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WORLD POETRY DAY

Over the moon and cherry blossom

Bishakha De Sarkar | Updated on March 15, 2019 Published on March 15, 2019

An enduring relationship with one of the shortest forms of poetry — haiku

War clouds were getting angrier by the day, and the school WhatsApp group was gearing up for battle. Forwards flew like fighter planes, dropping toxic bombs. And then, just when it seemed that the war cries were going to deafen us all, a friend popped up, promising peace. She started another group — and she called it Only Haiku.

Right now, it’s a group consisting of five old friends. And we are happy to be sharing haiku — short Japanese poems that speak of nature, peace and love — instead of moustaches.

A haiku, as we know, is a slice of nature or reams of philosophy wrapped up in three little lines. The first and the last lines are of five syllables each, while the one in between is of seven syllables. Our group icon is that of a pretty mauve iris. The flower alludes to a much-quoted — and loved — poem:

It looked as if

Iris flowers had bloomed on my feet --

Sandals laced in blue

We had discovered the world of haiku when we were in senior school. I am not sure how it happened, but I recall spending considerable time — strangely during school hours — poring over beautifully bound and illustrated books at the Japanese Cultural Centre in the heart of New Delhi. We read scores of poetry, and read about the poets. And we carefully jotted the haiku down, in our best handwriting, on the pages of our diaries.

My 1978 diary had a nice white cover, with the word Saham — I am she — embossed on it. It carried several haiku, and some other poetry, too. It included a poem by Nazim Hikmet, Neruda’s love poetry, Lennon’s lyrics and short verses by Auden (“William Blake/ found Newton hard to take/ And was not enormously taken/ With Francis Bacon” and “Louis Pasteur/ So his colleagues aver/ lived on excellent terms/ With most of his germs”).

I hadn’t seen the diary for years, and the WhatsApp haiku group prompted me to launch a massive person-hunt for it last week. We turned the bookshelves upside down and inside out, and then, when I thought the diary had fluttered away like a butterfly in a haiku, it emerged out of a carton of old books and rags. I looked at the familiar cover — and felt as if I had rediscovered a long-lost friend. It was a friend: During all those hours when I should have been attending practical classes for chemistry and physics, I’d given some quality time to my diary instead.

I opened it, after all these years, and found this little haiku on the first page that opened up:

The child is crying

‘Give me it,’ she wails —

The harvest moon

The poem was by Issa (1763-1828). He, Basho, Shiki and Buson were seen as “The Great Four” haiku masters. Issa figures often in the diary, as does Basho (1644-1694), who was widely known for this gem:

Old pond

A frog jumps in –

The sound of water

So much nicer than Bio lab/A frog lies on the table/The sound of scissors.

I wonder what drew us to haikus. I think, in retrospect, it was not just the simplicity of the words and the depth of the feeling. What worked for a bunch of schoolgirls, I now think, was the fact that each poem was like a small bouquet, a fragrant nosegay, really. Each haiku said so much, too, just with those 17 syllables (though often expanded in the translations).

Take this one:

In my hut this spring

There is nothing –

There is everything

And I suppose we liked the fact that so many of the words conjured up images we could relate to. That of a snail, startled by a cat (Sniffed at/ By a kitten/ The snail!) or of a bobbing umbrella (Spring rain/ An umbrella and a straw coat/ Go chatting together). And then there is the lilting image of a little girl and a cat in the rain (The spring rain/ A little girl teaches/ The cat to dance).

I don’t think any of us had seen cherry blossom then (and I still haven’t). But the picture of a slender branch, greeting the world with its pale pink flowers, taught me something that I fear trigonometry didn’t. Take this haiku:

Beneath the cherry blossoms

There are no

Strangers

And this one, which just exults in the beauty of the blossoms:

‘Ah!’ I said, ‘Ah!’

It was all that I could say –

The cherry flowers of Mt Yoshino!

Can one have a favourite haiku? I am not sure I can choose one from the many that we loved then, and love now. But this one keeps coming back to me:

The morning glory

Clings to the water bucket –

I get water elsewhere

“Ah!” I say, “Ah!”

Published on March 15, 2019
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