Author: SamyuktaPoetry Page 1 of 5

I Will Not Bear You Sons

Usha Akella

Spinifex Press, 2021

Reading Usha Akella’s I Will Not Bear you Sons is like walking into the middle of a conversation. A conversation that seems to have been going on for a while, and yet is also one that seems to be waiting for you join so it could finally begin. One of the main reasons for this could be the thematic focus of the book, which is to articulate the feminist concerns with space, cultural legacies, patriarchies, religion, political redactions and the very complicated histories that women share amongst themselves.

I Will… is a collection of poems that has a rather urgent, demanding tone. It does not narrate daisies or lilies nor does it have the wistful fragrance of lost loves. The staccato tone that most of the poems engage with are in keeping with the emergent voices of the women who are speaking around the globe. Akella hacks through the undergrowth of patriarchal white noise with a machete, trying to find the roots that connect women all over the globe.

The book is divided into two sections, I and We. The first section brings intensely personal poems that mark the poet’s journey of self-discovery and the battles encountered in the process of un-learning one’s legacy and culture. The poem from which the book gets its title, is in this section and is remarkable in its execution. The resolute tone of the title carries within it the generational memories of hurt, erasure and an awareness of the obliteration of non-male identities.

        So, let us speak of hands—women’s hands, generations of hands,
        hands that wash pots with tamarind and mud and feed
        drunkards of husbands, hands that pen poetry and fire the guns,
        hands that write, harvest paddy with the rising sun,
        hands that answer phones and stave off
        rapists’ hands of soldiers from both sides of the border,

                                                                  (I Will Not Bear You Sons, 19)

Akella uses personification to great effect and her metaphors ring true and breathe fire. There is a force with which her verse arrives that conveys the immediacy of her intentions. However, there might be the lingering feeling that the poems could have occasionally employed a little more subtlety. This line of thought poses an ethical dilemma on account of the rawness of Akella’s verse. The age-old debate of beauty and its nuanced treatment versus the diamond-edged hardness of narrating reality with warts and all raises its head with this collection. But these doubts are dispelled soon enough when one meets the personae who occupy Akella’s poems. The violence- physical, social, cultural, economic and racial absorbed by these bodies cry out for narratives that are organic, stripped of ornamentation and densely populated. There are lines that force one to stop and revisit them due to the brilliance with which they weave the premise and have the reader fall into the web of the verse Akella has spun. Take for example Harmony which speaks of a man being served dinner by his dutiful wife, as though a God is being given offerings. She is aware of his every need, when the sambar must be served without vegetables, with vegetables, or with just one preferred vegetable. The husband remains quiet, without a word of appreciation lest she become too proud of herself and fail in her subsequent duties. He thus, remains silent for her sake. The orchestra of this mimed performance goes on while the poet remarks,

And I watched exiled from this
soundless solemnity for a decade,
wondering why I could not see the beauty of it. (26)

And in Porcupine where she quotes a line from Kamala Das, she says,

I digest nothing           I roam black tunnels at night,

I am a dart board             unskinned animal salted,

                        dervish-vertigo prays often in my head.

                                                                                    (35)

The metamorphosis that women’s bodies undergo, the turns and twists of the female or female identifying mind are all laid out in graphic detail.

The second half of the collection titled We draws upon the intersections that connect women across time, the globe, culture and history. The many dimensions of life that Akella dedicates to women ranging from Meera Bai, Anne Boleyn, Draupadi to Sylvia Plath, Meena Kandasamy, to women in paintings, the goddess Katyayini, to Akella’s grandmother, mother, daughter and the women who remain unnamed, or who are named Astur, speak of violence, longing, love, cuisines, struggles to reclaim bodies and identities. The addresses to these women are deliberate acts of creating art through the very process of naming, an imbrication of the image in the mind.

There is a sense of grandeur in the poems of Akella as they travel comet-like across the various realms, illuminating realities and faces of women who have been relentless witnesses of the ravages and power narratives of history.

Usha Akella has produced a remarkable volume of work that shows the path for academically informed creative literature. Experimental in nature, militantly vocal, furiously urgent, I Will Not Bear You Sons is a collection that is intensely personal and deeply political. The footnotes point to the commitment of the poet towards her craft as she assiduously names her sources and makes the readers aware of the sheer diversity of lives she has connected with.

Akella must be commended for her intellectual integrity as she carefully documents the articles and journals she has read, marking a refreshing fusion of the academic and the creative.

I Will Not Bear You Sons is a resolution, a promise that women make. A promise to bring forth into the world, people who are unafraid to be alive, people who are not bound by the chains of ossified thoughts and who seek to heal the injuries perpetrated by ignorance, superstition and power politics.

I burst into petals of the sun,

                            I throw comet from mine

                        navel, I am sprouting auburn blossoms

                                                            I burn the day. I am hell,

                               I am your air

                                                            Centuries, breathe if you can.

                                                                                           (Recant at St Maxim, 120)

Sonya J. Nair
Editor

Aaliya Mushtaq Baba

Aaliya Mushtaq Baba

After a very, very long time, I decided to set out on a journey. Last month. I have been in the habit of going on long drives these few months, but that is always with someone. Those are journeys I might evoke on another day. Today is about the sort of journeys I rarely make.

I had no idea where exactly I was headed towards, how long it would take and if my route map was even right. All I knew was that I was setting off. A friend of mine was staying at a place of healing that was nearly 70 kms away. And this visit was to spend the day with her. I checked the map on my phone and set off just when the crisp morning air was beginning to warm at the edges. The sun was just right and the roads were reasonably empty- the world had not yet made up its mind about what to do for the day. It seemed that for a few kilometres at least, I was on my own.

Highways are strange places. The architecture of a highway as well as those of its peripherals-such as shops and roadside eateries always seems to encourage you to drive on. There are invariably a number of workshops offering you tyre changes, car showrooms – in case you decide to change your car midway, tender coconut stalls for a quick pit stop, eateries that serve real good food at blink speed, set up such that you eat in your car, watching others go by in a manic gust of speed, supermarkets that facilitate a quick getaway once you have bought those obligatory water bottles, chips, chocolates- and magazines for the co-passengers. Everything suggests movement. The hoardings along the highways advertising wedding sarees, jewelry, cars, hotels, resorts ask you to keep moving- to get to another life- one that involves tangibility of a different sort.

I got on to the highway and waited for the directions. The Voice said, “now drive straight for 45 kilometres.” And I loved it. In these highly volatile times, where everything is such an effort, the simplicity of the directions and the matter-of-fact way that it was handed to me was pure joy. And so, I drove. And drove up hills and drove down the hills, passed places of historical and tourist interest, including Jatayu Para- the Jatayu rock- the place where, the bird, Jatayu tried to stop Ravana from abducting Sita and died valiantly. Jatayu first reasons with Ravana and asks him to consider the gravity of his actions. When that fails, he is said to have attacked Ravana’s chariot, killed his charioteer and mules. Ravana in retaliation cuts off Jayatu’s wings and leaves him to die on the mountain top. Sita drops her jewelry on Jatayu in the hope that Ram would find them.

