• To Translate is To Love Again: Sayed Haider Raza’s Love Letters

    Medha Singh

    February 11, 2020

    Sayed Haider Raza and Janine Mongillat | Image courtesy The Raza Foundation

    In a recent article, I'd offered up a statement about healthy masculinity, and the projected impact of this book, where the words of a man who is unashamed to love fully, are like finding gold in the garbage heap, to even know that there is such an example – by Raza's own admission – of  'men who are worthy of being loved' is big enough in itself, granting us a (new) template of healthy masculinity.

    Raza expresses his range of feelings wholeheartedly in his letters, clearly intentioned, giving one a sense of confidence about the work that they were doing: in translating examples of love expressed maturely, we do a service to those that don't know how to, (that eventually become awkward, and borderline violent in its pursuit in northern India). I'd confidently suggested in that article, that to love isn't to merely desire (for we know, especially after Anne Carson, that desire is the anticipation of union, but not union itself), but also to take responsibility, that Raza knew this as he assured Janine he's going to be in her life, make all her struggles his own. This was a political act. It defied conventions of masculinity and the historically exonerated idea of masculine reserve associated with it. To see prominent men be anything but bad, bad examples of human beings–whether they are emotionally unavailable, cheating on their spouses, shirking their family responsibilities– is uncommon, and as a culture, we have become desensitised to it. I fear, in that desensitisation, we have come to accept it as a common norm. This book – these letters defied the norm, and that too, almost seventy years ago, when the feminist movement was something so different, half articulated, incipient.

    It was well anticipated that when this book comes out, the women who read it will know a little better that it is a true joy to be seduced skillfully, and learn how to tell those apart from the ones that don’t know how to (and that a man who can’t seduce skilfully does not know what consent means), and a few (willing) men may get a clue as to how the dratted thing is done after all. All in all, we would have self generated standards of what a good life with someone means. Lovely, isn’t it?

    Then something mortifying happened: two women in India were raped and burnt alive. One in Hyderabad, one in Unnao. As we speak, violent crimes against women show no sign of relent. I was completely defeated. What was I even thinking? What is this bourgeois tripe I’ve kept myself occupied with? Rape is not an outcome of sexual frustration, it’s the assertion of social power over others that don’t have it, or have it, but in a patriarchal imagination, should not. So, it’s women, it’s children (both boys and girls), who are subject to sexual violence. It has nothing to do with attraction. “Showing men how to love” was not going to change the fact that they don’t want to. How impossible it all seemed: I nearly threw in the towel.

    To think that if we have such a book out there in the world, that it's in English, and it might only circulate well within the hands of the Indian middle class and some collectors abroad. What impact would it have, in the end? Sengar won't go to jail (and now he will), the perpetrators who did this to Priyanka Reddy won't be found, Jaya Bachchan will continue saying stupid things in parliament, and this book will be read by none who actually need to.

    A few days of moping, and finally a desperately sad day to have watched Jeremy Corbyn lose to an obese, half educated, lying posh boy in Britain, the world seemed to have a horizontal spine. Then that very evening, something wonderful happened. I met an Uber driver who began talking to me about how much he regretted having voted for the BJP. Careful as he continued, asking me every five minutes if I wasn’t slighted that he had just struck up a conversation about politics with me – he, a stranger. That he was going to vote for Kejriwal in Delhi, that he wanted a gentleman like Rahul Gandhi in the centre. That conversation was surprisingly respectful and decent. I’d started noticing already how the decency this working class man had been more than most of my male colleagues or employers ever have. If they only knew what it meant to be on the brink of losing something, to be a few hundred rupees away from poverty, or to live in the fear that they might be carted off to the cell for slighting someone with more social power than them (me).

    Not to say that this Uber driver was polite out of fear, he was a genuinely decent man, and I’d put it to the test by asking him about his family, his wife, and what he thought about her getting a job, or owning the house in a shared manner (since we were being frank anyway). He continued to say, that he trusts his wife with everything (“Mere poore jeevan ka sukoon uske hathon me hai”). That he’d put all the property in her name, even though she came from a poor background and he from a slightly better one. That was one of the reasons he married her, so she doesn’t feel that she is without anyone or anything for one, and no one accuses her of coming from a lower background as she was property-less. I probed him further, and asked if he spoke to other men about these things. He said there was little to be gained from it. “They need to be shown, not told.”

    That was it, I felt life coming back to my body, and a confidence return to this project.

    This book would be important because it’s intentioned, because patriarchy is endemic and it’s hurting men too. To translate a text is to give it an afterlife of a sort, and I'm hoping, after this book is out, we can find translators of this work in Hindi, in other languages, and that eventually, it will reach the hands of the likes of that Uber driver so they’re encouraged with the knowledge that they are doing things the right way, and in the hands of those who have never known what the right way is.


