This poem is autobiographical and is an expression of Bhatt’s (pictured above) conflict between her Indian heritage and her life in the English speaking world.
The first stanza talks about India; she values the way gods and nature are respected and allowed to thrive, but contrasts this, quite angrily, with the way society and religion are too rigid and enforce too many rules upon the Indian people. The second stanza sees her talking about her inner conflict about enjoying being part of English speaking culture.
Sarasvati – Indian/Hindu River God
Great Pan is not dead;
he simply emigrated
Here, the gods roam freely,
disguised as snakes or monkeys;
every tree is sacred
and it is a sin
to be rude to a book.
It is a sin to shove a book aside
with your foot,
a sin to slam books down
hard on a table,
a sin to toss one carelessly
across a room.
You must learn how to turn the pages gently
without disturbing Sarasvati,
without offending the tree
from whose wood the paper was made.
has not been the oppressor’s tongue?
truly meant to murder someone?
And how does it happen
that after the torture,
after the soul has been cropped
with a long scythe swooping out
of the conqueror’s face –
the unborn grandchildren
grow to love that strange language.
Sujata Bhatt (1956-)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Bhatt is an Indian born in Pune, a metropolis (mega city) in the west of India. At 12, her family moved to the USA where she had to learn English from scratch.
She has talked about her identity struggle with Gujarati (an Indian language) representing the ‘deepest layer of her identity’, but English representing her daily life and work.
There are a couple of themes that would enable you to link this poem to others in your selection. (See the Comparison Chart)
First of all we have the conflict over identity where she is questioning how a person can define who they are – she feels guilty for not feeling fully Indian and valuing aspects of the arch-enemy: English culture (I’ll explain later!).
She also discusses the way nature (personified as ‘Pan’ and ‘Sarasvati’ – Gods of Nature) is valued in Indian culture and by implication in Western culture in the first stanza. India is presented as somewhere that the natural world is important, whereas the West has abandoned the Gods and the natural world.
However, comparing on the theme of nature is a bit tricky as I think you can’t really discuss the second stanza with much relevance as it doesn’t really involve nature.
The opening lines offer an immediate proclamation about the differences between India and the West. Pan’s emigration to India represents the fact the Western world has lost respect for both gods and the natural world and he has moved to the only place where he is still respected or afforded freedom. Initially this seems to be a positive for India as the gods and nature seem to be having a lovely time – ‘roam freely,/disguised as snakes or monkeys’.
Perhaps we see it as a negative for the West in relation to the destruction of nature and pollution of the natural world through heavy industry. I’m not overly convinced by this though.
However, the influence of religion soon becomes nefarious as she lists the ‘sins’ or rules that the gods imposed upon the people of India and restrict aspects of their lives. All the rules are objectively quite ridiculous and the tone of the poem suggests that Bhatt thinks that it is the people who should be afforded freedom and not the gods. Should a book (possibly meaning the Hindu holy books: Bhagavad-Gita, Ramayana and Veda or to nature – paper comes from trees…duh!) and its pages be treated with more respect and care than people?
The stanza ends with the suggestion that Indian people ‘must learn’ to avoid these sins, the nature of which seem petty ways to limit their freedom.
The second stanza is focused on the English culture she has become a part of after leaving in India. ‘Which language/has not been the oppressor tongue?’ Well, the oppressor for India is the British and there is still residual dislike for Brits because of their years of colonial domination.
As an Indian, Bhatt should also resent them. However, she doesn’t these lines make us question whether the British are really the bad guys? No, only really to India. For the French, the Germans are the oppressors. The Iraqis might see the Americans as the arseholes. It depends on perspective and it does not make everyone born to that nation someone you should hate. At some stage all cultures or people have been guilty of oppressing another (India vs. Pakistan or Bangladesh?).
The phrase ‘Which language’ means that Bhatt is trying to reconcile her use of English (the language of India’s oppressors) with India feeling about the English. It is not the language’s fault that colonialism happened, nor does the past action of the British mean that all English speakers should now be figures of hate – they are the language are not to blame.
She acknowledges where the resentment comes from with words like ‘torture’, ‘soul been cropped/With a long scythe’ suggesting a lasting historical imprint of colonial brutality and destruction of culture (the soul of the country). However, she separates the past and the present for the sake of her identity and to explain why she shouldn’t feel guilty. The past is distant to her, she has ‘a different history’ with the language than her grandparents may have and she is not ashamed to be apart of the English culture or speak the language, even acknowledging she has ‘grow[n] to love’ it.
Language and techniques
Core blimey! I could be here all day… this is not a definitive commentary and there are many things I may neglect to mention or gloss over that you think are important. Great! Explore your interpretation and explanation independently wherever possible.
In the first stanza I would focus on the contract between the ‘freedom’ of the gods and natural world and the ‘sin’ filled lives of Indian people. The repetition of ‘sin’ four times shows a frustration with these rules, ‘without’ being repeated twice creates a similar idea of restriction placed upon the people.
The second stanza uses a semantic field (look it up in the glossary – when I’ve done it :() of suffering and misery – ‘Torture’, ‘oppressor’, ‘murder’, ‘soul has been cropped’. These are all used to reflect Indian thoughts about their former colonial masters, the British. Soul cropping, in particularly, is a tasty one as it is associated with the Grim Reaper and death, which suggests Indians feel the British destroyed the soul of the country. This is how Bhatt feels she should feel about English culture, but she firmly tries to tie these thoughts to history and not to today.
Now, this is what I really want to talk about. I am not just terrible at formatting webpages; the poem is meant to look like that.
When Bhatt discusses India in stanza one you’ll notice that the lines seem to float around beginning at different places. It’s deliberate, trust me. Dual usage in my humble opinion. In one sense it represents the freedom of the gods, but on the other hand it could show the disorganisation of Indian priorities – gods and nature above the people.
The second stanza is organised and seems to make sense (perhaps a reflection on Western personal philosophy and the dying influence of religion). However, this could also have a dual meaning. Perhaps this shows the cold, hard rationality of the West, scientifically led world – organised, but uncreative.
It’s a bit of a mixture of mockery/frustration and guilt. She is trying to demonstrate that she doesn’t feel completely comfortable with Indian culture and its bias to religion above people, but also she is trying to excuse her guilt or explain why she has come to love English and the culture of the West.