Ram does find Jatayu, hanging on to the vestiges of his life, so he could tell Ram about Sita and also to point him to the army he would need to enlist help from. Thus, Jatayu forms an important part of the narrative pivot of the Ramayana. Atop the mountain at Chadayamangalam, is a 200 feet long, 150 feet wide sculpture of Jatayu, fallen on his back, wings slashed, claws clenched. And beneath the sculpture is a multi-dimensional theatre system and other recreational activities.

I suppose, this is why I have never felt the inclination to visit the place.

Driving on, I came across a number of sprawling nurseries that announced plants ranging from orchids to chrysanthemums and poppies. I made a mental note of poppies. They are addictively pretty is what I heard! The solitary highway flowed into the molten noise of a big town that threw its chaos in four directions at a traffic intersection. The map calmly told me to turn left and then I came upon another junction, where there was a fruit stall that hung on its façade, enormous ropes of apples. The ropes made of apples were at least four feet long two feet thick and I wondered who would buy so many apples. And if the shopkeeper would have the heart to decimate his work of art. ‘Apple Junction’ led me to quieter roads, where one would come upon yellow and violet flowers caught in a surreptitious embrace- in that sea of green, this riot of colours was an interlude. My car was not a machine, it was a travelling eye.

The undulations gave way to a short stretch of flat lands where, situated right in the middle of a vast plot of land was a temple. There were no boards announcing the deity, nothing really to suggest the existence of a temple except the architecture. And a tree from which red pennants fluttered. Every branch, including the topmost one had red strips of cloth tied to them. In many temples, these are tied for wish fulfilment. Sometimes, these pieces of cloth are offerings to the Naga Raja and the Naga Yakshi Amma – serpent deities. After the rituals, the cloth must either be burnt or be left to the elements. Tying it to a tree is the best method of letting the cloth disintegrate as the cloth does not get polluted through contact with the garbage on the ground. There it was, a tree full of vermilion prayers trailing in the wind. I drove on.

I finally reached. And spent a very pleasant, memorable day, drove my friend up the wall with philosophical questions and in the evening, turned homewards. The journey back was rather crowded- the traffic, the people, on coming vehicles, I sought the tree- it looked magnificent in the light of the setting sun. The murmurs of the fabric of prayers falling slowly silent.

It suddenly occurred to me that I should get down and visit the temple- closed though it be due to the pandemic. But the anxiety of trying to make it home by nightfall made me drive on. I drove past the junction with its apple ropes, past irate vehicles angrily belching smoke in the effort to get home, and onto that straight stretch to get me home. All the while I was thinking about my decision of not getting down at the temple. Of not taking a risk. Of playing it safe. I wondered if it summed up the way I lived my life. If I had ever been young and foolish. I looked at the road I was driving on and realised that the edges and the lines marking the lanes were not in straight lines as they usually are. They were zigzag! Jagged lines along the national highway…on the path that I was supposed to drive straight for 45 kilometres! Perhaps, here was the Universe telling me, the crazy sits perfectly snug in the seemingly sane. That sometimes, being young doesn’t mean one is foolish and that one doesn’t have to be young if one wants to be foolish. Grinning to myself, I stopped at the nursery selling poppy saplings. They told me very somberly that they had stopped selling them years ago. It was just too expensive to change the board is why they let it remain there. I walked by the beds of plants, ponds of lotuses, huge tubs of roses and asked for a white hibiscus. They said they had hibiscus saplings, but didn’t know if they were white till they bloomed. I then drove on and stopped at three more places and they too told me the same thing. In that entire stretch, not a single white hibiscus had revealed itself to nursery owners!

By then the road markers had gone on to being straight and dusk had fallen. But I was happy. The world I had seen when the morning was a blush on the horizon, I was now looking at in the shadows cast by the moon, and it all seemed so different. If the morning belonged to sight, the evening belonged to instinct. When I read Aaliya Baba’s poems, this was the feeling I got. That she occupies the worlds of sights and instincts. That the land she comes from, its histories, its geopolitics has shaped the way she thinks, dreams, celebrates and travels. The land and the destiny it seems to be writing for itself permeates her identity and colours the world in the hues of violence and resistance. She writes,

The sacrificial Eid is yet months away
Yet Ishmael is dangled on the cross
The angels keep
their censored silences
and pour them into our hearts.

It isn’t even Muharram
But sisters wrap mourning
over their torn cloaks, and wipe off
sweat from the cold bullets
settled in the brows of their brothers.

Yesternight the guilty moon
wouldn’t show up.
All night it asked of me:
What joy could I shine upon
On all those slaughtered Eids?
I supplied no answers
the dread in my eyes furnished them.

(Eid ul Fitr in Kashmir)
Baba interrogates the self by pinning it against the ravaged land and the promise of what could have been. There is no bitterness, instead, an anger flows through that does watch for the elusive glimmer of hope. Her voice rings with a certain fearlessness as she hacks her way through uncomfortable truths. There is immense strength in her words and her themes encompass a wide variety of subjects such as the conversations around writing, the semantics of resistance that inform her writing and the ways that the discourses of the mind shape that of the body.

We live only one season
In the life of a tree.
It lives our lifetime
In just one cycle of seasons.

(Man and Trees)
These lines made me reflect on the tree I left behind and of the bird sculpted atop the hill. I thought of the ways the non-humans carry our baggage, our anxieties and seem to exist to enable us to carry out our tasks of revenge, lust, greed, salvation. The anthropomorphic in us just doesn’t seek permission. It slathers significations, attributes love, enforces loyalties and createsexpectations. Nature, however, tries to survive. We will never know if within all these tales there is Jatayu’s untold tale of revenge- a revenge he was willing to die for. One that he passed on the baton to an ideal king and sent him on his way to commit another heinous crime- no less in
magnitude to the kidnapping of Sita. The murder of Bali. And thus, set in motion a chain of events whose cataclysmic effects were felt for several births and generations thence. Karma is merely a synonym for chain reaction. It’s a way of telling us that nothing in this world goes by
without making its presence felt. That a tree standing in an open field in Kerala can come back through the verses of Aaliya Baba who lives in Kashmir. That one doesn’t have to visit a bird who is for posterity, etched in pain on top of a hill down which people can rappel or take cable
cars from. The bird flies down and looks over your shoulder as you read verses of sacrifice, lament and bravery.

Elsewhere, a tree looks to loosen promises tied into blood knots.

