Thursday, April 14, 2005

Constantine Cavafy's city

On days when I feel restless and dissatisfied, and find my speech given over mostly to irony and sarcasm, I sometimes turn, to indulge my mood, to the dark, brooding poetry of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), whose work I discovered when I was an undergraduate and have prized highly ever since.

Here is one of my favourite Cavafy poems, ‘The City’:

The City

You said, "I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, better than this.
Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;
and my heart is -- like a corpse -- buried.
How long in this wasteland will my mind remain.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see the black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years, and ruined and wasted."

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
in these same houses you will grow gray.
Always you will arrive in this city. To another land -- do not hope --
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have ruined your life here
in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

Incidentally, one of the things I like most about art is how one artwork can sometimes amplify or illuminate the meanings of another. For me Cavafy’s poem finds many echoes in Gulzar’s song Ek akela is shaher main (for non-Hindi speakers, All alone in the city) for the film Gharaonda (1977), and brings to mind the image of the lonely, defeated Sudip, played in the film by Amol Palekar, drifting listlessly through the streets of Bombay after having lost the woman he loves to an older man. And in the film’s last scene, when Sudip, who has declared his intention of leaving the city, suddenly changes his mind and decides to stay on, I read this as Sudip’s realization of the truth expressed by the second speaker in Cavafy’s poem: that his flight is pointless, for wherever he goes, he will always arrive in this very same city.

Here’s an essay on Cavafy: C. P. Cavafy, a poet in history, by Joseph Epstein. And you can find several other Cavafy poems here.

No comments: