On A Various Universe:
‘This fine addition to our general knowledge of India ought to be in every South Asia and British Empire collection.’– Choice, Chicago
‘This evocation of a time when the old India was vanishing and the new British India was emerging is delineated with subtlety and imagination. Then comes a series of sketches of various chronicles. Mrs. Dyson is able to identify with them all … for almost all were moved, enhanced, by the universe which is India. … “Only connect”, urged E.M. Forster: Ketaki Dyson does connect.’ – The Times Literary Supplement, London
‘The author’s scholarship is impressive. … her thoroughness in going through the voluminous tomes, comparing and contrasting not only one writer with another, but different works by the same writer, is most admirable. She carries the weight of her learning very lightly. She has provided us not only with a fresh insight into our past but also with an entertaining book for bedside reading. Although the material she deals with is historical, her treatment of it is literary in the best sense. She is able to communicate to the reader her fascination with the journals and memoirs mostly written by obscure men and women. The author’s objectivity makes it impossible for the reader to guess her nationality or her regional or religious affiliation. She deals with the British colour prejudice, contempt for certain ethnic types, snobbery and inhumanity with an Olympian irony.’ – New Quest, Bombay
‘Ketaki is unique among the Indo-Anglian writers living abroad. … Altogether, she is an accomplished and sensitive poet.’ – The Statesman, Calcutta
On Noton Noton Pairaguli:
‘In this novel the writer presents us with the crisis-hit patterns of the married lives of modern men and women by means of sharp observation, the creation of vivid characters, sensitive dialogue and brilliant analysis. She makes the blood of reality to flow, does not simplify problems. … She examines everything minutely with an adult, intellectual yet compassionate eye. Her prose,…is not only fluent and beautiful, but also perfectly matched to her subjects. We congratulate Ketaki whole-heartedly on the enviable success of her first novel.’ – Anandabazar Patrika, Calcutta
‘I do not know of any other Bengali novel in which there has been such a marvellous union of the East and the West. … a truly international novel. Altogether, in language, structure, formal presentation and everything else, Noton Noton Pairaguli is an exceptional novel and deserves serious study. We are waiting for her next novel.’
On Spaces I Inhabit:
‘Wonderful, vital, teeming book.’ — D M Thomas, poet & novelist.
‘Typifying the emigrée writer at her best … uniquely bicultural … the reader’s awareness is considerably enlarged and prodded toward complexity by having to consider multiple cultural responses. … a unique sensibility born of two worlds, highly educated in both, and thoroughly feminine in her insistence on motherhood and sisterhood as viable literary themes.’—Journal of South Asian Literature (USA)
On Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney:
‘… a very significant event in Bengali literature. This particular mode of realism is altogether new in Bengali fiction— no such attempt to portray the intellectual and emotional life of a conscious person has been made in Bengali fiction before. … the mixed technique … is totally successful…. the experiment is post-modern in its unique realism, but free from the apocalyptic and visionary tendencies of that modernism… Although we may regard it as a novel, it is for the moment difficult to define it. We may say that it is not a “work” but a “text”. … a subversive force in the field of old classifications. … Ketaki Kushari Dyson has opened a new horizon in Bengali literature. Her life abroad is watering our roots, taking the lid off the sky of our own country.’ – Jijnasa, Calcutta
‘Two strands woven intricately together give the book its present form— one fictional and the other based on archival research. … Out of this tension between the factual and the intensively subjective world of personal relationship, emerges a powerful book that defies categorization, because it can neither be read purely as a novel nor only as a treatise of literary research. … It is difficult to summarize the complex argument about feminine identity and female sexuality that is spread over nearly a hundred pages in the book touching upon a wide range of human thought …, but it indicates the maturity and complexity of argument that is the hallmark of the book.’ —-Hispanic Horizon, Journal of the Centre of Spanish Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
On In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden: Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo:
‘It is a work of great literary merit, embodying painstaking research and critical analysis into a very significant aspect of Tagore’s life and art. … It throws new light on the inspiration and impulses behind some significant aspects of Tagore’s poetry and painting and to read it greatly enriches one’s understanding of Tagore the man and the artist. It is not fiction, but reads like fiction. The work is undoubtedly a rich contribution to Tagore scholarship. It shows originality of interpretation and rare excellence of expression.’
