IN The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock (1915), a somewhat diminished narrator poet, chronicles the history of the early 20th century in modern verse. Sporadically recording the experience of urban life in a post war world, Prufrock wonders ‘is it perfume from a dress, that makes me so digress’. Perfume can be distracting, especially in a poem that claims to be a love song, but the word ‘digress’ gains significance in the context of stocktaking amidst flux in a shifting epoch.
Poets in any case are required to conjure up word associations and need to digress (deviate from) from the central theme in order to establish associations that provide for layered meaning, in a world that has always been complex and varied.
The Wasteland (1922), to digress a wee bit, was written in the aftermath of WW I. Ironically, world wars were fought although large swathes of the world aided by developments in science and technology, had begun to move in the direction of progress, a word that rhymes with ‘digress’.
‘Digressing’ from notions of perceived advancement and success, a century later, TS Eliot’s poetry continues to raise questions that examine our understanding of human progress (advancement). Through references, his poetic ‘digressions’ enable the reader to traverse across cultures and traditions, while recording losses, personal and spiritual, that litter the modern wasteland, i.e., our world.
In many ways, Eliot’s poetry reminds us that ideas of progress, when projected as linear and unidimensional, remain simplistic. It fails to take cognisance of the composite and heterogeneous past that has shaped human civilisation over the centuries.
The anxieties Eliot voices continue to be relevant to our times. We seem to be in danger from a selective ‘eschewing’ (shunning) of several Indian traditions by the State. Such a perspective cannot be viewed as ‘progressive’ (rapid advancement). An inclusive polity, sensitive to India’s multi-layered traditions and histories, must remain the order of the day.
This would, for instance, require protecting our green belts, forests and monuments and actively monitoring the disposal of waste and effluents into our rivers, not merely through declarations that rivers constitute living entities.
Protection and nurture of our natural environment and cultural heritage must exist alongside implementation of social justice and fairplay for the poor and vulnerable, irrespective of religious and social standing.
‘Repressive’ (authoritarian) notions such as the need to control women in order to prevent their energies from going astray are ‘repugnant’ (unacceptable) and must be expunged from language and memory.
Selectively upholding unexamined tenets amounts to ‘repression’ (suppression). Such ‘deleterious’ (causing harm) practices are tantamount to ‘regression’ (return to a less developed state) and hinder national progress.
Aggressive stances alienate less privileged groups, minorities and women remain ‘repressive’ (restraining personal freedom) in nature.
We need to listen to our poets and our storytellers and pay more attention to narratives that digress while plumbing through realms of meaning and complexity. A myriad literatures reaffirm that a happy ‘polyvalence’ (multiplicity of meanings) forms the bedrock of progress.
A tiny possibility of an ‘egress’ (exit) from this volatile situation exists. Dimunitive seedlings of collective solidarity, compassion, forbearance and generosity of spirit can be seen ‘straggling’ (trailing). May these little stragglers grow sturdy roots and shoots, progressively transforming lives.
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