Rules of radiance: Calling Over Water by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

implacably the seasons turn, in me no movement.
dust on pen and inkpot, dust on scissors, knife, rocks.
dust pales lampblack, dust in my mouth, am i made
of dust alone? Lord blow on me, scatter grace
that falls as words on these empty pages.

– from “On Writing Poetry – 2”

Armed with all the classic tools of an age-old trade at her disposal, the speaker above, weighed down by days, weeks, months of silence, is left beseeching the gods of inspiration to set her words free. There are perhaps few writers who would not appreciate her anxiety, but a special force charges this passage which comes toward the end of the central movement of Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s new release, Calling Across Water. This collection of poetry is the fruit of more than a decade and spans themes that move from the intimate and vulnerable, through questions of the nature of creative expression, into a thoughtful wandering  poetic travelogue. For the acclaimed Indian poet, novelist and translator it is a deeply personal journey.

The first section, “Unravelling” traces her mother’s illness and death. It begins, simply with a phone call—one line alone—“The floor churns into a vortex” and ends in the darkened waters and distorted landscape of a world without a person whose absence consumes so much space and defies words. My own mother’s death is but three and a half years fresh right now and I understand this series of poems so completely that it is both painful and beautiful to read them, and it has taken me almost three months since my first encounter to be able to gather a few thoughts of my own. To this point I have only been able to share online the pieces that have shaken me to the core. Like this passage:

She holds me for the first time
my skin puckered by her fluids, her face
a chandrama of love, lantern to my life

I hold her for the last time:
Moon rubbed up from last night’s ink
before she blows past the horizon.

— from “Archiving Mother”

As we gathered around my mother’s bedside in her final hours, I was acutely aware of the sharp reversal of roles, as I caressed and kissed her pale forehead and told her again and again how much I loved her—as I once had to my own children, and as she had to me and to her grandchildren. The circle of life.

Intrinsic to Chabria’s cycle of mourning is a strong recurrence of natural images, calling to mind womb-like rhythms, echoing the symbolic cords that continue to bind us to the woman who brought us into the world, who nurtured us with stories and songs. The questions then, become, how do we witness a loved one’s passing? What are we to give back to the universe in return for a mother’s love? And how do we honour maternal energy, whether we ourselves have children or not? In this respect, “This Is Us”, my favourite piece in this entire collection, is for me, simple and perfect:

the sky of our body flutters
over the ailing
while their unheard
words open like jasmine
through our inkiness

this is us:
sieves through which they pass
as the lips of the horizon part

this is us:
singing remembrance
with mouths of myrrh
each of us alone – though
love’s phosphorescence
rims earth’s darkness

this is us
doing our best

The second movement of Calling Over Water, “Are There Answers Without Questions?” presents a play of queries and proverbs that explore what we can know and how or if we can find expressions for the myriad of emotions and experiences that trouble us. Despite the title, there seem to be more questions than answers, along with compilations of linguistic weapons and tools, and quotations for guidance. Of course, woven into this series of unconventional poems is a sense of the inadequacy of language to open the wounds with which life marks us.

The third and longest section of this collection—“Travelling”—is comprised of a sequence of poems inspired by travel across Central, South and South-East Asia. Here the canvas expands as the poet turns her attention to the patterns of nature, the humanity of distant cityscapes, and the monuments of history, drawing astute and careful reflections. A sensitivity for the spirit of others, in the present moment or captured in the facades of weathered antiquity, surfaces repeatedly as one follows this eclectic tour:

The curator points his singing mobile to rectangles of salmon
pink stone slotted in a bare garden. ‘This was her stage, and that

her makeup room, she strolled here composing
poetry.’ In a corner the crumble of the gardener’s hut where

children’ laughter ran barefoot. We climb though pensive
rooms with shifting amplitudes of shadow but no trace

of indolence’s velvet smear. On the terrace a grey cat slips
down the stairs like water in a drain. Below,

leafless trees cordoned by crowns stand in mist.
Relentlessly the present pulses into the past.

– from “Rai Parveen Mahal”

Chabria, who has translated ninth-century Tamil poet, Andal, and reimagined classical Indian mythology into speculative future worlds, has an especially acute ability to engage with the past and allow it to reverberate with our present times. Her poems—not only in this final movement but throughout this finely crafted symphony—function as memorials on multiple levels that invite the reader to penetrate, with their own experiences and memories, spaces they may know well as readily as those they have never seen. That is to answer the poet’s call:

Memories, like photographs, live
in the continuous present though
their grains alter each time you enter.

Make yourself into a memory.

– from “Dunhuang”

Cloaked in Literature: Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

In the years that I have been maintaining this blog, I don’t believe that have written about any book that might fall into the category of science or speculative fiction. I probably haven’t read much in recent years. As my attention has shifted to translated and more unconventional literature, I have set aside less time for the type of books I used to pick up as what I might have considered casual or escapist reading. Which sounds, I’m aware, like a little snobbishness and a lot of equivocating. But I don’t intend it that way, however, if one is not well read within a particular arena, writing about or reviewing a book becomes more difficult. The inclination is to simply read for pleasure, as if that is somehow a bad thing. Is literature supposed to hurt? Of course not. By this point in my life I like to think I’ve earned the right to read—or not read—whatever I want. Jump ship after 30 or 50 pages if I the book’s not working for me. Or to be surprised by a book I was less certain about.