JOURNEY
I stitch my small dreams
like wounds that
never bled…
I am a bundle of
deep memories that
stick to my soul like magnet…
A little me
smiling in the distant fairly tale
wondering, how I came this far…
Life is a rulebook
following its own verdict

reluctant me, turning with the pages!

POETRY IS WAR
And when my despair will grow violent
It might explode in symbols
Or diffused metaphors
I shall do no speaking!
One shouldn’t when obsessed
With blood!
I shall pose for pictures
Near the autographed pieces
Of my bleeding heart
Enrolled in shimmering shroud,
Some scented foreign ink.

If war means this,
I fight it everyday!

MY VOICE
Leave to me what is left of my solitude…
Few pieces of peace are still here!

The spill over of pain
shall be carefully poured out into unpreserved words…

The bravest for me was to embrace myself…
I hid under your shadow, not knowing the journey stopped in the darkness…

Me, the shadow and the night look one here at this place
I shall regain voice to tell them apart!

For now
Leave to me what is left of me!

WRITING
I must paste silence…
spread it evenly across corners
of all pagesthat have metaphors engraved by me.

Images like loud horns, screaming unawares
grabbing one in the desperate frenzied moments
that had crashed and violated
the stillness of my mind.

I must paint white over the black-on-the-white,
to make it all look peaceful and serene
And leave no record
of tears or blood or the heartache…

A soul that knows forgiveness
mustn’t commit violence
against silent pages
And cage them into perpetual agony!

MOON

they plucked one moon from the dark
and hung it over my roof top
calling it a festival,
tinkling human voices grew louder
greeting me on this wind chime of a moon

I rose still to usual pale sun
until noon kept working on the red clots in my memory
with a homeless chap’s desperation
to appropriate my smile
to the pictured portrait of the last night’s moon.

Born And raised in Srinagar Kashmir, Aaliya Mushtaq Baba is pursuing her PhD from University of Kashmir on the politics and philosophy of Autobiography. Her poems have appeared in journals like Miraas, Sheeraza, Kashmir Lit, English Studies in India and Setu (Pittsburgh, USA). Recently, her poem “Equality” was published in the anthology The Kali Project: Invoking the Goddess Within/ Indian Women’s Voices.

Sing of Life

Priya Sarukkai Chabria.

156pp, ₹499, Context (Westland), 2021

sing-of-life

Since its publication in 1913 and the subsequent award of the Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali (1913) has remained alive and relevant in the collective consciousness of Indians as a text that, apart from defining Gurudev, as Tagore is popularly known, symbolized the validation of the cultural and intellectual wealth of the subcontinent.  In the West, Gitanjali, captured the attention of W.B Yeats, Thomas Sturge Moore and William Rothenstein, among others, creating an aura around Tagore, the glow of which refuses to fade to this day.

The resultant dominant image of the mystic-philosopher that surrounds Tagore often obscures the lasting concerns he had about Nation, nationalism, Art and the role of the Artist. The soul search that is the hallmark of the artist and the quest for an elusive beauty that appears only through art has been a pivotal point in informing Tagore’s enunciation of the Divine. It is this quest that poet and novelist Priya Sarukkai Chabria joins as she attempts a revision of the Gitanjali.

Sing of Life is many things at once. It is a tribute. To the great and wonderous vision of the Gurudev which revels in the exquisiteness of the Cosmos. It is a reimagining of Gurudev as one who sings in rapture like the Baul singers or the Bhakti poets who saw the Eternal-as-Beloved and outside of the confines of gendered semantics. Sing of Life is an act of love, one that sees and celebrates the best of this Beloved. It is an act of veneration, one that stems from Chabria’s own spiritual philosophy. As with her landmark work on Andal, the eighth century Bhakti poet, here too, Chabria commits her heart and soul to this revisioning.

At the very outset, the book lays out its purpose in a wonderfully readable and erudite introduction by Chabria herself, wherein she speaks of the very personal process that helped articulate the poems. Reading the account gives one the idea of the intricate and organic methods that the best translations benefit from. That Chabria reveals her process through examples from the book points to a selfless desire to help others commit to this process and perhaps take this work further. This is commendable and I must say, in keeping with the spirit of Gitanjali that sees knowledge as free and unfettered.

Chabria too has 103 poems in her book, just like the original. What she does with them is entirely another matter. She has read into the soul of these poems and distilled their essence. Where Tagore translated Gitanjali into English as a series of prose poems, Chabria brings us verses from those very lines. She does not, she says, “alter his word order, nor interpolate…I will stay with the present tense to honour the work’s energy. I stay with the thrall.”

There is a sense of urgency and immediacy that informs Sing of Life, one that can only come from an intuitive knowledge. And this intuitiveness is what informs the purity of purpose of this book. Chabria employs juxtapositions, connectives, singularities to Tagore’s lines and presents lines of rare luminosity. She writes Tagore in the language of the present day. The book is a palimpsest – layers upon layers of meanings that come through the process of repositioning the words to form a new pattern of ideas. It is a symphony being performed by two people across Time.

For me, what sets this book apart is the freedom it embodies. The interiority of the journey undertaken together by Tagore and Chabria makes the work one that espouses spiritual liberty. It is a full-throated song of a bird at dawn, the gurgle of a river that refuses to obey. And like John Donne, even when she is done, Chabria is not done. Beneath every poem that she has translated from Tagore, are her own readings – austere in their composition, seismic in their impact.

One cannot help but admire the monumental work that has gone into the book in terms of chiseling away at the songs, particularly ones as lengthy as songs 41, 48, 51, 52, 60 and leaving behind a structure through which light enters, forming interesting patterns. These patterns become very visible on the page through the white spaces that Chabria leaves between words and lines. These line breaks do not indicate rupture. Rather, they are pauses for the readers to contemplate and respond. These are meditative spaces, in which everyone is a poet, everyone bathes in the benign light that wafts in. Chabria foregrounds the elemental aspects of Tagore’s work – rain, sunlight, air, dust, darkness – all find a home in these pages.

It is a cathartic experience to read Sing of Life on account of the unbridled, molten passion and devotion that stand revealed. The book also contains the text of the Gitanjali and when each reading is placed beneath Chabria’s work, it creates a stunning overlay – a route map to the very core of being. The words that she saw, chose, was inspired by, listened to – the patience and dedication of making those choices – fills one with a sense of wonder and humility. She sheds the weight of the Thee and Thou and chooses a more intimate You, bringing the Divine closer as in the Bhakti tradition.

