Four days ago, I discovered what the rains mean in Delhi: three and a half hours to do a distance that usually takes me about 30-45 minutes, with traffic. It could have been boring, frustrating, hair-tearing-out-ing, but I have to admit, it was actually reasonably unpainful. Why? Because I had a notebook and pen, which meant I could write — not the manuscript that I’m supposed to submit in, umm, days, but something else. So, on pages sliced into pieces by streetlight and shadows cast by the car window, I wrote and it was… like churned silt settling on a riverbed. In hindsight, that ride home offered a little time out of time and that was a good thing. After all, it’s taken me four days to find the window to copy out what I wrote in the car on July 13.
Also, apropos the power of poetry to understand reality more keenly than the kind of accounts non-fiction privileges — this will make sense if you read what’s below — make the time to read The Very Quiet Foreign Girls Poetry Group by Kate Clanchy. It’s fantastic.
So here we go at last, and thanks to Colleen Braganza for sending me the poem.
In 1967, Nigeria was a young country whose growing pains had been terrifyingly sharp. Decolonisation (by the British) had been messy and within its first few years of independence, Nigeria had seen ethnic violence and a military coup. Then, when eastern Nigeria seceded and declared itself the Republic of Biafra for the Igbo tribe, civil war dragged its claws through the heart of the country.
At this point in time, a young man named Wole Soyinka, who was already a bit of a legend (a published poet with plays produced by reputed British theatre companies, he’d studied in England and then come back to Nigeria making quite a patriotic statement), spoke up. He wrote articles criticising the Federal Military Government (FMG) killing Igbo people. He also visited the Igbo camp to try and convince the leader of the movement to move towards dialogue with the FMG. For this, Soyinka was arrested and sent to jail. No trial, no questions, just solitary confinement. Or “detention” as the FMG termed it. Decades later, when Soyinka would meet General Yakuba Gowon, the former head of state who had ordered Soyinka be detained in 1967, Gowon would joke and tell Soyinka, “You were my house guest.”
Here’s what being Gowon’s “house guest” meant: Soyinka would spend than two years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. He’d be denied medical attention. No reading or writing materials were available to him. Just one tiny cell and the occasional fragments of other prisoners’ raised voices. (To be fair to Gowon, he said he didn’t know Soyinka had been kept in solitary confinement.) Later, in interviews, Soyinka would say that it almost drove him mad and it was to hold on to his sanity that he started scribbling notes. He made his own ink and scavenged toilet paper, paper from cigarettes and cigarette packs on which he could write. Occasionally, he’d smuggle out a letter or a poem if he could.
These poems from prison came out as a volume titled A Shuttle in the Crypt in the early 1970s. They’re all rage and anguish, undulled by the fact that we’re almost fifty years from the time that Soyinka is describing — because the gut-wrenching truth is that in fifty years, that sense of being unfairly trapped has only spread, not waned.
The last few days, as news has come in from Kashmir of terrible clashes between civilians and security forces, two lines from a poem, from A Shuttle in the Crypt, have haunted me.
“The human heart may hold
Only so much despair.”
They’re from “To the Madmen Over the Wall”, they’re the lines that end the poem. I’m not one of those who can remember entire poems. It’s actually quite unusual for me to even remember fragments like this. What I can do is recall the feel of a poem and the name of the person who wrote it. The rest are details for which I turn either to my bookshelf or Google. What I could remember of “To the Madmen Over the Wall” — beyond those two lines — was the feeling that rippled through the words. There was an acute sense of empathy but also a certain distance, as though Soyinka would consciously step back when he got too close to the madness that he was describing.
A Shuttle in the Crypt, tragically, is not easily available. It’s one of those volumes that you find in libraries, whether personal or institutional, so it took a while to get hold of the entire poem. Soyinka was writing about his experience in a single cell in a Nigerian prison, cut off from “freedom”, civil war and its atrocities, but re-reading “To the Madmen Over the Wall”, it articulated perfectly where we are now, in an India being wrenched out of shape by violence. Perfect for me, sitting in Delhi and feeling my heart break as I read news of the violence in Kashmir.
Your fill and overripeness of the heart.
I may not come with you
Companions of the broken buoy,
I may not seek
The harbour of your drifting shore.
Your wise withdrawal
Who can blame? Crouched
Upon your ledge of space, do you witness
Ashes of reality drifting strangely past?
Your minds have dared the infinite
And journeyed back
To speak in foreign tongues.
May rupture tired seams
Of the magic cloak we share, yet
Closer I may not come
But though I set my ears against
The tune of setting forth, yet, howl
Upon the hour of sleep, tell these walls,
The human heart may hold
Only so much despair.
(To the Madmen Over the Wall, Wole Soyinka)
For me, though this poem is about Soyinka trying to stay sane in a Nigerian prison while outside his beloved country was being ravaged by madmen, “To the Madmen…” spoke more sensitively about Kashmir than any of the op-eds I’d read. I think a lot of this came from the fact that in the poem, Soyinka is acutely aware that he can relate to some of the madness on the other side of the wall. There are foreign tongues, yes, but he must consciously set his ears against the tune and even after doing that, he relates to the mad despair.
I’ve spent the last three months working on ‘hard news’ for the first time in my career. In the past, I’ve dipped my toe in it from time to time, but for most part, I’ve written about the ‘soft’ world of culture. “You’re capable of more than this.” “The culture beat is fun, but it isn’t actually relevant like current affairs is.” “Have you thought about doing real journalism?” These are just a few of the comments I’ve heard over the years. Remembering and reading Soyinka this week was an affirmation of sorts. And today just happens to be his birthday, which is as good a time as any to thank a poet for his words and for the reminder that there’s nothing soft about culture when it’s forged in the flames of politics, sensitivity and talent.
There’s a lot more respect given to those who go out and report on the reality and frequently, the rest are dismissed as those who get by while keeping their heads in clouds of fiction. There’s good reason for this — as a friend had once put it, there’s only so much heroism to having the gumption to watch a bad Bollywood film. But it’s worth remembering that while literature and the arts can seem terribly fragile and even frivolous when faced with certain realities, they’re also uncannily resilient in their ability to be touchstones. That’s why the monologues of Shakespearean heroines and villains continue to strike chords among audiences hundreds of years later — because they touch upon emotions and biases that continue to hold true. That’s why Soyinka in solitary confinement could voice the emotions coursing through today’s ‘hard news’.
Remembering Soyinka and connecting his work from 40 years ago to what’s happening now in a completely different part of the world? That’s what you get for studying literature and covering soft topics like culture.