Forming Letters, Writing Poems

by Aurogeeta Das


As a trained printmaker, I enjoy the immediacy of print. The uniformity and formality of print carries its own appeal, and of course, something that is printed — whether an image, or text — is also often associated with being published, and therefore frequently involves a sense of achievement. Beyond this, the medium of print is itself attractive. This is harder to comprehend if one has not personally participated in the process of printing. In an interview with me, the artist Vasundhara Tewari described her printing experiments with an excitement that I understood perfectly:

 So I used the [printing] roller on paper and immediately related to what came of it. I loved the contrast and the immediacy. It’s like what you would get in the computer today. You say red and you get it, jhadak. But in the computer you move back and forth. With the printing ink, there’s no way of erasing it. It’s this thick block of black ink. The effect and the process that it involved were dramatic. (1)

And yet, there is something about writing by hand that cannot compare with print. The word ‘hand’ in ‘handwriting’ is itself indicative of the act being an embodied one, engaging the whole body, as it were. Indeed, for many, it is an act that exemplifies charm because it is further associated with the handmade… the hand crafted… It is imperfectly perfect and for some, instantly conjures up an image of a figure sitting at a desk, ink well at hand. The manner in which ink blobs and blots; the way a pen and ink nib swells with the liquid, flows onto the paper and then begins to scratch when it requires replenishing at the ink well…this process undoubtedly imparts a peculiar pleasure. It also demands an acquired skill; much like a singer learns when to inhale so as not to sound out of breath, thus ensuring that the singing remains mellifluous, the writer must learn to correctly pace the intervals at which to dip the nib into the inkwell in order to maintain a smooth script.

Sadly, the act of forming letters by hand is one that I engage in less and less frequently. With access to computers, the Internet and the mobile phone, my hand-written letters and notes have been virtually replaced by email and texts, as I suspect they have been for countless others. Nevertheless, I can still recall jotting down elegantly written notes at school, using calligraphic pens, even for the mundane task of leaving someone a note when I called in and found they were not at home. Admittedly, it’s a luxury that one can generally indulge in when one has few real-world responsibilities, or, in the modern world, it can constitute a conscious choice. In an ironic incident last year, I finally decided to write an elderly lady a letter in calligraphy only to have the letter reach someone else by mistake! I took it as a sign that I was not meant to resume calligraphy just yet. Such was my enthusiasm as a teen that I turned ordinary fountain pens into calligraphic ones by the cheap method of snipping the nibs at an angle with a pair of garden scissors. Very occasionally, when I was lucky, I collected a job lot of bamboo from my grandmother’s garden in northern India, and used a pencil-sharpening knife to easily fashion a reusable pen whenever I needed a fresh one. At the time, I probably did more than my fair share of calligraphy, though I ironically felt that my ‘hand’ was not uniform enough for me to be a skilled calligrapher. The quirks of my character always seemed to seep through the writing. It was not so much the anxiety that the daubs, dribbles and dashes would express my character that stopped me from writing calligraphy. Rather, as a teenager still engaged in the process of coming to terms with myself, it was the worry that the jagged edges of my hand-formed letters might reveal the inadequacies of my character that prevented me from exploring calligraphy further. Tagore, fortunately for us, was not deterred by such fears, though of course, in his case he was not attempting to write formal calligraphy but his own, beautiful, cursive script. At any rate, Tagore revelled in the potential of expressing himself through his handwriting, as is clear in the following passage:

These writings [with reference to poems in Lekhan] began in China and Japan. Their origin was in requests to write something on fans or pieces of paper or handkerchiefs. . . . Their chief value is to introduce myself through my own handwriting. But not only through my handwriting: through my swiftly written feelings too. In printed form, this kind of personal contact is spoilt — these writings would seem pallid and futile as an extinguished Chinese lantern. . . . [The verses in Lekhan] contain some spontaneous corrections and crossings out. Even these convey the flavour of my personality. (2)

While the process of realisation of any work is a part of the creation itself, here, the revelation of process through the sharing of an initial hand-written draft — rather than the presentation of a final version — could be considered as akin to an artist’s rough sketch. In an artist sketch too, there is that element of an initial idea, a fresh conception as it has revealed itself to the artist, before it has been fine-tuned, revised and polished for sharing with the world. The 19th century art editor and collector Charles Ephrussi clearly understood the great value of an artist’s sketch:

