The poet comes up with her denunciations with vigor and verve. Concupiscence has overtaken civilization. Lasciviousness has come to be the order of modern living.
Love is having a manicure in NewYork city,
wearing black tights, she has just fitted herself with a diaphragm,
Love is jogging in Central Park,
And rapping and poetry slamming in coffee shops
Love is aborting an unborn child,
Love has become cattle in the pastures of other wives’ bodies
Look at Manhattan trying to maul the sky with its greedy fingers,
“Í, I” it screams daily, “I want. I desire.”(pp.39-39)
And then there is a cryptic remark to conclude: ´love is the mask upon the mask upon the mask. (p.38-39)
Things have turned out to be lustful or lust driven. It is all itch now, all eroticism and voluptuousness. The puerile manifestations of desire, lust and luxury lead to libertinism. It is all letch. This harlotry is ruinous. Usha’s pen portraits of depravity are repulsive and are photographic representations of the actuality around. Layers of masks comes as a refrain. Love is portrayed to be busy with brilliant sketches of naked actuality. This state of affairs is not just limited to New York alone: it obtains in Hyderabad also. Here are un-whitewashed versions of the scabrous and the scatological expressed with decency and subtle irony.
There is descent in the tentacles night and degeneration in the loveless human. There is recklessness and depravity. Though things are as they are, Love remains God’s handmaiden calling Man to God.(p.42) The thinking individual is befuddled:
Why to live! Why to live!
Love has fled! Love has fled! (p.44)
The serpent has grown robust – become a python now rendering human incapable of movement or even thinking and so all the more despicable: “The whole Samsara has come to be decadent with too much appetite.” “There are frigid wombs yielding no life” “there is insidious repetition of madness.” A flash of cerebration comes at the end of the sad lamentations: How can you see the light if you don’t see the darkness?”(p.46)
The hoarse calls, statements and shouts from the housetops with a fond hope of catching the attention of the passerby go unheard. The ennui becomes bottomless:
“God, I m tired of all things I agreed to do.
wear this flesh
walk this earth
be garlanded with skulls
all in your name
What I really want to do is holler
your name from the rooftop
and pelt your house with stones till you
holler right back at me. (p.48)
Faith gets convulsions and one needs to go back to square one and traverse the path trodden all over again.
Section IV There is a Seed signifies the awareness of the seed along with the conviction that it sprouts. There is a doubt at first: “The seed has sprouted once, can it once more?” Yes, it could and it did. Why to live is again a doubt – the normal feeling of ‘one at the threshold between the unmanifest and unfoldment’(p51). This leads to the flash:
At this juncture one is not alone,
one’s agony is the signature of the human condition.(p.52)
The poet becomes cerebral and slips into prose, the vehicle of thundering grand declarations like the mahavakyas in the Vedas. The swing from poetry to prose is revealing. She says like a silent love-filled mystic who has lost himself in meditation and with an impressive mien reveals all in a flash. Nature emerges as Spring season after hibernating in wombs of winter, hidden in the folds of the earth. Long labor pains vanish. There is resurrection happening every second, in every blade of grass that springs back from earth’s womb with renewed splendor. God is not a mystery. God is a revelation for all to see – the only requirement is love.
The odyssey of the poet having traversed a long way, now reaches a significant milestone in The Holy Land: “Here, experienced in this life time, in this body, in the midst of unfoldment, in the midst of Samsara… Somehow one had come home; one had wandered for years and found home right in oneself – in the sanctuary of one’s heart retrieved from the soil of Samsara.” (p.53) The protagonist has successfully come back to childhood again. She realizes that she is the seed. “I am the you of you resurrected.”(p.54) At that juncture answers to troubling questions are found, no, realized.
Why to live?
For Life’s sake. No more than this.
To be unfolded. No more than this.(p.56)
Section V, the concluding one Anahata starts with an epiphany. The autobiographical element seen in many places acquires here the status of a revelation, some kind of a last word, a testament. After the humdrum details of the life of an average Indian woman, the poet avers:
I am out of the closet –
I’ve kept this secret too long,
I am a God lover,
That’ all there has been, there is and will be,
The only titillation,
I am a hopeless lover at heart –
Loved by people, the world, anything that
rippled God’s intent,
I declare myself a lover of God.(p.58)
To appreciate the poet/protagonist’s spiritual evolution the concept of Anahata as implied requires a brief explanation. Adherents of sublime Tantric faith believe in shat chakras in the scheme of the afferent and efferent fibers of the vagus nerve in the human anatomy. Primordial Energy is described as Kundalini Shakti. Based in moolaadhara, the pelvic plexus, the energy is awakened with sadhana by the aspirant to move upward traversing swadhishtana, manipura, anahata, vishuddha and aajna to finally reach sahasraara kamala. The poet believes in the cardiac plexus as per that tradition to be the seat of affection which is LOVE for God. This is the height to which one should aspire to realize oneself and God which are one. Love is the cardinal principle of life as well as existence. One important facet of Usha’s poetry is this LOVE. So convincingly expressed unmasked, her attitude to God and her conviction that she has reached the pinnacle, sends the enthusiastic reader into the depths of her heart, filled with LOVE accomplishing the coalescing into the Supreme Being.
Kali worship, Tantrism, Hinduism and Sufism all merge into a fabulous illumination culminating in bliss. Bhakti, devotion, self-surrender, compassionate concern, aardrata all fuse into LOVE, a conceptual entity crystallizing into an abstraction Man, Nature and the Divine. From mooladhaara to anaahata is an arduous journey. Once awakened, kundalini shakti attains the acme and ends up in sahasraara kamala, the lotus with a thousand petals, all because of LOVE and divine grace. This spiritual journey needs a map which the ardent aspirant has to chart himself with the guru’s benediction. We hear in Usha’s powerful voice Anahata:
My heart has burst open
and has God’s name written all over it,
Petal by petal, pink-hue it lies open to the sun –
Anahata, the heart chakra in divine ecstasy.
Allah Hu. Allah Hu. Allah Hu.(p.59)
In the Faces of Shakti, there are all the seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Nature’s changing seasons are aspects of maya, the Hindu concept which defies a single-word translation equivalent in English. The concluding poems Meadow etc culminate in the Goddess speaking:
“Lusting men! Do not sit as howling jackals at my feet
Thirsting for my flesh,
I can only give you the blackness of my void,
Are you ready for liberation?”(p.80)
Then there is the illumination:
I? What is I?
All God’s play,
I am nothing. Simply nothing. (p.80)
The argument reaches a crescendo. And then comes finally the peroration:
I love God,
I rest my case.(p.80)
*Page numbers refer to
1. Kali Dances. So Do I …Authors and Writers India, Hyderabad, (AP) India, Second Edition, 2003
2. A Face that does not bear the Footprints of the World, Monsoon Editions, Calicut, 2008