For when

Ever in my life have I sought thee with my songs. It was they

who led me from door to door, and with them have I felt about

me, searching and touching my world….       (excerpt from song 101)

becomes

I have sought you

With my songs     With them….

one has to sit back and catch one’s breath at the economy of words, the expansiveness of imagination and the sonic effect of the pause. And then as a bolt of lightning, at the end, separated by the tiniest of marks, comes what Chabria found “floating”- another facet to the gem.

with

            my songs

                        i feel about

                                       searching, touching

                                                                                    guide

                                                     me to

                                                                        the mysteries

Sing of Life is a book that treats its pages as a sanctuary, as places of peace. In a way, it is an epigrammatic expression of the life and message of Gurudev. Chabria comments that while working on the book, she started with Tagore and ended with Gurudev. The same might be the case for readers as well. I love the way Chabria reads the celebrated introduction to Gitanjali by Yeats,passing it through the same process as the poems- indicating consistency, but also being delightfully cheeky! The book is tastefully designed and the attention to detail in the cover design and inner pages heightens the sense of aesthetic awareness.

 In these days of self and state-imposed incarcerations, when human contact is at a premium, when one needs a sense of connect, Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Sing of Life come to us crossing a century-old ocean, bringing with it the beating heart of a Bhakti poet, the rhythm of his raptures on a page inked in a language that is of the present and yet timeless.

Sonya J. Nair

Rosemary

There is a film in Malayalam called Panchagni (Five Fires), scripted by M.T Vasudevan Nair anddirected by Hariharan. Released in 1986, the film is a nuanced look at the socio-political lives of the afterlife of the revolutionary movement in Kerala. It traversed the everyday performances of violence, desire, anxiety, unemployment, social stigma and entitlement that played out as names, people, places, their identities.These stories became synonymous with the sacrifices that the modern day Keralites claim as their legacy.

The film had as its protagonist, Indira, a young woman who is serving a life term for executing a landowner who raped and murdered a tribal woman. While she is out on parole, a journalist takes an interest in her and seeks to secure her release. There is Sharada, Indira’s friend and Savithri, Indira’s sister- female characters, married, with homes and husbands- women who are subconscious nudges to the audience showing an alternate universe that Indira could have occupied had she not set out to avenge the gruesome incident. The journalist manages to secure a pardon for Indira and she is overjoyed. She can see her whole life playing out before her, a family that has gradually begun to accept her, a life of marital bliss with the journalist- there is even happy music in the background. She runs to the residence of Sharada to give her the news and finds that Sharada’s husband and friends have assaulted the young servant girl. Frozen with shock, she sits by the girl.

The husband looks at Indira and smirks. It is a smirk that reeks of entitlement, a certain repugnant human insouciance- one that comes from privilege- be it social, economic, political or sexual. She shoots the man and returns to jail.

That smirk, and all that it conveyed- that was my first brush with translation. The multiple meanings that I read into that expression, the meanings that it signified for the protagonist, for life, for the innumerable different possibilities that the day, the incident, the reaction could have taken in the film, have haunted me for decades. Over the years, I have become more acutely aware of the ways that we translate our world around us into bite-sized, relatable, tolerable experiences. How we transmogrify thoughts into sounds, into language, signs, expressions, gestures, food, a pat on the arm, a crinkle on the forehead and how all this is converted into Time- the present, the past, the fast-approaching unseen.

The last three years have witnessed some concerted efforts at promoting translations especially in India. What was once a means of merely cashing in on the popularity of mainstream English fiction by making the same available in Bhasha literature, has now evolved into a practice with serious political, cultural and linguistic purposes. There is a canon of Bhasha literature building up in English, with regional writing from the 1930s, 1970s and even the Sangam era making waves in English in the last three years. The rising political confidence and the factors of shifting demographics, the presence of a more interested readership are also factors that play a vital role in the boom being witnessed today. Apart from these, the common person, the middle-class person is in the middle of a quest. The quest for making sense of the changes they witness in the world around them. These translations help a better shaped picture to emerge about the mind-boggling dynamics of India which often seems to be held together by adhesive tape and willpower. Running a finger through the 2021 JCB Prize shortlist, I was pleasantly surprised to come across a lot of translations and many of them from Malayalam. VJ James’ Anti-Clock is my current forerunner, The Man Who Learnt to Fly but Could Not Land by T.P. Rajeevan is not exactly fiction and has a strong sense of the local that it derives its spine from. And Daribha Lyndem’s Name Place Animal Thing while not a translation, evokes a childhood I left behind. The crucial insight these and other shortlisted and random translated works present in this day and age is into the conscious use of history- political and inherited. This is the sort of fierceness that can bring an anti-clock into existence – one that challenges the Anglo-centric notions of time, of progress, of our readings of directions. What is up is down and down is North? Its all in the perception, isn’t it? There is a comfort that translations bring- that lives and people who exist elsewhere go through the same grind as we do. That Jas from Marieke Rijneveld’s Discomfort of Evening wonders about dusks and the wide world like D from Name Place Animal Thing, like I, and possibly you did at one point of time. That the quivers felt by Mohanaswamy as he lays eyes on a handsome man (in Kannada) are echoed in Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar in English and Sachin Kundalkar’s apprehensive protagonist in Marathi- among others. This is the community that translations can create by introducing one to a world that is so like and so unlike the ones we live in.

October 14 was World Translation Day- a very commendable idea that marks the need to be able to speak and think in the language and experience of someone else. It is also the way to keep languages alive- especially those languages that are being decimated under the march of ‘progress’. This edition of Samyukta Poetry honours a Malayalam poet- Rosemary- a poet who in her native tongue has woven elaborate tapestries of experiences that are transitioning- from the narratives of a reminiscing daughter to that of sheets of rain, from the misted mountains to the singularities of falling in love. It made me think that what is poetry if not a fluid act of translation- one that effortlessly speaks multiple languages at the same time?

Rosemary, born Maria Goretti, is one of the most decorated names of Malayalam poetry. Often considered a natural successor to Kamala Das- a reference that she modestly denies- Rosemary’s poems carry a tinge of melancholia. The winding notes of many of her poems evoke the image of nostalgia that is seeking a home. Home itself is a shapeshifting term for Rosemary. It is sometimes a mountain topped with snow, while sometimes, it could well be within the fragile heart of a bird. Her images are etched out and laid out in elaborate detail.

“The love of an old man

Is like the slanting showerIt

wets the blades of grass

But penetrates not

The thirsty root.

It doesn’t cause

The boughs to tremble

No vibration…

It rustles down –

A quiver

Of arrow-like tears

Unable to penetrate

The caverns of the earth.

(Slanting Showers-translated from the Malayalam by Hema Nair R.)

