In Sri Lanka – this was in 2017 – between a golden temple and a shop selling car seats, we found a steel-roofed shack, with, strung across the entrance and the makeshift walls, countless laminated photographs of missing people. Youths. Most male, but there were also women and children looking as young as ten. A teenager stared intensely at the lens, a waterfall of black, wild hair obscuring her left, bared shoulder. The Tamil text at the bottom of each image gave the name and contact details of their family; the posters jostled for room and some were fastened to the corrugated roof.
We entered that space of women – Tamil women – in the shade. Most had grey in their hair, even those lying on the bare, lumpy ground. As soon as we entered, they rose and arranged a circle of chairs, with the expeditiousness of an army unit or a team of cheerleaders. Following the war, their people had never (been) returned. The government said the army and navy would release records, so families would know at last if their children had survived. This hadn’t happened.
A vociferous woman (her face stern, with protrusive cheekbones) handed me a sweat-stained sheet of A4. She’d Photoshopped together images of a family – father, mother, two children – and the effect was telling, as if these people never occupied the same space at the same time, but were always destined to separate (the ink had run too, the blacks were green). All of them were likely dead: I saw it in her eyes. She wore a blue sari, tied her silver hair back in a hard bun, and announced: ‘We want our children returned to us in the same state they were in when they disappeared.’ Which meant she was at war not only with the government but with time itself.
Leaving, I was handed a photograph of a girl who had been ‘taken’ when she was eighteen. What did this mean, exactly? She could have been kidnapped off the street by the Tigers, and made one of them (there were all-female units, and indeed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) recruited young people by boasting of gender equality), before dying in battle, perhaps blowing herself up; or she might have been – though innocent – detained by the government and tortured to the point of death, or still incarcerated to this day. Was she sent, perhaps, to one of the camps where Tamils remain political prisoners, with no access to legal representation? Did she find asylum abroad, or was she bussed back to the place an outdated census insisted was her home – an alien zone she fled from – or maybe it was the correct neighbourhood, except her house was destroyed and her family had packed up and left? I see her in my mind’s eye, assessing the damage, and setting off on her own – a journey taking her not towards but away from the family with whom she yearned to reunite.
On the Amnesty International website, the Tamil poet Cheran explains he has ‘no naive hope or belief that my poetry can turn the world upside down’; nevertheless, ‘words and imagination are my weapons. I have no other. There are several poems in my collections on disappearances evoking the friends I have lost.’ Even his more atmospheric, less clearly political poems speak of yearning and loss:
when the last train of the evening has gone
and the railway lines shiver and break in the cold,
what it is to wait with a single wing
and a single flower.
Those women in the shack preferred to know once and for all that their children were dead, rather than go on waiting. In grief-work and trauma parlance, it’s called ‘closure’. But it was also a basic kind of responsiveness and respect they were after, from the government: a restored commitment to a world of fact in which people are, or are not, dead, where they don’t horribly hover in our minds between one state and another, like Schrödinger’s cat. A place where their death, if that’s the case, is recognised within national history, even if only by a statistic that few outside or indeed within the country will ever read.
A few years ago, I read poems at a poetry festival. The auditorium, from the stage, was pitch-black: I couldn’t see anyone. No faces, no bodies, only the heat and shine of the spotlight on my face, shoulders, the page on the lectern crawling with words that no longer seemed mine. A language that – in that moment – seemed as alien to me as Tamil. I spoke into a void, and out of that disproportionate pause between speechlessness and speech (it was my turn to perform, to appear, the audience was waiting for me, it was wrong to delay, hem, haw, vanish into myself ) emerged the roar of silence, of time itself passing, pushing me to one side.
