21 February 1999 (Anaïs Nin’s birthday)
It is all a matter of concentration: If you concentrate on knowledge you become a wise man; if on money, a rich man; if on love, a prostitute but if you concentrate on god you become a saint.
– S. Radhakrishnan, Commentary on the Gita
Every great document of civilization is at the same time a document of great barbarism. And when this document changes hands each transfer is marked by great violence.
- Walter Benjamin, “Essay on the Philosoophy of History,” in Illuminations
Sex is a way to sainthood.
– Anaïs Nin, Diary III
Why I Write
“As everyone knows by now, I’m homosexual.”
To write this sentence and to speak it publicly which is a great liberation is why I write. How did I write my first poem? I was beaten up while cruising the streets of a small university town in Michigan, one summer in the early 1970's. The man was a Chicano, a migrant Mexican laborer, nameless, of course. He wanted everything: love, money, food, sex, just as I did then because I was a poor student in the world’s richest democracy. I remember the room we made love in. I went into the kitchen to make tea, a light liqueurish Darjeeling which smelt of home. He stole the Nepali knife I had hung on the wall to beautify my rented room and tried it on the writing desk cracking it from side to side. Was this the man I had made love to five seconds before? Was he a brute or a human being? Did I not wish to go over from my effete life into the vitalism of his life? Had I not stolen his manhood by stealth in a bed? Was he not justified in wishing me dead?
“12 red roses splattered the shirtfront on my chest.” – Lorca
The next night I could not sleep. I had stitches on my nose which were slowly healing. But I was afraid of the dark. I changed my night-lodgings. I slept in a different room the next night. I did not want my private terror to pursue me. In the morning I awoke to Josephine Jacobsen reading on the radio: “All need is dry / Rain is a metaphor.” (I learnt much later that Josephine Jacobson, consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, was crippled at birth.) There are no birds this year
Sex is a metaphor. A poem is a metaphor.
Love is a poem; a made thing.
And a poem is love; a communication.
I am not mad. I write in order not to go mad.
“Zen is the art of not committing suicide, not going insane, not becoming a cripple.” – Suzuki, Zen Buddhism
In last year’s nest
I’m sane now
Then, I was mad.
– Basho, “Haiku”
The next night I could not sleep. I had stitches on my nose which were slowly healing. But I was afraid of the dark. I changed my night-lodgings. I slept in a different room the next night. I did not want my private terror to pursue me. In the morning I awoke to Josephine Jacobsen reading on the radio:
“All need is dry / Rain is a metaphor.”
(I learnt much later that Josephine Jacobson, consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, was crippled at birth.)
There are no birds this year
I’m in a different room now. My mother has suddenly become a cripple. She cannot walk since the day father left her for another woman. I am 16. I know there is a lesson somewhere in this.
And I go back into this mansion of memory with rooms within rooms. And I’m a child of 5. I’m sick with malaria. It is 1952 and all the quinine won’t work for this soul-sickness.
I am in love with my mother.
She has a soft green kimono of mercerized cotton which always smells clean and her long hair is soft. This mansion of memory could be my rich father’s house on the sea at Bombay or it could be my mother’s womb, the only place where I remember being truly happy.
My mother gives me her breast. A rich creamy soft breast. She lets me suckle long because I’m her only son.
Many years later I had a vision of the Phaeneromeni Mother, in Nicosia, Cyprus while awaiting a visa to Israel. She gave the Christ child a rich creamy soft breast. Phaeneromeni means the One Who Appears. The Divine Mother appeared to me and led me to the Promised Land just as my mother had led me up the staircase of sorrow leading to Bondra’s Mount Mary in Bombay.
Now I’m in a different room of memory. I’m 23. I’m in Virgil Lokke’s office at Purdue University saying “I do not want to die before knowing everything.” Virgil lead Dante through Hell. Surely there must be a way out of this mess I made of my life at 12! And now Virgil is dead.
He was to me a father I never had. I had a father who laughed at a son who wrote poems instead of making money. He also frowned at daughters who did not marry but praised their moneymaking. My sisters and I were born modern, in independent India. But my poor father who lost his doctor-father at birth to the 1917 world epidemic of influenza was brought up by an adopted grandfather who was a wealthy but illiterate jeweler living in fear of an Avertan god and of Victorian morality.
