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Keynote address at the Mumbai Poetry Festival | Salil Tripathi

Wednesday 26 April 2017 - 11:06am

Chembur, Mumbai
April 22, 2017

I feel honoured to be speaking at the 25th anniversary celebrations of the vibrant poetry movement in this city. At a time when bookshops are closing down or becoming toy shops and coffee shops, and when the time people spend on reading is shrinking, Abhidhanantar has persisted and thrived, spreading the culture of words and their deeper meanings, bringing together poets not only from this great city, but from around the world. Intimate readings or book launches, publishing young and prominent poets, commemorative events or celebrations of diverse voices, Abhidhanantar, and its other incarnations – Poetryvala and Paperwall – have been there, reminding the city, that despite the bustle, it is possible, even necessary, to pause and reflect and lose oneself in the world of words. For Hemant and Smruti, this is a passion, a labour of love.

Robert Graves was right when said that there is no money in poetry, but then there is no poetry in money either. Hemant and Smruti and their team of friends and supporters, have encouraged, celebrated, and cheered this city’s diverse culture, and the city owes a debt of gratitude to them.

I mentioned diverse voices, for those are important. Look at the list of poets gathered here. It is a sign of our troubling times that it is getting increasingly rare to see names reflecting the city’s diversity on the name-plates of housing boards and building societies. How could that have happened? Why did we let it happen? It probably started in 1992-93, with Babri Masjid and the bomb blasts – and maybe that’s why that was the year Abhidanantar began.

This is the city of my birth, which we call by many names – Mumbai, Bombay, Bambai, Bombai, Bombaim, perhaps even Heptanasia. This city has always been like that – polyglot, multi-everything, with what its illustrious son Salman Rushdie called HUGME, or Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, and English, as its lingua franca; it is the city of bhelpuri and pao bhaji, blending everything into a magical concoction where the flavour is enhanced by that mingling, where the sum is far greater than its parts.

I imbibed that syncretic culture just as I learned about the city through Gujarati jodakana like Maal vali bas, chale dhas mas, petrol mange pat, pachhi chale jhat, bus chalave driver, ticket kapave conductor and Marathi songs like ye re ye re pausa, tula deto paisa, paisa jhala khota, paus ala motha - all rooted in this city, of double-decker buses and incessant rains. Compared with that, what would I know of the English nursery rhymes I was taught – Ba Ba Black Sheep, have you any wool, yes sir yes sir three bags full. Whoever needs wool in this city?

I began to listen and appreciate – and later write – poetry in this city. Salim Peeradina and Julian Birkett at Sophia Open Classrooms critically looked at my early poems and helped me find my voice in English, as did Jayant Parekh and Ghanshyam Desai in Gujarati, near the old Congress House, at Farbas Sabha, where they taught me that admiring a poet didn’t mean one had to imitate him or her. I took part in a few poetry events in the late 1980s, and then I left.

So I want to begin by remembering three pioneers poets of this city who aren’t with us anymore, but whom I had the privilege of knowing. Their kindness nurtured younger writers for generations. I am thinking of Nissim Ezekiel, Suresh Dalal, and Mangesh Padgaonkar. There are other poets I miss from this city’s landscape – Dom Moraes being one, Arun Kolatkar, and Dilip Chitre, whom Moraes would describe as looking like Verlaine and Rimbaud. All these voices were distinct and different, and Bombay of the 1970s and 1980s had the room for all of them – the city’s poetry scene was like a suburban compartment – there was always room for the newcomer, like the city itself. At Theosophy Hall, Nissim ran PEN, the international organisation of writers committed to freedom to read and freedom to write, where now I have the honour of chairing its writers in prison committee, and I shall talk a bit about our work. Nissim looked kindly at my early poems and urged me to continue; Sureshkaka, as I knew Suresh Dalal, generously gave me books of poems he had already read and he needed to let go, to make room for new books in his creaking bookshelves, and I thati s how I learned of poets like South Korea’s Kim Chi Ha and Turkey’s Nazim Hikmet – about both of whom I shall speak later. And Padgaonkar-kaka’s memorable Salaam, which became the anthem against the Emergency.