The translator remarks, “What makes Rosemary’s poems worthy of translation and what makes it interesting to a reader of English poetry is the thread of universality that is apparent in the depiction of the experience of the individual psyche.” (https://rosemarypoetess.wordpress.com/page/2/ )

Columnist, Journalist, Activist, avid gardener, there are many words that describe Rosemary. But for me, she speaks through her poems, the images of black jagged rocks rising from the seashore are the images her works commonly evoke in me. The presence of an all-seeing, non-interfering God is indeed very interesting in the works of Rosemary. Mercy is a derived commodity in her poetry. It may not be present as an overflowing pool but needs to be squeezed like blood from rocks. Her landscapes are unforgiving and the birds wary.

A mediocrity

With all the novelty already gone”

Is love a solid mass

That decreases when shared ?

Is it gold pledged at the pawn shop ?

My love is a spring that comes down from the mountain mist—

A never ending flow !

It is like a lamp that burns for ever

Nothing is lost

How can it go out

When passed to new wicks ?

I don’t believe in a love that is protected

And cared for all the time

Why should I protect and protect my love

Like a fungus-discoloured bronze vessel

Thus making a worthless thing of it ?”

(A Spring from the Misty Mountain- translated from the Malayalam by Sudha Warrier )

Translating Rosemary presents unique challenges, her line breaks, the nuances that are ensconced within her choice of words make the work move with glacial speed. And that is, ironically, the charm of it. One can rethink the lines over and over, but there hardly comes a time when the glide, thrust and parry of English matches the simple, elegant desolation that Rosemary wafts in from Malayalam. It must be the same with all translations. I suppose, in translation, as in life, there is no satisfaction. There is always something more to be done. Something to be added, changed, possibilities to be considered, a smirk deferred?

Sonya J. Nair

Editor

Rose Mary is one of the best-known poets in Malayalam. She has a number of accolades to her name including theSergei Yesenin Award, SBT Poetry Award, Muthukulam Parvathy Amma Award and Lalithambika Antharjanam Best Young Woman Writer Award. Vakkukal Chekkerunnidam, Chanju Peyyunna Mazha, Venalil Oru Puzha, Ivide Inganeyum Oral, Vrishchika Kattu Veesumbol, Nalinakshan Nairkk Snehapoorvam and Marikkunnuvo Malayalam are her major works.

About the Translator:

Dr. Nair’s nuanced and committed translations have seen her becoming the first person from Kerala to be awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Translator Fellowship which was spent at the British Centre for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia, UK. She is currently translating Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour from the French to Malayalam. She can be found at  https://sreedeviknair.net/

House with No Door

Facing the sea,

hewn from granite,

monumental in its desolation,

stands your ancient house.

Its wooden door

etched with memories of the sea.

Day in and day out, the waves pound.

The incessant roar of the sea

            envelops the house.

You, a plundering pirate!

and I, your bondslave,

bound in servitude by the

ropes of your love.

Our dusky chamber

fragrant with khus,

bathed in amber light.

Serpentine bodies, coil and uncoil,

as passion plays the snake charmer’s reed;

Muted hisses.

Sometimes

in the wee hours of

 a lust-filled night,

you jolt awake

on some strange impulse

to wordlessly disappear,

flinging ajar the wooden door.

At times, answering

the call of unknown waters,

you leap into the outstretched arms of the sea,

wrenching free of my embraces,

smashing the wooden door.

Ill-fated voyages….

            Returning vanquished, enraged

you slash the door

with your keen dagger.

Your endless mood swings;

volcanic outbursts,

 lightning arrivals and departures….

half-abandoned kisses….

My poor heart,

forever

 a trembling bird,

quivering on snowy paths.

            The bolts of the door

give way

at your merciless handling;

its ceaseless creaking

on moonless nights

make me sad, depressed.

Rattling like skeletons

on mountain tops,

it falls quietly,

one day.

Ah, the house without doors!

Before me

infinite vastness,

reaching to eternity!

Wind, rain, sand dunes,

tidal waves,

all within the reach

of my hand.

Towards me,

the waves come charging

with infernal growls,

and plunder your treasures.

An ardent wind

coming from the west

gathers me into the eye

of its hurricane love.

my arms turn wings,

and I, like a seagull

 glide weightless over the sea.

When

the conqueror

          of many worlds,

returns triumphant,

          victorious flags

          fluttering bright,

and far flung seas

          under his feet,

          before him

looms

the majestic tower –

forbidding,

eyes aflame,

like a leviathan

from ancient times.

In its inner yards

the scent of the sea;

the furniture

cold, frozen;

long, regal curtains

swaying in the wind.

When you,

frantic, bellowing,

roam the empty rooms

 like a marauding lion,

I, on the wings of the wind,

 soar, whistling!

Moonlight silver

and sunlight amber

lend sparkle to my wings.

My heart turns

wild with ecstasy!

In my soul,

neither this earth

long-suffering,

nor the pirate lover

remains.

Broken heart, deep sighs

sad, gloomy nights,

all memories of

a long-forgotten life!

Between You and Me

Do not

 be afraid of my love;

it asks

nothing of you.

Do not

doubt my friendship;                 

it wishes not

to own you.

Once,

on a dark

bleaknight,

fairies came, and

filled my heart

with love.

I was

in deep slumber,

when they gave

this gift of love.

When I woke up

my heart

was overflowing.

The sad

and the lonely

came, and

snatched it

from me.

The rest I poured

into a chalice.

Beneath

the vast sky,

through

open lands,

along

desolate paths,

I kept wandering;

the chalicein my hand,

spilling over!

Do not

feel guilty

about my love;

I didn’t take it

from someone

to give to you;

Remember

my telling you

of love

going waste?

of the chalice

 overflowing?

This

I want to make clear –

if ever

you come to me,

be not

like a king

visiting his maid.

I do not

want tax-free lands,

or stately provinces.

Do not

come like God

revealing Himself

to a devotee;

I do not

want boons

from your bounty;

Neither

is my heart

an empty void,

to be filled

with your radiance.

Approach

like an emperor

visiting another;

a friend

visiting a friend;

let’s meet

on equal terms!

Like a flute

looking for a raga,

a question

seeking out

its answer,

let it be

spontaneous….

My Poetry

“Where does poetry come from?”

asked the man with spectacles.

Do they drizzle

 from cloudlets

floating in the sky?

In the mysterious green

of dark dense forests,

do they hide?

Is poetry

the bloom of the soil

lush with dreams?

Is it

the tingeof despair

spreading on

failed romance?

I know not, truly!

My poetry –

it springs

from extreme anguish!

Like mushrooms

bursting forth

when thunder roars,

from every blow,

 a poem blooms!

It’s blood

oozing from

my heart’s wounds.

From sorrows

 never shared,

 it breaks forth!

It’s my life;

my poetry –

it’s me!

