October 16, 2017

Reverie of Mahomed Akram at the Tamarind Tank

It is said that some Indian natives have a prejudice against sleeping under the Tamarind tree, as it is considered a messenger of the God of death.   Perhaps the superstition includes the idea that the sour taste of the fruit may spoil their dreams.

N. Indian Tamarind & Temple
But a quiet spell under a tamarind in a hillside oasis may offer a traveler enough respite to allow one's thoughts to wander...

In "Reverie" the poet's versification seems less stiff, the expression more spare, mirroring the desert that has been traversed.   Even allowing for the beautiful internal and end rhymes, the feel is almost modern, like a sketch in a private travel journal. 
Banganga Tank
"Reverie" enters the thoughts of Mahomed Akram, a name that appears often in Hope's work - 'To Aziz: Song of Mahomed Akram', 'Thoughts: Mahomed Akram', 'To the Unattainable: Lament of Mahomed Akram', 'Mahomed Akram's Appeal to the Stars', 'Reminiscence of Mahomed Akram' and 'The Island of Desolation: Song of Mahomed Akram'.  To further explore the poet's use of male signature and gender bending, Anindyo Roy discusses it here

"Pathan Types"
Colonel Malcolm Hassan Nicholson was no ordinary soldier - he was a master linguist and Aid-de-Camp to Queen Victoria.  He must have cut a romantic figure in the Karachi library where it has been suggested he and Adela Cory first met.  Soon he was calling her Violet.  After a "whirlwind" courtship of about three months, the pair wedded their talents and their fates in 1889 at a ceremony conducted at the local registry office, presumably without a lot of fuss.  She was 23, he was 45.  (Their wedding is discussed further here.)

Even as a new bride, Violet was an unconventional military wife.  She chafed under the umbrella of life at an army station, and dreaded her new husband's frequent absences.   Malcolm was a seasoned and important frontier officer, a commander, and no doubt a valuable interpreter.  His duties usually called him away and into dangerous territory, and his imaginative bride must have had unending worries for his safe return every time he kissed her and rode off.

After a year and a half of this strain on her nerves and their marriage, Cory family tradition has it that Mrs. Nicolson "...cast her petticoats aside, disguised herself as a Pathan boy" and "followed her husband’s regiment on a punitive expedition to the North-West...sharing Nicolson’s experiences among the border tribes..."  Biographer Leslie Blanch suggested she accompanied him on multiple trips into the rugged frontier, which seems likely - once the poet had tasted such freedom, she was not the sort to relinquish it.
"She followed her husband on all his different appointments, preferring the camp life to that of a big station;  there she was apt to be regarded as unorthodox...It must have been intoxicating to one of Laurence Hope's nature to find herself allied with these traditions... Sometimes the Nicolsons vanished on long, solitary frontier reconnaissances which were known and valued by the government."
Hill Snipers
Disputed borderlands can turn into hostile badlands in a flash, and as much for her safety as for the intrigue of it all, Violet sported a costume of loose pantaloons and locally made Pashtun boots, hiding her hair in a head wrap.  She likely carried at least a knife, possibly a pistol or rifle as well, as it would have been unusual for any member of a scouting party or marching column to travel unarmed.  The men accompanying her husband would have known her identity - the idea was to fool outsiders and raiders. 

Rising for coffee before daybreak, the party would have been in constant motion most of the day, some of them on small Baluchi horses.  Camels may have been used for pack animals, but this was the army, and the enlisted men marched great distances on foot.   At evening when camp was made, the sunset pause falling over the land provided physical and mental relief. 

Anindyo Roy (pg 208) captures some of the mood of Akram's "Reverie" as he explains how assigning sensual thoughts of longing to an Indian male served the author and her audience  -
"Yet, in many of her verses devoted to desire and yearning, echoes of Indian poetry transform the specific location - which is often a scene of war and military campaigns that had been led by the British on frontiers with Afghanistan - into a reverie wherein a form of arrested temporality replaces the purely spatial, allowing the speaker/interlocutor to experience a form of desire that lay outside the boundaries of Victorian eroticism."
Simply put, in the quiet twilight, far removed from social conventions and the demands of the day's march, Violet was more freer than most of her sex to experience the full force of her thoughts;  she could wander wherever they would take her, just like a man.  

Desert Stars, Byam Shaw
It is likely that Akram's reverie was conceived in the setting it describes - a watering hole somewhere on the North-West fringe of Britain's Indian empire.  Seeking even more isolation, the poet has broken away from the group.  We find ourselves in the vicinity of a hillside cave temple, with its cool tank named for its ancient Tamarind trees.  In Indian-English "tank" is a  term for a man made pool dug into the ground that serves as a reservoir for a settlement or holy site.  

We follow the gaze of the poet who wonder at the lust felt by the ancients who carved them.  Animals chatter, night overtakes the land, a zither strikes an offbeat note, voices buzz and fade amid white tents and "angry eyes" of red campfires.

"In The Early Pearly Morning" was an early invitation to a liason in a radiant temple garden.   Now, we find "the present is subtly wedded to the past" as thoughts are transported by frangrance, and it is "the ruinous temple garden where roses are" that brings us fully into a dream of that former liason.  Musk, sandlewood, jasmine, dusk, the lover's eyes, and more pass before us.

Thoughts of rejoining the Beloved brings the narrator to a climax of remembered joy mingled with existential despair until her entire being simply becomes worn out -  "my eyes grow dim and senses fail at last."   This state seems to suspend the speaker in time, until a sort of half-sleep comes.  Soon "night is almost done".   

I thrill to the recklessness of a poet who is willing to describe for posterity a half unconscious, despairing stumble towards a tent in the dark in such wild surrounds - it almost sounds like drinking was involved.  However, one may trust it was probably pure romantic derangement which maddened the senses of poor Mohamed Akram, who is forbidden drink by his religion.   Solace, however brief, may descend once again as our narrator is allowed somnambulent dreams of the Beloved - 
To ensweeten my sleep with lies,
   To dream I lie in the light of your long lost eyes,
                   My lips set free.
   To love and linger over your soft loose hair—
   To dream I lay your delicate beauty bare
                   To solace my fevered eyes.
Drifting along in the swoon between love and death, one could happily expire within these dreams - to be so lucky!   If only the Tamarind tree had delivered up that promise of a visitation by the God of death, just as the natives had spoken of.  

NOTE:  "Reverie of Mohamed Akram at the Tamarind Tank" is in the first section of India's Love Lyrics recorded for Librivox and may be listened to here.  This is a sneak preview and will not be available until the entire book has been recorded. 

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