‘The Absent Color’: Mapping the Contours of ‘A Nil’ World, a Trial for Imagination

When the poet writes his name in English as “a/nil”, he abandons all valour, heroism, and hierarchical symbols of power embodied in language and appears before us as a/nil, a/void, in the lowercase, bare, unassertive, claiming nothing.

A/nil’s The Absent Color has been hailed by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek as “an authentic miracle”. The poet Sharmistha Mohanty finds in him “a voice which has read everyone, but imitates no one”.

In this essay, V. Vijayakumar, a professor of physics who has authored several award-winning works in Malayalam on literature, cinema, culture, and the intricate world of science, walks us through the strange and beguiling world of a/nil’s poems. He says, “Readers will realise that as they read The Absent Color, a/nil disappears. He is no longer the poet or the critic or the interpreter or even the writer. The words speak for themselves and the poem declares itself.”

The Absent Color by a/nil (Navayana, October 25, 2023)

The unconscious is a world of repressed emotions and interests. It is where culture is hidden, where everything is in flux. It is structured like language. The word is unconscious, says Lacan. Words do not make meaning explicit. Rather, they open up endless possibilities.

Poetry, the art of words, comes forth from the unconscious. Trying to unveil the word in a poem is akin to unveiling the unconscious that has gone into its making. For those who share and know the life-world of a poet, entering this world is quite easy.

Those who have read Ezra Pound, Paul Celan, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and Slavoj Žižek, and who have also journeyed through the pains and sufferings of Dalit life in Kerala, may find Anil’s (a/nil’s) poems easily accessible.

Though Anil and I have been friends for a long time, his poetry still remains strange and enigmatic to me. The Absent Color is a trial for my imagination: I am a stranger traveling through a/nil’s poetic world.

It is a difficult journey through a labyrinth of ideas. The following reading explores the wonders and dilemmas of this mysterious and difficult journey, with the firm conviction that such a journey into the unknown is a necessary one.

The self and the universe

The poet’s name is a novel form of the word Anilan, which is the Malayalam equivalent of the Sanskrit “Anil”, meaning vayu, air, that which sustains life on earth. His official name – Anilkumar – reminds one of the Vayukumars, the valiant and heroic sons of the God Vayu. When the poet writes his name in English as “a/nil”, he abandons all valour, heroism, and hierarchical symbols of power embodied in language and appears before us as a/nil, a/void, in the lowercase, bare, unassertive, claiming nothing. What does the poet, who claims only nothing, write in his poetry?

This: What was formerly a world bound by Euclidean principles, where parallel lines refused to intersect and plane geometry reigned supreme, has changed into a Riemannian world of curved surfaces, where everything converges. This transition from Newtonian determinism to Einstein’s relativism that we saw in physics now affects the social sphere.

The poet expresses a desire for the intangible, the untouchable, to coalesce before his eyes. Yet, there remains a sorrow in his field of vision. There are no more boundaries that separate us into kinds. A world of absolute justice has arrived. The contemporary Dalit experience, exemplified by the persistent denial of social justice and stratagems of anti-reservation politics, finds its anchor in these lines.

Borrowing its title from Ezra Pound’s Canto XLV, the poem No Clear Demarcation weaves a tapestry of thought, intertwining Pound’s denunciations of an unnatural economic order indifferent to production with contemporary Indian reality. In this juxtaposition, we briefly glimpse at the unification of the working class. Yet it mirrors the paradoxes of Pound’s intellectual trajectory, when he rejected capitalism, only to embrace fascism – a contradiction that seems to echo through the intricacies of Dalit existence, far removed from the abyss of ‘untouchability’ yet fraught with desolation.

While Einstein eloquently described a world where all physical aspects were relative, his definition of the speed of light as an absolute, unchanging, and non-relative value paradoxically aligns with established norms and conventions. Many apparent groundbreaking shifts and dramatic upheavals in theory, upon close examination, tend towards becoming nothing more than ordering principles in practical life.

In a/nil’s poetry, scientific concepts are transformed into metaphors. Terms like “manifolds”, “redshift”, “adiabatic”, “refraction”, and “holography” stand out. In the poem titled Declaration of Independence, we see the reality of a Dalit’s life scrutinised from the perspective of scientific theories. Is the universe still expanding? Are the galaxies moving away? Meanwhile, Dalit life contracts relentlessly, like a star collapsing into itself, into singularity – a profound analogy for the inexorable compression of their existence. Dalits declare their distinctiveness, an unwavering resolve to stand alone, resisting attempts to “sterilise” them, much like a star that undergoes profound metamorphosis and becomes a black hole, retaining its singularity amidst the cosmic expanse.

