'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Getting To Know Neruda

This should be one of the longest posts here, and I know, even as I start typing, it is going to be one of the best.

I first heard of Pablo Neruda as a Junior Collegian. The context was probably very left-wing so I thought he was just another of "those commie revolutionary poets" (although I was quite sympathetic to socialist ideals, I also used to be put off by what I felt was the black and white preachification and rhetoric of many lefties, including desi commie poets). And I did not know then that Neruda was a 'Nobelist'.

Many years later, I received a post card from Gyani. It was from a place called Ushuaia near the southern tip of South America. He had just finished his sweep thru Argentina and reached "this small town near the Antarctic circle and overlooking the Beagle Channel". The message ended, "Now Chile, and Neruda's ghost". That was, for self, the first 'intimation of (Neruda's) immortality'.

Just a few days after that, I chanced upon a bilingual edition of Neruda's 'Residence on Earth' in the rather unlikely location of a pavement shop in Aurangabad. I have changed my own residence nearly a score times since then and this book has always moved with me with a few dozen others - although, let me confess, I could seldom fathom the poetry.

A few months back, I got to see the lovely Italian film "Il Postino" where Neruda appears as a sagely elder instructing a provincial postman on the subtleties of love and metafore. The two men cycling against the backdrop of what must be the bluest sea on Earth was an unforgettable image.

And, the other day, I borrowed Neruda's Memoirs from a friend. There was no real intent to read it fully (I rarely am able to finish books nowadays). Surprisingly, the book had an *index*; and therein was an entry for Nehru. I went straight to Neruda's encounter with the great man - it was so real, so human and yes, so utterly devoid of logic. One particular sentence was mindblowing: "I am very slow to react, and unfortunately for me, I am not malicious". I was hooked; and read the whole thing in a day and a half.

Let me key in a couple of passages, from the several dozens that I loved (Unfortunately, the poet does not mention the endearing 'postino' anywhere; maybe he never existed).

1. (from the passage on poet Alberto Rojas Gimenez):
"His lovely poems went around all wrinkled in his pockets, without ever, to this day, getting published.

Being generous to a fault, he attracted so much attention ... one day, in a cafe, a stranger came up to him and said, "Sir, I have been listening to you talk and I have taken a great liking to you. May I ask you something?" "What is it?" Rojas Gimenez asked, looking put out. "Let me leap over you." the stranger said. "What?" the poet asked. "Are you so powerful that you can leap over me here, sitting at a table?" "No, sir," the stranger said meekly. "I want to leap over you later, when you are resting in your coffin. It's my way of paying tribute to the interesting people I have met in my life: leaping over them, if they let me, after they are dead. I am a lonely man and this is my only hobby." and taking out his notebook, he said, "here is a list of people I have leaped over".

Wild with joy, Rojas Gimenez accepted the strange proposition.....

2. About the Nobel prize about which Neruda himself says: "Every writer on this planet would really like to get the Nobel sometime, whether he admits it or not":

"... In 1963, things got serious. The radios repeatedly said my name was very strong in the voting in Stockholm and I would probably be the winner of the Nobel. So, Matilde and I put into effect home defence plan number 3. We laid in supplies of food and red wine and hung a huge padlock on the old gate... expecting to be under seige for some time.

The newsmen got there fast but we kept them at bay. They could not get past the gate secured with the huge bronze padlock, which was as beautiful as powerful. They prowled behind the outer wall like tigers... What could I say about a debate in which only members of the Swedish academy on the other side of the world were taking part....

Spring had come late to the Pacific coast...
The radio has just announced that a good Greek poet has received the Nobel prize. The journalists have departed. Matilde and I are left in peace. We solemnly withdraw the huge padlock from the old gate, so that anyone, as usual, may come calling at my door unannounced. Like Spring.