Sabko salaam


This is the salute of fear, not awe, nor respect. The fear with which we lived during the Emergency, when I was a teenager, was real. Padgaonkar captured cowardice and lampooned it. The political climate today is beginning to resemble that time in some ways – people are asked to bend and they prefer to crawl. There is a new normal in the country – where an outrageous act of yesterday – think of Mohammed Akhlaque – does not appear so outrageous today – think of Pehlu Khan. We are getting used to bigotry, to hatred, to intolerance, to attacks on those who think differently, love differently, eat differently, or pray differently. We are taught to swallow our words – not to ‘like’ something on Facebook, not to respond to Twitter, not to express ourselves in public, because there would be trouble otherwise. There is a crowd baying to silence us – think of Ghanshyam Desai’s Gujarati story, Tolu, or the dynamic that Elias Canetti writes about in Crowds and Power. Describing the mood during the Emergency, my friend and the great journalist Behram Contractor said there were only two topics left worth writing about - cricket and mangoes. And we are now in the IPL and mango season.

It feels as though we have to feel wistful recalling that Tagorean dream


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free….
Into that heaven of freedom, my father,
Let my country awake.

How did we get here? Over the next 25 minutes I wish to dissect that, and recall powerful words of poets around the world who continue to inspire us, who have not given up hope.


We live in the post-truth world, where facts don’t matter. The world is turning binary, between us, and them. through my work with PEN, I have seen this story unfold with dispiriting regularity in Manila, in Istanbul, in Dharwad, in Dhaka, in Kiev, in Yaounde. In 1992, when Abhidhanantar began, the global mood was different and buoyant. The end of the Cold War had created an illusion – that history, as we understood it, had ended; that we would now live in a world of unparalleled freedom.

It is a very different world today. Rather than ushering in an era of freedom, we have reverted to an older form. Poets continue to be jailed – in Turkey, in Vietnam, in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, in Cameroon, and in Kazakhstan. Old names are replaced by new ones. Anna Akhmatova in the 1920s and 1930s, whose son was taken away to a prison camp and whose fellow poets died in camps, Valeria Novodvorskaya, in the 1960s and 1970s, who was sent to a psychiatric hospital after she accused the Communist Party of hypocrisy and duplicity in a searing poem in 1969; and now Irina Ratushinskaya, who challenges Russian hegemony in Ukraine. Ratushinskaya wrote recently:

This century grows ever darker, and the next will not come soon;
          To wipe clean the names off yesterday’s prison wall.

These voices continue to rise, questioning assumptions, and challenging preconceived ideas, the way things are. It isn’t an easy journey. The idea remains, its standard-bearers change. And one day, the world may change. Recall Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses:

What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – the kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but the hundredth time, will change the world.

New ideas must flourish; imagination must not get smothered. But new ideas can only arise out of an unfettered mind. New ideas help us connect strands of thoughts that might seem disparate, but which are nonetheless true. And that is the role poetry plays – as Robert Frost said, a poet has a lover’s quarrel with the world. The poet criticises what she sees because she loves what is being lost. Poetry is about truth, not facts; facts can be manipulated to serve the powerful, truth cannot. Poetry is about freedom, it is the truth staring back. It is about what cannot be valued in money or property.

Honouring Frost, President John Kennedy said: “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence, when power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure… if sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.”

And so, may I take this opportunity to say: Thank you - take a bow, Keki Daruwala, Mangesh Dabhral, Jayanta Mahapatra, Ashok Vajpeyi, Nayantara Sahgal, Krishna Sobti, Rahman Abbas, Sangamesh, and dozens of others who returned their awards to the State, protesting its silence over the murders of Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, and Gobind Pansare. Thank you for what you did. You spoke truth to power.


