Monday, January 10, 2011

Kabir the Weaver - Poet

Kabir the Weaver - Poet

Author : Jaya Madhavan

Tulika Publishers

Ages 12 and above

Mystic, reformer, gifted poet, saint - who was Kabir? Mystery shrouds much of his life, mythology blurs the rest. What we do know, and continue to cherish, are his 'dohas', the pithy and very profound couplets he is supposed to have composed spontaneously, despite never having had a formal education. And through these verses, many of which people of my generation can till remember from the innumerable Hindi lessons of their childhood, we get a sense of the man he was - devoted to God, yet against organized religion and its fanatical guardians; fearlessly vocal against social evils; committed to the simple life of a weaver despite his charismatic effect on the people who flocked to hear him sing.

Reading Jaya Madhavan's 'Kabir the Weaver- Poet' , I discovered that he was also adept at courting trouble, by openly challenging religious mores and prejudice at a time in history when relations between Hindus and Muslims were especially strained."How ", a character wonders at one point "Was he going to protect a man like Kabir who insisted on being where trouble was? Or did trouble follow wherever Kabir went?"

How indeed, you wonder, as you read along, following Kabir through one very eventful day in his life. The book has an intricate narrative that allows us to see him from varying perspectives - sometimes through his own actions, sometimes through the eyes of his friends and foes, and sometimes through the imagination of the people around him as they weave their own stories about his powers. Threaded through the story are Kabir's own couplets, evolving from incidents in his life, and beautifully explaining his simple outlook on life.

The story begins on a light hearted note, then grows progressively darker as the day wanes. For the pundit and the muezzan, both influential leaders and rabble rousers in their communities, are smarting from their run-ins with Kabir, and want revenge. Each gathers an unruly mob of followers to petition the court for Kabir's arrest and punishment. As Kabir's friends desperately search for him, the two mobs collide in a shocking act of violence and arson. But through it all, where is Kabir?

Jaya Madhavan's retelling is well written and makes some very complex issues - communal hatred, intolerance, caste, even the frightening phenomenon of mob frenzy - accessible to young audiences. I liked the spareness of her writing style, very much in keeping with the simplicity of the man at the heart of this book. She adds a dash of fantasy too, inventively casting the tools of Kabir's trade - Dhaga, Takli, Warp, Weft, Spindle - as narrators and loyal friends of the poet. Much like the sutradhar of traditional folk theatre, they are more than merely detached story tellers;through their playful banter, their squabbling and occasional bits of role playing, we get a glimpse of Kabir's life and his effect on people around him.

Of these, the undisputed scene stealer in this story is surely Dhaga, the fat and jolly thread with a bellyful of stories and gossip, who alternately whines, quibbles and worries over his devoted master, Kabir. But don't dismiss him as a mere caricature for, when danger looms, it is Dhaga who fearlessly commandeers an army of his compatriots to save Kabir's life (I couldn't help visualizing this scene as a movie, with the army of threads as cartoon characters, valiantly frog-marching across the screen behind pudgy General Dhaga.)

Given that we live in a country with a strong attachments to its mythology, where the line between fact and fiction is often blurred by the rosy lens of faith, I particularly enjoyed the author's depiction of the process of myth making. The story of the story, a chapter in the book that I read several times over, describes stories as living things, growing and changing with each retelling as each person invests in them something of their own hopes, fears and desires. So a simple idea -'One day Kabir forgot to weave" - gradually evolves into a story about Kabir's family facing starvation. But does he have a family, people ask, until a devout woman adds her two bits' worth to the idea, spinning a yarn about God stepping in to help Kabir out by offering him a bale of magical cloth to sell. Miserable with hunger, the next person to hear this story weaves his own frustration into it, so that Kabir fails to find a single buyer for his cloth. And so the story progresses, working its way to a very satisfying end, slowly 'fattening up' as it 'waddles in and out of people's heads and ears' - definitely an image to cherish!

Reading the book with a seven year old has been an interesting experience. In the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks and the indelible memories they have left behind,my daughter and I have read some pretty grim books together, including graphic novels like Maus and Barefoot Gen, both powerful stories about war, human cruelty and the sheer thoughtlessness we can sink to as part of a mob. So I found she could understand the themes of Kabir.. well as enjoy the slapstick routines of Dhaga and gang. She made some interesting co-relations between Kabir and Gandhiji - the simple ascetic life, the fearless defiance of a powerful establishment, the charismatic presence., which got us talking about how long standing some conflicts can be, and how deep rooted the grudges that feed them. She even found a story about Kabir similar to the parable about Jesus and the loaves and fish, which got me thinking about the way stories can travel across borders, and how the myths of one culture can assimilate elements of another.

Kabir the Weaver-Poet is a great introduction to Kabir and his philosophy for all ages of readers, and I look forward to learning more about him at the forthcoming Kabir Festival in Mumbai.

Thanks to Malar at Tulika for a review copy of this book.



Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan said...

Thanks, WJ, for a fascinating review. What an original approach to a piece of history, and what a lot of issues it seems to encompass! You've really whetted my appetite -- will definitely pick up a copy.

Vibha said...

As always, a wonderful review wordjunkie. Loved the way you have phrased the belief system of our country-

"Given that we live in a country with a strong attachments to its mythology, where the line between fact and fiction is often blurred by the rosy lens of faith"

sounds like a 'must read' book.

Praba Ram said...

A wonderful review. Loved every bit, especially the part about how stories live and grow and waddle fattening up. :) And also liked your take in the end about stories traveling across borders. I have always been fascinated by the morphing of myths from one culture to another.

PS: off topic.I was telling the 8 yr old inerestingly the word morph is derived from mythology... comes from Morpheus, the Greek God of dreams who had the power to take any human form and appear in dreams. And morphine, too?? :)

ranjani.sathish said...

Fantastic review Wj...dissected in all possible ways, your reviews are a delight to read !

Choxbox said...

Second the commenetors above - a very incisive review. This is a book that has been read over and over in the last couple of years by my daughter, and she seems to find something new in it every time.

Meera Sriram said...

Very well-written review WJ with great choice of words to communicate the point! Your own child's reaction and experiences with this book (and the other war based ones) was particularly very helpful. Thanks.

wordjunkie said...

Thank you. It was a pleasure reading this book.

Praba.. 'fat story':) We loved part too. In fact, it got us walking around pretending to be stories too.

And Chox, that's so true, each reading does reveal something new!

Meera.. I didn't put this in the review, but the bit about two lynching mobs being formed got us talking about school bullying too.. about how girls who are individually pleasant and easy going, turn thoughtless in a group... always because of one very persuasive leader.

sandhya said...

This is a book I certainly want to read, WJ.
Both the husband and I have loved Kabir's dohas - they seem to express so much with such brevity. They also remind me of another favourite poet- this one from Marathi poetry- Bahinabai Chaudhari.
Your review is very compelling, and have put the book down as a must buy on my next trip to a book store.
And thanks, Tulika books for getting us such wonderful fare again and again.

Artnavy said...

Very well written as usual WJ.

I recall TV serials with Annu Kapur? as Kabir and Mirza Ghalib with Naserrudin Shah ....... would religiously watch them though my Hindi/ Urdu was not all that fluent.

Will have to pick up a copy of this book.

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