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Slide Show

Written by Gieve Patel for Times of India on no date provided

In all cultures, in all ages the human body has been seen as housing a spark of divinity within it. However, the body’s more earthy functions have all along acted as a check on this idealised vision. This dichotomy has again and again affected the writings of individual artists. But it is so basic and powerful that it can even split entire genres of thought into two. In classical Indian texts, gods and heroes never have calls of nature to contend with. In folk versions of these same texts, they evacuate lustily from every orifice.

R. Raj Rao’s first book of poems, Slide Show, abounds in natural evacuations. Shit, piss, fart and vomit are continuously referred to. In one astonishing poem, ‘Garbage’, you have a tapestry woven of wastes: egg shells, cockroaches, orange-coloured shit, banana peel, a dead cat’s torn carcass, shattered bangles and shorn-off hair. The poem concludes:

Inspired by the powerful fetor of the decaying intermixture
I discharge a milligram of soft, wet mucus,
Spit and fart,
My humble contribution to the sewage art gallery.

Indian folk texts talk of excretion simply and directly, as though to say - to talk of such things need not be taboo. To the extent that they are taboo for the ‘higher’ classes there is an underlying sense of variance with such norms. In Raj Rao’s case too there is variance with comfortable social norms, and pretensions of false idealism fall away. In ‘Hospital Diary’ he describes a state of being in high fever, perhaps close to dying.

And by the side is my friend,
his eyes assuring me
that all will be well
in either case.

This is not cynicism. It is not even irony, because the experience of friendship is not denied or belittled. There is just a cool, realistic look taken at human dispensability. It is not the friend’s fault that things are so. The involvement in excreta has other causes besides: a drunkenness in things of the flesh, which extends to its rejects as well.

I’m a yahoo in sex: I drink even your urine.

You need to be one of the holiest of the debauched to quite understand this. But there it is, the inner climate of one who is too much with life so that, starting with his own body first, nothing is seen or felt to be ordinary. The thing nearest you - yourself - becomes an object of excitement and alarm, and the rest of the world is seen through this excitement and alarm. You are blessed by such intensity, but it is a double-edged and unsparing intensity. Where thousands sit through Bombay local train journeys comfortably enough, looking out the window with occasional queasiness, Raj Rao punctuates his reading of a Greek tragic play with glances outside, his nose filling with ‘fertile odours.’ Soon, ‘each word is a blob of shit’ helping him to his final ‘cathartic vomit.’

I am animated to a state of pity and fear:
I step off the train, purged.

Not preachy, not carping, not moralising, it is a truly original stance to confront the rubble of our republic. The power of its controlled vituperation makes it anything but defeatist. It moves forward on the energy of smothered hilarity.

There are poems in the book about visits to Shantiniketan, Vizag, and the Karla caves; and a sly second look at Kolatkar’s Jejurt. There are poems addressed to friends, reaching out to them, and also, deeply lonely verses about imprisonment in the self. The manner of the writing throughout is supple and elastic. When this poet tells you of a strangely concocted parallel between his own name and God’s, he is being mischievous, but again not ironical. He delivers an appallingly matter-of-fact correspondence between the two names. This is to signal an unrepentant indulgence in self, and the very marginal tongue-in-cheek manner of it hardly conceals the real narcissistic intent. The achievement then is in successfully focusing on the outer world with clarity and sharpness, from what would normally be a near impossible vantage point for any real vision; a difficult manoeuvre, accomplished with boldness.

This is a review of Slide Show

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