A Prayer for my Daughter by William Butler Yeats


My Favourite Poems


Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggd smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

June 1919

The Virtual Gaze

Watching the replay of a not too recent India versus New Zealand cricket match on Television I was particularly struck by one of the innumerable advertisements that were played and replayed in between overs. A little girl with a pair of large glasses looks into a mirror and asks Father, Am I pretty? The dad’s voice tells her Of Course, you are. The girl replies: then why doesn’t anyone look at me? There follows a loose shot of a kindergarten class where the little girl looks longingly at a tiny boy next to her who is too busy writing on his notebook to notice anything! There is enough to put even Jacques Lacan to shame! But worse is to follow.  The father buys a large car and the girl sprawls in the seat and everyone stares at her! This is the height of ridiculousness. You are entitled to promote your ware and sell over the small screen anything and everything in this capitalist world. But what right do you actually have to twist and pervert the tender minds of million such kids who would certainly watch and imbibe these visuals innocently? What is the idea here? Is it the quality of your car or its comfort or even its elegance that is projected? The truth of the matter is the perversion of the look and gaze that is given undue focus here, perhaps deliberately, or even unawares?  How could the media feign irresponsibility in this matter?  What right do we have to corrupt the innocent minds of tiny tots—we have but borrowed our world from them!

Existentialist philosophers drew attention to the look and the gaze. Our very identity depends on the other and we share a reciprocal existence.  The look of the other could engender meaning in terms of pride, pleasure, position, or simple being. Of course the other, as Jean Paul Sartre reminds us, is always Hell! In a marvelous scene that connotes the situations of class- wars and class-consciousness, Eugene O’Neill in his play The Hairy Ape pits the look between two people of entirely different social class to tremendous advantage. The hero is a huge hunk of a hairy dark man who works in the coal-fuelled underworld of the steamship while the heroine is the representative of the tender, fragile, rich, aristocracy.  When the lady looks upon the dark awesome creature she yells and shrieks—there is a long minute of the look that transforms both at once.  The man is yanked off his feet and is too shocked to understand while the lady is even more shocked that such creatures like this one exists at all! The class-difference is too very well brought out here and the devastating impression of the look is dramatically established. A mere look can do wonders—it could shatter and disfigure—constitute, create, or crush. 

Feminist intellectuals over the last century have drawn attention to the gaze that they term is often the male variety.  The patriarchal world runs on established power structures that condition the male gaze even in women who might be biologically born as women but are re-conditioned into playing gender- stereotypical roles in life.  The male gaze operates virtually in all spheres of living and bestows its own value-systems. The female of the species quite unconsciously is also trapped in this social structure. In fact a great deal of the world of the market is strategically controlled by this sort of gaze: female beauty pageants and the entire market world of beauty products are dependent on this response to the male gaze. What a woman wants, what she is supposed to look like, what manner she is supposed to bear herself– all this is conditioned and manipulated by this devious device of the male gaze.

We have the look, we have the gaze. In the advertisement that we have noted above both these attitudes are unbearably taken advantage of. The little child is made to behave in an adult manner and fit into the mode of the patriarchal world view. Given the psychology of the child at that age, to believe Jacques Lacan, there would not be any possibility for the erasure of any given image in this early stage in the development of the child’s ego simply because it is only beginning to constitute.  The child is an innocent victim in this avaricious world of the adult thinking. Why should the little girl start thinking about the image of the public eye? Why in the heaven’s name should she be made to appear under the male gaze? If you want to sell a product couldn’t you do that without resorting to the corrupting eye? Not only do you desire to corrupt the present but you also desire to throw mud into the eyes of the future generation as well!

Our world is now manipulated totally by the virtual gaze. We are made to believe in the more real reality of the virtual than our own everyday reality!  What the media thinks and distributes, we are silently made to swallow and digest. And we are willful victims in this process of slow destruction and decay.  We need to sit up and resist. At least now, before it is too late. At least, some among us.

In one of his great plays Albert Camus the French existentialist intellectual has a unique scene that goes like this.  A handful of extremist rebels have decided to annihilate a powerful potentate. Their selected killer however backs out of the act of throwing the grenade into the vehicle of the dictator as it passes him by. The reason is simple: there were a couple of little children in the vehicle with him!  The message is clear: in our rage to annihilate the atrocities of the past and the present we have no business to commit any violence on the future! How could we make ourselves do this now? What right do we have to inculcate devious values into the future minds? We need to resist. And resist we must. The media of the present that is run on super technology might dig up some excuse or other, but we need to remember our responsibilities. After all we have only one earth and we are the last of the species, apparently, because we can think like human beings. Our gazes are already attaining the level of the virtual. Let us not be made virtual as well!