Trying for a sentence about this that seems true, I realise I’m thinking of both a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch and a trip I took as a teenager to Greece with my parents. I was so unhappy then: ashamed, those sunlit weeks, of my overweight brown body and acne-riddled face. There was only one moment of relief, when my mother and I sat on the end of a pier past nightfall and became thankfully invisible to ourselves and each other. All we heard was the loud roar of the invisible sea. ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,’ writes George Eliot at the end of Middlemarch,
it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
There are moments when prose turns to poetry; when, reading a novel or a story, a sentence acts like a trapdoor you tumble through into a history previously unglimpsed, or (it could be one and the same) the injured textures of your own life. The eye that skims from page to page is swapped out, you feel it has to be, for the ear that listens. After over three hundred pages of realist prose about life in a mid-nineteenth-century Midlands town, Eliot writes a sentence of prose that’s also a line of poetry. As sounds converge (‘grass’ and ‘grow’, ‘hear’ and ‘heart beat’), time itself becomes audible; ‘silence’ itself sings, rhyming with ‘like’, ‘die’, ‘lies’ and ‘side’. Reading this passage by a Victorian novelist, I’m once again with my mother at the end of that pier in Greece, past nightfall – listening, listening.
Eliot’s thinking about how countless unattended acts of goodness make up the world; of the lives, and aspects of lives, that don’t make it into the stories we tell. How little it’s possible for us to actually attend to, though we yearn to tune in to a wider range! But we can only live through self-containment. We limit the field of our attention or have it limited for us, either by the apparatus of perception or by the culture we live in, whose news updates are typically about that culture, people like us, people not so far away (from being us).
This is an experiment in talking about those women in that shack and what they felt, through talking about myself and how I once felt. It’s an experiment in not being ashamed of my own ‘First World problems’ (a phrase Teju Cole disparages, for it makes it sound as if those in Nigeria live only from crisis to crisis, that they don’t, too, get frustrated at their cell phones for crashing): a risked connection between the diasporic immigrant and those who’ve suffered more intensely than I’ll ever – than you’ll ever – know.
Onstage, I began to apologise for my poems. Poets shouldn’t do this. It’s one thing to be self-deprecating, and another to suggest your audience shouldn’t have bothered coming out (paying to do so, probably). As Eliot suggests, we’ve a limited attention span, so if you’ve nothing to say, get off the stage; then a community rarely represented can have one of their own in the spotlight. I don’t like the pressure on minority poets to be ostentatiously ‘empowered’, to be always shouting, in my case, ‘I’m brown and I’m proud’. But I also feel the pressure to represent, with some kind of eloquence; this can fade, degrade, into an obligation to entertain; you become a sort of minstrel figure. I was abject that day, asking forgiveness for my brownness, for my presence onstage, for the content and style of my poems. Trying for contact, in that darkness, with a face I might see nod, or hear signal assent or appreciation, I felt in the end completely alone.
I had a period in my life of intense distress, which saw me take several months off work, then move to the Midlands from the North East, where – in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, the referendum vote – I experienced in the street the increasing racism of English culture. People didn’t look at me in the same way any more, nor, when I spoke, could they process what I was saying except through a scrim of media-fermented resentments (or, the determination to not be like this, to smile and nod at whatever the brown man said). Desperately seeking solutions – a style of invulnerability – I tried so hard to be likeable, biddable. I took to going around with an exaggerated smile on my face, just in case strangers on the verge of violence could be pre-empted by this overt communication of my harmlessness. One day a bloke actually parked up, beckoned us over and complimented me on my good cheer. It was then I knew I’d become, as at that reading (dissolving my presence in jokes), the unthreatening minstrel I mentioned.
My wife and I had a terrible argument about house-buying, in the snooty area where we lived and no one spoke to us – where schoolboys snickered as they passed me on the street. ‘It’s because we’re the only renters,’ she said; I struggled to forgive her for disbelieving my alternative explanation. It seemed that we lived in two different worlds, that she couldn’t understand the changes in my life linked to seismic convulsions in national culture. This crept, too, into my teaching. My students seemed to me then, for I’d lost the confidence to draw them out, fiercely, determinedly passive. I wanted a conversation: they craved a mansplainer, perpetually sure of himself as I could never be, someone who’d keep them safe. When I did talk at length, they broke eye contact, typed everything down; should I ask a question, their faces went dead. I’d lost confidence. Studies reveal that students in their evaluations are consistently harder on women and minorities; they don’t mean to be, I’m sure most aren’t racist (quite intensely the opposite, in my experience), but such are the workings of unconscious bias.
I felt, all in all, like the hallooing boy in Robert Frost’s ‘The Most of It’, who finally gets his response when his voice (it’s absurd really, though beautiful: a scene from a Road Runner cartoon) disturbs a landslide that kills him; prior to this, when he calls out in the dark, there’s no answer:
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
He’s a shade arrogant (‘He thought he kept the universe alone’), in wishing to become entirely self-sufficient. I have this in me, derived from our economistic, hyper-competitive culture, no doubt, and also from how my parents conceived of our immigrant place in it: when I tried to tell them how sad I’d become, they said, ‘Just keep achieving, writing things, stay ahead of the pack.’
So was the problem in me, or outside me – or both?
When you try to talk to people about racism you’ve experienced, they’ve a myriad ways of closing (you) down. Some methods are well documented, others less so. If minorities, and women, don’t always speak up, it may be because they don’t want to have a go at it only to be rebuffed. It may feel better to not say anything, so you can continue to fantasise that if you ever did, the world would respond. In this way, we’re like abused people, who’d rather believe it’s all their fault than consider the possibility of someone (a parent, a partner) being incapable of loving them.
It can be the case that when a person of colour tries to share their experiences, sometimes even those on the Left, white people who announce themselves in the abstract as anti-racists, don’t listen and respond. Sometimes, when I tried telling friends what I was going through, they, constrained by that kind of white progressivism so terrified of saying the wrong thing, didn’t have the ears to hear. I’ll call this phenomenon, riffing on white fragility, ‘white freeze’: the moment or hideous duration where a person of colour raises issues of race, and well-meaning white people seize up, go silent, their eyes widen and their faces drop and they say nothing, lest they embarrass themselves by this micro-sojourn out of their own lane. This leaves said person of colour feeling unvalidated and rejected. More silence. More darkness.
I’m thinking still of those women petitioning the Sri Lankan army for news of their children, and being ignored; I’m trying to draw connections; you’re free of course to find this an implausible stretch. For an equivalent embarrassment (swapped rapidly for outrage) occurs when one compares sufferings of vastly different scale. I do want to provoke you a little here. Let’s begin with the absolute nadir of self-pity: those celebrities who, during the coronavirus lockdown, posted videos of themselves crying in mansions they were unable to leave. People were outraged. But why, I wish to ask, are we so angry; why rush to call them out for being oblivious to the far greater pains others suffer, as if shouting at these idiots (from the Greek, for non-practitioners of democracy, non-citizens) will make things better? Why, in short, the cultural move towards using the experiences of some to contradict the experiences of others? Is it a justice-instinct, or does this policing of sadness express only our uncertainty, which ferments into rage, concerning how we relate to each other, or don’t, or can’t, in a massively unequal multiculture?
This sits close to what Reddit, the ubiquitous news aggregator and discussion site, calls ‘gatekeeping’. I find a literary example, and a window on South African apartheid and its legacy, in Ingrid de Kok’s poem ‘Small passing’, whose epigraph says it’s written for ‘. . . a woman whose baby died stillborn, and who was told by a man to stop mourning, “because the trials and horrors suffered daily by black women in this country are more significant than the loss of one white child”. ’ Although it’s unlikely, dear reader, that you’re South African (if you are, hello!), I suspect so much, here, is as familiar to you as it is to me. The gatekeeping of emotion, the imposed hierarchy of legitimate and illegitimate sufferings. Complications abound as a man, who couldn’t experience this grief in the same way, tells a woman she’s in the wrong, and I do wonder at de Kok, a white poet, for prioritising gender over race, for would it make a difference to us if that man were definitely Black? Nevertheless, the poem strikes a moral stance, standing up for the bereaved woman by borrowing his voice and turning it inside out:
In this country you may not
suffer the death of your stillborn,
remember the last push into shadow and silence,
the useless wires and cords on your stomach,
the nurse’s face, the walls, the afterbirth in a basin.
Do not touch your breasts
still full of purpose.
Do not circle the house,
pack, unpack, the small clothes.
Do not lie awake at night hearing
the doctor say ‘It was just as well’
and ‘You can have another.’
In this country you may not
mourn small passings.
In the movement from ‘you may not / suffer’ to ‘you may not / mourn’, de Kok addresses both private pain and the public display of it. The public dimension of grief, its validation by a community, is often essential for us to move on.
Of course the travails of a diasporic Sri Lankan Tamil, a second-generation immigrant, in an increasingly racist England don’t compare with actual deaths ‘back home’ (to use my parents’ phrase). I sense the accusation, I make it myself: you can’t compare these things. You’re not the same as those people. But I’m curious about the refusal to countenance a connection between disparate experiences – a route by which empathy could travel. We have to use what we have to try to understand others, even those who’ve attacked us, perhaps out of their own merited feelings of pain and insecurity.
So there I am, stood in the dark or sat before the silence of others, afraid no one’s listening, that the world’s growing more and more hostile; and there are those women in their shack, launching at a faceless wall of bureaucracy questions about their dead to which no one in power pays the slightest heed.
The darkness my voice disappeared into that day, reading my poems onstage, could to some extent be medicated away (I was put on antidepressants); it could be partially explained without reference to racism or the intergenerational terrors which, like a set of rogue genes, get passed down from Tamil parents to their children. My counsellor suggested my mother was overattentive to me as an infant. As soon as I declared a need – maybe, even prior to this, before baby Vidyan began to cry – she rushed in to placate me. As a result, I never learned to entrust myself to the darkness which, should I only hold out, would conjure her, a duration in which I might learn to self-soothe. Instead I came to feel that, without an immediate response, I must be alone.
Sleep-training our baby Frank, it was agony to hear him wailing in the dark (and see him crying and writhing in seething, pixellated greyscale, on the baby monitor) – beyond loving my son, I identified with him. His feelings were too close to mine. I sat downstairs, in the light, while he sobbed upstairs, in the dark. Before he was born, we never thought we’d be parents to let our baby ‘cry it out’: in fact, we agreed with the psychoanalytic politics of writers like Penelope Leach and Philippa Perry, who suggest that children left to sob in pitch-black, when they do eventually fall asleep, have simply learned to give up on their parents, a decision that may affect how empathetic they’ll be towards others later in life. But it soon became clear that going in to console Frank only made it worse: he had to be left to face and surmount this hurdle himself. We tried to be happy downstairs, to watch television, though really our eyes kept darting to the baby monitor. It produced a deep guilt, that I’d like here to connect – again, an experiment – with the diasporic situation. In this model, Frank becomes like those women in Sri Lanka, struggling to be heard, and my wife and I, downstairs, in our cosily lamplit sitting room, are like those of us in the West, quite unaware of atrocities in the Global South, and indeed enjoying luxuries predicated on exploitation of those regions. Looking at the monitor and seeing him in pain and fear was like glancing at one’s phone, and reading of distant events one wishes in some way to cure, by getting angry about them, even by opinionating online, feeling all the while an immense powerlessness to actually help.