Before her marriage my mother taught Gujarati in a Parsi school, sang Indian raagas, wore homespun for Gandhi and discussed Adyas theosophy. Father put paid to all that. I identified with my mother’s suffering.
So the first poem I wrote was on a photograph of the woman painter Georgia O’Keefe:
Gnarled, snarled hands
And light on the temple
A world is not given
But is made
It was not about life but about art. I was about life-in-art. Then came along Ana s Nin saying pretty much the same thing. It was the Mother, the woman-artist who caught me and liberated me.
When Venice was a village Isfahan was a world-empire.
Isfahan is half the world. Now I’m in the Sophy’s palace. I wander through the music room. Why was a king called the Sophy? Because he was a Sufi. He owned nothing. He held everything in trust for God.
When I gave up my father’s wealth, because homosexual sons don’t inherit, I gained the world.
Jalal-ud-din Rumi and Shemsi-i-Tabrizi. The teacher and student as lovers. Shems was murdered on his way to Mecca, and Rumi poured out his heart in poems. “Separation leads to pain,” is the first teaching of Zen Buddhism, of Sufism, of Christianity which speaks of a Fall. Rumi was God-drunk and he danced and sang of the Return to Wholeness describing vast circles in space with his body.
I traveled to America, Iran, India, Tibet, Arabia, Palestine, Israel, Italy, Britain, German: vaster and vaster circles in space. I traveled like Rama for fourteen years.
I lost my innocence in Iran. My hair turned white almost overnight. I saw killing in the streets with my own eyes. A boy lifted his hand to throw a stone. He was met with the soldiers’ machine-gun fire. His hand was blown off. He was brought badly bleeding from the groin to the carpet-shop where I had hid. The stench of fresh young blood oozing purposelessly on those priceless carpets! In Iran, in Kurdistan, in Palestine this same blood springs up as poppies in the fields at spring.
I learnt to love my students as Shems loved Rumi.
On 19 February 1999 my teacher was murdered in Bombay. Mehroo Jussawalla lived alone, a spinster from one of the city’s leading legal families. She taught us moral values culled from Spenser. She was murdered by a brute in her sleep. I wrote her a poem:
The Loneliness of my Spinster Teacher
The staircase would humorously crack
To bear your load And you would laugh out loud
at the wooden protest
O that this too too solid flesh
– That was no cosmic joke!
And the table groaning
under mountains of food
And the full belly laughing at noon
There were other things under other suns
The Oxford girl reading Marvell or Donne
These hands were not meant for work
or the kill
But only to prise a meaning out of a text
Her father’s own Penelope
And the cobwebs and the tapestry
The warp and woof of familial love
The weevil in the bin at work
The termite in the leather bookbinding
Ruskin, Venice and the honeyed sun of love
Sinking over Malabar Hill
The evenings longer
The laughter sharper
And then the night
(On the map
Bombay is a hand
But it is actually an open mouth)
There was this healthy woman
With a disease, so lonely
that grew and grew
And the working-class thief
Who came up at night to kill
Was really a redeemer. . .
The branch is bent when green
And if not, then –
So I write to make sense of death.
What was Mahroo Jussawalla’s crime? She hurt no one. She was a dutiful daughter, a conscientious teacher. She did social service as the women of her class are wont to do. Miss Jussawalla’s crime was that she could not see beyond her hilltop balcony to the slums below. In all probability a mafia landlord hired a slum-dweller to axe her for her property. Walter Benjamin says that it is a fascist society that does not change property-relations between social classes. Nazim Hikmet, whom I quote, writes:
The branch is bent when green
And if not, then –
So I am a teacher.
When Ramakrishna preached throughout India someone shouted from the crowd: – Do something for the suffering people of India.
I CAN DO NOTHING, the Master said.
“This is the position of the artist,” says Anaïs Nin, commenting on this episode.
I have taken the warning to my heart. I couldn’t, but my students will make the revolution.
“When the revolution comes I will be the first one to be killed.” (Nin)
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