BRIDGE COLLAPSE UNRAVELS LOST FRIENDSHIP
PAL MAITRA’S GIFT OF OMAR KHAYYÁM’S WORKS ARE LIKE ROSES IN THE MIDST OF MIDDLE EAST TURMOIL Poet Omar Khayyam was one such genius whose love for life was greater than the false rewards promised in an afterlife, says Fiji’s leading writer.
Last month as autumn leaves were turning into gold and scarlet illuminating transplanted trees, my birthday on March 25 fell on Good Friday. The day had a melancholy rhythm for reasons I can’t quite explain rationally. Canberra was overshadowed by some dark clouds of an impending apocalyptic event. Or so it seemed to me. A few days later, the news from India was tragic and disastrous: a half-built bridge-overpass had collapsed in a busy street of crowded Calcutta. More than a score of people perished; another couple of hundred feared buried under the huge slabs of concrete and corruption.
Friend, Pradeep Maitra
Calcutta preoccupied my mind as did the week’s brutality in Brussels. Many years ago, before autumn leaves touched the fringes of my life, I’d a friend who studied with me in Delhi. He was from Calcutta and his father was a banker. He was a couple of years senior to me and a passionate lover of English poetry. His favourite poet was Percy Bysshe Shelley (17921822), one of the most lyrical Romantic poets. Like his contemporaries Lord Byron and John Keats, he, too, died young. Good poets and good politicians generally die young! Pradeep Maitra could quote Shelley’s lines copiously. His favourite poem was -‘Ozymandias’:
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast trunk-less legs of stone Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing besides remains; Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
It’s a devastating epitaph for many a king and dictator in the deserts sands of time. ‘Ozymandias’ should be read daily by those who exercise unjust power over others.
Pradeep’s 21st birthday gift
On my 21st birthday my college mate Pradeep had given me a copy of Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam rendered into English verse by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883).
In all the turmoil of oil in the kingdoms, one often forgets that those deserts produced not a few prophets, and perhaps more importantly, many great poets. Whenever some loss, some silent sorrow in life laps the heartland of my heart, I seek solace and comfort in lines of poetry and in the lives of those who created those verses in their creative loneliness. The tragedies of the Middle East have so completely dominated our consciousness for the past two decades that apart from bombs, bloody battles, black flags, we hardly see and read anything else. In all this mayhem, my mind goes back to a poet, Omar Khayyam, who lived almost a thousand years ago. I read him as a student in the Delhi summer’s heat, more than fifty years ago.
Friend’s gift again given by one of my children
My friend’s gift, of course, got lost in my peripatetic life. But as luck would have it, on this my Good Friday birthday, I got a copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald—a gift from one of my children.
Fitzgerald had inherited a fortune and spent his time reading and writing, after he finished his studies from Trinity College, Cambridge.
Although a reclusive figure, he’d several writers as his friends, among them Alfred Tennyson whose works some of us studied for the Senior Cambridge examination.
In 1859, he translated, rather transcreated, Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyats into four-lined stanzas with extraordinary cadence, unforgettable imagery, and memorable splendour. The tragedy in Calcutta—described both as the Dreadful City and the City of Joy -- brought back into memory this gift from my college friend. During one’s undergraduate days one makes pure, absolute friendships. I’ve been lucky enough to reconnect with
my Delhi university friends: only Pradeep is lost in that vast metropolis created by the Bengalis and the British. For me Calcutta, now Kolkata, has another subliminal connection: many of our girmit grandparents and great grandparents embarked from 1879 on those sailing ships from the port of Calcutta for the South Seas. But that is another epic story, yet to be fully written and filmed, read and remembered.
My friend, a good cook
Pradeep Maitra was also a very good cook, an expert in making spicy fish curries, Bengali style. In summer holidays, he and I stayed in the college hostel and together we cooked some of the most delicious meals, fish curries with plain basmati rice and tomato-chilly chutnies. Life then was, as you might say, the chutnification of history and literature and you lived a pickled life.
My friend’s outlandish theory was that Bengali college girls have big eyes because they eat a lot of fish. In my innocence I believed him. On some Sundays we were joined by a monk from Cambodia who, too, stayed in an obscure corner room of the hostel and roamed around the campus in his holy attire.
Then, suddenly during the second summer, Pradeep fell in love with a girl from Miranda House: then the most modern women’s college in Delhi university.
Fifty years is not a long time in love or literature. Both survive us. The bust of the poet lives long after the dust and detritus of broken bridges in cities. And love grows amidst the ruins of lives and landscapes. Why else would we remember Homer’s or Virgil’s epics or Valmiki’s
Ramayana or Vyasa’s Mahabharta?
Poets live on imagination
So much more has happened since they imagined their marvelous myths in our human idiom – words. Or the more recent works of Shakespeare whose four hundredth death anniversary, quad-centennial, falls on 23 April, 2016. It should, I think, be celebrated in every school and university.
Poets live in the republic of the imagination and they belong to all humanity. How deeply our lives are enriched, deepened, and given meaning by the most poetic utterances in the sacred and profane scriptures and scripts. Take the poetry out of them, only the bleached bones remain without the beauty of flesh or feelings or that human breath we call Life. In the long summer holidays we read and read. In the heat and dust of Delhi we read Shakespeare’s plays and a lot of English poets, including Wordsworth who has remained my favourite. I have made my pilgrimage to the Lake District and to Stratford-uponAvon.
Poet Omar Khayyam
But the poet whose lines I remember most vividly are those of Omar Khayyam—the lines were translated, rather rendered into English, by Edward Fitzgerald, born on March 31, 1809. Omar Khayyam was born in the eleventh century, in Naishapur, in Persia, now Iran, and died in the 12th century. Some of Omar Khayyam’s great verses: They say the Lion and Lizard keep The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep: And Bahram, that great Hunter – the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.
Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears Today of past Regrets and future Fears – Tomorrow? –Why tomorrow I may be Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.
One’s reward is neither here nor there: Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies; The flower that once has blown for ever dies.
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor wit Shall lure I back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a word of it.
Here with a little bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou Beside me singing in the wilderness – Oh, wilderness were Paradise enough.
Impotent Pieces of the Game he plays Upon the chequer-board of Nights and Days Hither and thither moves, and checks and slays;
And one by one in the Closet lays.
In his MA class at St Stephens college, where C F Andrews had once taught, Pradeep Maitra fell in love. Shelley, Tagore, and the Rubaiyat came to his aid. His love-letters were full of quotations to his girlfriend who lived in Bombay. He used to read them to me before posting them to his beloved. Then we lost touch with each other. I’ve tried to locate him but to no avail. And when I saw the broken bridge in Calcutta, for a brief moment on my TV screen, I wondered if my lost friend Pradeep Maitra’s children or grandchildren could have been lost under it. One of his favourite verses was: Ah love! Could you and I wish with Fate conspire To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s desire!
Khayyam’s Rubaiyats- roses in Middle East
Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyats are like roses blooming in an oasis, given life and immortality by another poet from another land. It’s worth remembering that amidst its share of modern dictators, the Middle East produced some of the finest poets, philosophers and scientists—once upon a time. Omar Khayyam was one such genius whose love for life was greater than the false rewards promised in an afterlife.
The huge slabs when this flyover bridge in Kolkata, India, collapsed.
Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writers. His travelogue, Loving You Eternally, and his fourth book of essays, Autumn Leaves: Writing Myself, will be published later this year.
Persian poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131).