Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

Sutures of light

C.P. Surendran's book of new poems offers an insight into the way he interprets the world through varying intensities of light

Like plants whose autobiographies are intimately connected with their consumption of light, I think every artist has a unique relationship with light—and darkness—though, of course, darkness is not the obverse of light. The scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose explained how all living things actually eat light when they eat food, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, because in the end, we’re all eating plants, which, in turn, are feeding on light. Reading C.P. Surendran’s Available Light, a book that collects his older work with his new poems, I have the sense of an artist who has chosen to experience the world primarily through the optic, an artist who is eating light and feeding light to the world.

As if touched by this contagion of light—for what is more contagious than light, after all?—Ranjit Hoskote, in an intellectually affectionate foreword, writes about Surendran’s poetics in tropes of light. Referring to the “cyclical rhythm" of Surendran’s universe, its alternation “between brief redemptive moments of insight and resistance on the one hand, and the gratuitous violence and melancholy self-flagellation that more typically define the human condition on the other", Hoskote sees this struggle in terms of optics, as one “accentuated by the elusiveness of that traditional source of radiance and consolation: the Divine". I read the foreword after reading the poems, so it seemed like a continuation of the exploration of light. Hoskote’s references, among others, are “the interrogator’s lamp" and Clifford Geertz’s book Available Light: Anthropological Reflections On Philosophical Topics, and he connects the source of Surendran’s writing with the poet’s ability to process light. The phrase that Hoskote uses is a beautiful one—a “sacred wound"—and though he doesn’t link it to the metaphoric of light, it is not difficult to see how a wound and its “sutures" are able tropes of the ambiguous proportion of revelation and hiddenness that constitute the axis of Surendran’s writing.

Light is Surendran’s conspiratorial ally, it is also his intimate enemy. In that, he is like his understanding of light. “My essential nature is adversarial. I don’t find the world a hospitable place." I found myself smiling at Surendran’s characterization of himself, particularly when reading about his rebellion against his father, the rationalist Malayalam writer Pavanan, with the latter requesting him to stop writing his Times Of India column “Low Life". Low life, underdog, nihilism—Surendran’s choices are emotional, intellectual and aesthetic. The equivalence between light and life is so natural to him that even when he writes about his friend, the poet Vijay Nambisan, he ends his essay with, “He was the light. And he burnt furiously while he was there."

I must confess that I hadn’t read Surendran before. And so these poems have been a beautiful surprise, the surprise of seeing, the delight of watching new curves and muscles of light. Take the first poem in the collection, “A Note To The Self From Tranquebar":

In a village by the noon, the sun rises in every room.

A shade of doubt, and I get the door. Vanakkam.

My father, brought to light by the sea.

Light as verb, the verve of light. “Brought to light by the sea"—the “available light". That phrase, of course, is from Satyajit Ray, who told Shyam Benegal in an interview that “the factor of available light, modulated through a system of reflectors into bounce light, had opened up and marked out the ‘possibilities of realism’ for him". What does this choice mean for Surendran? What does this choice of the optic imply as an aesthetic? The visible and visibility, and their backstories, these are Surendran’s concerns in these poems. “A slow smoke of decay curls up like a dream." And against this background, of “smoke meeting wing", and “at traffic lights, veiled women wail(ing)", is the figure of the father, inevitably, and always, a construction in light: Still my father slaved through centuries of nights./The beach flashes white and dark as the sea drags sunlight back. Much happens in the space of lines—light travels fastest, after all—and people come and leave, shadows fall/over the years, sunlight on soot, but the father remains a creature of light: I see my father at the door, bright as a beam/Of butterflies. Ghosts flit, like wind on water,/Everywhere in broad daylight. And the effect of such wisdom: Where he touches burns, like a child on fire.

We see light’s anger, its fury, how it causes the boundaries of race and caste. We see its migrant character, and we see it, most powerfully, in the way we see ourselves, separate and separated from us-

Where one would see skin and blood, Surendran sees light. In everything and everyone. The lover: Your eyes shone like tiny lights in the nuptial night; Your body sieves the sun/To the last. The day and its various climates: the violence/Whitening the stones; The morning rain’s thin/As your hair. And there’s the night, Surendran’s night, stunning and awake in poem after poem: The night, spotted/With stars, crouches/Like a leopard/Before it leapt; The lamps on Marine Drive burn,/Like candles to the blind. In these poems we see the beauty and politics of light, the discrimination it causes, its “power" politics (Tonight they came and cut power/For reasons of repair, and what does/Forgetfulness entail but the dark?), the politics of the spotlight and the theatre of power:

When we are done with the nature of light,

At what great speed it travels, the evil it does

To mass; its tricks with the eye,

Refraction and reflection, finally

We are left with time. (“Mirrors")

We see light’s anger, its fury, how it causes the boundaries of race and caste. We see its migrant character, and we see it, most powerfully, in the way we see ourselves, separate and separated from us, as in this extraordinary image: I took my jeans off/And placed it over the desk, legs hanging/Loose as if they were broken at knee, the hips/Collapsed to coccyx, the belt snaking around/A stomach shaped like a giant pear/Opening up at one end (“Installation").

A few months ago, I had asked Hoskote about his favourite Indian painters of light. It was a slightly ironic setting—a darkened restaurant at a hotel in Bengaluru where many of us were being hosted by the organizers of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival. There was little light, except the miniaturized spotlight-like streams that seemed to fall and focus, almost magically, on our dinner plates. The low light made us speak in whispers. In that “available light", I kept asking him questions on Indian art, on the possibility of a tradition of Indian artists whose aesthetic had been intimately related to light. Surendran’s Available Light is a valuable addition to that rich tradition.

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