Weekend Poem: The Well by Padma Sachdev

To the right
of our hill
there’s a shining well
full of water.
Last year
summer covered it
with green mango blossom.
The green tempted
a calf,
which fell in
and drowned.
Since then
people have stopped
drinking from that well.
Now, like a thief,
I bathe in it
at night.
I cup my hands
and drink from it
at night.
But the water
doesn’t quench
my thirst, my desire.
In the dark depths
of the well
there are shadows
still waiting for
the girls
who’d slung a rope
on its hook
but never came back
to draw water.
The well’s darkness
is waiting
for the moment
when I’ll have
the courage
to stretch out my hands
and drink its water
in broad daylight.

[The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry edited by Vinay Dharwadker and A K Ramanujan; poem translated from Dogri by Iqbal Masud]

There is a lot to say about the poem, its socio-cultural, religious, political and literary settings, its original language and, of course, the poet herself.

Let’s start with the poem first. Sachdev is describing a well that, from a traditional Hindu religion perspective, has become polluted due to the calf falling into it. For a person to now touch the water, let alone bathe in it or drink it, is considered sacrilege. For a woman to do so is even more grave – it is defiant, rebellious and going against all conventions. Especially so if she does all this in broad daylight, as the narrator wishes to do.

The well here, based on the description, was likely a traditional stepwell, with both a vertical shaft to draw water and access through inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps. This access was mostly used by women, when, in old times, they would offer prayers and gifts to goddesses or bathe in the waters during religious ceremonies. In those times, wells were considered religious symbols of fertility and built like architectural monuments with carved ornamentation and artwork, particularly in Western and Northern India and Pakistan. The social and cultural activities that happened in / around wells were abandoned during British times, when the colonialists considered the wells to be bad for hygiene. These days, the few stepwells that exist date back almost 800 years and are often visited by tourists.

padma sachdev

Poets like Padma Sachdev, who lives in India and writes in mostly non-English languages like Dogri (more on this in a bit), are rare and rarely-known. Born just 5 years before India’s Independence, Sachdev’s work is considered amongst the finest in the Indian contemporary literary canon. Her poetic themes run the gamut from childhood nostalgia, love, motherhood, nature, feminism, environmental concerns. And, always, the stirring lyricism and visual imagery that no English translation is able to entirely convey. Throughout her long and prolific career, she has won quite a few literary awards in India for her poetry, short stories and song lyrics.

Her father, a Sanskrit scholar and professor, was killed during the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947. She was only 7 years old then. At 14, she won critical acclaim for her lyrical poem, Raja Diyan Mandiyan (Palaces of the Raja), which she recited live as the only female Dogri poet at a Kavi Sammelan (Poet’s Convention).

At 16, she went against family traditions and wishes and married an older and more prominent Dogri poet. When she separated from him, there was even more trouble as she lost her social standing within the conservative middle class of her hometown (Jammu) and her job at Radio Kashmir.

Moving to Delhi to start fresh, she secured a position as a news announcer at All India Radio (AIR) – although, of course, it was only made possible through tapping influential connections. At AIR, she met her current husband, a classical musician/singer, Surinder Singh (one half of a brother duo called Singh Bandhu). They have an interesting story about how he proposed. He was driving a scooter on a busy road, with her as passenger. A truck was ahead of them and he raced forward, threatening to run them both into the truck if she did not marry him. Of course, she agreed. The story was immortalized in a scene in a famous Bollywood movie, Chandni – the director, Yash Chopra, was a family friend.

Watch a 21-second snippet of her singing one of her Dogri songs here (my apologies, I don’t understand all the words well enough to translate). And, this 14-minute video of her recounting personal anecdotes of a close friend and writer, Ismat Chugtai, is just a lot of fun (my apologies again for the lack of translation – although I understood most of this one as it is in Hindi rather than Dogri). Her raconteuring here shows her natural gift for language and certainly made me want to learn more about Chugtai (who was among the most controversial and mold-breaking authors of her time).

