An uncivil servant's inner world

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An uncivil servant's inner world

Sunday, 08 September 2019 | Patrick J Sammut

An uncivil servant's inner world

I  have truly ridden the bicycle. I know both: the bicycle and the ride. My perception has not been principally an act but a background against which all acts and behaviours stand out. I have looked at perception as an active process allowing it to winnow latent meanings from human action.’

SOLILOQUY OF A

SMALL-TOWN

UNCIVIL SERVANT

KK Srivastava is the author of three volumes of poetry: Ineluctable Stillness (2005), An Armless Hand Writes (2008; 2012), and Shadows of the Real (2012). His poems have been translated into Hindi (Andhere Se Nikli Kavitayen-VANI PRAKASHAN (2017) and his book Shadows of the Real into Russian by veteran Russian poet Adolf Shvedchikov. Srivastava is also reviewer and columnist for the newspapers The Pioneer and The Daily Star. Currently he works as Additional Deputy Comptroller and Auditor General. His publisher describes him as “reticent and reclusive”.

 Soliloquy of a Small-Town Uncivil Servant, a literary non-fiction, is Srivastava’s fourth book but  first written in prose. It is organised in 13 chapters, together with a Prologue and an Epilogue. In the Prologue, the narrator admits that he lost his memory, thus deciding to “retrieve afresh” and “undertake this journey in order to unravel the story that will discover me.” The aim is also to “reach the core of the disjointed identities.” The titles of the chapters already say a lot: Srivastava writes about growing up in Gorakhpur; his early adolescence, Prof. Yadav and his uncle; rendevouz with a New World (about his first encounters as a civil servant); sex and sensuality; authors, books and human behaviour; of human niceties; women of literature and women in literature; and social media (“like a fairy tale with ubiquitous surfaces...”).The book propels the readers to a revealing insight into the power of  imagination on memories: not only of the events that have actually occurred, but the ones   often imagined. Ambling through the muzzy alleyways of time, he skillfully shapes his experiences into an amalgam of real and unreal.

 The author declares from the beginning that this is not a memoir, at the most a semi-autobiographical work. (‘Let me lay the bed; facts and fantasies would lie side by side.’) Thus, Srivastava is the author and KK the narrator. My guess. Srivastava opted for the title “Soliloquy” because the 58-year-old “I” is in conversation with itself, thus the reader is witness to this interior monologue, or “exercise in reinventing my imagination, rethinking my cogitations.” Soliloquy is thus a collection of fragments which together reveal the writer as a whole during his journey — “an onerous journey not without pain” — which started in 1988 when KK wrote his first poem, ‘Birth trauma’. Thus, his birth as a writer.

KK is a staunch believer in India’s Hindu religion and culture, traditions, rites, ways of living and family for all of which he has highest esteem. He reveals himself to be a well-read person, and admits that he grew up “Amidst books by eminent authors and under illiterate Amma’s guidance, insight and foresight, this is what made me.” In fact, Soliloquy is full of inter-textual references and names of different writers, artists, and philosophers, hailing both from India and the western world: Murphy and Watt by Samuel Beckett, VS Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization, Dr Faustus, Sartre’s Nausea, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Peter Shaffer’s Equus, Albert Camus’s The Fall, Salman Rushdie, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, RB Sheridan’s The Rivals, Anthony de Mello (priest, therapist and poet), Nirad Chaudhuri’s The Continent of Circe, Nassim Taleb (Lebanese-American essayist and scholar, but also statistician, former trader and risk analyst), Narendra Modi’s poetry book A Journey, Terence’s play Andria, Raj Kamal Jha (writer and master sculptor), Edward Albee (American playwright), Vladimir Nabokov, poetess Kamla Das, Joseph Conrad, Milan Kundera, Hindi poet Muktibodh, and Ezra Pound. All are part of Srivastava’s accumulated cultural baggageand wisdom and thus get reflected in his soliloquies.

Writing about his childhood, Srivastava admits that, “Sometimes we return to the childhood to get newness.” His writing flows naturally using crystal clear images (thus “eidetic”) is genuine, and generates the eventual smile, like when Srivastava remembers his uncle verbally abusing a stubborn and indifferent horse, or burning pages of Shakespeare’s plays to prepare tea with a different taste, in the absence of wood or coal; or when his teacher answers his question: “Don’t ask many questions. My wife makes life hell for me in the house. At least let me live peacefully here.” KK links one chapter to the next by revealing the subject of the following chapter at the end of the previous one. His writing — made up of memories, and descriptions full of animation, movement and life, philosophical and psychological insights — generates profound reflection and pleasure. I liked most a number of aphorisms: “You define someone and either you or that someone is doomed.”; “Human anomalies are our greatest curse, but we live happily with these.”; “… age dulls us, but beauty lives through us imprisoned inside our ruined body.” “A reviewer does not look through the windows of other houses; he has his own windows. But disputants argue that the best reviewers never look through their windows; they choose others’ windows to kill the bird.”; “Time is not an imaginary entity. It is a continual palpitation of moments.” 

He aptly commented adversely on writers when in 2015, these writers started relinquishing their awards in India. He exhorted them “Writers must neither live in glass houses nor make castles in the air. But our award-relinquishing writers do both.” And further, “When books create controversy, it is welcome and the magnificent grandeur of art lies in justifying and accepting all such controversies. The real problem arises when award relinquishing writers create controversies and generously gift themselves the honour to wallow in these.’’ 

He attributed efforts of writers hell bent on returning the awards to their being intrinsicallymotivated “to emerge from oblivion’’. “Good bureaucrats know the art of tiptoeing.”; “Feminism is not ultimate freedom. Feminism has limitations. Those who believe in it must believe in its limitations.”; “Literature dies the moment senile old men start assessing young poetess’s works.”; and, “Reality is a dream. By the time you realise it, half of your life has been lived and you are not sure if the half left over belongs to you at all.”

At times KK’s prose takes the form of conversations between him and Prof Yadav, the Socratic way. He also includes letters sent to him by some of his writer-friends living far away and admits that what he misses in India, he gets from such friends.

On other occasions, Srivastava mentions or comments on his previous literary works such as Ineluctable Stillness or Shadows of the Real. He gives us a clear description of himself: “I believe in the power of words: I write poems, books of poetry.” Being thus means also being a keen observer or listener of one’s surroundings. Listening through the closed doors of a lift while electricity is down, or a conversation with 95-year-old Joe PK, can prove to be food for reflection on different aspects of humankind and their behaviour. Year 2004, travelling by taxi, KK gives us a vivid description of what happens on the roads in small places: a lowly paid guard with a big belly; women filling discarded containers with water flowing from a pipe; and a naked boy defecating in public; all mirroring the discomforts people live because of paucity. Such experiences or circumstances make both KK and the reader reflect and grow and feel motivated to do something for the poor and needy.

