Book: Central Time
Author: Ranjit Hoskote
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Pages: 131 pages
Price: Rs 399
Ranjit Hoskote has been in the forefront of poetry and art criticism for well-nigh two decades. He has won many awards, including one for his excellent translation of the vakhs of the mystic Kashmiri poet Lal Ded, who, along with Noor-ud-din or Nund Rishi of Charaar-i-Sharief, still dominate religious and philosophic thought in the Kashmir valley.
The reader encounters in Central Time a blur of insights, dazzling snapshots couched in imagery that is precise and revealing. Here is a poet who revels in language, in playing with reality and, at times, running away with it. As he dribbles away, we notice, thankfully, that he has no particular ideological goalpost in mind. Yet he scores on almost every other page.
A poet needs to say things differently. Hoskote does, and with aplomb. A cat is “hacked” by a slatted shadow; the sun “sets sail at dusk”; a sky gets “stencilled in the window”; meteors light up “the moon’s silences”; a gargoyle is stapled to a landscape; as a brick gets “gouged” from a wall on the border, a “bicycle leans and listens to the light”. He requests the Sanskrit poets to leave “a trace of cloud on a plate”. In a cold country he draws back the bolts of his frosted breath.
His prose poems, few though they are, are a delight. ‘Numbers’ begins thus: “A day pruned of its branches, scorched by the nomad’s fire, the sun a howl in the sky’s throat. The graves are numbered, without verses or seasons to ground them…” Often the postmodern comes to the fore. In a love poem to his wife, a “torn-out Aztec heart” turns into a blind girl’s paperweight. In an insightful poem on enemy action, a soldier fights his own image in a mirror. All he gets for his lunge at the ghostly figure in the glass is a pair of gloves, probably his own.
There are five sections to the volume. The first is the most impressive, Zoetrope (Wheel of life). (Where Hoskote has to choose between the simple and the arcane, he will choose the latter.) There is a sense of movement, of arrivals and departures in this section of 20 poems. A day “gets pruned of its branches” at an old aerodrome; space “turns slowly into place” along a line of hills; gravity cannot hold back an explorer, for he is ready to travel. There are obstacles, of course, which the explorer faces, as he dreams of home “to ward off the floes/ that drift towards him, blocking every direction/on his lost compass”.
In the poem ‘Travelling Light’, he says “Take nothing with you” except the image of the sky “that will carry you past the poplars of home”. Scores of “abandoned music” drift through this section, as through the whole volume, distances call, meteors light up the sky. But the tug and the pull of home are also ever present. After all, you can’t be on the run all the time.
The explorer follows the reader in the next rain-wrapped section, The Pilot’s Almanac. The titles themselves are giveaways, ‘The Collector of Meteor Dust’, ‘Monsoon’, ‘To Name a Sea’, ‘Passport’. Here you encounter “Rivers abrupt as whiplashes, mountains adamant as fathers.”
There are some memorable poems here. ‘Couple’, for one, defined as ‘Convicts serving time/ in the prison of one another’s arms.’ One could write a paper on the poem ‘To Name a Sea’ where we get a translator hauling in his rudderless boat, “strophe upon strophe”, wave on wave. The only lines that jarred in the volume were “screens that crumple tawny memories/ of desert in their accordion clasp”.
Though the third section has a translated Ghalib ghazal and a magisterial love poem (that sounds like a contradiction), ‘In the Margin of an Autumn Folio,’ we encounter darker tones. We have a short stab of a poem ‘Martyr’ which ends with the lines “Above him a rain of pamphlets/ from the gallows tree.” The other poem is titled ‘Uses for an Executed Dissident’ which is not among his better ones and talks of flayed skin and lamp shades, possibly derived from events in the Holocaust.
There was a time when one out of 10 Hoskote poems would arrive at your table slightly overdone. No longer. This volume is almost flawless.
Keki N Daruwalla is a poet.