—Publisher’s reader, India’s National Academy of Letters, New Delhi
‘… dazzling documentation gathered by K. Kushari Dyson in three continents… It’s a fascinating book (no exaggeration) because the author succeeds in placing herself in between personalities so different who, at the same time, present such unexpected similarities. … the information and discernment are exceptional, even more so when we realize that K. Kushari Dyson spent only a short time in Argentina, and only after the death of V.O. This is the only book to date, besides the autobiography, which enables us to get to know the beginnings of the author of Soledad Sonora from close quarters and in a vivid manner. Personally, after reading In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden, I understand V.O. better, I understand better that obscure, tormented side of her personality which she tried to project in her essay Supremacia del alma y de la sangre ..’
La Nación, Buenos Aires
On I Won’t Let You Go: Selected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore:
‘… admirable introduction … Mrs Dyson has succeeded in these new translations in restoring a sense to the reader of Tagore’s real and remarkable genius as a poet. Short of learning Bengali one does not see how our sense of him as a poet could be bettered than it is by reading her versions. Her own skills and her own personality of course play a large part … One has the feeling of hearing Tagore’s voice, as one hears that of any other great poet … an excellent end glossary of technical terms … if any translation can put Tagore back on the map where he belongs, this one should do it.’–– Poetry Review, London
‘Among the English translations available of Tagore’s poetry, Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s selection I Won’t Let You Go perhaps captures more successfully than any other the sensuous Bengaliness of Tagore’s works, and the particularity of the weather, both inner and outer, in which the poems exist.’–– London Review of Books
‘In her effort to lift Tagore’s persona out of the shadows of mysticism, and present the poet his rightful place in the realm of contemporary poetry, Ketaki Kushari Dyson surpasses her aim. … For all those who value good poetry, the book delivers more than it promises. It is vintage Tagore. … It is not often that one comes across work of such calibre …’–– The Indian P.E.N., Bombay
On I Won’t Let You Go: Selected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore:
Kim Taplin celebrates the poet the pundits miss.
In her lively and informative introduction – itself so full of warmth and flavour – Ms. Dyson lists pepper, ginger, sugar and rice as four words of Indian origin for products that have enriched the kitchens of Europe. When I first encountered Tagore’s poetry in a secondhand bookshop somewhere in the sixties I found only sugar. As I idly turned the pages I can remember finding sympathetic subjects – nature and the spiritual – but treated in vague and bland language. I put it back.
Twenty years on I pulled William Radice’s Penguin selection from the shelf at The New Internationalist office and found a deeper spirituality and a sharper use of words. I reviewed it enthusiastically.
But now I have found a third Tagore, and this one seems to me to be a true poet, one whose genius is in danger of being overlooked in the ultimately chimaerical search for the man, but which this translation reveals. I write about it as a poet and a reader of poetry. I have no knowledge of Bengali and have to accept what translators offer. But Ms. Dyson, as well as being a Tagore scholar, is bilingual, and a poet herself in both English and Bengali. The exuberant variety of diction which she uses shows us a skilled and sensitive poet who wanted above all to communicate human feeling to other equal human beings. He writes movingly and heart-warmingly about the human condition, not as master to disciples or sage to wisdom-seekers, but humbly and trustingly to others who have loved and suffered and marvelled at the beauty of the earth.
Rilke’s often-quoted but rarely followed advice to a young poet was to draw close to nature, to the small detail that scarcely one person sees, which can then unexpectedly grow into something great and boundless. This seems to me to be Tagore’s mastery. No feeling is too small, no moment too evanescent to be the seed of a large and shady poem. The words from which the selection is named – “I Won’t Let You Go” – express the pain of a four-year-old girl as her father packs to go on a journey, and they become the emotion of the earth towards all her perishable denizens. It is typical of him that a small child’s unreasoning pain is considered centrally important. It reminds me of Ivan Karamazov handing back his “meal-ticket” because if it was to be had at the price of one child’s tears that was too high.
Children figure constantly in these poems, children and the stars. “Know that you are but a child in this vast world”, he reminds the reader in a poem called “Play”, calling on us to join in the creaturely dance. It follows one in which he rejects a life-denying interpretation of the doctrine of maya, that the material world is mere illusion. Throughout the collection he shows a child’s openness to experience, but he is never sentimental. In a remarkable poem called “The Boy” he describes the alienated and alienating behaviour of a disturbed child, and ends by blaming his own lack of empathy when the boy can’t respond to his writing:
If there was a poet truly of his own world,
the beetles would come out so vivid in his verse
the boy wouldn’t be able to leave it.
Have I ever managed to write with authenticity
about frogs or that bald dog’s tragedy?
Poets who write about big subjects are in short supply at the moment, and those who do tend to pontificate. Aside from those few, and from those who are more interested in words than things, most published poems are cautious and tidy, afraid of appearing uncool, There is of course earth poetry, though some of its shibboleths seem as limiting as those of the male sky-god religion it repudiates but darkly mirrors. And it can in male poets seem a rather embarrassing exhibition of their anima, and in anima women or earth-mothers an identification, a figurative drumming on their breasts that says, “Me goddess, you worshipper”. Tagore’s earth is female and full of life and longing, but she is as powerless as a four-year-old child. She is also, as only the far-seeing and the sensitive were realising in 1896, “pauperised, afflicted, tearful, tarnished”.
Tagore suffered several close personal bereavements, and grief and loneliness openly acknowledged make the life-affirming quality of his writing the more potent. “Isn’t the body good?” – he rages against transience and loss. He believes and frequently affirms that it is. In a wry sonnet called Renunciation he has a God despairing of the misguided spirituality of the man who wants to renounce the world which is exactly where God indwells. Love of the beauty of the natural world and the seasons runs throughout his thought, and provides settings which body it forth, give it flesh, keep it moist. “A fast damp wind blows sharply from the east” – he begins a poem, a typically accurate detail to root us in the real. It is not so much that he uses such details to bring the writing to life, as that the poems spring from such a keen awareness of life – reality is their element, it is no mere ornament. Rivers flow through the poems, and they are both the actual rivers of his native landscape and the stream of time. Flowers abound, and they are real and specific, and the useful glossary at the back tells us enough about them for us to be able, if they are foreign to us, to understand something of their nature and therefore of their particular resonance as images.
Tagore can revel in pictorial imagery which I imagine would make most of today’s magazine editors wince. “…In the blue heavens/white cloudlets lie like delicate new born calves/fully satisfied with their mother’s milk” – he could write, and cloudlets-schmoudlets they would scrawl on the rejection slips, lacking the depth to see what they were missing, or perhaps just time-serving, like the Big White Chief who once told me privately and apologetically, “You have to realise our readers are a pretty chilly lot…”.
Tagore can also be funny, tell stories, sing songs, and work in a variety of metres and manners including a set of understated prose poems which read as startlingly contemporary. I can’t begin to do his poetry justice here because it is so various, and so deep and delicate in its implications and perceptions. Also I have only a superficial understanding of it myself; it will clearly repay slow and repeated reading.
We do not need yet other kinds of fundamentalism as an alternative to the violent, the cynical and the trivial. We need poetry. Poetry that is authentic, spiritual without dogma, and which is not afraid to show our vulnerability. And this is what is found in this translation of Tagore.
Kim Taplin is a poet and prose writer. Her most recent book is Three Women in a Boat, Impact Books, 1993.
An editorially modified and shortened version of this review was published in Resurgence No. 177 in July-August 1996. The article as originally written is reproduced here with Kim Taplin’s permission.
On Memories of Argentina and Other Poems
“Si, si, me gusta”, says the poet in the opening poem – and the flavour is caught. She’s speaking of paella, but her poetry too says yes, yes, to life and possesses, to a rare degree, that quality praised by Keats – gusto. This it was in her writing that so invigorated her audience in her (totally unstagy) reading at the 1999 Wessex Festival. Because it’s an unusual quality on today’s poetry scene, in this country at least.
