A Prize Encounter



by Jessica Sequeira

On February 3, 2015, while in Bengaluru, India, I discovered that another Berfrois Poetry Prize finalist lived in the city. This happy coincidence resulted in a meeting with Aalooran Rahman Bora.

After traveling thousands of miles, many people have no desire to leave their hotel rooms. Well, and why should they? Delights exist there that aren’t to be found at home: tiny packets of shampoo and fancy soaps (which, efficacy aside, charm merely by being complimentary); televisions with channels featuring the usual themes (solemn news presenters, dancing stars) enhanced by the novelty of another language; soft downy beds. At some point, however, guilt operates. “I’ve come such a long way,” goes the logic, “I must go out!” And so the guest makes it to the lobby. Pleased at having got so far, he collapses into a comfortable red armchair; soft classical music plays in the background; a thick copy of The Times of India awaits. From this vantage point he can watch, with an air of calm superiority, the tired people passing in and out of the entrance. “Come to rest your bones now, eh? I’ve saved myself a few hours of fatigue sitting here!” One can hardly blame this attitude. The lobby of a hotel is usually highly attractive, and it well knows how to play the coquette.

The above was not intended as an autobiographical sketch. I know this type of traveler only because I pass him so frequently; I myself come and go with relative ease. In fact, it’s not this but another group of travelers, the overly efficient, that intimidates me — those who set out from the hotel at daybreak after tucking away a continental breakfast, breezing from sight to sight sans peine, systematically checking a column of boxes. Hindu temple! Sandstone memorial! Palace constructed by the Maharajahs of Mysore! Breadth is gained at the expense of the close observation of immediate surroundings, what is ordinary and commonplace. These travelers don’t know the pleasure of disorientation — of losing the thread.

These were my thoughts as I sailed out of the lobby with Aalooran and climbed into a tuk-tuk that had darted across three lanes of traffic to reach us, drawn by the honey-scented promise of the rupees in our billfolds. Once settled into the vehicle and breathing the strong smell of gasoline, we began to talk, predictably, of literature — Salman Rushdie and García Márquez to start, not authors either of us particularly prefer but whom we respect for play-batting language as a siamese does catnip, writers whom we’d read and from whom we’d learned in our attempt to escape the gray ordinariness of everyday language and transform the external world into game and possibility. We spoke of the Indian magazine Caravan and of Indian writers living in the US/UK/Canada, as well as the fact that India has over 122 major languages and 1599 minor ones, such that English remains a kind of default across different states somewhat as Spanish is spoken across the countries of Latin America.

Our conversation, as I said, was about literature — literature itself wouldn’t operate so abstractly. What would it consist of, then? Perhaps simply careful observation of the interior of the very tuk-tuk in which we were moving, the tiniest details producing a greater effect than a year of cursory sightseeing. On a scrap of torn-out notebook paper Aalooran and I began to jot down what we noticed: the frayed edge of a cushion that had perhaps been toyed with by the hand of a nervous businessman or bored housewife; the grimy front window with its single wiper, reminding one of the coming monsoon rains and the future; the treaded floor, a warning to be prudent that filled me with sudden intense distaste. The driver meanwhile swerved in and out of gaps in moving traffic, spaces that vanished immediately after we left them.

Somewhere over Brussels on my return flight, the pilot made a static-filled announcement about the Thames estuary and I rediscovered this list of details; reading it over, it was as if I were in that rickshaw again, observing but also watching myself watching — a tiny person with a notebook in her lap, seated alongside another tiny person…

After saying goodbye to Aalooran, I stumbled across a three-floor bookshop called Blossom, in which used volumes were close-stacked from floor to ceiling: hand-stitched chapbooks, translations of Eastern European novels, Indian philosophy texts, the obscure early attempts of famous authors. At this point my memory goes blank. Surging outward, my mind went to reconnect with the energy elsewhere in the universe, or perhaps just busied itself with other things — easy recipes for lime pickle, snatches of remembered film music. By the time I came to, a giant carrier bovine had been readied, laden with volumes packed into several cardboard boxes, bound in twine and sealed with Harper Collins packing tape. The enormous cow — for that is what the creature was — looked at me with unblinking and obedient eyes.

“Now there’s no need to request that the zipper of your luggage perform unrealistic maneuvers!” said a calm, bearded man I assumed was in the bookstore’s pay. The beast, he explained, was capable of traversing the Arabian Sea and Atlantic in one step to deliver the goods to my home in Buenos Aires. Its udder would sway gently over Africa, rhythmic as the ocean’s ebb and flow. Passengers of all the tuk-tuks in the continent, settled in their respective seats, would turn their gazes upward and exclaim: “Look at that! What a sight!” The image would be universal as moon and stars, anger and love. A poet at his table in Brazzaville would be able to describe the udder — its whiteness fading into pink, its globelike swelling, its delicate veins pushing against the skin — before referencing political events in his own country, the concrete walls of his home, his small garden. And I, reading his lines somewhere else in the world, perhaps decades later, would be able to understand him. The universal could always be linked to the particular, it was always possible to swerve between them in a rapid lane change… I closed my eyes.

I opened my eyes and looked out the narrow rectangular window at the blue sky… but what had “really” happened in that rickshaw, what did we talk about… what… Kashmiri apples, Narendra Modi, the death of a high-level public prosecutor in Argentina… in front of me were three tiny bottles of wine and a packet of pretzels… Heredad de Vals de los Frailes, vino de la tierra de Castilla y León, 12,5%… the sky, achingly blue… I pulled down the shade and closed my eyes… colors swam behind them.

The sober black of the tuk-tuk seats made for a soothing contrast with the vehicle’s bright yellow chassis and emerald body, so much so it was tempting to speculate that whoever designed them conceived of this scheme intentionally: the inner space akin to a moving hotel lobby, a serene refuge from the world. Additional features reinforced the atmosphere of calm in the midst of surrounding chaos, such as a small plaque affixed to the partition between driver and passengers, supplying Name and Blood Type should a rapid transfusion of blood in the wake of high-speed collision be required. This matter-of-fact precaution was morbidly reassuring (and this particular use was entirely my speculation; but what else is a journey around the interior of a tuk-tuk but a journey around the interior of one’s own head?).

Any single part of the tuk-tuk — sticky black cushions, metal handlebar, orange flower garland — could see its definition expand infinitely, just as the ideas generated during my brief conversation with Aalooran did not disappear immediately but prolonged themselves into other ideas. In the hotel lobby, the same man I’d passed on the way out peered at me over the top of his newspaper; a pack of Dutch tourists rushed out in the other direction. “Cabin and crew prepare for landing” — I’ll search for the straps of my seatbelt now. But a final thought occurs to me. Might not literature be thought of as the constant struggle to arrange image and thought, particularity and abstraction, linguistic and conceptual play, into a neat line of words something like this?

About the Author:

Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires. She was a finalist for the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize.