THE FIRST POET IN MY FAMILY WASN’T ME

In my life, if you look at my poetry. And my pursuit of it. You see that it exists at odds with the previous generations. That in many ways, it is birthed from that friction. In a world far, far away from the world of my parents. And even further from the generation before that. But if you make the journey past my grandparents, you’ll find this place that both rips my worlds—everything I’ve known—from beneath my feet and explains everything I feel in my blood. And this world can be captured with the life and legacy of a sole individual—my great grandmother’s brother—who I call Jyanti dada. Just a few days ago, he passed away. And though we had all seen it coming as he was in a state of rapidly deteriorating health, it felt like my world froze for a few moments.

Jyanti dada has spent his life tucked away in my grandfather’s ancestral village of Atroli in the state of Gujarat, in India. He has insisted stubbornly on staying in this village despite the lure of material wealth that pulled most of his family to India’s big cities, to America, and to London. And this one time five years ago, when I sat next to him from sunrise to sunset with a voice recorder, in an effort to capture what felt like the last bit of magic remaining in the world, I asked him about his life, his choices, his heart. And his answers to me, were in poetry. I’m not saying they were “poetic”. No, no. They were…actual poetry, kavitas, shayari…allegories on allegories, rhymes, metaphors, alliteration, imagery, wisdom, truth, beauty, observations, reflections…all in our native tongue of Gujarati…most of it freestyled. You see, my great grandfather was a poet. He was also a farmer and the village mukhee (the leader who maintains the law and order), but these titles are secondary to me. And when I first learned this–that he was a poet–when I was old enough to really understand the rarity, the purity of him, it felt like the greatest miracle the universe could ever give me. It felt like permission to step into who I was without abandoning what came before me. And I had been desperate, starving for that permission for as long as I’ve known.

And Jyanti dada asked me then–5 years ago–to leave everything here and stay there with him for a while, to volunteer at the local school, to sit out under the trees and write and recite poetry to my heart’s content. I wanted to, so so so badly. But for many reasons, I wasn’t able to. And it has been one of the biggest regrets of my life. Because I knew that hidden in his world, his words, his village, were the blueprints for the kind of life that calls my name every morning. And if only I had more time to write it all down. To take notes on what currents and choices brought about the most luminescent, hilarious, wise, enchanting human being I have ever met. If only, if only. But a few days ago, I was on the phone with one of his daughters–Alpa, who is also a brilliant poet and lyricist! And when I started to tell her what I loved about her dad, she broke down in tears and told me in Gujarati, “You have some of him in you”. And I didn’t think it was possible to receive a greater gift until I heard those words. And it gives me some faith that I maybe do have an ounce of the blueprints.

My goodness. Why am I tearing up again? Jyanti dada–this post will never, ever do you justice so I will dedicate part of my life’s purpose to you, and show you what you meant to me through my actions.

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