Ketaki Kushari Dyson is a bilingual writer – of novels, plays, essays and non-fiction as well as poetry – and her Bengali work is well-known and well-loved. She’s also the translator of Tagore, in the rich selection I Won’t Let You Go (Bloodaxe 1991) where she revealed Tagore to English readers for the first time not as a spiritual writer disembodied, but as one who rejoiced in the body and the material world, as she herself does.
She doesn’t usually translate her own work. When so moved, she simply writes in her other language, English; but here in England her work is largely unknown. I don’t want to use the space in analysing and deploring the exclusivity (to use no worse label) that has silenced her, but in celebrating the appearance of this collection and suggesting a few of the reasons for its importance.
In the title sequence of 16 poems and their short prose introductions, the word “remember” recurs. Frequently a watchword for poets, and rightly so: the task, to bear witness; shore against oblivion: bestow immortality, even. There is, aside from nostalgia, a whole spectrum of guises for this work, from the weighty and holy business of honouring the past in David Jones’s anamnesis to the self-conscious contemporary “remembering” that often looks more like dismembering.
When KKD remembers it begins with a personal experience. She uses all five senses and is not afraid to say, in effect, I was there. She burns her mouth on hot empanadas, smells jasmine, hears gulls scream aon, aon, aon, aon. She remembers encounters with particular, real people at real, particular moments in time, and she remembers as a spirited, observant woman, in the flesh. And she’s real herself. She coughs and coughs, she falls down the steps, her nose “dribbles”, she gets starving hungry. But because she’s also a thinker and a scholar her remembered encounters lead unforcedly into reflections on the big issues. And because she is totally innocent of the ubiquitous embarrassed and limiting obsession with cool she doesn’t hesitate to claim these topics, even using on occasion a title such as Gender, Ethnicity, Community. This last is a relaxed, funny and touching account of the (named) people of all races whom she meets in the streets of her small town, but which, as the title insists, says far more than might appear on a casual reading.
There’s a dangerous tendency to mutual dislike between those who write feelingly about their own often domestic experience and those who write “objectively” from the intellect. To both camps I’d say, Get a life! Read KKD and see how much richer a poetry can be that contains both. ‘A kerchief on her head, Gloria removes/parasites from the bark of the tipa tree’ – “Miralrío” begins. A woman doing practical work unsqueamishly. A named woman, a named tree. Soon over a meal three women ‘talk excitedly/about politics in a mixture of languages’. The poem ranges easily over a wealth of feelings and ideas and ends with a state of mind both utterly personal and yet connected historically and geographically with the people whose interconnected lives she has come to research.
KKD is interested in so many things. She reads The New Scientist and broods on genetics. She’s interested in race and place, finding more common humanity than alienating difference, yet never losing sight of local distinctiveness. She is deeply read in the poetry of several languages and this as much as her double belonging – ‘When I see stubble fields, I think of Keats/and of Jibanananda’ – means that her work is never narrow, always reaching to embrace and connect. ‘Jiban-ananda. Life’s joy. Twentieth-century Bengali poet. Get it?’ She loves plants, rhizomes and roots and dead leaves as well as blossoming beauty. Her ginger lily, which flowered after a 12-year gap seems a kind of emblem of her own spirit as it appears in her poetry – both its persistence and the near-oxymoron of ginger/lily.
There is fantasy too: she’s not limited to the realistic mode. “Malabar” is a disquieting prose fable of dialogue between a man and his (female) dog.
‘…what’s in it for me?’ she would ask obstinately. ‘What’s in it for bitches?’
He would then explain with much sweet magic that to be a bitch was its own reward.
The same feisty spirit was evident in her two earlier collections, Sap-wood and Spaces I Inhabit, but her work has deepened. She’s still a plain-speaker without banality, one of the great achievements of her poetic. As for example when speaking of an atrocity read about (Serb orders man to rape his dead mother) she enters the horror of the experience and then asks directly:
Can it have a purpose – this ever-gathering strength
Of sneer over innocence?
Is it compost to kick to defiant growth
our dark vegetal virtues and make them tall?
