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BUILD YOUR SHIP OF DEATH

About the most unusual character that came into my life a few years ago is a middle-aged Pakistani Muslim with an unusual Hindu-Sikh name, Preetam Giani. He was studying English literature in Cambridge University when he was expelled for practising and preaching homosexuality. He got a job in a factory, was fired for the same reason and deported from England. He made his home in Islamabad, opened an art gallery and gave private tuitions in English but refused to make terms with the strictly conservative Pakistani society. He flouted rules of the shariat, changed his name from a Muslim one to a distinctly non-Muslim one, worshipped goddess Lakshmi (she did not repay him adequately), got into trouble with the police and spent some time in jail.

He carried on unconcerned. With every letter he wrote to me, he sent his translations of couplets of Mirza Ghalib. He paid a brief visit to Delhi accompanied by his gentleman friend. I took an afternoon off to show them the sights of Delhi. He was not interested in ancient monuments or meeting people. He wanted to visit Ghalib’s tomb and the academy. He presented a set of his translations to the secretary of the academy, had himself photographed in front of the poet’s tomb but did not recite the fateha nor bothered to enter Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah or see Amir Khusrau’s grave. Strange character, I said to myself. Highly sensitive, as most homosexuals are but unconcerned with the ways of the world.

For him there was no difference between India and Pakistan; he talked of migrating to India and living in his ancestral home in Srinagar. After he returned to Islamabad, his letters became more frequent. Besides Ghalib translations, he sent extracts of poems which had moved him. His main concern was his mother’s health. She had been principal of the girls’ school in Abbottabad where she was spending her years of retirement. He always referred to her lovingly as Mata Hari. She was afflicted with Alzheimer, the same disease which took my wife. We had much advice to give to each other. Ultimately he decided to move to Abbottabad to look after her. His sister in America and money left by his mother help him keep afloat. As usual, his new ventures do not bring in any money. His last letter is written in a mood of deep despair. I quote the first paragraph:

“I could put a bullet through my head using my licensed revolver — that, I suppose, is my most drastic option, and not one without anything to be said for it: instant escape from my present set of formidable problems; pre-emption of the horrors of senile decrepitude such as I see in my mother; and even a sense of adventure in discovering what, if anything, lies beyond death. However, the cons of this course of action seem to far outweigh the pros. It would negate my contention that I haven’t been beaten yet; it would involve self-murder; it would devastate my mother; it would mean leaving my Ghalib translation incomplete; it would render impossible the post-mortem study of my brain that I’d like to be carried out, with the particular aim of discovering any features accountable, if only partly, for my homosexuality; it could mean letting down Tariq, who may never have turned to overt homosexuality if it hadn’t been for me, and now possibly needs my help in making some sense of it; it would mean letting off the hook the no fewer than seven individuals and two organizations that I have court cases against in Islamabad and Abbottabad. In short, I’d better not opt for this option.”

With the letter he has appended two poems by D.H. Lawrence. In The Ship of Death, the poet exhorts people to prepare for the long journey that lies ahead: “Now it is autumn and the falling fruit/ and the long journey towards oblivion.

“The apples falling like great drops of dew/ to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

“And it is time to go, to bid farewell/ to one’s own self, and find an exit/ from the fallen self.

“Have you built your ship of death, O have you'/ O build your ship of death, for you will need it.”

Lawrence rejected the idea of suicide as a means of escape from the world’s woes: “With daggers, bodkins, bullets, man can make/ a bruise or break of exit for his life;/ but is that a quietus, O tell me, is it quietus'

“Surely not so! for how could murder, even self-murder/ ever a quietus make'”

Lawrence accepted “piecemeal the body dies”. But in the last verse of the poem, Shadows, he talks of re-birth in a new dawn: “Then I must know that still/ I am in the hands of the unknown God,/ He is breaking me down to his own oblivion/ to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.”

To me all this sounds very poetic, but without any logical basis. He does not tell us the kind of provisions we should store up on the ship of death for use on the long voyage that lies before us. Nor where and when the ship will reach its final destination.

Nothing to wax lyrical about

Though I am a Punjabi, there is little of the Punjab countryside that I find attractive. Ever since Punjab parted with Haryana and Himachal, it lost the Shivaliks and the snow-clad Himalayas beyond. All that was left to it and its neighbour, Haryana, was flat, khaki dust-blown expanses. No doubt during the short winter, the fields growing wheat and sugarcane are green and the mustard in flower is like a sea of canary yellow, it lasts no more than a few weeks and we are back to being a region of dust and hot winds. How can a country be beautiful with undulating green hills, big lakes and thick forests' For beautiful countryside, I would take any other state than my native Punjab. However, Mohan Kishor Diwan, writer and artist, in his new collection of poems, So Be It, has, for reasons best known to him, gone lyrical on Punjab on Baisakhi day (April 13):

During Baisakhi Punjab lives in golden

fields.

The sugar-cane in the sunny weather

attract youngsters to enjoy its juice. Enjoy its juice while herding on the

plain,

they play and eat as greedily

as calves munching sweet roots of

grass.

Farming makes the women sturdy

and they almost swallow their menfolk,

like a swarm of locust consumes the

harvest,

while well-built men sow their lust

in the grainfields making pleasure as

real as pain

Their hands that knead the muddy

earth,

at certain moments,

take the form of a randy cock

and all at once spring on a crouching

grass hen.

We got a good harvest this year

which produced a large number of

brides.

Those new brides,

like sarson, make their lovers drool.

A Sardar lifts a woman

as if laying her on a dish

his greedy head bends

but he does not know how to kiss

and he plants it on her forehead

leaving the wine-like girl without

drinking.

Baisakhi, the time of golden fields,

harvesting, loving, honey-milking,

cane-juice and endless dance.

The Punjabi folks do not relinquish

dancing

while the music fits into their hips

and bounces their steps into Bhangra.

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