In recent years there has been, it seems, a rush of speculative and apocalyptic themed fiction, drawing authors and readers from across the literary spectrum. I have tended to avoid it. I came to this book, Clone, almost by chance, when I was in Mumbai earlier this year and made plans to meet up with the author, poet and translator Priya Sarukkai Chabria at the Kala Ghoda Festival. Neither of us knew much about the other beforehand. A few hours over coffee and cake later and I’ve come to consider her a good friend. So although we have not discussed this book at all (I actually went to hear her lead a panel discussion on translating ancient literature), it is only fair that I consider this post a response rather than a formal review. As I’ve already indicated, I’m not sufficiently well-read in dystopian fiction anyhow. However, it’s also fair to say I was completely captivated by the scope and passion of this tale of an engineered clone “evolving” within a rigid, dispassionate world that is as fantastic as it is terrifyingly plausible.

The novel is set in a highly stratified twenty-fourth century India, where a select group of Originals lead a protected life of privilege and guarded luxury serviced by a vast array of clones bred from their own DNA, often mixed with or fortified by genetic material derived from animals. Divisions between classes of beings, or life forms, are strictly controlled. Museums exist to guard art and history from curious visitors and elaborate blood sports are a popular entertainment. It is, from the outside looking in, a world order long since divorced from the very qualities that faith, philosophy, and literature would have associated with humanity. In fact it would seem that the stirrings of these forgotten ideals, filtered through a vestigial genetic legacy that has resisted attempts to contain it, is the greatest threat to those in power. However, mutations keep arising.

Our narrator, Clone 14/54/G is, she insists, not a mutant. What sets her apart is something more unsettling. Her consciousness is changing. She remembers. The memories she seems to be accessing are desired by some and dangerous to others. Her Original, Aa-Aa was a writer living in the late twenty-first century, now being made manifest in her fourteenth generation likeness, cloaking her in Literature, so to speak. But Aa-Aa was a controversial figure who met an untimely end mid-way through an important public address. Her intended message died with her and Clone 14/54/G is seen a potential conduit to that message, for good or ill.

In a society dependent on unquestioned obedience and compliance, and designed to enforce it, poetry and stories are subversive elements. For our Clone, an early sign that something is amiss comes when she begins to experience unexplained compulsions and strange “visitations.” Like inhabiting a dreamscape although clones are not supposed to be able to dream, she finds herself caught up in stories—sometimes as a human, sometimes as an animal—reliving a life from a long lost time. These visitations which will later comprise a significant portion of the book, echo historical and mythological themes reaching far back into Indian history. They not only threaten the rigid consistency of the narrator’s programmed existence, they speak to the ineffable power of stories, to the poetry of our DNA.

Clone 14/54/G’s initial response is to wish these unwelcome intrusions away. Her sense of her place in the “Global Community’s” order of reality has been challenged. Originals alone have life, Firehearts who were created to play an empathic role have presence, and Superior Zombies claim existence, but Clones simply “exhibit actuality.” However, as words and ideas begin to come to her, to make their way into her experience of this actuality, her sense of her own reality is altered, or less certain. She responds whenever feasible by reducing her mode of function. But this strangeness does not simply affect her feelings. Her body is also responding:

Beneath my overalls I grew hair. At work, I made no error. I was allowed full rations. I was living in two worlds. Is this what is meant by loneliness? That you don’t belong to any world. Not the old one. Not the new. You don’t even seem to belong to yourself.

But as her awareness continues to evolve, she is relieved of her former worker role, and removed to a holding facility where she is afforded certain luxuries and encouraged to foster a connection with her Original. Her adjustment is not without reservations as the routines she knew are pulled away. And she is subjected to real pain, frequently pushed to her physical limits as the months pass. For support she has the Fireheart clone Couplet, an attentive almost insect like-creature assigned to assist in her recovery of Aa-Aa’s memories. Meanwhile, a handsome Original known only as The Leader, takes a particular interest in her progress and soon they become lovers. Her situation becomes at once more tenuous and more exciting. To what extent is she being played? By whom? To what ends? And is there anyone or anything she can trust, especially her own increasingly volatile and passionate heart? For example, after making love one day, she is haunted by questions that never would have troubled her before. What does it mean, for example, to be aware of the fact that she is alone?

Who is now speaking—Aa-Aa or me? Why do I wish it not be her?

“Clone 14/54/G” is no longer enough. I am more—and less—than I was. Less sure, less safe, less isolated. More curious, more in pain, more resolute about my uncertainties. With more words at my command.

The strengths of Clone lie in the strong voice of the narrator who comes to be known as Aa-Aa Clone 14/54/G and the realization of a multi-faceted, artificially manipulated society without laborious details or explanations. Aa-Aa Clone 14/54/G can only tell the story as she knows and understands it, nothing more. Her narrative moves from the focused and contained, yet conforming perspective of being whose entire world has been formed along established lines, to one whose humanity, if you will, starts to break through in fits and starts. The passion and spirit of her Original, and the characters whose stories she carries, simmers slowly, gradually building steam, but is never an entirely natural fit. This is not a Cinderella story. Too many horrors await, too many questions remain unanswered. Finally, the form, incorporating tales drawn from the accumulated memories of a distant past—the storyteller’s true legacy—is unexpected and effective; the language poetic and powerful.

Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria is published by New Delhi-based Zubaan Books, and distributed outside India by University of Chicago Press.