During this voyage, KK addresses directly the reader and goes up and down memory lane, referring to particular dates and years: 1979-80, 2017, 2005, 1978, 2014, 2015, 1987-88… Srivastava alternates between narrating, on the one hand, particular experiences of his own and, on the other, personal reflections on various issues and worldly happenings. His are words that inspire inquiry: “The writers I mentioned are dead. But are their ideas dead too?” He thus writes about worthwhile things, ignorance and the working of the mind; about the difference between living and existing; suicide; dreams and images of snow; correspondence of love through poetry and letters; he describes his beloved as ‘a poem in trance’ (“Her curiosity in me aroused curiosity about her in me. Curiosity met its counterpart. Curiosity is at the root of all love…I am ever ready to meet life attired in deeper mire of sorrow.’); “real joy” for thinking persons and writers; train, platforms and philosophy; age and beauty; American poet Michael McClure’s concept of Caves and “huge figures”(“… you fellows die so many times every hour in caves. You people lack reaction, are tawdry, passive, inarticulate, puny.”); lack of reaction which gives space to exploitation; rebellion or the need to rebel at least once in a lifetime; Wikipedia today vs the eighties; the mechanics of coterie and how it controls powerful people; reading bestselling authors or reading unappealing and forgotten books; “farting aloud” intellectuals and their inability to confront even simple, let alone difficult, questions; the need to address broken parts in History which are many; YouTube; art and literature not being “a knavish business”; creativity, recognition and awards; wearing the right tie and clothes, social parties and behaviour; book-reading sessions and “smooth elevation” in upward mobility; India as a land of marvels, but also as part of humanity with its good and bad points; feminism; language as a thing of beauty; relationships between men and women, bachelors and spinsters; words written on taxis; writing (it helps the writer get out there what he thinks is essential); isolation (“an enlightened freedom, the freedom which illuminates the world inside the writer.”) some ostentatious persons from different walks of life being “replete with stylised arrogance and a self-eulogised persona”); and much more. KK also writes from the social-economic point of view, citing economists such as GA Cohen and Paul Streeten, and philosophers like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin applying their ideas in the context of development in his home town Gorakhpur.

Writing becomes a recording of past encounters: “the streets, the shops, the colleges, the schools, the University, the vendors, the hospitals, the libraries and above all the individuals that crowded the city.” At moments Srivastava is also very critical, and this is another strength in his writing. His mocking tone is a very important element in his writing style. While writing about some of the teachers who taught him in University, he mentions about their “belief [...] in the uselessness of time”, he criticises the “creamy-layered professors lacking both wisdom and knowledge.” Progress means leaving no space for children to play and old people to spend time together, but also people knowing the art of fitting into particular forms as these suit them, leaving crowds of patients patiently queuing for long hours and days, making profits as only concern. Talking of his early life, Srivastava reminds us of the presence of the mafia lords in his place of birth, Gorakhpur, known as a Second Chicago in the past, and where life, once upon a time, was marginalised, hopless and unyielding.

However, KK also mentions positive elements of his birthplace such as the grand Gorakhnath temple, Gita Press, literary legends and learned men. It is here that KK expresses himself in favour of the art of simple living, bringing nature very close to it, a reminder very relevant to concrete-ridden societies, thus revealing himself as a dreamer of a new dawn for his home town. His honesty and directness are powerful. He writes about people in parties talking aimlessly, “none interested in listening. Intellectual inertia or dementia....Exteriours infatuate them: these bring them face to face with their ilk. That is the precise reason I don’t circulate”. Suddenly he cites Vladimir Nabokov, “Where there is beauty, there is pity, for beauty must die. It dies.” He thus reminds ostentatious persons of ultimate truth: decay and end.

In the Epilogue, Srivastava confesses that “Eidetic merger of insights and intuitions is at the core of my narratives.” In psychology the word “eidetic” relates to or denotes mental images having unusual vividness and detail, as if actually visible.  KK also  admits that “On days I wrote, I felt like walking the road, the way I imagine I would, on the day of my death. Like moments just before death, which bring all memories of a man’s life to him before he forgets everything for good, the end of the days I would write on would bring the same feelings to me.” Reading Soliloquy from a miniature island Malta: thousands of kms away from giant and multifold India (KK’s poet friend Bernard Jackson from UK  maintains ‘an objective distance’ from India and reposes ‘his faith in the present efforts for the future good of society. Jackson maintains an objective distance and can assess truth and express that truth undauntedly.’) makes me feel in dire need of reading the book again and again in order to understand the real depths Srivastava’s writing touch and uncover. Soliloquy is introspective: it opens not only Srivastava’s but also strongly emerging India’s inner world to be read with gusto. A big thanks to KK Srivastava for sharing his new work worldwide.

(The book reviewer, Patrick J Sammut, studied Maltese and Italian Literature at University of Malta and specialised in Italian at University of Florence. He teaches at De La Salle College, Malta and writes in English, Maltese and Italian.  He is a literary critic and Editor of literary magazine — IL- PONT.)

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