“Saffron Jack” by Rishi Dastidar


Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 short story “The Man Who Would Be King” (well-known thanks to the Sean Connery film by the same name) is about two English ex-army ruffians who want to become kings; they do indeed come to rule a kingdom in Afghanistan. Eventually, the two die when their “subjects” turn against them. Rishi Dastidar uses this colonizer’s desire and ambition to be king as material for his Saffron Jack. The resulting long poem is the story of a British citizen who is told he does not belong in Great Britain, and decides to have a nation of his own to rule over.

The poem, written in the style of legal documents, is inspired by Monica de la Torre’s “How to Look at Mexican Highways”. While de la Torre’s poem is about turning the process of observing the highways into a systematic one, Dastidar’s story adapts the form to make it sound (unfittingly, ridiculously) legal, a requirement in order to be called a country. An anthem, for instance:


126.2.1. A little tune to let everyone know you’re coming.
126.2.2. It can’t just be some souse-band marching-time throw-off – it has to work as ringtone too. Be triumphant even when it sounds tiny. And addictive. Which means repetitive. You take a tip from the advertising world.


Saffron Jack, Rishi Dastidar (Nine Arches Press, March 2020)
Saffron Jack, Rishi Dastidar (Nine Arches Press, March 2020)

This poetic-legalese project—both the book and the idea of founding a country—emerges from the nature of being diasporic: one wants a separate country because there is no country that can accommodate him. Even the talk of assimilation begins to sound hollow: assimilation is merely a politically-correct phrase marking certain groups to belong to the mainstream, or it is nothing. It does not matter that Dastidar’s king has a British passport; he has always been asked where he is from thanks to the colour of his skin:


138. You loved your time under the Union Jack.
   138.1. Most of your time under that flag.
      138.1.1. That passport. That nationality.
   138.2. You never got the sense it loved you back
      138.2.1. in quite the same way.


The furious desire to found a country of one’s own comes from being called a “paki” again and again. What adds insult to the injury is that the questioner or the attacker is only slapped with a fine of 150 pounds that doesn’t get paid anyway:


144.2. and why can’t you do this without being called names, and you were hit actually, and the people, the judicial people, go out and have a bit of a think, and whatever it is they do, come back and decide that the assault, your black eyes, your fear, are only worth a fine of £150.
   144.2.1. Which doesn’t even get fucking paid anyway


The poem is full of irony and bitterness well-suited to this project of reverse appropriation: he has put the story where it really belongs, that is, the diaspora situation. Becoming kings is no longer about a colonizer’s ambition; it is about wondering where one belongs:


177. We’re all from somewhere else.
   177.1. Some people just hide it better than others.


The British (among other Western European powers) could walk into a land and begin ruling it: that is how the hunger for acquiring colonies in Asia and Africa materialized and split the world into lands of the colonizer (nations) and the colonized (nations). Dastidar turns this 19th century hunger, fantasy and possibility into a 21st century necessity, acknowledging all that has come of all the aggressive nationalist phase of global history:


166.2.1. Every country is imaginary. Collective fallacies in a sea of flags.


There is nothing unusual about diaspora narratives talking about the processes and challenges of assimilation in their authors’ “hostlands” (a term which reinforces the idea that they would always be outsiders in the nations they now live in). What is unusual about this poem is the act of rewriting a colonizer’s text to reveal that it really belongs in a postcolonial, diasporic situation. Kipling must be turning in his grave.

Saffron Jack is an interestingly bitter experiment in what to make of identity when it is made to walk the narrow path between notions of national and racial purity.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.