We don’t have to subscribe entirely to the tenets of psychoanalysis to recognise that, in desperate times, the terrible fears of our childhood have ways, mysterious ways, of resurfacing. Alfred Tennyson, mourning his friend Arthur Hallam, describes himself as a hapless baby:
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
My parents overprotected me, as immigrants often do. The overprotected child comes, first, to believe they’re fragile, that they require such protection; second, they grow up feeling the world’s full of dangers (it is, but the child’s in danger of misidentifying these); finally, they may sense they’re a risk to themselves and require perpetual oversight. They seek out protector figures, rituals keeping harm at bay; the Strange Situation, an experiment in which a mother leaves the room, and when she returns, her child may not go to her, but instead attend ferociously to a toy, announcing silently that he doesn’t need her, suggests that if distraction can be a neurotic symptom, so too can attention: a too-intent focusing on the task at hand, self-loss through workaholism. Sometimes I wonder if even my ability to focus closely on a poem, to rediscover through it another way forward, has its root in a deep unease.
‘Everything happens for a reason,’ says my mother – her Hindu fatalism chiming uncannily with Tennyson’s cobbled-together theology – and as a teenager this enraged me. ‘That’s such a middle-class, privileged thing to say,’ I shouted. ‘What if your grandson Rahul were hit by a car and left in a wheelchair for the rest of his life? What would be the reason for that? And what about all those people who died in Sri Lanka?’
Objecting to global injustices, or inequalities closer to home, there’s the danger – I see it in myself and my left-progressive peers – of becoming locked in a position of righteous indignation. It’s correct to be angry about things, but that doesn’t remove the danger of being pushed by our politics back into the grievance-posture of a teenager. There’s a brave moment – a moment vulnerable to such indignant accusation – in Solmaz Sharif’s Look where, discussing the invasion of Iraq and the killing of innocent civilians, she suggests that she too, an Iranian American, has experienced war:
According to most
definitions, I have never
been at war.
According to mine,
most of my life
The second stanza hasn’t the confidence to really push through the equivalence. It’s a clipped blurt, such as I, losing my sense of myself, began to specialise in. Sharif also suggests that war is both a state of mind and a place: ‘most of my life / spent there’; is she saying that, as the child of immigrants, she feels for their homeland too?
There is a trend now, to leap to criticise others, and ourselves, for comparing petty injuries with real atrocities. But I wonder if the critique of self-pity is itself laced with self-pity; if, damning appropriation, we’re rushing to cover up in ourselves emotions dwarfing, in their overweening rancour, any one reference point or, as T.S. Eliot has it (criticising Hamlet for this), an ‘objective correlative’. If, moving to Keats, ‘imagined grievances’ can hurt more than real ones (a prompt to action in the moment, these have a built-in end point) then intense feelings deserve our empathy, no matter how oblivious of otherness they seem to be. And so Sharif suggests that as an Iranian American subject to both interpersonal racism and governmental hyperscrutiny, she is at war.
Tennyson (skipping back) was a racist – ranted to Gladstone that people in the colonies deserved to be shot – and he’s also not the most fashionable poet (‘Alfred Lawn Tennyson’, James Joyce called him). Because my father memorised and learned to love his poems as part of his colonial education at a Jesuit school in Batticaloa, of course I argued, growing up, that Tennyson was mellifluous sham. But I was teaching recently a poem by Sujata Bhatt that mentions him, and my student Sophia Gatzionis made a wonderful point, about the transferability between cultures of unspecific melancholia: feeling-states, which, in Tennyson, seem overkill, but may clarify for the reader a very different sort of life. In other words, it’s precisely because Tennyson’s emotions are excessive, his self-pity without terminus, that he’s able to communicate across divides. We see this in Bhatt’s poem about her grandfather, ‘Nanabhai Bhatt in Prison’:
The next day, he lands in prison again:
thrown in without a trial
for helping Gandhiji,
for Civil Disobedience.
One semester in college
I spent hours picturing him:
a thin man with large hands,
my grandfather in the middle
of the night, in the middle of writing,
between ideas he pauses to read
from Tennyson, his favourite—
A hand that can be clasped no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
What did he make of the northern trees?
The ‘old yew’, the chestnut . . .
and the strange season of falling leaves
that comes every year—
Did he spend hours trying
to picture it all?
