Posted by: gdevi | April 11, 2014

Correspondences

I have been teaching Baudelaire’s great sonnet Correspondences for years now. It is not a particularly easy poem for undergraduate readers. But today, my student Natalie did a fantastic analysis and interpretation of the poem. Well done, Natalie! I am so pleased. On the one hand, it is one thing to think of place as a symbol and say that you understand it. But what is it that you understand? It is not easy at all to verbalize it. But Natalie did a wonderful explication. So did Suhag. I am particularly pleased that both of you explicated these lines very well:

Like dwindling echoes gathered far away

Into a deep and thronging unison

Huge as the night or as the light of day,

All scents and sounds and colors meet as one.

As a teacher, you can only do so much explanation. At some point, you hope the things you say will click within a student’s mind in its own way and they understand it for themselves. I am so pleased with how Natalie unpacked these lines–the symbolic equation of “echoes” with “scents, sounds and colors” — a “primordial” symbol of “primordial” nature, you said. Yes! I am so pleased. Good work, Natalie. Echoes! What a genius Baudelaire was!

I should also note that in my Russian Lit class, someone who had taken a class with me before had written on the board when I walked in — “The Father is Freaky-Deaky” — about the father character in the great Russian movie The Return, which we are watching this week. Apparently, I said something was “freaky-deaky” in their class once; I don’t remember now.  Come on guys, I said, give me a break. We tease you because we love you, Dr. Devi, they said.  Yeah yeah yeah. I am flattered. Hey,  you should thank Elmore Leonard for “freaky-deaky.”

A warm rainy day. Spring is definitely here. Hey, students are wearing shorts. And after months of not seeing my feet, I can wear sandals again. I love days like this; it reminds me of Kerala. Years ago, I must have been nineteen or twenty years old, I went to the University Library in the morning after breakfast. It was a Saturday. It was a bright morning. The University Library is a huge cavernous building  and once you enter it, you are in another world. I was there for about six hours, I think. The head circulation librarian there was my mother’s friend, and always told me where the new titles were. Anyway I was there for a long time. When I came out it was around five in the evening–about this time right now. I had checked out about nine books or so and they were in my shoulder bag. I used to use this beautiful open creamish jute bag that you sling across the shoulder and the books were in it. It was sort of heavy. The university bus stop was right around the corner, a quick walk. I checked out the books and walked out to the front doors of the library. I could not believe my eyes. Outside, it was a torrential downpour.  I had not known this at all because I was inside the building. When I left home in the morning, there was no inkling that it would rain. The thick sheet of water in front of my eyes blinded visibility. I opened my umbrella, gathered my sari around my ankles and walked out into the furious rainwater flooding the sidewalk and the streets. Somehow I managed to reach the bus stop. Monsoon winds are particularly strong so my poor umbrella was folding over and I felt all of my books getting wet inside the jute bag.  The bus stop was completely crowded with people, both people who were there to catch their buses, and also people seeking shelter from the rain. Bus stops in India are usually just a platform with a roof and open on all four sides. Rain and wind kept lashing into the platform where we all stood huddled. I stood in one corner trying to keep away from creepy men who ogle women, especially if their saris are wet.

Anyway, while I was standing there waiting for the bus, in the misery of the lashing rain, I became aware that rain brings out the romantic in the Indian psyche.  Standing next to me was a young school girl, in dark navy blue skirt and white shirt, school uniform, hair separated into two braids, now wet and disheveled in the streaming rain, and clutching her canvas bookbag to her chest tightly. I was about to move a little bit inside to make room for her to move inside so she would be out of the whiplash of the rain, when I saw her eyes light up and a smile break open her beautiful sweet face. There he was, her young boyfriend, also in navy blue pants and white shirt, school uniform, with his canvas bookbag dripping water, walking towards her. He held out his umbrella. That was the invitation she needed, and she stepped out of the bus stop and together they walked out into the rain and walked quite a ways to a corner farther away from the bus stop to wait for the bus. While the rest of us huddled in the bus stop, the young lovers stood huddled under his umbrella–folding over in the wind–and talked with each other, holding hands. An unusual sight in Trivandrum at the time. Girls and boys did not date in public, and if they did, they were very cautious not to display it. But here they were, fourteen fifteen years old, standing in the rain holding hands under his umbrella.

When I got home, mother told me that several coconuts had fallen on the roof from the coconut tree next to the kitchen in the monstrous wind, and had broken the slate roof in places. Go, put pots and pans everywhere, and collect the water so we don’t slip and fall, she said. God, why do we have to have that coconut tree there? mother asked aloud to the spirits. I put out the pots and pans to collect the errant water leaking into the house. I went from room to room shutting the windows so the rain won’t dampen the floor and the wood fittings. My father was at the club playing cards, Appu was with his engineering college friends, mother was reading in the bedroom. The rain had made the house quiet and cold and large as I walked from room to room. In the kitchen and the dining room, the rainwater etched a mysterious map as it snaked its way across the black oxide floor.  From here and there on the wooden ceiling water dripped in lingering single drops. Later, I went out to the verandah to look at the lashing rain.  Thunder cracked, and in between the lightning streaks, the evening sun shot its rays right into my face, the creamy golden slice of its setting radiance folded inside moist blue black billowing clouds. The rain fell in buckets and slabs all over the earth punching holes in the ground.  The hardy hibiscus bush in the middle of the courtyard bent back as the rain water engulfed it, and the red flowers trembled where they lay.

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