Gaurav Deka

Isn’t all poetry queer? That is the question that has been running through my mind all these days. Even the most vanilla of poems that talks of some distant fields, full of yellow flowers could be queer. Because, a poem is never just what it presents itself as. It is always something more, a much of a muchness (from another queering work). The unfamiliar patterns of words that dip into palettes of colours or parameters of comparison. There is always a process of defamiliarization that goes on. Recognizing the whorls of meaning a poem can contain and the gradual opening of the same is a spiritual experience. Much like falling in love, or coming back from the dead. Birds in the sky become godlike, terrible beauties are born and dreams become raisins in the sun. That on saddest nights the poet writes the sweetest songs attests to the power of poetry to transcend the ordinary.  To help one feel the feelings.To queer the ordinary. 

If all poetry is queer, then what is Queer poetry? The simplest definition is poetry that is written by those who identify as queer. But that is not the sort of answer that we can get away with. What if a transperson writes of walking a dog? Does the mere fact that the poet is a transperson automatically qualify the poem as queer themed? I would like to think not. Because, that would horribly limit the infinite possibilities that are presented by the idea of Queer. For me, queer is in the insight, in the point of view that a person has. In the way they set their language free and inflict pain or pleasure.

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

(Elizabeth Bishop, Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore)

It ought to be recalled at this point that this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry went to Jericho Brown for Tradition and the citation read, “a collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.” Expressing his happiness, Brown tweeted, “I mean…I dunno…you have to admit, “Black queer men win the Pulitzer for poetry and drama” is a pretty funny sentence, right?” thus referencing Michael R. Jackson’s win for the play, AStrange Loop. Why these victories are significant is that they were seen as affirmative and as beacons of light for all those who nurse similar ambitions. The identity always casts a long shadow. Rarely do we come across headlines that say, “Heterosexual wins the Pulitzer”. It could well be that what distinguishes queer poetry is that it is called so. Redact the poet and the lines will still read the same. But the poem won’t be the same. The poet becomes as important as the poem itself. 

Speaking of the cult of the poet, there is hardly any need to go into the expressions of desire as manifested in the poems of Sappho and others, being as well-known as they are.In fact much of old-world poetry, did not accommodate the notches of differences between same sex or hetero love. The poets wrote of the Divine as a lover but often, this was placed outside the ambit of the corporeal or carnal. The feeling conveyed was one of the sublime. Poetic traditions in India such as Rekthi flourished in the courts of the Nawabs. There were men dancing on the streets in the rapture of the love they felt for their Lord.  They could hardly be called queer. Not in the way the term has evolved politically. 

In the modern sense of the term, queer poetry is not just about the poet. It is about the subject matter. It is about its ability to connect to a community that relies on a network of like-minded individuals for sanctuary and support. The sharing of the experiential is a vital way of reaching out to the community, the members of which often experience violent and destabilizing changes.

To undo justice, and to seek
To quash the rights that guard the weak-
To sneer at love, and wrench apart
The bonds of body, mind and heart
With specious reason and no rhyme:
This is the true unnatural crime.

(Vikram Seth, Through Love’s Great Power)

In an interview with Firstpost, Akhil Katyal, who along with Aditi Angiras edited the anthology of queer poetry from South Asia, The World That Belongs To Us, talks about the fraught situations in the Indian subcontinent and the ways colonialism left its impact. “This debris– along with intractable pre-modern prejudices that our part of the world still carries—resulted in very vitiated positions for queer people who are often viciously attacked on cooked up social or moral grounds. So, let’s write our poems against such attacks together.”

This doesn’t mean that queer poetry is charged with the responsibility of being a round the clock activist. There are heartbreakingly delicate poems that convey very personal narratives of love dare not speak its name and yet is a love story like any other. The ‘everydayness’ and ‘relatability’ of queer love makes it very unqueering and that is what is so queer about it!

Like

In the Urdu Class
I confused my be with pe.
He asked me to write ‘water’,
I wrote ‘you’.
Who knew they’d make them so close,
Aab (آب) and Aap (آپ).
Both difficult to hold on to.

(Akhil Katyal)

See? Just another love story! Or perhaps not! 

 

And on that note, we bring you our first feature for the month, a handful of poems by Dr. Gaurav Deka. The poems, when strung together, seem to tell a story of love, of coming of age and finally, of coming into one’s own. They seem like a remarkable rite of passage with the narrator finally discovering his own voice that was made for singing. It is liberating to experience the frankness with which his words create narratives not only of love and longing, but also of the complexities of relationships. Deka has a rather introspective tone and the words gradually unspool to reveal the silence at the centre. Though love dominates the conversations, it is the need to survive heartbreak that the poet is trying to come to terms with. The need to break free while being present, is not as potent as the pangs of loneliness that are expressed. The poet says

It is almost fifty years early in
Matheran now.
In your rented house,
you drink alone.
Beneath the immortal evening
moss,
the tamarind tree in the backyard—
in its own sad senescence—is thin in
its roots.

(The Three Doors of Anagnorisis)

Deka’s poems are very physical. There is always something happening. Even while the body is at rest, the non-corporeal keeps travelling between worlds and universes. 

in November
just before we decide
to take the ride
draw his
soul on paper planes
and throw them
off the hills,
she tries to be earnest.
(My Friend Talks of Break-ups in Winters)

Just another love story? We leave it to you to decide.

We are joined in our work this month by a team of illustrators, who have kindly agreed to work with us. Today, we feature an illustration by Akshay A. S, a final year M.A English Language and Literature student at M G college Trivandrum. He is a poet and has a penchant for sketching. Unbeatable combination. Do look up his works on Instagram at #jotdowntales.

 

 

Amit Shankar Saha

Some years ago, I read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and was intrigued by the opening chapter. Lila, a character disappears. With all her belongings. Disappeared as she always wanted, leaving “not so much as a hair anywhere in this world.” I thought it was wonderful. Aspirational. To vanish would be to break out of the shackles of being the filling in a middle-class sandwich. But then the mind is its own doctor and it began playing the films of forced disappearances, notions of escapism, the dangers of being unprotected and then the waves of life, employment and love rushed in, inundating and extinguishing a gypsy in the making. This week, I was reading Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field and it brought back all those candy floss memories and the inevitable association with Ferrante. It also made me think of the hundreds who go ‘missing’ because they are uncomfortable citizens. They and their questions cause discomfort or well, they can be disappeared because they can be taken away and no questions asked- or those questions can remain unanswered or unheard. 

It is one thing to pack a bag, plug in headphones and set out to search for the meaning of life and quite another to be plucked off the road while on your way to school or while taking food for your parents working in the fields. The history of political violence and disappearances of political activists or innocent people is not restricted to any one country or specific struggles. It is an almost uniform pattern. Of power. Of the ways power desperately exerts itself to stop having to hear dissent. 