Rooted in skulls and fed on blood … chameleons are creatures that await their fate among debris and waste bottles. All that the poet says through the metaphors of skulls and chameleons is made denser with allusions to the films of Eisenstein and Tarkovsky. The mention of October reminds us of the Russian Revolution. The image of “the October sky” of Soviet initiative looms over us, never to be recaptured, never to be repeated. It readily takes you to Al Stewart’s song ‘Roads to Moscow’:

And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I’ll be home again and the morning answers ‘Never’
And the evening sighs, and the steely Russian skies go on forever.

One of the poems about poetry is titled “Imagining October”. Poetry brings only blackness. Amma—Mother, the microcosm of the poet’s songs, what makes art possible—is crushed under the weight of multiple gravitational pulls. This reality is not one accepted readily. And yet it remains invisible, as if natural. It cannot call attention to itself because it is made to seem so mundane:

Words, boughs, spirit, spine
Beneath the severe heaviness
Of multiple gravities.
No éclat for the real act.

Consider the very title of a/nil’s book. Sight and colours are always problematic for him. In the preface (called “Pre Face”, which is also written as a poem), he writes that he was partially blind at an early age. But the impairment in the outer eye led to insight, and inner vision. Contemporary lenses are tinted. Lenses come contracted to colours. The contrast between the one who desires a true vision of colors and one who seeks to be engulfed in the colourlessness and colourfulness of the world as it appears forms the overall theme of these poems.

It’s my turn, I realize, to be:
Authentic to the unfolding
And I am polishing the lens
Of the scratched glasses
To have clarity for Eye

Clarity is never an accident. (Unplannable Supplement)

And so the poet gains courage and awareness. These lines remind us of Spinoza, a philosopher who was also a lens-grinder, and whose epistemological project was concerned with the self and the universe. Borges described him thus: He works a hard crystal: the Infinite.

The uncertainties

For a/nil, an a/varna who in modern terms is a Dalit, the absence of colours (varna) in the poem has socio-political dimensions. At times it is recognised as:

I still write poetry
And nothing happens; customary glance.
Where is that leonine poise?

“We move/ Like habiru/ Or do we?” A perpetual spectre of self-doubt looms over the poet. The questions that lie in the laments of nomads and outcasts resound in this poem. Uncertainties, steadily accumulating, are palpable.

In The Unnameable, the poet’s melancholy takes on a unique and distinctive quality. It transcends the typical discomfort with words that many poets experience. A/nil sympathises with the Dalit-ness of the unnameable. The Habiru’s folkways are also attributed as unnameable. (The Habiru, pre-dating the word Hebrew, finds reference in second-millennium BCE texts as people described as rebels, outlaws, raiders, mercenaries, bowmen, servants, slaves, and labourers.) To know each other, to be known, to attain identity, is to have a name. The nameless, wandering in search of the wholeness of black (“black-wholic”), having been denied a name, in the trance of metaphors, becoming homeless, nomadic … finally “retreat into self annihilation beyond verse”.

It is in these uncertainties that forms of knowledge like science, philosophy, and history enter a/nil’s poetry. In the light of such epistemes, his poetry shines brightly. However, nothing is taken for granted or accepted as a given. All these appearances are corrected and reconstructed under the pressure of the Dalit experience. History is corrected to herstory. Philosophy becomes philosuffering. Fetters accompany profit.

The mad demise of dirty boy
Retains its clarity, the glass
Mirroring the mirror which
Mirrors the clarity of history (Unplannable Supplement)

‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.’
Herstory, the correcting fluid, the white solution against the nightmarish. (“Pre face”)

the philosuffer
the profetter (Eithor)

The title Eithor tells us of the poet’s interest in ether, an abandoned scientific concept, and in the British polymath Thomas Young’s double-slit experiments that were instrumental in establishing the particle-wave duality of light. This made uncertain (either/or) the precise nature of that which passed through the hole. Contemporary reality draws these words out of a/nil:

The earth is supremely indifferent to the human race that breathes burden into earth
With insubstantial plastics which will not leave her till she dies
Let the plastic eat us, sculpting our flesh and blood
We shall all be plastic and insubstantial; we will melt in the fire and be

The language

A/nil writes lines reminiscent of Paul Celan. The latter once visited the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, given their shared interest in language and poetry. A/nil’s staging of this meeting forces us to think about the contradictions in their lives. Heidegger was a member of Hitler’s Nazi party, and Celan was a Jew who worked in Nazi labour camps and escaped murder (his father died of disease and his mother was shot by soldiers in a concentration camp). They were interested in each other’s work.

Some see their meeting as a milestone in 20th-century intellectual history. (James K. Lyon, the author of Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951–1970, opens his book suggesting as much.) The poet must have expected a word of apology or remorse from the philosopher about the Nazi era and his involvement in it. As an epigraph to the poem, a/nil quotes Celan: “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.” During the meeting, the philosopher who had much to say about language remained silent about the holocaust. A/nil’s poem evokes the weight of Celan’s dismay after that meeting.