What galled me about my father’s love of Tennyson was it felt like a native’s infatuation with the Glory of English Literature itself – a fossilised idea of white greatness. How else could he leap the distance between his world and Tennyson’s?
But it’s precisely this adventure of the imagination for which Bhatt’s poem clears a space. She thinks her grandfather was capable of it: she takes his love of canonical British literature seriously (mentioning, also, that ‘as a student in Bombay / he saved and saved / and lived on one meal a day for six months / just so he could watch / the visiting English Company / perform Shakespeare’). The overflow of Tennyson’s grief for his dead friend, feelings connected with those which, in poems that aren’t elegies, he indulges to excess – all this could be felt over again by an Indian man imprisoned for his politics. It spoke to him: ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’, that long, tendentious, uneven, mournfully recircling poem, in the work it does on the page with Arthur Hallam’s death, created an atmosphere of feeling that Nanabhai Bhatt, imprisoned thousands of miles away, and alive in another century, and who never knew Hallam, could nevertheless share.
Sujata Bhatt ‘spent hours’ in college picturing her grandfather; she wonders, did he ‘spend hours’ trying to picture Tennyson’s landscapes – using the same word, the same verb, as Sharif: ‘most of my life / spent there’. To spend time is to use up our lives. And Bhatt suggests there’s no better expenditure than hours or even years of trying to understand other people:
And I spent hours
picturing his years in prison:
it is dark in his cell.
He is sixty years old.
I see him
sitting cross-legged on the floor
and I wonder what he knew
by heart, I wonder
which lines gave him the most comfort.
Thinking of those Tamil women – they must imagine obsessively the horrors their vanished loved ones went through, possibly in prison, like Nanabhai Bhatt – I hear an emphasis differentiating ‘hours’, in the first line, from ‘years’ in the second. This is the moment where the poet recognises the difference in stature between her grievances and her grandfather’s: it’s the difference between mere hours and sheer years.
I also pause at the line ending on ‘knew’. Nanabhai Bhatt, like my father, knew Tennyson by heart (he wouldn’t have had a copy of the poems in his cell). But ‘I wonder what he knew’ reaches deeper than that. Rather than presume she knows better than her Tennyson-loving, Shakespeare-obsessed, Anglophile grandfather, Bhatt wonders if he actually ‘knew’ something that she, to this day, doesn’t: that you don’t, and I don’t. She also writes bilingual poems, where the italicised material would be Gujarati: in this case, the foreign substance in the poem is a stanza from Tennyson. How much foreignness, strangeness, can a poem – can any of us – admit into ourselves, into our lives and behaviours, without losing what’s essentially us? Or is there no essential me (or you), only this space where ideas, languages, power circuits, cross? Best, then, to keep our borders open – for good.
And like a guilty thing I creep.
In The Seasons of Trouble, her study of the Sri Lankan civil war, Rohini Mohan contrasts the lives of detainees subjected to torture, sexual abuse and coercion, with those of their parents and other loved ones trying to find out where they’ve been taken, but also, trying to continue living, from day to day, and even turning, to this end, their petitionary visits to the relevant authorities into a type of religious ritual, a gesture of observance rather than a genuinely investigative claim – they’d long ago learned no response was forthcoming. Hindu fatalism plays its role: that all is in the hands of the gods is an idea chronically accessible (as research psychologists say of our obsessive thoughts) to people suffering the whims of faceless authoritarian power. As well as the thousands of civilians killed by misdirected shells or fired upon by the Tigers for trying to remove themselves from the northern war zone, Sri Lanka also had to come to terms, as Frances Harrison observes, with the fact that even those in the south ‘lived with the constant threat of suicide bombers, terrified even to let their children walk to school.’ The intermixture of local beliefs with fear for one’s life can be traced in a psychology that my parents, despite their continuing efforts to erase it, carried with them across the ocean to England.