She has travelled, she has read and studied; but she can also, as true poets always can, make poetry out of next to nothing, out of Rilke’s ‘small detail that scarcely one person sees, that so unexpectedly can grow into something great’. As she washes her hands she watches two splashed drops take on the shape of a sad, odd face, and asks:
If I am the mother of a small monster
can I refuse to live my life?
Published in Tears in the Fence, Number 25, Spring 2000
[Kim Taplin is herself a poet.]
On Jadukar Prem Jadukar Mrityu
… a woman’s uninhibited speech: articulate, talkative, unembarrassed, unabashed, cheeky. Relevant use of demotic woman’s language makes this speaking bolder, clearer. …. In nature she finds life’s adhering organic exudation, the counterbalance of various mental states, the dynamic flow of a woman’s personality, and the desperate uncertainty of life. She has written about the dolonchampa and the celebrated keya of her own land, but most of her poems refer to foreign flowers such as the lilac and the tulip, and especially the laburnum in flower …. We do not have the sea in Bengali poetry, we couldn’t, and Ketaki has brought to Bengali poetry that exotic sea which is another name for tumultuous, salty, bitter, foamy and intimate reality. In connection with the sea, other elements have entered her poetry: fishing villages, whales, dolphins; she has even assimilated the mermaids of foreign fairy tales. …. To her life is more precious than art, but art has its value nevertheless. ….. She asks the moon to be a poet, seeing a bicycle she remembers that it was a poet once. On the other side, the moan of the dove gets into her timing clock. A fish becomes a ballerina, a dolphin becomes a dancer. …. Death the wizard and life the wizard take on major roles in these poems … If life is the laughing boy then death is the mysterious girl: this magical relationship is the last word. …. In this book relationships are sometimes harmonious duets, sometimes tugs of war. Into terrible despondence enters love in great splendour, the sun becomes brighter, more incandescent, letters bold with emotion are written. But even more significant is the atmosphere of sunset, the reference to fallen leaves in the context of love letters. These letters are the art of life, the fallen leaves belong to death. Letters pile in postboxes, libraries, archives. Love and death change places, love and life change places. …..
— Ebang Mushayera, Calcutta
On Dolonchampay Phul Phutechhe
Standing on the most lit-up expanse of this crazy earth swept by technology’s terror, Ketaki wants to reach to the message that is very much her own – private, personal, and yet universal. … Her desire to spread a message ‘through poetry’s internet’ is quite appropriate to our times. … This is a time for the contrapuntal, and to express its complex feelings a contemporary language is required. At the same time the traditional has to be fetched back in a new gesture, perhaps as an interweaving. … The reader will notice a dialogue – between an ambience that is intellectually and spatially international and an abiding Bengali consciousness – an inner drama, a many-angled universe of discourse. … Home and abroad, experience and tradition, narration and image-making merge with each other. ….. The shadow of an international presence in the habitual world of Bengali poetry deepens. In the realm of feelings, the boundary between the personal and the impersonal vanishes. Ketaki makes us aware of the new inner sanctum of our beings. When we finish this book, not one discourse but many discourses resonate within us.
— Ebang Mushayera, Calcutta
On the original production of Raater Rode:
‘What an extraordinary play! Quite unlike any play that I’ve seen in any language. The performance was excellent, I thought …’––– Dr William Radice, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University
‘There can be no doubt that Raater Rode will receive recognition in the Bengali theatre world as an experimental drama. … Maybe this play will show the way to a new kind of dramatic composition, incorporating new thinking.’––– Sangbadik, New York
On the year 2000 production of Night’s Sunlight:
‘Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s “Night’s Sunlight” is an outstanding play. It can be enjoyed and understood at so many different levels that even after seeing it twice, and participating in the workshop held at our Fertility and Reproduction Seminars, I am still trying to absorb all the messages this rich and unusual play offers. It is an in-depth exploration of not only the Bengali identity and diaspora, but that of gender, time, political movement, myths, and the environment. It weaves together personal and specific matters bound by time, and peculiar to Bengali culture, into a web of global issues which are timeless and universal…’
Fertility and Reproduction Studies Group
Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology
University of Oxford
For more opinions and comments, please go to the play’s own website: http://www.nightssunlight.co.uk