. . . all of Dürer’s drawings, even the lightest of sketches, merited a special mention; . . . nothing that was attributed to the hand of our master should be omitted . . . If anyone should come up to us and reproach us about this anxiety concerning fugitive works, this predilection for a few traces of ink or a few strokes of pencil hastily applied to the paper, we would answer that the drawings of a real master are often the real measure of his genius, as good or even better than his accomplished paintings. Often, the intimate and confidential charm of drawing pierces amateur attention with a sensation no less vibrant than a burst of sunshine in painting; we catch the thought of the author [artist] in all its freshness, at the very moment of manifestation, with     perhaps even more truth and sincerity than in the works that require arduous hours of labour, with the defiant patience of the genius. (3)

Nowadays, rather than scribble down a few lines, I tend to write directly on the computer and when I make changes, they over-write the first draft, as I don’t use track changes when editing my own work. In this manner, I frequently lose successive drafts. At best, I have a few intermediate drafts but I am often unlikely to recall verbatim my very first attempt. So the hand-written creative work — assuming it, too, does not get lost in transit — oftentimes does serve the purpose of preserving a writer’s first thoughts. Perhaps the happiest amalgam is to print something that was first hand-written or hand-painted. Tagore was apparently delighted when he found out that a (then) new technology facilitated the wedding of both forms, that he could henceforth have his own handwriting ‘printed’:

When I went to Germany I found out that a way had been invented of    printing directly from handwriting. One has to write with special ink on a sheet of aluminium, and by printing from that with a special machine one can avoid the tender mercies of the compositor altogether.

Interestingly, he goes on to add:

Then I wondered if those who did not regard tiny poems as literature would perhaps accept them in the poet’s own handwriting. . . . I got on with writing these little English and Bengali poems on to aluminium sheets. (4)

This suggests that he placed not only an aesthetic value on the handwritten word, but that he additionally saw it as lending authorial credence. In her memoir of her travels with Tagore, Nirmalkumari Mahalanobi further underlines the poet’s pleasure in using this new machine that enabled him to print handwritten poems, though it appears to me that Tagore’s pleasure was derived equally — if not more so — from the independence this afforded him from the typesetter, rather than from the allure of seeing his own handwriting in print. (5)

I have not attempted to write poetry for well over a decade. It is not, perhaps, a skill for which I have a natural gift. Nevertheless, I share here some drafts of new writing I have developed for my project with the Tagore Centre. When I initially discussed this residency, I had expressed the wish to reacquaint myself with the joys of forming letters by hand, and to take this opportunity to practise Bengali script too, which I have always found rather elegant. While print and handwriting may each vie for appeal, I must confess to often yearning for pen and ink. The longer poems reproduced here might have a word or two crossed out. In general, I have omitted to share the hesitations and the corrections that the drafting process might have revealed and which have, as it happens, been minimal for these poems. I start with the printed below before moving on to the handwritten form.



So fortunate was he to see the waxwing

As several lucky others did, I know.

On the tops of rowan or the hawthorn

In the corner of many a wintry meadow.

I hear the waxwing’s lovely

Fond of a juicy berry

Like so many birds in this country

It knows just what it likes to eat!

Shall I ever see the waxwing’s crest?

Its black throat, its reddish-brown breast?

I feel that I shall know no rest

Until I, too, have been blessed.


Will the redwing come this year?

I wonder.

It was here last winter,

A welcome visitor.

First there was one

And then a dozen;

It was quite amazing.

We counted fifty-seven,

By the end of the winter.

Will the redwing come this year?

To give us again great pleasure?

I wonder.


Occasionally, I squint,

Trying to name a bird

In the distance.

Then there is a hint

In the robin — of a blackbird,

for instance.

And I am reminded,

That they are kindred.

It is only by dint,

Of having observed

That I spot resemblance,

Perhaps in their tint,

In their habit weird,

Of making earthworms dance.

This I now see, quite clearly:

They are of the same family.


His dog barks a bewildered scowl:

Atop his bookshelf, beside the blue bowl,

Wisely, silently, sits a tawny owl.

