(This piece was first published in Deccan Herald on 20th September 2020. Not Only But Also is a fortnightly column with a fresh take on gender, sexuality and more.)
When you have grown up in Mumbai, like I have, the poetry of the monsoon can hardly leave you untouched. It sinks its teeth into your skin, and memories ooze out. There is beauty in that pathos, and you feel oddly jealous at the sight of a mango tree. Stationed opposite your window, its rain-soaked leaves glisten with perverse fulfilment. They remind you of what you long for; not touch alone but a gaze that meets yours and eats you up.
I am the sort of listener who plays songs on repeat. There is peace in knowing that a poet has crafted words for my feelings to nestle in. And when these words are sung, they leap off and enter me, stoking the embers in a heart that once loved and knows better than to stop loving. The song becomes a world unto itself, pulling me into its embrace, and showing me how words can be as deceptive as looks are. They singe with their sweetness.
The lockdown intensifies these feelings because the gift of time is both abundant and unforgiving. Unlike J. Alfred Prufrock in the love song written by T.S. Eliot, my life is not measured out with coffee spoons but with writing deadlines, phone calls, meal times and social media notifications. It is poetry alone that punctures this illusion of predictability. It reminds me that a river of emotion flows inside, waiting to wash over me when work is put aside.
A poet who never fails to tug at my heartstrings is Kabir, the 15th century mystic from Benaras whose work extends far beyond the pithy couplets reproduced in Hindi textbooks. Of late, I have been listening to ‘Naiharva’, a poem attributed to him, and sung by two contemporary artistes — Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy and Vedanth Bharadwaj — who live in Bangalore and Chennai respectively. This song is available on a YouTube channel named Ajab Shahar.
Kabir uses the image of a bride aching to leave her natal home (‘naiharva’) so that she can go and live with her husband (‘sai’) and her in-laws (‘sasure’). While I have yet to come across such an enthusiastic bride, I appreciate the deeper meaning Kabir is pointing towards. His poem celebrates the seeker’s quest for liberation from all that is familiar and comfortable. When that happens, we are told, there will be room for wisdom to flower.
Instead of locating the poetry in a traditional arranged marriage set-up, I hear this song as a queer person’s lament while they are stuck with their birth family during the COVID-19 pandemic. Where they really want to be is either with their chosen family that accepts their gender identity and their sexual orientation, or in the arms of their beloved. The freedom they seek lies in being loved as they are, and not in a patriarchal institution.
The natal home can also be interpreted as a kind of closet, which keeps the queer person from exploring themselves and moving towards an identity that is meaningful to them. Once they have got a glimpse of who they are, and how they can live fearlessly, they do not want to be shackled by the old ways of living. The beloved can be a friend or partner, not necessarily a husband. The beloved can inhabit any form. There can be multiple beloveds too. Adopting a queer lens, after all, is to imagine new worlds, relationships and ways of being.