Poems

Tali Cohen Shabtai

I once saw a poster that read, “A woman who reads is a dangerous creature.” It made me smile. Truth is often as simple as that. I had an addendum- Beware the woman who dares. I stop that statement there because, while there are writings and writings- the sort that grabs you by the collar and drags through the mire requires courage. It is that sort of writing that bleeds out of you after you howl at the moon and slice your eyeball with a paper-thin razor.

When I first read Tali Cohen Shabtai, I thought of Frida Kahlo. The wilderness of colours that pervaded Kahlo’s art, the way her body was an ambassador of her art and how the person in totality was art. And when I went through Tali’s collected works- I found I was not far off the mark.

Inebriated/ Also a poet
That with him we looked like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo….

These are the opening lines of one of her poems from her bi-lingual collection, ProtestThe more I read her, the more I began associating her with the sort of lineage that gave us poets such as Eavan Boland and Hollie McNish. The sort that carry the ghosts of Plath, Sexton, Rich, Angelou. Those that disrupt the conventional lines of what poetry by ‘women’ must sound like.

Debarshi Mitra

Postcards to no one

I am the patient etherised upon the table. It is midnight already, the steady hum of crickets merges with the clatter in my head. The words I had once written, now return every now and then to haunt me. Perhaps the words that return are not mine alone, they arrive without warning, fragments of lines, now longer tethered to the text, they arrive like the breeze on cold city nights. “You always seemed to go round in circles”, I murmur to myself. I discern few other sounds. A leaky tap in the kitchen, must get it fixed, I make a mental note. The sound of the clocks ticking go on as ever, “No man goes down to the same river twice”. I think of entropy for a while, the second law and time. The tap keeps leaking. By now I have almost become used to its incessant rhythm. “All of art is resistance against entropy”, I scribble on a piece of paper, knowing once again that I am indeed going round in circles. The phone rings, I let it. The traffic lights blink. I have grown tired of conversations, of platitudes, of “art, beauty and the meaning of it all”. Hollowed out from inside, I roam these streets like a shadow of myself. This city, its neon facade, its filth, its contradictions, look at me questioningly. I smile back at it and keep walking in this “unending chorus of human feet”. I slip into my dreams. My dreams are of smoke and death. Stray faces appear behind glass, a dog bares its fangs, licks a bone clean, mannequins walk gingerly, a one eyed man grins.

Neon

A faraway house
overlooking the highway,
the lights of which
always flicker the same way
in my memory, always the dim
yellow of longing chasing me.
Just as a seafarer knows
the sea by the way starlight
meanders over it,
I discover the city
late at evening,
walking along
its illuminated contours,
and find in every corner
the disjointed strands
of time and distance
and being and non-being,
shaping their own narratives,
even as I keep searching
for effervescent light trails
of headlights and cold neon
.

Tonight

Here I am
in this cafeteria
having a bowl of noodles
all by myself
with a dozing watchman
and the soft, mellow glow
of an electric flycatcher
for company.
I put on my headphones,
my playlist switches to Norah Jones.
I think of my friends for a while
and then my mind shifts elsewhere.
The song begins ,
“Come away with me “ she sings
and I here alone
in this midnight shack
think to myself
that I would if only
I knew where.

Movement as Metaphor

Droplets of light
condensed on night lamps
split open
caught in a flux in
spools of thought
held in equilibrium
mid-air nesting
in the emptiness
of every atom in
every cell and the
continuum in between
where motion begins
only in the mind as
a single twist of phrase
unlocking doors,
as a trickle going down
the endless slope,
as a nameless soul
receding from its shadow.


Notes from an unfinished diary

I

Criss cross zig zag pools of light, comfort is disappearance and then oblivion…oblivion…oblivion just writing the word is bliss, poetry is tapping buttons on a phone and auto correct results , erasure is art is life and the continuum in between , the excess of everything has choked me , life is perennial asphyxiation, an endless process of fading away moving zipping past cities, civilisations the old man under the tree telling us tales of our dreams and the mats that waiters dry at night, the lover’s hand groping in the dark , How do I trust anything?memory , literature is artifice, art is truth , truth naked without embellishments of language, of anything , thoughts clear as water, clear as a sentence that does not employ a metaphor. Must wake up sometime before they arrive, then again the next day and the next, life is a series of such days , how does one break away ..

II

Antidote to melancholy :The act of naming ,The colours ,the sounds, the flesh and all that remains hidden In the shadow all that diffuses out of the surface of our being and the air expanded by our emptiness as it passes in and out through the nostrils as days turn to nights, as all that remains of a once familiar name.

III

The currents in the vein ,  blood flowing like a river, the banks on both sides unknown, the day draws to a close, a boatman begins his song, sound penetrates silence, bit by bit, the first poem on a cave wall reaching beyond time to us, gathering silt of time, of memory as the world passes in a long drawn breath, the very act of naming is creating, the rebirth of the world in the head, the sounds ring hollow , a skeletal hollowness, the night endless..

IV

The world held out as if a piece of paper. Plain white eye balls, stars replaced by LEDs, the sky cellophane, I scream and hear the sound of my voice which separates into sine waves.

It moves outwards, upwards ephemeral wisps of smoke. The ceiling buzzing incessant, the sound of crickets in my head, the static from satellites, orbits losing its course, language born in the womb of silence, reaching towards what cannot be known, cellophane skies reaching out to us…us?  thin lights of the night , absolute silence , the mind melting words, sounds, the mind on a sprint out run by light, the first embers of the fire, the signs drawn but never understood, not of death or of  life, a mystery without resolution, words pushing against air, enlarging space, the self diffused , the shadow of the shadow keeping us where we are.

V

Condense droplets cold surface night ice cream blank page the sun lanterns night lamps heat youtube voices.

Voices information the world trapped in a skull, stream of consciousness no boundary, end of the page the point of it all? Deadlines dead line cooler night gives way to morning shifts work and repeat, what am I looking for, the end apocalypse starting over the physicality of writing poems, people in photographs and people beside you and then people into nothingness me into nothingness, with them who are they ?friends connected by invisible threads, to her whom I love, to her whom I think I love, the way the fingers move over the keyboard backspace backspace heat  boredom solitude split open empty space time body tv series transport in a story of someone somewhere pinned down to time, place, location, country, family, caste, name, universe? Face the man in the mirror thinking in devised metaphors language handed down how does one step out of one’s own feet ?words as vehicles of release, Hormones ?

happy chemical? Sad chemical?

VI

Symmetry breaking triggered by the first word, in the perfect vacuum of silence, the trigger pressed, time – the noose around the neck, entropy fluctuation, a probabilistic blip in the all encompassing halls of nothingness, propelled forward, the brain fist sized presiding over the universe, and you caught in between . All poetry is reminiscence of time when there was no time, space uncharted, a raft caught in the ocean currents of neurons, torn apart by genetics, strands entwined condemning us to a name, to 3.14 , to loneliness, to this eternal separation, to an alpha numeric name next to a blob of green, to anonymous chat rooms, to curious blizzards in Russian novels, to the unsayable buried in the ambient. 

