Nationality: Indian (permanent resident of Denmark). Born: Ranchi, Bihar, India, 21 March 1966. Education: Magadh University, Gaya, Bihar, India, B.A. in English (honors), sociology, and history, 1986, M.A. 1990; University of Copenhagen, Denmark (Ph.D. Merit Scholarship), Ph.D. 1999. Family: Married Trine O. Jensen in 1993. Career: Teacher, Nazareth Academy, Gaya Bihar, India, 1986; district reporter, The Times of India, Patna, Bihar, India, 1986–87; staff reporter, The Times of India, Delhi, India, 1990–93; editor, European Telecommunications Office, Copenhagen, 1996–97; external lecturer, 1998–99, and lecturer, 1999–2001, Copenhagen University. Awards: National Essay Competition prize, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, Delhi, India, 1986–87; Essay Competition prize, League of Arab States Mission, Delhi, India, 1989–90; Travel award, Idella Foundation, Denmark, 1994; first prize, All India Poetry Competition, 1995–96. Address: Roarsvej 14 st. tv., 2000 Frederiksberg, Denmark.
My World. Delhi, India, Rupa, 1991.
A Reporter's Diary. Delhi, India, Rupa, 1993.
The Book of Heroes: A Collection of Light Verse and Much Worse. Delhi, India, Rupa, 1995.
Where Parallel Lines Meet. Delhi, India, Penguin, 2000.
An Angel in Pyjamas. Delhi, India, Harper Collins, 1996.
Baby Fictions. Delhi, India, Oxford University Press, 2000.* * *
Tabish Khair is one of a number of Indian poets from Muslim backgrounds who live and teach abroad. Such poets are from the liberal, modernizing, secular side of Islam that includes ideas of social justice. In "The Streets of My Poems" he says,
In all my poems I simply walk the streets of my town
Unable to leave behind men and women pitching tar
On the hot roads, muscles straining in the sun;
Unable to forget that old beggar sleeping in the shade.
My World mostly concerns home and homes, the world Khair knew and that returns in his imagination. The ugliness in the poems is a projection of the speaker's dissatisfaction with his society. Images of the morning (it feels like mourning) enter his consciousness "like water from the dry, sputtering tap outside." An aged former sailor has been drinking all night "and still lies huddled in the ordure." And "Old Mr. Rao comes out into his patched and peeling porch / With a brush between toothless gums / And stands lost in memories of lost passion."
Khair has thought about the kinds of English and rhythms appropriate for writing about Bihar. There is the slightly older diction of "ordure" and "whilst" that suggests a place lost in time; the poem's conclusion speaks of "yesterday and the days before." There is the implication of such diction that English is a literary language to these people, a language likely to be learned from books rather than spoken. The poetry is formal, with each of the five lines of each stanza conforming to normal syntactical units, and there is repetition of words and alliteration. The rhythms are unusual, as if purposefully departing from Anglo-Indian speech. Khair's poetry often has an offcentered tone and manner, as if he were aiming more for a nuanced regional or class characteristic than for the usual ways of representing Indian English.
The India of decay and of a past in which nothing happens is not always bad; in contrast to the modern world, it has a rootedness. In "House with the Grey Gate" the gate is useless, being "off one hinge and always open," while an old woman on the porch looks up whenever the gate creaks in the wind, "expecting someone; though no one comes, nor has for years." In the garden "shrubbery has spread, refusing to be weeded out," which serves as an analogy for "the old man and the old woman and an old pattern of life— / refusing to be weeded out from this skyscraping street." This is in contrast with the next poem, where, after the speaker and his friend have sat in a café discussing Durkheim's Le Suicide, that night his friend commits suicide. Suicide results from the anomie of modern urban life, a condition shown in the next poem, "After Work," in which the speaker has "nothing to look forward to," the streets seem "endless," the faces are those of strangers, and his apartment and heart are empty.
Other poems in My World speak of recurring communal tensions and proclaim a private world of the "weak" that exists alongside the road "as you drive to office, five days a week":
The walls of my world are made of clay and straw.
Water trickles in from a rent in its roof, mixing with my food;
But, on clear and calm nights, the stars come visiting me.
(I know all my little stars, each by its name,
Though you have probably never heard of them—
They are so small, they would be lost in your world.)
This world of the weak and poor who are close to nature will last, like those weeds of an older way of life, after the ruins of the regimented, impersonal, "prouder worlds, larger worlds" are gone.
Many of the short poems in "My India Diary" concern memories of the pains, limitations, and continuing influence of home: "to tear away your roots / wrench free / i will have to take myself apart / brick by brick." The villages are places from which "all roads lead out / / except during elections," but for those who leave such communities "where did the aloneness end / and loneliness start"?
Khair sees life as a short period of existence before nothingness. As reality causes us to be fearful, we need to make something of life, and Khair's solution is writing. A Reporter's Diary takes up the idea of a diary from My World but has death rather than home as its central theme. In "To Gyanendara" the poet recalls his dead friend: "I shall be true to us. I shall believe your death. / We knew heads are shaven in vain, graves contain emptiness, / That there is no soul to start with and no flesh after a month." The common poetic trope of returning to nature, a view consistent with Hinduism and Buddhism, is treated with irony: "The dead will live in bits and pieces scattered over the land. / The living will die in bits and pieces in the slush and sand." The next poem, "The Young and the Old," continues the theme. Life is found to be like an onion peeled to the core: "At the end, there was nothing to hold, to show … / Except, of course, the inevitable tears in the eyes."
Many of the poems are small narrative allegories of life as seen from a materialist perspective: "Only the dead stay in one place. / The living are condemned to movement"; "This, perhaps, was the curse of Adam and Eve— / Having left home once, never to find home again." Life consists of anxieties. "Fear" is a recurring word, and there are two sonnets on fear. Writing is a way to seek refuge from the fear of nothingness, where we are "hurled / from sense to senselessness." There are no peaceful deaths; there is always "blood and screaming inside the head." The concluding poem claims that "happiness is a word scribbled on sand," but if you can ignore the way the tide erases happiness, there are blue skies and a wide beach on which to write a future. Khair's imagery can be seen as ironic, or perhaps he is suggesting a revolutionary future.
Khair's vocabulary is simple and easy to follow, yet there is a coherent intellectual vision. He also has an instinct for light verse, the subjects of which are sometimes, but not always, related to his serious poetry. In the ironically titled The Book of Heroes: A Collection of Light Verse and Much Worse the subjects include the politician of "The Caangrassman," whose "men adore him; they are paid to, / And if you don't agree they'll 'convince' you!" Many poems make fun of the pretenses of the professional classes. There is the paradox in "The Dentist, Ah!" of a man who "tortures you like no one can, / and gets a hefty fee." And there is the newspaper editor who "just a week after each tragedy … warned against it prophetically."