01 January 1970

Book Review: Speaking in Tongues: Poems in Spanish, Mandarin, and Turkish

Weekend Reads

Book Review: Speaking in Tongues: Poems in Spanish, Mandarin, and Turkish

All said and done, too, Speaking in Tongues is, throughout, a book of travels. A journey through life; a journey, in different ways, through the world. A broadening of horizons, an exploration of the inside and the outside. A series of poems that move, in more than one sense of the word. 

The Fabulous Creature Buraq. (Date: ca. 1660–80)
The Fabulous Creature Buraq. (Date: ca. 1660–80) Purchase, Rogers Fund, Elizabeth S. Ettinghausen Gift, in memory of Richard Ettinghausen, and Ehsan Yarshater Gift, 1992

Kiran Bhat
Red River, August 2022
215 pages, ₹349

The front cover of Kiran Bhat’s Speaking in Tongues: Poems in Spanish, Mandarin, and Turkish features a 17th-century painting, from the Deccan, of ‘The Fabulous Creature Buraq’. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in its annotation, describes the buraq as the beast on which the Prophet Mohammad made his night journey (from Mecca to Jerusalem and back) as a fantasy being with the face of a beautiful woman, and a body consisting of an array of creatures. Look closely at the cover, and you can spot birds of several species; a leopard; a hare; deer, what seems like a lion—even an elephant. 

This is just one depiction of the buraq, and it’s not the only one. It is often shown as a white horse, with powerful wings: wings, and the stamina of a horse, to keep going to the ends of the earth and back. 

The Deccani painting, though, is more apt. For one, it ties into Kiran Bhat’s own origins in the Deccan peninsula. For another, the mishmash of creatures that form the chimerical buraq here is so much more interesting than a simple celestial horse. This diversity speaks in many tongues—and yet together, melded into one being, there is a dissonance that is, perhaps paradoxically, also a harmony. 

In that sense too, this buraq painting is appropriate: it reflects the varied languages (four of them, including English) that this collection of poems is made up of. And, as a symbol of an epic journey, the buraq mirrors the poet’s own love for travel, a love that is the focus of many of these poems. 

Speaking in Tongues comprises three distinct sections. The first section, Autobiography, consists of poems in Spanish (each poem preceded by its translation in English) that trace the author’s life, from his birth in 1990 to 2019. The poems in this section, one poem per year of Bhat’s life, provide an intimate glimpse of his childhood, his coming of age, the joys and sorrows that are so universal yet so personal, so individual too. 

These verses are not predictably autobiographical, in the way prose may be: there are few events here, few landmarks in the passage of the years. There is a birthday, and there is the Y2K scare; but almost everything else in this section is about moments that mark the poet’s progression, the dawning of understanding. His realization that he, born to Indian immigrants, is somehow different from his teachers and his schoolmates; the realization, as he grows older, that his sexual orientation is different from what most people around him consider ‘normal’. The first tentative step into acknowledging that he’s gay; is the anguish of coping with the backlash that brings. The move to New York and the freedom it allows him; the travels that mould the poet: all of these together provide a bird’s eye view of the poet’s life as seen through his own eyes:

To become something between the foreigner and the local
to become an existence without name
To act like the honey fly traveling
from one edge to the other
but never becoming fully one thing or another
becoming fully myself. 
(From 2011)

This philosophical trend dominates the second section of the book, Kiran Speaks. Written originally in Mandarin, these poems arose from what Bhat describes in the introduction to the section as a comparison of Chinese culture with Indian. While working as an English language teacher in Shanghai, Bhat came to ‘realize the differences and similarities between China and India’, and reflections on these come through in the form of these poems, inspired both by the Analects of Confucius and the writings of prominent bhakti poets of Hindi literature. 

These poems are brief ones, taking invariably the form of dialogue. Someone—a writer, an apprentice, a stranger, a frog, Kiran’s boyfriend, Kiran’s mother, Kiran himself, many others—asks a question. A question that may be simple (‘Why do I create art?’) or deeply profound, enigmatic, possibly unanswerable (‘Who is your God?’). This is followed by the answer, by what Kiran said. These are among the most deeply insightful poems in the collection, peeling away the layers of the poet’s character and laying him bare (or as bare as he will allow himself to be).  Some of it is pure philosophy, the sort of world-embracing, knowledge-seeking wisdom so true of poets like Kabir or Tulsidas. A lot of it, though, offers a refreshingly different take on philosophy: a more practical course, a more worldly-wise and somehow more real look at life. To the mother who asks if he doesn’t love her, for instance, there is the uncomfortable but genuine truth offered as an answer:

I love my mother
Thank you for giving me love
For giving me the resources to grow.
But oil and wine cannot mix.
No matter how much a tree supports its branches
If the tree is too close to the roots of others
The younger trees perish and die.
(From My Mother Asks: Do You Not Love Me?)

Bhat’s understanding of human nature, of what makes people what they are and who they are, also comes through with a sharp intensity in the third and final section of the book, The Book of Travels. Each of these poems, originally written in Turkish, is about a country that Bhat has inhabited, and which inhabits him, in its way.  These are not paeans to natural beauty or history or culture; they do not travel brochures written in verse. Instead, these poems are often hard-hitting, brutally honest truths about peoples, lands, nations. And yet, they manage to touch a chord; Bhat is adept at ferreting out what makes a country what it is, or how its reality may differ from others’ perceptions of it. 

… and we want the entire world for ourselves
for whatever reason
despite knowing it doesn’t belong to us, as well.

So, we try
we try so hard
we wrong so hard
we fail so hard

because we want to be seen.

Sometimes softer words are easier to be heard.
(From China)

No matter what the theme of the poems in Speaking in Tongues is, there’s an honesty that marks each work. Bhat is outspoken and fearless, his poetry searing. 

Interestingly, too, he often refuses to colour within the lines. All three sections of this book are at times out of the box. The poems in Autobiography, for instance, are not just about his life, but about impressions, thoughts, and even spaces which aren’t strictly Bhat growing up. While Kiran Speaks is the section about philosophy, there is just as much philosophy (even if presented in an unconventional manner) in The Book of Travels. And the most memorable travel poem in the entire book, 2013, is part of Autobiography rather than The Book of Travels. 

All said and done, too, Speaking in Tongues is, throughout, a book of travels. A journey through life; a journey, in different ways, through the world. A broadening of horizons, an exploration of the inside and the outside. A series of poems that move, in more than one sense of the word.