In search of a dialogue
I talked to you over and over
In desperation, in delirious fever
You gave me no answers
You were a shadow outside language
Homeless within language, nothing

The poet sees a recurring paradox in Heidegger’s intellectual life. Years ago, I read an article by a/nil in his now-defunct blog that every nature lover is a potential Nazi. He argued that dreams of a pristine natural society opposed to the brutal rule of capitalism were fundamental to fascist ideology. This may very well apply to Heidegger. Referring to Kasparov’s book Life Imitates Chess, a/nil wrote that to counter the enemy one must apply their own methods and technologies of aggression against them.

In the same blog post, he wrote that the left-wing in India does not have any radical progressive programmes: “As Hegel has taught us: the radical conservative and the radical revolutionary have something in common. The tragedy is that in India we neither have a radical believer nor a radical revolutionary. We have only the liberal left and the liberal right. And they are the same lot. Like a bourgeoisie broker in the stock market, both Prakash Karat [of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)] and Mar Andrews Thazhath [the archbishop of Thrissur in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church] engage in profitable calculations in the globalised market!” In another blog post, Anil said: “ … it is impossible to criticise the Indian left because every radical questioning had already been incorporated into the leftist frame.”

All utopias, old and new, have now grown distant. Money has become God. But what of the desires whose value cannot be measured? The poet considers Ambedkar’s determination to embrace Buddhism using the metaphor of August Kekulé’s dream. It was a dream that inspired the scientist Kekulé to discover the ring-like structure of benzene: a snake biting its own tail. There are interpreters of dreams who maintain that Kekulé’s dream indicates fidelity in relationships. There are those who believe that dreamers open themselves up and are inspired by new experiences and ideas. It is an unconscious vision of renewal, transformation, a new life. In dreams one can unlock potentialities, and conceptualise destinations. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism possessed a unique dream and hope.

The Buddha and his dhamma
And Ambedkar is well in Kekulé’s dream

As we read these poems, we encounter an author seeking acquaintance with Ambedkar and hoping to bear the burden of his ideas himself. Not only are Ambedkar and Ambedkar’s politics the soul of these poems, a/nil goes one step further and writes with an intense conviction about his own politics. Elsewhere, he has expressed his affinity for Žižek. “ … he [Žižek] maintains that Ambedkar was far more radical than Gandhi and that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler; he says one can learn more about India not from its monuments that are displayed for the tourist’s gaze but from the Dalits who clean the shit that tourists deposit in the toilet.”

Several words recur in a/nil’s poems. I will highlight three of them: crystal, menstruation, and sacrifice. Why is the poet drawn to these words? Why are they important? “Transparency” – perhaps the poet believes that being clear as crystal ought to be the bedrock of democracy and of all relationships. “Menstruation” could signify the changes of the seasons, carries the hope of an approaching spring. A/nil also wants this word to invoke the opposite sense of melancholy and despair. The word “sacrifice” appears in these poems as the consciousness that abandons idealism and absolute values for the welfare of the world. The exchange sacrifice in chess, which the poet portrays as the most desirable form of sacrifice, upturns the commonsensical connotations surrounding the signifier. A/nil’s poetry sets in motion a great process, whereby words are constantly renewed and led to new meanings and values.

The life of words in these poems is not satisfied or fulfilled in poetry alone. They open themselves up to philosophy, science, the arts, and other human discourses. Deleuze’s visions that science, philosophy, and literature can share spaces and spill into each other are realised in a/nil’s poetry. It has a density of meaning and instruction that makes the reader want to immerse themselves in the worlds that a/nil’s words conjure. Readers will realise that as they read The Absent Color, a/nil disappears. He is no longer the poet or the critic or the interpreter or even the writer. The words speak for themselves and the poem declares itself.

V. Vijayakumar is a retired associate professor of Physics at Government Victoria College, Palakkad, Kerala. He writes on literature, cinema, culture, and science. His notable works include Shastravum Tatvachintayum (Science and Philosophy), Quantum Bhautikattile Darshanika Prashnangal (The Philosophical Issues in Quantum Physics), Uttaradhunika Shastram (The Postmodern Science), and Kathayillattatu (The Nonsensical). He is a recipient of the G.N. Pillai Award (2020) from the Kerala Sahitya Academy, the N.V. Krishna Warrier Memorial Award (2007) from the Kerala Bhasha Institute, and the Best Film Critic Award (2013) from the Government of Kerala.

The Absent Color was launched in New Delhi at the India International Centre (Annexe), on November 5, 2023.