On 14 July 2010, the French National Day, I lost my way trying to find John Berger’s home in Antony, a suburb of Paris. I was to meet him at 7 pm. On near-empty streets, I was a direction dyslexic with a stubble that profiled me a ‘foreigner Muslim’, West Asian perhaps. This was a few hours before the Nice attack. Often, it is the kindness of strangers that makes us believe in the divine, believe in the beauty our lives are filled with every day irrespective of who we are, and the horrors we are capable of. A black woman — I did notice she was black and perhaps I appeared black to her too — decided to help me. After considering how lost I was, she insisted she’d take me in her car and help find Berger’s home. The woman and John spoke in French on the phone and we soon found him waiting outside his gate, standing by the road. John invited her in for a drink but the angel left, after accepting a hug from John and me.
John, almost ninety, ushered me in, holding my excited hand with trembling warmth. He embraced me and sat me down, and called out to Nella. A bottle of wine was opened, while he raised his already filled glass. ‘There’s also Vodka. You see Nella is Russian. She’s now French. She’s a writer and my friend,’ said John, mischievous and sincere at once. The midsummer light of the day spilled into the night as we drank, ate, spoke and exchanged poems. When evil becomes a constantly ineradicable reality, the moment of truth is always now, and it is poetry, according to Berger, that receives this truth, for ‘poetry speaks to the immediate wound’.
But first, how and why did I, a leaf in the wind, find myself at John Berger’s door (after getting lost in more ways than one)?
In 2010, I was to publish Bhimayana, a graphic biography of BR Ambedkar pivoted around the wondrous art of Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. I believed the Gond artists had a way of seeing that John Berger may like to see. I managed to reach a draft copy to Berger thanks to our common friend Arundhati Roy. Seeing Bhimayana, Berger wrote a short note, which now adorns the book as a Foreword. He praised the ‘conference of corporeal experience across generations, full of pain and empathy, and nurtured by a complicity and endurance that can outlive the Market’.
I believe it is from Berger that I learnt how to tell important stories of beauty, justice, and love using art — without genuflecting to the Market, and by being skeptical about all that we are told to see.
Bhimayana led me to Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, another amazing artist who happens to be a Gond Adivasi as well. He let me set his story amidst a sea of stories; he let me set words against his colours. In 2016, Venkat and I were ready with Finding My Way, a gossamer of image and text. A longhand letter I wrote to Berger with an advance copy of the book yielded a reply in a shaky hand, folded and pressed into a stamped seals-bearing envelope. John said generous things about this book too. He signed off with, ‘May I embrace you?’ Some friends did chide me, ‘Oh he did not mean it literally.’ I told them they were wrong.
I wished and prayed something would take me to France. Within months, the publisher of Bhimayana’s French edition in Nantes got me invited to a boutique literary festival in the seaside town of La Baule. After engaging with some of Berger’s writing on the arts, I had become acutely aware of arts’ collusion with capital, the state and the market (and caste, in India). I had stopped attending literature festivals; I was tired of grumbling against mining companies and corporations that facilitate discussions on Dalit or Adivasi literature while being in the business of disenfranchising the very people behind such stories and art. When a writer or artist ceases to see these contradictions and even defends them (under the excuse of freedom of expression), she stands compromised. Seeing words and images—the world we make as it makes us—through Berger’s eyes means you are called to stand upon a moral ground. And morality is the first—and often only—judgment you make of yourself before you judge others. You then come to regard morality as beautiful and hence sacred. You can then bear art. And art, Berger often reminds us, is labour.
I was conscious of this when the invitation from a festival in a French town I had not even heard of materialized. But I temporarily suspended judgment on myself, and greedily agreed to go, just so I could meet Berger. That is how and why I found myself having dinner with John and Nella Bielski, Ukranian-born writer and actress who has loved John for a long time and had moved in to care for him after his wife Beverly died in 2013.
At that time, I was reading a book called A Poem at the Right Moment: Remembered Verses from Premodern South India. The savants Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman had committed to paper what are called chatu poems translated from Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit. Most of these short poems do not have authors and are committed to memory and recited over generations; they were not written down till the modern period that did not know how to come to terms with the phenomenon of forming an informal literary community constituted solely by the memorability of poems. The book had been with me since 1997 when it was published, but it took nineteen years before the right moment came for it in my life. I offered to read to John and Nella a few of these poems both in English and the Tamil and Telugu versions, which had been provided. John loved them so much that I offered him the book, but he refused. He grabbed a paper and noted this poem down, said to have been spoken over a thousand years ago by the Tamil poet Avvaiyar when a Chola king failed to pay her attention, busy as he was buying saris for his wife:
You’ll spend thousands in gold on this splendid sari
that will wear out within a few months.
Listen, flawless king, famed for spearing
foes in battle:
what never wears or tears
is my poem.
Remembered at the right moment, this poem fulfilled itself in us.
When the time came for me to leave, John booked me a taxi. I protested in vain as he thrust 50 Euros into my palms for the fare. I related to John how this reminded me of what Ajay Navaria, a writer I had published, told me some years ago—it was patriarchal and sentimental, but nevertheless. In India, however poor a father, whatever his fortunes and whatever caste he belongs to, gives his daughter at least the return bus fare when she visits him after she’s been married. John then took me into his arms for what seemed an eternity.
No poem can capture the embrace
but I habitually succumb to vanity.
Words did not come to me
when I was in your arms.
I held all breath in my eyes…
On an evening of words soused in wine
and in the colours of the lingering July sun
that was beautifully unaware of what it had done,
we suddenly walked into a joyous silence.
…eyes that saw love above all else.
I’m not afraid of any disease, not afraid
of what’s a part of our body, said Nella.
What would pleasure be if we did not know pain?
I’ve been in his embrace even before he touched me.
With rigour comes grace, and grace comes with love.
In the blink of an eye, a moment passes into eternity.