In the afternoon, the Swedish ambassador and his wife came to see me. They brought a basket filled with bottles and an assortment of delicacies. They had prepared it to celebrate the Nobel prize, which they had considered a sure thing for me. We did not really feel sad about it and drank a toast to Seferis, the Greek poet who had won. As he was leaving, the ambassador took me aside and said, " I am sure, the press will interview me, and I don't know anything about him. Can you tell me who Seferis is?"

"I don't know who he is either" I replied in all honesty."


Now, I quote another incident which is interesting for a rather different reason. The place is Singapore, then part of the Brit colony of Malaya, some time around 1930. Here goes:
"I sat down at my table with writing paper... I needed ink. So I called a boy from the hotel and asked him in English for some ink, hoping he would bring an inkwell. He did not show the slightest glimmer of understanding. He just called another boy ... it was no use. Whenever I said "ink" and moved my pen, dipping it into an imaginary inkwell, the seven or eight boys who had by now congregated the first repeated my motion as one man, with pens ehty had drawn out of their pockets, exclaiming vigorously, "Ink, ink" and nearly dying with laughter. They thought it was a new ritual they were learning. I rushed desperately into the bungalow across the way, followed by them.

From the solitary table I took an inkwell, that by sheer luck was there, and waving it in front of their astonished eyes, I screamed at them: "This, this!".

They all smiled and sang out together: "Tinta, tinta!"
And that was how I learned, in Malay, ink is called by the same name 'tinta', as in Spanish.

A generation later (around 1953), a Mallu writer visited Malaya and Singapore. Having spent a few months there and picked up a fair bit of Malay, he proceeded to Indonesia, where the following incident took place. I quote from memory from his 'Diary'. Note: the writer found Indonesian very close to Malay and could ask his way around.

"I needed ink and went to a stationery store. The girl at the counter was polite. I asked her for ink in Malay, "Got tinta?". She seemed puzzled. I repeated the request "tinta?" and she responded: "tinta?". I mimed the act of writing and said: "tinta". She fished out a fistfull of pens and put them on the counter.

I was losing patience but scanned the articles crammed on the shelves - there was an ink bottle in the far corner. With some effort, I reached for it and put it before her. She said. "Oh, this is 'mashi'!"

Although I did know by then that several Dravidian words had found their way into Bahasa Indonesia, I was really surprised to see her say the Malayalam word 'mashi'."

(the author/traveler was none other than S.K.Pottekkat, whose 'Indonesian Diary' was published many years *before* Neruda's memoirs)
Note: Neruda need not have been so surprised. 'Tinta' probably is a loan into Malay from Portuguese. That language is very close to Spanish and the Portuguese have had a solid presence in the Malacca area since the era of explorations.

As for 'Mashi', it is probably derived from the very core Dravidian word 'mai'/'mayi' meaning black. And there is no surprise whatsoever in 'yi' going to 'shi'. There is a Malayalam novel by Bashir where three characters who even speak essentially the same dialect of Malayalam debate vigorously how the word 'puzhu' (meaning 'worm') ought to be pronounced. And their proposals were 'pusu', 'puyu' and 'pushu' respectively!

Neruda's memoirs were probably written in a tearing hurry. He was terminally ill and bedridden. But there is no premonition of death anywhere in the book; the last lines (about the popular Chilean president Allende's murder) were written just a few days before the poet himself died.

There is a poignant parallel here with the story of Massimo Troisi, the Italian actor who so superbly played Neruda's disciple in 'Il Postino'. Wikipedia says: Troisi, who was only 41 years old, died ... of a massive heart attack ...just twelve hours after the main filming on 'Il Postino' had finished. It was reported that he had postponed surgery to complete the film.


  • At 10:27 PM, Blogger I,Me and Myself said…

    This is amazing. I never dared to read Neruda although I have heard a lot about him.(plus poetry is not my cup of tea). One of my friends mentions that he writes about his motherland and muse with the same fervour and at times it is difficult to know what he is referring to.

  • At 10:30 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Thanks for visiting, Myself.

    Hope you read the 'Memoirs' soon - and enjoy them at least as much as I did - and maybe go on and enjoy his poetry as well.


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