IndiaGBnews.com special correspondent Aline Dobbie reviews Thali Katori – An Anthology of Scottish & South Asian Poetry.
To explain the title for anyone not familiar with the words – Thali is a plate (more often seen as a big plate or salver) on which many dishes are served. Katori signifies the bowls which are the vessels for the different mouth watering Indian food that is ladled into each bowl.
I was a baby in India
Born among dark eyes and thin limbs
Handled by slim fingers
Bounced by bangles
And held high among the turbans,
Surrounding by the light sari
Black knot of hair
Suggestion of spice,
Wrapped up only by those songs
that spiral the spirit out of the dust
And lay it down again to sleep.
Never left with a strange babysitter
I was part of the parties, parades, the bazaar,
Could swallow the stenches and listen
To the poetry of bargaining;
Heart’s desire was to drink cool water or chew a sugar-cane
And flap off the flies.
To have first found the world in abundant India is my life’s great privilege.
Those words taken from the lovely poem by my late dear friend Tessa Ransford encapsulate my early life too as, like Tessa, I was born and then grew up in beloved India.
Graham and I were present at the poetry reading with some music held at the Consulate General in Edinburgh where the Consul General Ms Anju Ranjan launched the book: An Anthology of Scottish & South Asian Poetry, edited by Bashabi Fraser and Alan Riach.
In the year of India @ 70 any one of us bound up in India and her story has had time to reflect about India, where the country finds itself now in its stately progress to becoming a global superpower – albeit hopefully through commerce and industry not military might.
Poetry is a good way to make us reflect and consider the feelings of others. The fact that Scotland and India have been intricately bound since about the middle of the eighteenth century makes it doubly important to examine the current situation and the potential for our two nations – one, the world’s largest democracy and the other an ancient little country of less than 6 million people who has nevertheless a great diaspora and is part of Great Britain, where many Asians have sought to live and fulfil their aspirations and now their second and third generations are some of the UK’s brightest and best in all fields of professional and entrepreneurial life.
This anthology is full of beautiful and witty and indeed pithy poetry – short verses that leave one alert and in agreement, or others that take one into nostalgia, or indeed sadness. For me I have the pleasure of returning to India very often for several weeks at a time, so my observations are of modern India and modern Scotland. When my family departed India in 1963 we very soon ended up in Edinburgh…thus the poems by the lovely Jameela Muneer resonated with me deeply. I just must give you the example:
I’m an Asian Woman But…
Don’t patronise me, categorise me, finalise me
I’m an Asian woman but I’m ME
As for her Stockbridge Man, well I nearly shouted with laughter as I had met so many of those when I became a student in Edinburgh and afterwards!
In my case I was a Scot but born and brought up in India and by the mid-1960s there was a large diversity of students in Edinburgh but a studied caution amongst the locals; the times past with the huge outflow of Scots to the sub-continent had ceased and whereas young Scots had grandparents and uncles who had served, worked, lived loved and died in India in the 1960s there was a sense of introspection and folk who had never yet travelled seemed to resent those of us who had done so or came from ‘abroad’. This was before the advent of tourism and cheap flights and adventurous souls going off to the Med or farther afield. The only travel that had been undertaken was in the form of lives overseas in some form of work or colonial service and military service. I had gone to boarding school from 60 years ago in England and school friends shyly asked were there any tigers in the streets…
Bashabi Fraser’s lovely poem that so touches me is The Same Moon from Edinburgh To Calcutta. Indeed, driving back to our home outside Biggar last evening with the last supermoon of 2017 shining and lighting our way in a clear sky it filled me with comfort that the same moon was shining in India…the land of my birth to which I will return very soon.
In My India we danced
At Holi, ate biryani at Eid
Watched a thousand lamps
Shine at Buddha Purnima, lit
Candles at Easter and had a roast dinner
Watched by a resplendent Christmas tree.
Yes, Bashabi that was for me too and I treasure the memories.
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. Gandhiji’s immortal words.
Christine de Luca was the previous Makar of Edinburgh (or Poet Laureate). She can speak in the Shetland tongue and this poem just delighted me:
As I turned fae a ATM machine
A camel cam stoorin by, pooin a kert.
He luikit doon his nose at me I da wye
At only a camel can, for I wis gawpin
At him, at his stately neck wi hits paintit swasticka for aa ta see. Summonin
Da wisdom o his forbears, seemed ta say
‘dis symbol brings luck, god healt and strent,
An maks da sun sheen warm apon you,
Helps you fin love, wealt, final liberation!’
(Note: The swastika in India is an ancient symbol which has strong positive connotations. The Nazis subverted this symbol, reversing it in the process) But modern India has cell phones by the millions and millions, ATMs in every village and town and e-choupal which is a form of IT and internet communication to help with villagers, plus the burgeoning infrastructure that makes for ease of movement – and goodness me India is on the move both within her great nation and going to places globally.
Which leaves me to finally think about another great land where I have lived – South Africa where one of its famous sons said:
My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.
In this time of serious challenge where the United States appears to be facing inwards one could recall those words of Mark Twain:
The universal brotherhood of man is our most precious possession.
It just seems clear to me that as long as we are all here, it’s obvious that the struggle is to share the planet, rather than divide it.
This lovely anthology is full of great poetry and beauty from Sir Walter Scott to modern lovely poets, only a few of whom I have quoted here, and it will make a wonderful gift.
Thali Katori – An Anthology of Scottish & South Asian Poetry is available from:
Aline Dobbie is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on India. Born in India to Scottish parents she spent the first 16 years of her life in the sub-continent. An acclaimed travel writer, Aline is the author of a celebrated trilogy of books on India, including The Peacock’s Call – www.thepeacockscall.co.uk