The original language of the poem – Dogri – is one of the Western / Mountain languages in India and predominantly spoken in Jammu, Kashmir and Pakistan. It had its own script till recently. And, in India, it is now recognized as one of the several official languages (versus a dialect). References to Dogri go as far back as 323 BC. In present times, while it is not spoken as widely as Hindi, it continues to enjoy a long-standing literary tradition – poetry, fiction, drama, classical and devotional songs, etc. There’s a tonal thing about Indian languages. Some tend to be sharp and flat-sounding. Others, more rounded and soft-sounding. I’d put Dogri somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

Let’s end with a few words on the often-misused term “Modernist Indian Poetry”, which is what Sachdev’s works are classified under. Here’s my take on what this term means (although I’m no literary scholar):

  • Generally, this refers to 20th-century works, but, also, predominantly, post-independence (1947-onwards), when women and people across various classes started to gain easier access to education and added their literary contributions.
  • Contemporary Indian poetry is, as with almost everything else in the country, a masala mixture of many varying schools and styles – local, regional, national, non-Indian. It isn’t the same as the Modernist movement in Western literature. In fact, it is somewhat closer to the Romantic traditions (Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson et al) if one were to attempt some kind of Western movement / school / style equivalence.
  • Trying to read modern Indian language poems even in a specific Indian context is very difficult because there are so many connections and overlaps – e.g. the relationships between the poem’s language and other Indian languages, the specific socio-cultural aspects related to the place(s) that the poem’s language or the poet originates from and the political landscape (almost all modern Indian poetry has strong political overtones).
  • 1930-onwards, when Indian poetry was more high-minded moral and cultural idealism, there have been different and overlapping literary movements:
    • Progressive – 1930s – Political, Marxist-driven, eschewing the Romantic tradition and replacing epic and lyrical works with irony, satire and invective.
    • Anglo-American Modernist – Also 1930s – Breaking free from the Sanskritized and traditional meters, styles and stanzas to explore free verse with themes such as existentialism, surrealism, absurdism, alienation.
    • Nai Kavita (New Poetry) – 1950-onwards, where the above 2 merged into a sort of experimentalism.
    • Akavita (Non-poetry) – 1965-onwards, where different influences resulted in a sort of anti-poetry radicalism in forms similar to protest poetry.
    • Samkaleen Kavita (Contemporary Poetry) – 1980-onwards, where a new generation of Indian women poets added feminism – mostly in overt fashion, but also through symbolism and allegory. This current movement is a blend of all the above traditions and has a continuously-evolving, hard-to-pin-down identity, particularly as Indian poetry is now beginning to reach international audiences through translations or through writing in English. It is both a frustrating as well as an exciting period for India’s literati.

Some Footnotes:

1) I feel the need to reiterate that I’m no expert in Indian poetry and literature. I share the above as a way of introducing others to contemporary Indian poetry – even as I educate myself slowly.

2) I was reminded of this poem earlier in the week when the Hanna Rosin End of Men debate started up again (see Slate for the new epilogue to her book, New Republic for a critique of the latter, New York magazine’s cutting sarcasm about it and Salon’s dismissal with a slap on the wrist). The stark coincidence, for me, was that this fresh debate happened in the same week that the Delhi rapists were sentenced to death in India – a country where patriarchy is still very much alive and kicking and such awful exploitation continues to happen at an alarming daily frequency.

3) If we consider poetry to be a marginalized art form in the West, by relative comparison, it is much worse in countries like India, where poetry and literature are still mostly confined to academia – both in terms of creation and consumption. High school curricula in English schools favor Western English works over those by Indian writers and poets in English. In non-English schools, they favor works in the predominant 2-3 Indian languages and mostly never touch the contemporary oeuvre. Given all this, it is a wonder that creative writing in other Indian languages exists at all nowadays. Despite the various literary awards that the Indian government maintains, press and media coverage is so perfunctory and sparse that most people remain blissfully unaware of poets such as Padma Sachdev their entire lives.