Singing the Everyday Sacred

Priya Sarukkai Chabria brings you a celebration of the extraordinary and the spiritual in the most unexpected places.

Spiritual undercurrents pervade the largely secular lives that many of us lead. Yet, caught in the mundane and the routine, we are often unaware of its throb. But when it ambushes us, its force transfigures the moment and dyes vision. Poems possessing this tincture, that I term “the everyday sacred”, glimmer with beauty found in the most unseemly places, generate gratitude, touch the mysterious and ripple with courage. This is poetry of sludge and soul, interconnected.

Such burnished poems are more common than imagined in India’s multiple languages, and, indeed, worldwide. We offer a sampling of excerpts, a kaleidoscope of spirituality’s glow, by contemporary poets in Tamil, English, Khasi, Sindhi, Urdu, Hindi and Malayalam.

In this superb poem, Manushyaputhiran (pen name of Tamil poet S. Abdul Hamid) locates the wondrous that is hardwired into our DNA.

Deep within the storage bin
a single affection
quietly sprouts.

It sees no light
It feels no wind
It hasn’t even a handful of earth
to cling to …

it grows into the light.

(Translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom. In The Rapids of A Great River, The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry, Eds. Lakshmi Holmstron, Subashree Krishnaswamy and K Srilata, Penguin Books India, 2009)

The late Marathi and English poet Arun Kolatkar possibly created the most celebrated cycle of poems in English on “the everyday sacred” in his book Jejuri, on the eponymous hill revered by shepherds in Maharashtra. His clear-eyed vision tears down boundaries:

what is god
and what is stone
the dividing line
if it exists
is very thin
in jejuri
and every other stone
is god or his cousin

(In Jejuri – Zweisprachige Ausgabe, Verlag Wolf Mersch, 1984)

Haiku poetry’s limpid terseness refracts compassionate scrutiny of the commonplace and the ugly. Few contemporary poets equal Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s acuity, vivid imagery and humour as in these in the Khasi, translated by the poet.

drizzling in the sun --
at the end of a rainbow,
a filthy stream

golden bee
sprawled on snowy plum petals:
this is all it needs “

And, on the hill station of Shillong where he resides:

city’s preferred paint—
grey lichen and dark monsoon
fungus with green moss

(In Ka Jingiapein Jong Ka Por – Ki Haiku Bad Senryu/Time’s Barter – Haiku and Senryu,
Harper Collins India, 2015, 1958)

The city moulders, but Nongkynrih wryly celebrates its flourishing non-human life. On the other hand, Tamil poet Salma works the grotesquery of a worm slithering in her food to an explosive welcoming of the unknown.

…In the years to come
it grows, shifts shape
climbs on me and crawls about
sucking its food from my body

frightening me
with its stranglehold
of possibilities.

Sukritharani, another leading Tamil feminist poet, ends her poem by turning her body into a site of empowering sacredness, reminiscent of medieval South Indian women mystics.

I myself will become
The more you confine me, the more I will spill over.
Nature’s fountainhead.

(Salma’s and Sukritharani’s poems translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom. In Wild Girls, Wicked Words, Ed. Lakshmi Holmstrom, Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House, Bangalore, 2012)

On a similar note, distinguished Sindhi poet Mohan Gehani points us to the miracle of the maternal revealing its cosmic avatar. Translated by the poet, this poem’s apparent simplicity reflects the swift magic of transformation.

I will tell you
How stars are made.
That day you were feeding
Little brother,
He gathered milk in his mouth
Spat it out with full force
And your face was full of milk

(First published in Popata Pakdinde (1993), then in Brittle Ice, Copper Coin Publishing, 2015)

Love transforms a stranger into the beloved, and in this sense, most love poems could claim to be steeped in “the everyday sacred”. Danish Husain, actor and Urdu poet who self- translates, directs our attention through the irritant of a cellophane wrapper to immanence seeded with potential.

No, no! Please don’t tell me!
…That which is innocent,
Hidden deep within
If expressed casually
Would break its spell
…And like one finds the wafer thin covering of a candy
Stuck between teeth
This spell of mine will break
Float like an ordinary truth.

Innumerable poets pay homage to the transfiguring power of poetry that is, in itself, a path to “the everyday sacred”.

The remaining poem
Is not written with words,
Drawing the full existence like a full stop
It is left anywhere…

declares Kunwar Narain, among the most luminous contemporary Hindi poets. Mysterious and encompassing, this excerpt hints at his wish “to become only a human being”. Again, with wisdom and gratitude, he writes about the frail bridge of words:

…if only by as much as a poem
I have stayed linked somehow
to all…

(From Kisi aur ne nahin/No One Else. Translated by Apurva Narain. In No Other World, Selected Poems, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2008)

We end this sampling of “the everyday sacred” with a verse by renowned Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan who self-translates into English. He sings his artistic manifesto: gods don’t oversee the gleam of words, rather…

Readers wonder whether
that which gleams is
voice or silence,
They too see that god
they too grasp the limits,
of language and self.

Poetry is my religion,
the faith of the faithless.

(Stammer and Other Poems, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2005)

Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s experimental, cross-genre books include speculative fiction, non-fiction, fiction, poetry and translation. Journals/anthologies: Anglophone Poems from Around the World, Caravan, IQ, Language for a New Century,Southerly, The British Journal of Literary Translation, The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, Translating Bharat etc. Edits Poetry at Sangam.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria