Heat, humidity and Shakespeare

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Martin Droeshout, Wikimedia Commons. Title page of First Folio. Courtesy of the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale.

Resonance; I wait for it as I dive into a text. But it doesn’t always happen.

I had watched many of Shakespeare’s plays dramatised for television, but I was a child and to me they were all somewhat alien. Years later, looking into the reedy shade of coconut trees swaying outside my window, I learned to read and understand the language of William Shakespeare. When understanding came, something wondrous occurred. It could only be likened to the physical property of resonance, as you suddenly become one with a text, a human tuning fork.

I found myself right there beside him. While Shakespeare experienced cold and slithering rain in a smelly London of the 17th century, here I was, experiencing a moment of time-trumping relativity, reading him in the heat and humidity of a coastal town in tropical Kerala in the 1990’s.

But what do medieval times in northern Europe have anything to do with modern times in tropical Kerala? It turns out, these places in contrasting time periods and zones have a lot in common. But that’s the thing about poetry and literature, if it is good and once you have divined the patterns from the text, deciphered the old tongue, it becomes personal. Because Shakespeare was so universal, I at my old-fashioned desk, chiselled from a Jackfruit tree that my grandmother grew on red earth on a southern spike of the Western Ghats, found in his works something deeply idiosyncratic to me. So much time had passed between us, but the people he described were the same people I observed around me. They spoke a different language, they moved among fig trees that grew outwards to become village-sized, they worshipped what would have been to him exotic deities, but they seemed to adhere to a formulaic combination of traits like arrogance, jealousy, spite, hubris, greed, melancholy and sheer idiocy, traits he seemed to have used to draw up his own characters. They were convinced of their own virtue, of their own self-righteousness, while they criticised those traits in others. Shakespeare would have noticed this discrepancy and enjoyed inserting this observation into his writing. At that time I was too meek to give form to my misgivings.

imageSeated at my ink-stained, pale yellow-wood writing aid, I was almost glad to be taken out of my culture and transported to his, even if vicariously. Though he would describe time periods and old worlds that occurred before his time, I got the feeling that his surroundings often leaked into his fictions. He must also have been irked by his world, just like Jane Austen was by hers, and I by mine. And some of the power that those straitjacket worlds had over them was dissipated in their descriptions of its respective discriminations.

Around me, the world was beginning to close in. Gender and cultural biases would slowly suffocate me into a persistent life-long melancholia. I would be lost in a world that required me to be one fixed, claustrophobic way, a way of life prescribed to millions of women in my country and around the world, but anathema to me. At that time, immersed in Shakespeare and other literary realms, I sensed that not all was right in my tropical paradise, a place that was not all that dissimilar to Victorian or Elizabethan England with its rigid social structures. By turning to plays and writing, Shakespeare was able to shake off some of his chains and achieve a measure of deliverance and individualism reserved for the upper echelons of society. My writing has not been successful in the conventional sense, but I still persist with it as it gifts me a measure of Shakespearean emancipation. While outside me, the world rages on in both private and public realms, its social biases growing especially here in my country, inside my head as I write I feel transcended. Conventional success in writing is cherries on frosting. With it will come income, people who value visible success and the resulting perceived improvement in status. They might learn to leave me be and not try to impose their social mores upon me or push me down to a place allocated especially for me. I would like to be a fly on a wall in their world, not the fly they swat or the dragonfly they tie a string to and leash.

What is it about Shakespeare and other great writers in all the ages of man that ever were that gets to us. Why him, why them? Because the author has used his poetic licence, some interpretation is called for. Some of the writing is so old, as in Chaucer, dare I say, even translation, a knowledge of basic phonetics, would help in reading the older texts. Once the quaint scribble is solved, then a whole world awaits within the realm discovered on the page. The two dimensional print is transferred into the mind’s eye and extra dimensions unravel in the brain through the power of description.

imageAs old or magical as these text worlds are, they are also strangely modern. Particularly when we begin to recognise our various selves in the flowing words. All poetry, all art, all romantic nature is resonance. And it’s not always poetry, or when coconut trees bend like Bharatnatyam dancers toward water in my world or that instant when a monsoon has gathered itself and the first drops of corpulent raindrops fall to absolve you from the torrid heat of summer. I remember being baffled in chemistry class in school and not being able to understand anything. Then a friend gave me the key to those mysterious equations, and there it was again that sensation deep inside, as if all my cells had converged to let out a blast of sunshine. Resonance.

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