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Reflections on water

"She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China

and just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her

then she gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer

That you've always been her lover….."

I heard these lines from the Canadian singer-poet Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ for the first time when I was still in school, sometime around ninth grade. It was on the same day that I was playing chess at a tournament as the player from my school. It was a two-day tournament, and on the very first day, one of my games was scheduled against a girl whose name I don’t remember. I didn’t know her, of course, but I was taken by her frantic nibbling after every difficult move. Because of sheer practice and egomaniacal reasons, I could focus more on my game and win the round. She was eliminated and therefore did not show up the next day. That was perhaps one among various victories that I later resented. After the game, I met her outside the building, where she was listening to the aforementioned song on her mobile, earphones plugged in. On seeing me, she passed along an earbud, and the both of us listened to the rest of the song. I did not see her again.

When I went back to school, I told my friend Vinay about ‘Suzanne’, and the both of us tried to decipher what the song meant.

“Suzanne,” he said, “would make more sense if she were taken to be the sea, water, and not a person.”

Whatever that meant, it was sufficient practice in literary theorising for a pair of confused ninth graders. As a keen student of literary theory, when I consider the thought in retrospect, it does somewhat make sense. Leonard Cohen wrote the song about a woman named Suzanne Verdal, with whom he shared platonic intimacy in her house near the river, as the song suggests. Suzanne, whether real or a figment of the poet’s imagination, is a woman who lives by the river, wears Salvation Army rags and seems to have touched the poet with her mind. The refrain, “You want to travel with her and you want to travel blind,” suggests a kind of restlessness that neither Suzanne nor the poet can manifest into anything substantial. You want to travel with her, across the seas and oceans of the earth, beyond all borders. However, you probably will never be able to.

The presence of water, the desire to sail beyond its waves and the persistent inability to do it, is a theme that recurs in literature throughout the ages. The French poet Baudelaire ascends to the same in ‘The Voyager’, presenting a desire to “go, following the rhythm of the wave, lulling our infinite on the finite of the seas.” The sea, and by that extension, the tendency to sail across it, is an escape from the morbidity of immobile life that the poet describes further down the lines. “The true voyagers,” he writes, “Are only those who leave, just to be leaving.” Perhaps that is true. Perhaps there is more to the French symbolist’s idea of a voyage, than its mere literal execution. That being said, what of those that leave, not for an excitement to escape, but because they are compelled by circumstance to hit the road or take the boat?

My forefathers are migrants. That is no great matter since studies on migration suggest that if almost anybody traced back their ancestry, they will find at some point an exodus of some sort. In that sense, most of us are migrants. But with me, the tracing back doesn’t have to be very long. My grandparents left their homes in Sylhet, which was initially a part of East Bengal, and later of Assam when during the British colonial rule it was affixed therewith for economical viability. During the independence of India in 1947, the Sylhet referendum rendered the Sylhet district a part of what was to be known as East Pakistan (now, Bangladesh). My grandparents and their parents were among the many Sylhetis that left their homes behind to find or build new ones in the Cachar region of Assam, which was a region majorly populated by Sylhetis or other Bengalis (for those who don’t know, Sylheti is something of a dialect of Bengali). This is a diaspora from the partition of India that often escapes serious attention in most studies about the grand tragic event. This is also the identity that we and various other folks hold.

That being said, I am not a migrant. I have lived in the city of Bangalore for as long as I can remember. I speak English more fluently than any other language and start my essays on migration with lines from a Canadian song, perhaps end it with lines from some song from some other part of the globe. Even as the identity I draw from my native language and ancestral history of partition remains, other factors come into play. I was born in a neoliberal world post-globalization, where multinational corporations based in the U.S speak of a ‘global community’ and further go ahead to patent seeds and agricultural methods of third-world farmers, and sell back their own seeds to them at an impossible price. In such a world, one's native identity often loses its relevance.

While my father will never be able to get over the need for a river or a sea which he cannot find in Bangalore, I will most certainly be able to live my life in almost any kind of a postmodern hyperspace that has no history, or roots.

“We are now loosened from the gravity of identity’s land,” writes the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who was exiled from his land by the purges of the Israeli army that remains there with bombs and grenades even today. In the same poem, the line recurs: “Water binds me to your name”. Water binds everyone and everything. Migration imposes a dismal loss of identity, which in turn becomes an identity. “What will we do without exile,” reads the poem, “and a long night that stares at the water?” The poem has two strangers, having one massage the other’s thigh. Perhaps both the strangers are migrants of different kinds, exiled from different lands – yet bound to one another by water. Indeed my father will never be able to get over the need for a river or a sea which he cannot find in Bangalore. He will reminisce about his hometown Karimganj and write endlessly about it, like James Joyce wrote about his Dublin.

In the collection ‘Dubliners’, James Joyce wrote about Dublin and the people that populated the town that seemed to be dying away, rotting away with the remains of conservatism and the hegemony of the Catholic church. Among the fifteen stories in the collection, there is ‘Eveline’. Eveline is a lady who has spent her life in the confines of Dublin, now remembering her nurturing mother, now lamenting her father’s authority. She plans to leave the town once and for all, on a ship with her lover, Frank “to a distant unknown country.” She speculates how well she will be treated, and Frank will love her and most importantly, she will be able to live. Frank will move to Buenos Ayres soon, and she will go with him and get married.

After all of her reminiscences of the dullness of life in Dublin and aspirations of a life elsewhere, comes the epiphany. While she is at the harbour with Frank, to finally sail across the seas, her thoughts masquerade differently, “All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart.” In the end, she doesn’t go. Frank leaves, and Eveline stares at him, utterly loveless and indifferent. While one can theorize about why Eveline doesn’t go, one can never really know for sure. This rather unknown element, whatever one may call it, is what holds back a lot of people from hitting the road, and going about migration.

Perhaps it is this element that held those of the brethren of my ancestors, who still remain in Bangladesh. Today the government introduces laws that grant citizenship to a portion of those migrants based on their religion, as it tacitly reinforces the notion that the government favours this religion or that, ideologically obscuring its inherent nature to favour not any religion but capital, neoliberalism and the rootless condition of postmodernity.

What suffices is another, new requirement for escape - the one that Baudelaire writes about in the poem that I have mentioned earlier. Towards the end of the poem, Baudelaire writes:

“O Death, old captain, it is time! Let’s weigh anchor! This country tires me.”

This Night Owl Original has been authored by Suryashekhar Biswas, a media undergrad who likes to read history and Nazim Hikmet poems.


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