We live in a time where the liberal imagination is under threat. There is an assault on our collective consciousness and memory. Truth is tying its shoe-laces, even as lies have already spread far and wide, because it wears imported sneakers and runs fast, like an idea on twitter. And yet, poets – those canaries in our mines – continue to sing. They assert that in spite of the authoritarian forces at work, humanity survives. Milan Kundera said that the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Memory reminds us of what is being lost and it does not speak in absolutes. Only yogis and sadhvis, and imams and mullahs, it seems, speak in terms of knowing the absolute. As Pico Iyer once wrote, Indians talk in absolutes but the place abounds with relatives. Poets are constantly seeking to unravel the nuances, ambiguities and ironies; they look back in wonder. “Against the arrogance of power, wealth, and hierarchy, poetry proposes both humility and defiance,” Ashok Vajpeyi wrote recently. “Poetry offers an unannounced satyagraha against simplification, generalisation, and totalisation…. Poetry is a form of dynamic resistance. Poetry vitalises, rejuvenates, strengthens and expands moral imagination and moral endurance. Poetry connects time and the timeless, history and eternity. Poetry is a republic of imagination — a site where humanity matters the most.”

Rabindranath Tagore said that even a small candle illumines the world: Poetry does that at this twilight hour.


I spoke about Anna Akhmatova – she saw her friend Osip Mandelstam taken away to the Gulag from which he would not return. Mandelstam had begun as a supporter of the Communist Revolution, but revolutions tend to be cruel to its thoughtful followers. Mandelstam was no exception.

But even as he was taken away to the Gulag during Stalinist purges, he clung to his beliefs stubbornly, yearning for his nation to be free. He wrote in 1935:

          You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape my words, even in silence.

Indeed, they can imprison the body, not the mind. Nazim Hikmet, the great Turkish poet who spent many years in prison, wrote a poem called Third Class Car 510, a reference to a train which takes prisoners and their captors in a compartment, and the prisoners are shackled. Hikmet writes about the prisoner Halil:

          The prisoners and guardsmen occupy the first section
The sergeant hasn’t smiled once
Though the mausers have ben laid on the racks,
The handcuffs remain locked.
The two sides are in different worlds.
The prisoner Halil opens a book.
He has mastered turning the pages with cuffed hands.
This is his fifth trip
In thirteen years
With books and handcuffs.
With lines under his eyes
And white at his temples,
Halil may look a bit older
But his books, handcuffs, and heart haven’t aged.
And now, his heart more hopeful than ever
Halil sits reading his book
And thinking of his handcuffs:
Handcuffs, we’ll bear your steel into plowshares.
And he finds this idea so well put
That he’s sorry
He doesn’t know the art of writing poetry.

After sometime, Halil closes his book and breathes on his glasses to clean them. He looks at the orchards and recalls the ferry of the Bosporus, the sight of Istanbul, the lights along the bay, the Topkapi palace, the streetcars, and a yellow geranium that he had grown once in prison.

The poet in prison is lonely. He awaits letters. Angel Cuadra, the Cuban poet, who was sentenced to a 15-year prison term. He wrote in 1979:

Your letter is the poem brought by the dawn.

But sunlight that poets like Cuadra sought, is fleeting, and as is the dawn, because, he continues:

But the letter is intercepted, by falcons, and
night falls like a curtain
everything goes back to being like it was
in front of my cell
go by.

From Cuba to China. Seeing her beloved husband, the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiabo being taken away to jail, his wife, the poet Liu Xia wrote:

Every year on July 15 of the lunar calendar
The river would be covered with water lanterns
But they could not call back your soul…
The train heading for the concentration camp
Sobbingly ran over my body
But I could not hold your hand…

Prisoners live with that reality of absences, shadows, and darkness. The Iranian poet Reza Baraheni, who was imprisoned by the Shah, wrote in 1973:

The night is like a day on the other side of the bars

          On this side the day is like the night.

But there is beauty in that night too. Look at Yannis Ritsos, the Greek poet who was jailed by the Junta in the 1960s, who wrote:

Tall eucalyptus with a broad moon.
A star trembles on the water.
The sky white, silver.
Stones, flayed all the way up.
Near the shallow water you could hear
A fish jump twice, three times.
Ecstatic, grand orphanhood – freedom.

Another imprisoned poet was Kim Chi Ha, who challenged right wing military dictators in South Korea. In prison he missed his freedom; more important, he missed his mother. He wrote:

You wild geese flying up in the sky,
Do you know how I feel?
Can you tell me whether my mother is standing on the new road near our shack
Waiting for my return?

Is she weeping soundlessly, looking in the direction of Seoul, wearing her out-of-season clothes?
Wild geese, tell my mother
I will return,
I will return even if I am dead –
I will break out through the walls of this jail,
I’ll leap over the fence
Even if I have to sell my soul to the devil.
I will return, mother, whatever happens, I will return.

Many poets and writers for whose freedom we campaign remain in jail for a long time. We had success in 2015 when the Cameroonian poet Emoh Meyomesse was released. While he was in jail, the French writer Alain Mabanckou wrote a letter to him,  which is illuminating because it shows that when a government jails a poet, it jails much more than an individual: Mabanckou wrote:

Well, you are not alone in this captivity, because when writers are thrown in prison, they are followed in their cells by an army of readers and the loud footsteps of their outraged colleagues. It is with this optimism in mind that I am writing this letter to you, to remind you that we will never cease to speak your name and to denounce, from every rooftop of the world, the injustice that befell you and the contempt shown by the justice system towards you.
By imprisoning a writer, they are playing with fire: how could they build walls around our imagination, when they know it has a pair of giant wings and that it sings, in every season, its hymn to freedom?

At a time when the world is opening up, your country remains on the sidelines because of its backward practices. Your appeals in court are postponed, as if your words, once delivered to the public, would undermine the foundations of your country’s regime. I believe it to be true, and those words are now in all of us. We are spreading your words to the four corners of the earth, to remind the enemies of free speech that an invisible and invincible army is on its way, using words to tear down every one of the barriers keeping mankind from progress.

When a government jails a poet, it is not merely the poet that the government has sought to silence – it has also tied its own hands. Consider the story of my dear friend, Ma Thida, a Burmese writer who used to be Aung San Suu Kyi’s aide in 1988. When the government cracked down on demonstrators, she was among the first to be jailed. Her health deteriorated during her incarceration. The jailors thought they’d wear her down and make her succumb by getting her to confess after long interrogation sessions. But Thida had nerves of steel. The interrogators would be tired, and she would insist that they carry on questioning her. Exasperated, one officer told her: you are in prison but you are free; we are supposed to be free but we feel imprisoned.

Dictators are able to wield such power because they get the support of marginal men and women who are willing to acquiesce and be complicit – they are what Daniel Goldhagen called “Hitler’s willing executioners.”

The poet Ken Saro Wiwa who was among nine Ogoni environmental and human rights activists executed in 1995 by the Nigerian military, wrote this powerful poem about what freedom is, and isn’t:

          The True Prison

          It is not the leaking roof
          Nor the singing mosquitoes
          In the damp, wretched cell
          It is not the clank of the key
          As the warden locks you in
          It is not the measly rations
          Unfit for beast or man
          Nor yet the emptiness of day
          Dipping into the blankness of night
          It is not
          It is not
          It is not

It is the lies that have been drummed into your ears for a generation

          It is the security agent running amok
          Executing callous calamitous orders
          In exchange for a wretched meal a day
          The magistrate writing into her book
          A punishment she knows is undeserved
          The moral decrepitude
          The mental ineptitude
          The meat of dictators
          Cowardice masking as obedience
          Lurking in our degenerated souls
          It is fear damping trousers
          That we dare not wash
          It is this
          It is this
          It is this
          Dear friend, turns our free world
          Into a dreary prison.

Let me turn to a few brave voices from the Middle East: Ashraf Fayadh is another poet who has gone to prison, ostensibly for blasphemy, but the God he seems to have insulted is not spiritual, but economic. Like Saro-Wiwa, he is appalled by what oil has done to the society’s moral fibre. He is from Palestine and lives in Saudi Arabia – he was given the death penalty, but after sustained campaigning by PEN and other organisations, his sentence has since been reduced to a life term and 800 lashes. Ashraf Fayadh wrote:

losing your soul will cost time, 
much longer than what it takes to calm 
your eyes that have cried tears of oil 
the displaced is helpless, 
like blood that no one wants to buy in the oil market! 
petroleum is harmless, except for the trace of poverty it leaves behind 
on that day, when the faces of those who discover another oil well go dark, 
when life is blown into your heart to extract more oil off your soul 
for public use.. 
That.. is.. the promise of oil, a true promise.  

The powerful like to jail the poets for many reasons. Some, because they challenge linguistic hegemony, some oppose occupying forces, and some defy religious authority.

Take language: Aron Atabek has been jailed for wanting to write in his language:

My throat, unable to speak, will die
For the sounds of my homeland.
My ancestors’ patter will vanish
Like water into sand.
I am a storyteller of immortality
In Semitic and Etruscan tongues;
I am the dust of Turkic dialects
Writing in Russian.

Take occupation: the Israeli Government has jailed Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet, because she calls for resistance and supports the intifadah. Israel however says she is inciting violence and supports terrorist organisations. Resist, my people, resist them, she says in a video available on YouTube, which shows her poem set to music against a backdrop of video images of Palestinian young men throwing stones at the Israeli army.

I interrogated my soul
during moments of doubt and distraction:
“What of your crime?”

The charge has worn my body,
from my toes to the top of my head,
for I am a poet in prison,
a poet in the land of art.
I am accused of words,
my pen the instrument.
Ink— blood of the heart— bears witness
and reads the charges.
Listen, my destiny, my life,
to what the judge said:
A poem stands accused,
my poem morphs into a crime.
In the land of freedom,
the artist’s fate is prison.

And take religion: the Saudi writer Hamzah Kashgari wrote three poetic tweets about what he thought of his relationship with Mohammed, whom devout Muslims refer to as the Prophet.

On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you've always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.

On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.

On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.

Who are these people who imprison such non-violent people, who use words to express their thoughts? What turns men in uniform into beasts, into judges who jail people without cause, into torturers who feel nothing when they remove people’s nails to extract confessions, into commanders who destroy a nation’s spirit? They act with impunity, but they face the relentless gaze of the world. The poet Caroline Forche defines what she does as the poetry of witness: “The poetry of witness reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion.” Here she is, recounting an encounter with a general in El Salvador in 1978:

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.


Poets are those ears to the ground, the eyes that see even when blindfolded, the tongues that speak long after they have been lacerated, and the minds that can’t be caged. Poetry is the umbrella in Hong Kong, the cell phone in Cairo, the man in front of the tank in Tiananmen. Albert Camus comes to mind: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

In 2010, when another great resident of this city – Maqbul Fida Husain – was forced into exile, I thought of that dream of Tagore, and then I wrote this poem:

And what has become:

Where the mind is filled with fear and the head is kept low
Where vandals are free
Where the world is broken into fragments of narrow domestic walls
Where the clear stream of reason has lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection, but faces obstruction

Where the mind is numbed, unable to contemplate thought or action,
Into that hell of serfdom, my country lies: we hold the wake.


But we cannot let ephemeral events silence our voices. We take inspiration from the poet Baal, as imagined by Rushdie in The Satanic Verses:

A poet’s work? To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.

Let us stay awake. And one day, into that heaven of freedom, so will our country.

Salil Tripathi is PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee and the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull, 2009), The Colonel Who Would Not Repent (Aleph, 2014), and Detours: Songs of the Open Road (Tranquebar, 2016). He is writing a book about Gujaratis, which Aleph will publish in 2018.