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- The need for poetry or music both ordinary and calming

The writer, Pankaj Mishra, alerted me and others by email to the death of the Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali, on October 3, 2011, a day after the death, including Taha’s poem, “Tea and Sleep” in his message.

Tea and Sleep

If, over this world, there’s a ruler/ who holds in his hand bestowal and seizure,/ at whose command seeds are sown,/ as with his will the harvest ripens,/ I turn in prayer, asking him/ to decree for the hour of my demise,/ when my days draw to an end,/ that I’ll be sitting and taking a sip/ of weak tea with a little sugar/ from my favorite glass/ in the gentlest shade of the late afternoon/ during the summer./ And if not tea and afternoon,/ then let it be the hour/ of my sweet sleep just after dawn.

And may my compensation be—/ if in fact I see compensation—/ I who during my time in this world/ didn’t split open an ant’s belly,/ and never deprived an orphan of money,/ didn’t cheat on measures of oil/ or violate a swallow’s veil;/ who always lit a lamp/ at the shrine of our lord, Shihab a-Din,/ on Friday evenings,/ and never sought to beat my friends/ or neighbors at games,/ or even those I simply knew;/ I who stole neither wheat nor grain/ and did not pilfer tools/ would ask—/ that now, for me, it be ordained/ that once a month,/ or every other,/ I be allowed to see/ the one my vision has been denied—/ since that day I parted/ from her when we were young.

But as for the pleasures of the world to come,/ all I’ll ask/ of them will be—/ the bliss of sleep, and tea.


I read the poem by Taha and took in the news of Taha’s death at the same moment as registering, for the first time, his existence. This was not the first time I’d thought about what kind of writing or art might be apposite to those who approach death — natural, expected death, not a horrible and violent death. When I was quite small, I recall a friend of my mother’s, Chitra, who had been a singer, and who’d always been slightly superior with my mother for not having been to Santiniketan, telling her with a kind of grudging wonder that a respected member of her family, once a member of the ICS (a lovely man who was a bachelor), would listen only to my mother’s records before his death, and nothing else. At the age of 16 or so, I decided that what we read or listen to during moments of great unhappiness, or in a time of bereavement, needn’t be about death or loss or bereavement itself, but must have the absolute simplicity and delight (achieved only through complete single-mindedness) that art has, and nothing else possesses in that way. It must be at once calming and enduring and elemental — and perhaps uninvolved in the question of our survival. That it should be so is, in some way, our deepest wish. My music teacher, [Govind Prasad Jaipurwale], not long before he died, would sing, ad nauseam, dohas attributed to Kabir, “Itna to karna swami, jab pran tan se nikle” (“At least see to it, Lord, that when my life leaves my body…”), which enumerated the requirements for a perfect and happy death: “gangaji ka jal ho/ mere mukh me tulsi dal” (“Ganga water at hand,/ Tulsi leaves on my lips”) and so on. Not that Govindji had any premonition of death — but I think he was, in his way, wondering about what kind of art, or action, or ritual, might have that simplicity and appositeness. All these thoughts come out in Taha's wish for “tea and sleep” — both at the time of, and after, death — which, in turn, made me think of those Tagore songs that the old ICS man kept listening to, and of the very simple and readily available quality art has; that it is that universal availability that makes it so rare and sometimes incomprehensible — until, like Taha, we see its ordinariness and availability (“tea and sleep”).

Looking back at my emails that month, I see that the news of Taha’s demise came to me during the Pujas, when, in the midst of the festivities, I was hopping from one bit of writing to another, trying to finish the book — Calcutta — I was then writing, and being forced to put it aside because of all the other, more imminent commitments. Around then, I must have ordered the New and Selected Poems on Flipkart, and begun to read up on the poet himself, first from a piece Pankaj had written earlier for the New York Review of Books, and then from other sources. Taha was born in 1931 under British rule in the village of Saffuriya in Galilee, where he studied until the fourth grade. He fled Saffuriya at the age of 17 for Lebanon, and then returned to Nazareth to live there as an Israeli Arab until the end of his days as the owner of a souvenir shop that sold Christian trinkets. I was reading all this in the midst of the Pujas and, I see from my old emails, returning to “Tea and Sleep” amidst the last residues of Bijoya Dashami. Being home at that time of the year after five years (I’d taken a sabbatical from the University of East Anglia) had made me realize how extraordinary the city is during the Pujas. “You might want to come here some time when they happen,” I wrote to Pankaj in an email discussing, among other matters, the Arab poet, “if this sort of thing interests you — the life of the street coalescing; spontaneous and often mad expressions of creativity; and unlikely displays of vast organizational skill.”

Taha’s poem and Pankaj’s piece allowed me to put down thoughts in a couple of emails to him which I’m returning to today. On my mention of Kabir, Pankaj rightly pointed out to me Anup Jalota’s egregious version of Itna to karna swami, which, he said, “ruined” the song for him forever (thankfully, I heard Jalota’s version only after I’d listened to Govindji sing his many times over). It’s anyway not a favourite song, and has the tendency, for performers, to become a hypnotic refuge (which is why I’d said Govindji sang it ad nauseam). But who is to say that the notes listened to or words read in those final hours can’t be at once moving and comic? Taha’s suggestion of ‘sleep and tea’ has that quality of both the organic and the absurd. Other thoughts had crept into my head after I’d first read the poem — of the young Nietzsche pointing out with satisfaction in The Birth of Tragedy that the over-intellectual Socrates had begun to learn music before he died. And the Bhagavad Gita’s admonition, that what you think of at the time of death is decisive, because it points you in the direction you will journey after dying. To this idea Eliot added shrewdly in Four Quartets that the time of death is, after all, always, it is now, because one can die any time. Which means that that piece of music or poetry — like tea and sleep — must be ordinary and calming enough to be always at hand, in every moment of our lives (since every moment is also the time of death), in a kind of partly ignored state.