    But God Knows It

    9th April, 1953

    I’m thinking of everything that has happened in these two weeks. I’m thinking of the sweet years of my life in Paris too, and of my past in India. The mind requires examination of all thoughts, all acts done or not, in life, in my life. 

    I am in two minds. There is a debate, everything is put to question. I cannot understand. Life seems more complicated to me, more obscure than the _____ I thought I understood everything. Am I the victim of an illusion? My values, are they false? Are my acts against nature? Am I misunderstood?

    I suffer from all that _____ I have _____, under the guise of discipline, the joys I lost, the evils of absence, the crises of all the soft realities fighting amongst themselves. I look at myself in the mirror, a face with the signs of aging, a lean, trembling body, but I also see a fire shining in the eyes.

    I think of everything that’s happening. It was only in France that I felt free. In India, there were too many things, too many obligations, relations, attachments. It was not possible then, to think clearly, to live as one must.

    I was much too shackled. Here, I thought I had won my freedom. I had my life in front of me like a stone, detached from myself, and my sleeves rolled up with necessary tools, I would like to carve it. Freedom is seductive, it's extraordinary. I did not want anyone to meddle in my affairs. I did not need advice or criticism. I would like to see it and I am ready to shoulder complete responsibility by myself, I threw myself headfirst into my studies, for which these new worlds brought intimate possibilities.

    Paris was love at first sight, for me. I loved it right right from the beginning. I felt at home. I was happy, I was never so happy in my life. I spent the first three months with surprising enthusiasm. All that was impossible to find in Bombay, lay before me: museums, libraries, bookstores, exhibitions, films, music theater, everything. You had to see, understand, choose and work.

    In a person, there are always the known and the unknown, so continuing dialogue and unexpected exchanges do birth some outcome. We are half certain and half uncertain. We build on this knowledge, on this certainty to arrive at the unknown.

    Nothing is more beautiful than what does not exist.

    Work was not so easy, neither was life. I could not find much. I found it [life] is only a square with some lines in varying tension. And my solitude.


    But God knows, there, I see a world full of possibilities, full of mystery, of wealth, that has an irresistible call.

    My ideas have changed over time. The Paris of 1951 is not the same as that in 1953. Rather, it’s me who has changed. What pleased me before, doesn’t anymore. The Paris that is mine today is so very small, yet, it’s the Paris that I love. More than before.

    And this old Paris of 1951 has become unbearable. However, I am like everyone else, uncomfortable, but always there, as though nothing can change, as if it couldn’t be otherwise.

    Them. They are happy in this crowd, on these great boulevards, on the small streets. They seem carefree, cheering, and they have fun. They feel alive.

    Yes, of course, they are healthy, and if they know what I think, they’ll tell me to go see a doctor.  The powerless energy that they have, because they talk all the time with gestures, movements, and they talk about everything, about anything. They are occupied as if there was a fire, that continues before them,

    and they are all there, in its course, with extreme tension and instead of throwing water (to quell it), they throw 'fuel' (wood) so that it burns, so that there is more fire so that it continues without end.


    I remember the young students at the school, they had to place themselves in a corner and make as little noise as possible when talking. Even as we walk, we would not shut the door any more than usual. So that there is little silence. But what will that serve?  

    There needs to be life, movement, songs, bursts of laughter, chatter. They have the right. (to exist). The workshop is not a cemetery. This is not my room. Without exception, everyone thinks like that. Especially the boss who points out if there is silence for a moment. This is not normal for young people, and his remarks make sense, as he has more energy than the whole school put together. We are intoxicated, and one must be drunk on this energy that gives us life. Acts have no value, what matters is that the students come regularly, pass exams, thereby justifying the positions of the teachers, the guardians, and the director.

    And it goes on day after day, year after year. The new ones come. A little time, and education, and voila! You (suddenly) see an old man, with a semblance of the same games, sentimentality, and  (the same) chatter.

    Fortunately there was a face – (that was) soothing. Can we work in this atmosphere? Not long… one must get out.

    But there is no help. Leaving the workshop, we fall into the streets, into Rue Bonapart, or further on, Rue de Seine, or Rue St. Germain-de-Pres. It's the same tragedy. Perhaps even worse.

    Not only people, cars too, want to run faster, one than the other, blaring, entirely agitated, making an even more unbearable noise. You have to be careful, you must look around you if you don’t want to be run over. It's a terrible show.

    Here is the paint vendor with his complacent look. He sells colors and colors for painting. ‘What greater vanity than painting’. He will give you everything you need – paper-pencil, ink, and if you are even more ambitious, even a tract on painting – 'how to draw,' Ah, if only he could sell you the 'gray matter’ (brainpower).

    One does not want Ingres’ papers – because they are Ingres’ papers, but they are the least expensive. So, wait in line. There are others who came before you and they have the right to buy, to chat a bit. It’s natural and necessary. You have to be polite.