Book Review in The Hindu June 19, 2012 Distinct, But Not Dissimilar– Murali Sivaramakrishnan

For many in the rest of India, the North-East region holds a special charm as it is geographically and anthropologically unique primarily on account of the multi-ethnic nature of its population. Bounded on almost all sides by international borders — Tibet and Bhutan to the north, Myanmar to the east, Bangladesh to the south and west, North-east India is most strategically situated and hence it is geo-politically an extremely sensitive area as well. The region despite all its uniqueness is certainly very much an integral part of India, but according to Birendranath Datta — a committed folklorist and art enthusiast, author of this extremely interesting and informative book — this strategically vital and rich cultural region is close to being sidelined on account of this rich distinctiveness and exclusivity.

Through his long years of research as well as personal experience with this area Datta highlights what he holds as two realities: first this region presents a picture of almost bewildering variety where apparently there is little of commonness and compatibility.  And yet, there runs through the heart of North-east a stream of affinity and togetherness that on the one hand, binds it together and, on the other, marks it out from the rest of India.  Secondly there still exists tremendous misinformation and misconception about these people and their culture at the all-India level.  This, he points out, applies not only to the political arena but, unfortunately to the intellectual and academic areas as well. It is imperative, as the author argues, to see this unique area in a pan-Indian perspective that is inclusive and integral. This book is certainly a commendable endeavour to highlight the claim for attention and recognition of this strategically vital part of India.

Escape mechanism

The prevalent oral narratives and folk traditions of this region play a pivotal role in the process of understanding its cultural contours, and it is not without significance that the chapter on the changing functions of traditional narratives occupies the central focus of the book. Folklore might function at several levels — including amusement, entertainment, education, traditional wisdom, or simply as a mere escape mechanism for the people. The burden of folklore is actually just a stone’s throw away from the centre of any culture. As so pithily phrased by AK Ramanujan: “Even in a large modern city like Madras, Bombay or Calcutta, folklore — proverbs, lullabies, folk medicine, folk tales — is only a suburb away, a cousin or grandmother away.” The North-east Indian region has been the meeting ground for Hindu-Aryan and the Indo-mongoloid or Kirata elements and the folk narratives have been shaped and manipulated by the political, cultural, and economic lives of the people of this region.

As far as religious communalism is concerned, Assamese Hindus and Muslims have been living here for centuries in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and amity; and so have been the segments of Christians and Buddhists and Sikhs in this region. This has been attributed to the immense influence of the life and thought of Sankaradeva who believed in casteless equity and essential human virtue. Sankaradeva (1449-1568) who spearheaded the neo-Vaishnavite Bhakti Movement in Assam was the harbinger of an extraordinary resurgence in the life of this region, and the chapter “The Sankaradeva Movement” examines its legacy of cultural liberalism.

The 17th century Muslim saint Shah Milan, popularly known as Ajan-Phakir, is said to have come here from Baghdad, with the express intention of leading the Muslims of this region toward the one true god through devotion and worship. Ajan Phakir had imbibed Sankaradeva‘s spirit in full. Sankaradeva had made his religion very simple, free from all rituals. His disciple Madhavadeva gave cogent expression to this attitude in his famous work, the Namaghosa : “In singing of the praise of God, there are no rules of place, time qualifications, rituals, and rigours”.

Many Ramayanas

Madhava Kandali’s Assamese Ramayana happens to be the earliest version of Valmiki’s Sanskrit work in any of the desi traditions of northern India — preceding the Bengali, Oriya and the Hindi versions by a century or more. The essay that explores the uniqueness of this North-east text argues that the poet of Assam had eliminated the embellishments while keeping the essence of the ur text.  The depth and range of this epical narrative in the region is re-examined in the study of the Rama katha tradition in Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Mizoram. There is a localised flavour apparent in the folk performances even today. Apart from the minor Rama-katha texts that go beyond the Sanskrit versions, there also exist tribal versions among the Tiwas and the Karbis, and the Khamti Ramayana which is of Buddhist religious affiliation.

The author also delves deep into the performative traditions and the visual cultures of the North-east, like the Kamarupa art forms dating back several centuries. The art of painting was also definitely intimately connected with life in general herein. In the Kamarupi dialect of the Assamese language there are still current expressions which point to the practice of painting associated with the patas andnatas , although both have ceased to exist as professional classes now. The manner in which pictorial composition is discussed is quite erudite, whether in the context of manuscript miniatures or while dealing with the traditional arts and crafts. The book is rife with rich information on folklore and culture of a unique way of life that exists in the North-east of India. Difference, uniqueness, and heterogeneity in terms of folk and cultural elements might distinguish this part of India; however, the life of the people from early history also reveals their intimate connection to the rest of India.