Slices of truth

A life in poems

Slices of truth

Author Ruth Padel. DH photo/  S K Dinesh

Tigers are about surviving, alone. That’s a line from British poet and author Ruth Padel’s Tigers in Red Weather. She is not just talking about tigers when she says this. She is also referring to a new beginning, when serendipity and a broken relationship bring her to India. So, in that sense, for Ruth, St Lucy’s Day, or the day of least light, was also the day that marked a fresh start to her life and work.

The 64-year-old author was in Bangalore recently to complete research for her novel Where the Serpent Lives, as part of the British Council Darwin Now research grant. As she read from Tigers in Red Weather, Darwin: A Life in Poems and her 2006 poem Slices of Toast, poetry and science, the contemporary and the classic came together creating a magical chiaroscuro for the audience.

For Ruth, as she writes in Tigers..., “Poems help you re-see things but the world has its own reality too. Trying to forget the presence in my city of someone around whom I had drawn my own symbols and shadows, I suddenly wanted real forests, real tigers.” And real tigers, she certainly got, as she travelled from Ranthambore in India, to Russia, to China to Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, eventually coming back to India, Karnataka to be specific.

A love for nature, it seems, runs in the family. Growing up, she remembers reading Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and her favourite character was Bagheera. The Darwin connection is, of course, significant enough not to be forgotten.

In fact, the great great granddaughter of the man who gave us the Origin of Species carried with her a collection of poems to seek refuge in, every now and then, on her journey in search of the tiger. Darwin too had carried Milton’s Paradise Lost on his Beagle expedition.

While the Darwin connection was always part of her upbringing, her kinship grew greater during her journey. Exactly 170 years ago, Darwin was marvelling at the origin of species. Here she was worrying about species that were endangered and on the verge of extinction. She hadn’t missed out on that irony.

It was not just Darwin that Ruth developed a kinship for. It was Emma too. Emma and Charles Darwin’s was a life of affection, even as they carefully negotiated their differences on the question of faith. “I recognised in Emma traits of my mother and her mother Nora Barlow,” says Ruth. (“They were both remarkable women,” she adds.)

Darwin: A life in Poems was commissioned to mark the evolutionary scientist’s bicentenary, and Ruth had to race through four months to complete the book. I ask her about the structure of her poetry itself. Surely, it’s not emotion recollected in tranquility? Isn’t there a lot of research going into her work? “Yes, that’s how I like to write. I like to research a lot for my work,” she acknowledges.

Her body of work reflects her varied experiences, from singing in a nightclub in Istanbul to working at an archeological excavation site at Crete in Greece. And then of course, the tiger exploration. And now, snakes, specifically the King Cobra, for Where the Serpent Lives. She wrote a column on poetry for three years, out of which was born 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem. A sum total of experiences. A great sense of rhythms and sound. Rich imagery. A forceful combination, indeed.

Coming back to her newest work, Where the Serpent Lives, does it take off from Tigers in Red Weather? I ask. The tiger exploration also introduced to her the world of serpents. Ruth went to Chennai, where she interacted with Romulus Whitaker, founder of the Snake Park there, apart from visiting the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka.

Sample this for a blurb of her new book. “There was a time when it seemed as if the whole world was in love with Rosamund. Then she married Tyler — reckless, charismatic, dangerous — and lost herself. A dramatic and unexpected return to India seems to offer her a chance for renewal. But can her family survive the changes she must make to save herself?”

A return to India. So, what does India mean to Ruth, considering it has been an important backdrop for her work in recent years? “India is my spiritual home,” she remarks. “I believe in India, with all its brilliance, science, justice, passion. It saved tigers once. Can’t it do it again?” she asks. And she does believe immensely in the work of Ullas Karanth, conservationist and wildlife expert, never failing to mention his name in the context of tiger conservation.

In Tigers in Red Weather, she mentions spending time with Karanth on the Festival of Lights. “Like St Lucy, this is light from the dark, a new beginning,” Ruth observes.
I ask her about that chapter in her professional career, from which she certainly seeks a new beginning. When she resigned from her post of being the first woman professor of poetry at Oxford College, there were allegations that she tipped off journalists about the sexual indiscretions of her rival Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. Ruth Padel held the post for a mere nine days. Would she like to talk about it? What has she taken away from the episode?

“Well, where the serpent lives,” she says enigmatically.

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