    And everywhere there are galleries with art dealers. Here is a drawing by Matisse, two paintings by Marie Laurencin, and young painters who aren’t known yet but who have a lot of talent and will probably be big names in the near future. Every month, there are thirty-six exhibitions in these two little streets alone. Thirty-six painters who show (their work) surviving on hope. As for the art dealer, he knows why he is there, and even if no one comes to browse or buy, he knows how to do business. Only the walls that carry the terrible weight of this hanging, week after week, or a sensitive eye, if ever there is one. 

    Again, there are cafes everywhere, with this life, spectacular in appearance, though without meaning, or goal, sterile in the end. Nonetheless, it’s life, an idol of millions, the regrets of millions. With these clothes, multicoloured, eyes wandering, who can miss the freedom, the existence of life?

    You find everything here. There is the “Arts” journal, for example, a weekly publication with a circulation of 80,000 copies a week, with all the new art, shows and literature. You can buy it for just 30 francs. There we find articles, critiques, published and unpublished works, news of cultural life, an entire list of films, all the exhibitions, and shows. It’s grown-ups who write in it and they write about grown-ups. There is also a bit of room for unknown artists, a painter for example. Though he has to run around for months, make repeated requests, organise an exhibition and if all goes well, he will get 4 lines in 1902, neither Modigliani nor Soutine in 1920. And now, during sales at Drouot hotel, you can find these names on a full page, with big cliches and big words.

    Basically, nothing changes. It's the same show as before, where we talk about art, literature, music, in the same tone. Jean Bouret existed under another name in 1902 or '20, and because of his transgressions, he was thrown out, he lives under the name R. Charnet.  

    It's a market, even worse, a fair, with all the dirty games, false colors, pretensions, affectations, loose prattle, hypocrisy, disgusting prostitution and nothing more. It’s heavy. We arrive at the moment when we can’t bear it anymore, especially because we know that like everyone else, we are part of all this tragedy and that despite inventions, progress, despite culture, religion, knowledge, we have remained on the surface, we have no life, we have understood nothing. And this idea gradually takes on a beautiful meaning, that you can only run home to this room, 314, on the 5th floor, lock the door and on your knees read this:

    “Dissatisfied with all and dissatisfied with myself, I would like to redeem myself and take pride in the silence and solitude of the night. Souls of those whom I have loved, souls of those whom I have sung, strengthen me, support me, remove me from the lie and corruptive vapors of the world; and you, Lord my God! Grant me the grace to produce some beautiful verses which prove to me that I am not the last of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise.

    “They were people with nothing, people without names, buried lower than the depths of the earth. Here, I am for them an object of ridicule, and a subject of their song… to perceive that true freedom is not found through others but with regard to oneself.”

    Completely shaking, I started anew. And yet wonder why I seem to suffer.


    I Will Take Your Hand and Offer You My Life

    Friday, July 9, 1954

    My dear Janine,

    I will fall to your feet – Tuesday, July 13

    It is 3:45. I am at Lyon station, in a cafe near your workshop. I just bought a return ticket. My seat is also reserved. I leave Paris Monday evening on the 12th at 10:30 pm, to arrive at Menton next day at 1:32 pm. I think it’s the same train that you’d taken.

    Do you remember the view of Menton in colour, that you showed me in March '53? I'll be there next to you in four days.

    I will bring you my hopes, my dreams. I will bring my faith. I will prove to you the permanence of my bonds. I will make myself indispensable. I will take your hand and offer you my life. I will break the walls that separate us. Believe in this desire, and let me plant my lips on your own.

    I see the horizons in front of me and I follow my path. There is neither doubt nor hesitation. The gods are by my side. Chance helps me. Padamsee’s brother "Nikki" sent 20,000 francs. Solange's letter will give you the details.

    Akbar (Padamsee) has won. We are celebrating this victory in Menton. For the birth of Fifi’s son, I invite you to dinner on the 13th, (which is) the day of my arrival. My warmth to Marie.

    Believe that I love you with all my heart.

    Tonight I will write more (to you).

    Your Raza

    P.S. sweetie, you know the city and the situation. Do what you want, but I would like to take my own room in Menton. Maybe you can book for a single day near the station and then we'll see! R


    I’m Thirsty For Your Eyes (Written behind a doctor's receipt)

    July 10, 1954

    I was at the Dentist. The last of my suffering. I'll join you soon. And think I want nothing more than that. I have other letters written for you but I will put them (in the mail) tomorrow. I don’t want this letter to reach you on Sunday, I am posting it to Montparnasse in a hurry because I have a lot of things to do before leaving. I'm thirsty for your eyes.


    These translations are part of an upcoming book titled I Will Bring My Time. The book, translated by Medha Singh and published by Vadehra Art Gallery and Raza Foundation is set to release on Monday, February 17, at the Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi.

    Medha Singh is a Delhi-based poet. She is currently the India Editor at The Charles River Journal, and Editorial Board member of the Freigeist Verlag.

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