I have been reading Tabish Khair’s Man of Glass lately (am on my second reading already). The book has three sections – each one a kind of retelling of the familiar. The first is a modern take on Shakuntala. The word ‘adaptation’ springs my mind and is perhaps best suited to describe the way in which Khair chooses to interpret the ancient Indian tale. Shakuntala here is not a passive girl who takes up with a king only to be forgotten. She is a young girl on a bicycle who bumps into a stranger, a foreigner, and happens to dreams of another world – a ‘palace of progress’. Her struggle is not so much the struggle to be remembered, as to remember herself. Even so, the essence of the story remains what it always was – a young girl’s desire for something alien to her own culture, followed by her search for acknowledgement and acceptance.
The voice he uses in this series is practically conversational – I felt like I was listening to someone narrate Shakuntala in contemporary English – and yet, it takes nothing away from the poetry. Here’s a bit from a poem I really like ('Forms'):
“…She is enveloped
by rumours of the world out there, palace
she cannot enter unless she knocks hard and
someone within takes pity on her….
Paper becomes her life, forms
and applications, names shrink
to acronyms: GRE, TOEFL, GMAT.
This is the price of admission to the world:
Everything has to be slotted and numbered,
the spill of language sliced
to algebra of alphabets. Very soon
she will turn number in files
in embassies where her skin will stain
for the first time, in offices and universities
across the seas bridged by capital
and barred to human bodies like hers, except
when the kings of Moon remember their own need.
But who is there to tell Shakuntala to remember
Those graves in Europe with names written as numbers,
To recall the danger when tragedies become news,
When prisoners turn digits, people become JEWS?”
The second section is a few transcreations chosen from amongst Ghalib’s well-known work and the third is a series inspired from Anderson’s fairytales (the Grimm and Anderson so many of us read as children). I have either forgotten or not read several of the original stories which Khair has chosen to interpret as poems rooted in our very troubled times. But I love them all regardless.
A sampler from the story of Thumbelina, told as the poem titled ‘Prayer’:
“Grant me a little child
I can hide
When the mullahs come home to pray,
When planes are birds of prey.
Smaller than my thumb
I can put in my pocket and run.”
If you are keen on poetry (or even if you can just about stand poetry), I’d recommend Man of Glass.