Bashabi Fraser (poems) and Hermann Rodrigues (photographs)
(Luath Press, 2012); pbk, £9.99
There are some startling and beautiful images from the much-exhibited photographer Hermann Rodrigues in Rags and Reels. Visual and Poetic Stories of Migration and Diaspora, his collaboration with poet Bashabi Fraser. There’s an elderly Sikh, bearded and turbaned in a bright blue tartan jacket, holding his ceremonial scabbard. A sitar player poses in her sari on an ornate rug spread on a tussocked rise on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, the wind in her hair. Two colourfully-clad young Pakistani women are framed by an entryway to Hopetoun House. Children kneel and explore inside the Hindu Temple in Leith, with its posters of Krishna and Ganesh, and its gold trappings. There is an Asian shopkeeper, a Stornoway doctor getting married, kids at weddings, couples who’ve been settled in Scotland for several decades, proud parents at graduations, variousprofessional people, monks, priests, politicians, golfers, restaurateurs. If you want a sampling of just how multicultural Scotland has become, look no further than the photographs in this book, which record and celebrate all sorts of Asian-Scots hybridity, in the persons and histories of the New Scots here documented. Facing these images in a sequence of poems by Bashabi Fraser.
One touching image and poem pairing appears on pages 30 and 31, where the poem is titled “A Mirror Image Through Time”. Two separate photographs have been spliced: one taken at the outset of a marriage when the bride and groom were very young, the other a more recent shot, with the same partners in late middle age. The pose is the same in both pictures. The figures are, of course, fuller. The bride’s older expression has lost its earlier neutrality and now seems satisfied and humorous. The groom’s expression retains its original good natured smile. What interests and amuses Fraser in her accompanying poem, is how “Western masculinity still prevails, / Only more pronounced now in the tartan shirt / And the tweed cap, while the woman / Retains the pride of tradition” with “her intricate / Embroidery draping her eastern confidence”. The point of interest here is the balance of individual assimilations to the host culture’s dress codes. The wife has made no concessions at all and has kept her customary dress. Her husband, by contrast, could pass for a local Scotsman, were it not for his colour and features. This fascinating mix of conservative cultural retention and sartorial accommodation occurs within one marriage of long standing; what we encounter here is “a continuity that only history / Will understand in its persistent repetition.”
Dress is one meeting point of east and west, food another. On pages 72 and 73, we come across a beaming chef. In his left hand he holds a packaged haggis, and in his right, its ingredients on a large dinnerplate. The comic poem, “Suruchi for Guid Taste”, is subtitled “A menu ye cannae beat“, and presented in Lothian Scots. In this restaurant, we “find the brawest o’ the East / In a by-ordiner feast”, “Salmon tikka grillit wi spice”, “Sonsie dauds o’ jalfrezie chicken / Dentie herbs on sappie on praans” – all this, “In a menu that stan’s oot / For being cannie and quirkie.”
This isn’t a bad description of the book itself – canny and quirky. The poems are affectionate, wise and judicious. They have a way of drawing a reader in, to a shared world in which difference is a source of pleasure and reflection. Neither the pictures nor the poems are mere illustrations one of the other. They get along on equal terms, as do the varied cultures they celebrate.