Review: The Broken Rainbow by Ruth Vanita
Ruth Vanita seamlessly combines lyric feeling and the historical archive in her new poetry collection
I must have been 20 when I first learnt of Ruth Vanita. She was the co-editor, along with the historian Saleem Kidwai (d 2021), her “hamdil, hamraaz, hamdaastaan”, of the monumental Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (2000). I don’t remember precisely when I first got hold of the book but I remember its lightning strike. I remember how its cheap photocopy became one of my most precious student possessions. It was like some strangers had handed me — someone then gingerly stepping into his own queerness — a family heirloom. In here, my ancestors could now range from a Mughal king who became “humbled and wretched and love-sick” for a boy in a bazaar, to surprising friends from the Panchatantra, crocodiles and apes, crows and tortoises whose mutual embraces felt better than “sandal-paste blended with chill camphor” or “snowflakes delightfully cool”. This work’s quiet importance to scores of the subcontinent’s queer lives cannot be overstated. Vanita had gifted ‘us’ a wild, varied and contested genealogy of same-sex desire in our part of the world, a euphoric and unsettling sort of home, where ‘we’ could place the smallest of our feelings within the largest of canvases, where even the goosebumps on our arms had a prehistory.
In her most recent poetry collection The Broken Rainbow, Vanita straddles both these planes — that of the lyric feeling and of the historical archive — seamlessly and movingly. At one point, you find her in the embrace of a lover, at another point, you see her poring over eighteenth century manuscripts in a library. She is at ease in both these dispositions, she studies someone’s gaze as intricately as someone’s line.
Weeks before I read this book, a close friend Anannya Dasgupta had excitedly sent me an excerpt from it. We immediately got on a phone-call and gushed over a poem called Hourglass. I hadn’t read something so tender in a long time. In it, Vanita’s lines held what can be described as the promise of all persuasive lyric poetry — to be able to stencil an individual moment as precisely as it was felt and experienced.
Listen to its first stanza carefully: “‘Little’ I call you / Too much you hold me / Little I know you / Little you’ve told me. / Raising your eyes, you / Pour sadness through me / Sand sleeping slowly / Hours to undo me.” See how Vanita captures this small precious moment between two lovers or friends (I cannot tell), who’ve known each other for many years or a few hours (I cannot tell), and have shared something so moving that it will remain with the poet forever (I can, with some confidence, tell), so much so that she will rehearse it forever in her writing, where she wields the power that writers of lyric uniquely wield, that of wresting away from the irreversible passage of time, a charismatic instant, which like inverting an hourglass, you can view over and over again in a poem.
What helps excavate and preserve this moment is Vanita’s craft. Read those eight lines again. See how they are knit together by a deft manipulation of sound. Each of them is little, none exceeding five words. Each has exactly five syllables. And an exquisite rhyme between the ‘you’ sound repeated thrice, and the ‘me’ sound repeated four times (along with slowly), helps her sew together this fervid but fragile moment between two people. This deliberately repeated sound of ‘you’ and ‘me’ holds them together in a poem as much as they held each other in person. They will now forever be held captive in each other, knowing little yet pouring into each other everything they have, simultaneously made and undone by their touch.
Compare this little terrain to another poem in the collection Dawn at the Rampur Library. Here, you are again within the limits of observable time and space distinctive to the lyric — the poems begins with the sounds of the azaan, the mobile alarm and the koyal — but what it is all gearing towards is the wider historical canvas of the literary archive which she has come to consult at the Rampur Raza Library. Vanita visited it thrice during the writing of her peerless academic treatise on Rekhti poetry. But her poem tells you what the academic treatise, in a sense, cannot. As she reads 18th/19th century Urdu poets Rangin, ‘Colourful’ (d 1835), Insha, ‘Elegant’ (d 1817) and Jur’at, ‘Daring’ (d 1810) in the “high-ceilinged rooms” of the Raza Library, she is rapturously communing with those who held and spoke of desires akin to her own. “Female-female amours,” Vanita states in her scholarly study, “are the central organizing principle of…[Rangin’s and Insha’s] rekhti” (2012:34). Here she is listening to poets at centuries’ remove from her but who, in another poem, she calls “the few who look like me”, “seven seas away”. In the library, she hears them “speak astounding words”. She “turn[s] the page. She “touch[es] the yellow paper” of their manuscripts. This is the story of the archives seen through a lyric eye. This is the confluence of the ‘academic’ and the ‘affective’ where one is indistinguishable from the other. She has goosebumps on her arms as she reads.
Vanita’s poems and translations in The Broken Rainbow are an astounding testament to how the most intimate vocabulary for describing the closest of our affections (her poems refer to her wife, her son, her friend, her mother, her uncle) and for inhabiting the most familiar of our geographies (her poems straddle Montana, Gurgaon, Binsar, Lucknow, Delhi), may emerge not only from some vaguely defined interior, some mysterious inner well of our expression alone, but in that charismatic encounter with the canvas of the historical, the inherited, the studied. As Vanita sits down to write, I imagine Insha, Rangin and Jur’at, and her most recent forebears, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Ramachandra Siras, and her friend for ages, Saleem Kidwai, sitting beside her.
Akhil Katyal is the author of How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross and Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue: Delhi Poems.