Smoke

We wither slowly
awaiting
our eventual invisibility.
The hourglass fills
bit by bit,
we turn vaporous,
appear as frost
on the windows
of our unborn children.

Debarshi Mitra is a 25 year old poet from New Delhi,  India. His debut book of poems Eternal Migrant was published in May 2016 by Writers Workshop. His second book Osmosis was published by Hawakal publishers in 2020. His works have previously appeared in anthologies like Kaafiyana, Wifi for Breakfast and Best Indian Poetry 2018 and in poetry journals like  ‘The Scarlet Leaf Review’, ’Thumbprint’,  ‘Guftugu’, ‘The Seattle Star’ ,’The Pangolin Review’, ‘Leaves of Ink’, ‘The Sunflower Collective’, ‘Coldnoon’, ‘Indiana Voice Journal’, ‘The Indian Cultural forum’ among various others. He was the recipient of the  The Wingword  Poetry Prize 2017, The Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize 2017 and was long listed for the TFA Prize 2019. 

Kiran Bhat

One among the many odd things I have done is walking at 2 AM through the corridors of a hotel undergoing renovations, in search of water. A friend and I had booked this place online for the duration of a conference and when we reached, we found they had just completed rebuilding…the protective covering from some sections had not even come off. But they honoured their part of the bargain and let us stay there. All was good till at about eleven at night, when I thoughtlessly finished off all the drinking water. Later, finding my friend extremely thirsty, I rang up Housekeeping and Reception by turns…to no avail. So, feeling evangelical, I stepped out of the room in search of water and walked into utter and total darkness. I walked to the other end of the passage, peered down and found the reception a gaping black void. That’s when it struck me that we were the only people in this hotel- all the staff had gone home. There was no guard either. As I walked back to the room, the doorway looked like a block of light in a chunk of darkness. It was a most beautifully desolate sight. Back in the room, I remembered a bag of oranges we had bought earlier. Nothing like freshly squeezed orange juice to assuage guilt and take care of a cranky, thirsty friend.

The real reason we made the trip in the first place was not the quest for academic excellence, but rather, to visit the final resting place of a young man very dear to my friend. His untimely demise had shaken her and this trip was a search for the much-needed closure. We travelled a long, long way, on roads hewn out of mountains, the chocolate brown of the earth covering every conceivable surface. Summer was at its height and I was careful not to drink more than a mouthful of water at a time.

We reached the cemetery. There were rows of graves, marked and unmarked. There was no way to find him except ask for help at the office of the nearby church. The office was a relief, with its cool tiled floors and a ceiling fan. The priest called the father of the young man and asked him, “There are two women here to pay their respects. What is the number of your son’s grave?” The poor man couldn’t remember. And I wondered how one forgets the number of the grave of one’s only son. The priest hung up and looked sheepishly at us. “Maybe we just look at all these graves and say a general hello?” I tentatively asked my friend. She remained silent. The priest sensing her grief, sent for his assistant and they combed through a huge register and located the number. Upon reaching that simple, unmarked grave, we stood in a pool silence. Us and a raven that we imagined was the soul of the departed.

Anupama Raju

A land of eternal dusks, where days and nights are just shades of dark and darker. The lives of the inhabitants run parallel, yet intersect. Independent and interconnected.  The polyphony when listened to, tells stories of people who are segments of each other’s lives and yet live worlds apart. Love is poetry and poetry, a sharp blade in a velvet casing. Take for example these lines:

Blame it on the ocean,
on my frothing sea-breath,
on this opium air,
for all I can see now
are your plucked-out eyes
that continue to dream big
and become planets in your hands.

(Disorientation)

The attendant revelation is sublime. However, sublimity does not guarantee tranquility. Rather, it carries the promise of distant thunder. And anticipation. 

This is the multiverse that Anupama Raju has created out of vegetable markets that might be adjacent to flats from whose windows slivers of lives are beamed across the night sky. It is a place where memories of school days jostle for space alongside mother’s fish curry. Raju’s words echo the rhythm of Time itself. Unhurried and magnificent. She has a great eye for detail. And draws from the world around her. Some of her signature works such as the Windows series came out of her stint as writer in residence at the University of Kent where she was on a Charles Wallace Fellowship. Her time in La Rochelle in France, thanks to the residency programme by Le Centre Intermondes yielded Surfaces and Depths, a collaborative effort with the photographer, Pascal Bernard. 

Apart from the evocative visual imagery, what stands out is the use of sound in her poems.

The lady upstairs grates a coconut,
drags a chair across the room,
hopes it will drown the argument
with the other whom she cannot hate.

(Everyday Sounds)

At her hands, space, like everything else, is rendered transcendental, mutable. People metamorphose into walls, time melts and refashions itself and memories become edible. The effect is fascinating. Her language conveys the intangible longing that pervades maddening crowds and blank windows alike. 

Hailed as one of the most interesting voices in contemporary Indian poetry, Raju has been featured anthologies such as the Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, Yellow Nib Modern English Poetry by Indians, Ten – The New Indian Poets, Big Bridge Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry. Her works have been carried in The HinduThe CaravanThe Little MagazineIndian LiteratureMint LoungePratilipi. Her first book of poems, Nine received great acclaim and showed her capable of, to quote Arundhathi Subramaniam, “…transforming familiar tropes of blood and longing, pain and death, into the “burnt letters” of warm, pulsating verse. Anupama Raju cuts close to the bone….

This ability to transform extends to her presentation of the female. She engages her spaces and language to present a Calypso like persona who takes all or nothing. The demand for the absolute is unwavering and surgical. The trauma of abuse has been a great concern for Raju, who along with Karthika Nair, K. Srilata and Priya Sarukkai Chabria, has written a series of poems that deals with the body vis a vis female sexuality. The ways in which the female body counters violence with instinctual power have been presented in extraordinary language. In a powerful image, a woman wonders if using a conditioner would have helped ‘smoothen’ the systemic abuse she encounters at each step. The word conditioner being a brilliant jibe at the conditioning that women undergo. The systematic recounting of abuse is as much a mental documentation as it is defiance.   The last lines read

Next time, I will condition myself, she thought,
as she brushed her down her knotted hair.

(Conditioner)

When not writing with such smouldering intensity, Anupama Raju is a communications professional and a literary journalist. She is a great conversationalist who can hold forth on any subject with aplomb. Her refreshing frankness is reflected in the honesty of her poetry. This week, we bring you the vinegary, molten, subtle and edgy words of Anupama Raju. Here’s to eternal dusks!

Poems 

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