In the middle of the afternoon,

From where has this nocturnal bird flown?

Wonders Sean with a frown.

While the dog barks, still disturbed,

The owl watches, unperturbed

Despite knowing it’s being observed.

Realises Sean all of a sudden,

It must have come through the kitchen.

Then, just like that, it is gone.

The beauty of Tagore’s brief poetry lies in great part in its mysticism. My own efforts are more prosaic. In fact, with the exception of the first two haikus below, each poem about a bird — whether long or short — is factual, including the number 57, which is when I got confused and tired of counting! In reality, I suspect the redwings numbered 60 or more. I have taken a few liberties, such as to say that we had the redwings last year, when in fact, we had them two winters ago. Last winter, we had only three of these winter visitors. The few lines about a tawny owl’s unexpected visit refer to my neighbour’s house rather than ours. In the longer version of this poem (above), the poetic license extends to my conjuring up the blue bowl to help me rhyme, which I often struggle with. To give myself a respite from the need to maintain rhyme and rhythm, I experimented with brief lines inspired by the haiku-like format adopted by Tagore in Stray Birds. While I do not presume to aspire to Tagore’s wonderful mysticism and indeed his lyricism, I hope that my fledgling efforts at least begin to achieve some of the pithiness of Tagore’s brief poems. I might add that these poems have been written in pen and ink, with a discarded wooden stick that I fashioned into a new pen this week through the surprisingly simple method of using a pencil sharpener. My delight in making my own writing tool was almost equal to using it to form hand-written letters. With these brief poems, I have included initial hand-written drafts. In order to provide a comparison between the two forms, the brief, haiku-like efforts are also printed here:






An inky night.

A sudden splash.

A flutter of wings.




This foggy morning,

On a muddy path,

Lay Ruffled white feathers.




Pheasants’ native cunning:

Designed to outwit foxes;

Defeated by the road.




Above straw-coloured fields,

A sparrow hawk hovers,

Looking for its lunch.



Great barking, bewilderment:

Atop his living room bookshelf,

Is perched a silent, tawny owl.

[ALTERNATELY] A silent, tawny owl.


V (Second draft).

His dog barks a bewildered scowl:

Atop his bookshelf, beside the blue bowl,

Wisely, silently, sits a tawny owl.



The jays and magpies this morning

Drowned out the chirping tits

And the robin’s sweet song.



Finally, I have also chosen to share here a few brief poems that almost a decade ago, I attempted to turn into visual poems of sorts. Rather than write them in my regular handwriting therefore, they experiment with calligraphy. Note that these rudimentary drafts have not been developed further since they were written. I include them here to give a taste of what directions my experiments with the bird poems might take.




Nature mends

On the banana peel,

A few parallel dashes,

With a mediator

Cutting through them;

Nature, it appears,

Taught us how to stitch.




The whirring of the ceiling fan:

My sole companion

In the dark of the night.




I fought my war.

I neither won nor lost.

The point is, I fought.




(1) Tewari, Vasundhara, “The Ground”, First City, First City Publications Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, January 2003, pp. 26-31

(2) Tagore, Rabindranath, first published in the Preface to the Bengali version of Lekhan, reprinted in Rabindra-racanābalī (‘Tagore’s Collected Works’), vol. 14, p. 156, quoted by William Radice in The Jewel that is Best: Collected Brief Poems, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011 pp.10-11

(3) Ephrussi, Charles, in his preface to Albert Dürer et ses dessins, A. Quantin, Paris, 1882 (in French), translation mine (part of this translation appeared in Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, Random House: Chatto & Windus, London, June 2010)

(4) Tagore, Rabindranath, in an essay on Lekhan that was first published in the Kārtik 1335 (October-November 1928) issue of Prabāsī, reprinted by Visva-Bharati at the end of Rabindra-racanābalī (‘Tagore’s Collected Works’), vol. 14, reproduced as an appendix by William Radice in The Jewel that is Best: Collected Brief Poems, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011 p.168

(5) Mahalanobi, Nirmalkumari, Kabir sange yurope (‘To Europe with the poet’), Kolkata, 1969, reproduced by William Radice in Appendix A of The Jewel that is Best: Collected Brief Poems, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011 pp.175-76

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