Reviews / June 2015 (Issue 28)

Capturing India: Jason S Polley's Refrain

by Ankur Agarwal


Jason S Polley, Refrain, Proverse Hong Kong, 2010. 80 pgs.


The first-time traveller in India often enough starts dazzled, stupefied, at a loss to make any meaning of the country's lack of grammar—or, rather, of it's very different grammar, which presents itself as an incessant chattering of tongues mixed with locks of shamans and a cow that "crosses forever," but which is also spiced up with a gallery of religions and faiths coexisting in the famous Indian stories of adjustment (which also translates to harmony and coexistence) and with talks of an AI algorithm dominating conversations on a creaky, rickety, deadly swinging assassinator bus and with the utter incomprehensibility of how to decide whom to trust and whom not to. In short, India is the land that when the senses and the instincts fail, the first-timer is plunged into a rollercoaster of emotions, a dizzy cycle which, if nothing else, leads them to those inevitable spiritual questions of Hesse and of Tagore. Succinctly put, "Can there be anywhere else in the world that is such an assault on the senses?" (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Jason S Polley's small collection of poetry, inspired by a backpacking trip across a huge swathe of northern India and Nepal, is in itself an assault on the senses, and it is only as the journey progresses that a stunned mind slowly recovers some of its old, accustomed-to faculties. His project of describing India is ambitious and it does its best to cover the ground encountered, the range of experiences felt, by a typical first-time traveller to India. In doing so, Polley has to come up with another grammar, another vocabulary, for normal Queen's English with its staid expressions drawn from some Reuters news report won't do. Each subject, each expression, has its own language suited to it; like an organic growth, and much like C S Lewis did with Jabberwocky, Polley achieves the same feat. But Polley's trick for achieving this is different: he plays with whitespaces.

It is with astonishment and admiration that the reader witnesses how a thing as simple as a mere, nondescript gap between English words can be manipulated to recreate India on paper—yes, that is what Polley has done! Some "unseen longgone quickcrafty hands" tell you all there is to know about the writer's fast-receding backpack on a slow train standing by a long platform. But if that seems to you the full measure of this "houdinied" play of spaces and words, then witness this: "restaurant dishwasherwallah squattingworkingsinging in garbagejuice a mere metre away from openworld litterlatrine."

I take "garbagejuice" together—which to my mind's eye is the "juice of garbage" as opposed to "juice of garbage quality"—and not as "singing in garbage, juice a metre away." So, no comma for me even if, at least as far as I know, there is no juice of this exotic variety as yet (though that day might not be far).[i] And not just because these two words have been bandied together on some irrational hunch of the writer, but because they, especially when there's a restaurant dishwasherwallah in question, go along together very well. Because, somehow, "garbagejuice" captures the atmosphere: it reminds me of some streets around the Chandni Chowk in Delhi, where I could maybe substitute "garbagejuice" with "garbagelassi." (Interestingly, Polley is not far from Delhi at this juncture in his journey: he is on the way from Delhi to Kashmir.) The whole of one of old Dehli's aspects is captured in in this one line.

Polley does sometimes commit the crime of explaining what ought not be detailed, of elaborating on his wonderful constructions and thus debasing their mystery: an example is the grandly evocative "cementforabed bodies bugbitten with stomachs"—the line has told everything! But the high which one receives from this line gets snuffed out by the next, "that havent smelt seen stuffed food since forever"—no! This, and more, was already guessed at from the first line: why lessen the power of one's own words, then, with that second line, which does not end up adding anything? But, in the excitement of putting India on paper, monumental task that it is, such rare blemishes can be easily forgotten—especially when Polley has just come up with a sentence devoid of any Indian idiom but which conveys with all the more force the Indian baggage clinging to it: "three drivers must be plotting your demise" in "halfthree delhidarkness."

But Indian idioms—through the use of local vocabulary and Indian English and via the repetition of words, a habit carried over from the natural syntactic turns of Hindi and Urdu—pepper Polley's work, and are the second major bag of tricks he employs (besides the spaces) to put pen, ink and paper firmly beneath the Indian firmaments. From "saris saris saris" and "Bestqualitysirs" heard in a "yelltell," to a line that sends a shudder through the body and asks to be reflected on: "dal lake bomb blast that sent …/…twelve civilians to cemeterysymmetry."

There are also a lot of references to money (not to mention that the section "distrust friendly gentleman," a most thrilling read, is all about getting conned), as if everyone is sweating with cravings for cash, and as if in the so-called land of spirituality, all you don't get is some "… dalailama desperation denied as bus is Fortyrupeessir."

And there is that supreme un-whitespaced construction "Whitepassportvisamuchmoneygora." The position of "much" is a delight—"visa much" or "much money" or both?—and the power of the White visa (capital "W" in the original) is slyly winked at. Then the line "tibetan monk fastends neverending banknotes" (lowercase "t" in the original) makes you remember not just many of the hashish-lined McLeod Ganj faces, but also the commerce of Gods in ISKCON[ii] temples or, in a more classic avatar, temples such as Tirupati. The "cafe de stupa emptyhollow packed to the gills" gives away completely the desperately denied secret.

Polley himself is not far from McLeod Ganj: in the neighbouring Dharamsala,

"… Thailand sex is very fair
and his satellite dish is being installed
and Buddhism is his business"

Everything sells in India—

in the country of jugaad,[iii] of accepting every fate, of hollow pretence formed of stuffed pride over traditions—though of what they may consist, none knows; in a land where there were "barely twenty assassinations last night" and human life can have little value in the vast noisy, fliesfruitsettling, moneysweating, hornhonking, potbellied, baksheeshed, sir-sircallingconnasses; in a culture lost between upholding cows and hankering after Western soaps, between what to believe in and what to dream for, between the antitheses of Kabir and Rushdie, of Panini and Chetan Bhagat. Between excellence which could not be handed down through castes, or an American dream-style, Friends-watching, hedonist lifestyle which needs to be masked through candlelight vigils for the latest rape, what shall the Indians choose?

By the time they do, Polley runs a lap and showcases a big chunk of this transitioning history: with subtle humour, not bitterness; with enjoyment of the whole wildness of it, not scepticism; with a delight in the freedom that India affords, not contempt for it. It is this last joy that is the most difficult to transmit through mere words especially for a land as full and celebratory of life; but in his poems, Jason S Polley has managed to weave in this jubilation, this thrill, making the book a worthy read over several occasions.


[ii] International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also known as the Hare Krishna movement.

[iii] A word roughly meaning "a work-around solution."

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