Category: Book Reviews

Crossing the Shorelines

Geetha Ravichandran

Gopal Lahiri is an award-winning, bilingual poet. His latest recognition is the first Jayanta Mahapatra award presented to him at the Toshali Lit fest in February 2024. He is prolific and has published several books of poetry till date. Gopal Lahiri straddles between abstract concepts and vivid imagery with practiced ease and engages with the reader, invoking memories and sketching tales that speak of greyness , loss and quiet celebrations.

Crossing the Shoreline by Gopal Lahiri is about liminal spaces and the quest to embrace the unknown. The poet uses clutches of metaphors and experiments with various forms of poetry to convey a sense of immediacy in his journeys and transitions across borders. A pattern emerges, as the poet lays bare his experiences and then watches from the shadows. This is borne out by the following lines from the very first poem of the collection which
shares the title with the book.

“unknown alphabets draw humpbacked sand dunes
aligned in endless rows on the shore
of my sleep”

In the first section, “Voices of Concision” the poet displays an economy of words and yet manages to mine the hard, outer crust of thought and holds up hidden meanings.

“Stories are just stories
I listen and forget”

The poet is, as he puts it in the poem ‘Crossing’, “building the quiet raga amidst the chaos”

In the imagery the poet uses, there is an amalgam of the mundane and the complexity of chaos, and they enmesh seamlessly. In the poem ‘City -Skins’ , the poet writes

“woodpeckers write the evening lyrics,
The tide of new settlers
opens up a new conversation,
lies, more lies or death”

There is thus a modulation, even irony as finality approaches.

Some of the poems in this section speak about the difficulties of conversing, the poignancy of meanings lost between exchanges of words.

“Switching on and off, I want to
converse but with each failure
I squelch around, push my gaze away,
and my heart returns to the cage.”

This theme of lost meanings recurs in the poem “Poetry mirror” where the poet says,

“My words can’t reach you, alphabets rustle,
I am watching all these through my broken mirror”

In the section 14 liners, the poet experiments with the sonnet form and binds words in a typical structure while at the same time loosening the knots to allow word play. The sonnet has a fixed poetic form, consisting of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter. Lahiri’s sonnets are bold experiments in free verse . In this section the poet speaks of time, space and everything in between.

“ Then there is the blank space
The wall clock stops at quarter to nine.”

In the poem ‘Far and Beyond,’ the air is thick with melancholy- ‘words become solidified wax’… while ‘the trees bend to one side, losing their songs in every leaf.’

The same melancholy also pervades the poem ‘Frozen Ballet’

‘It is right here, the ending , you circle around,
The figures are whirling yet still in a frozen ballet’

In the poetry of Gopal Lahiri there is pointed attention to what lies beyond the apparent, where the seed of hope and renewal nestle. While there is darkness , there is also a hint of warmth.

“I remember how long the winter was, how pure, how dense.”

“I am going to give back to the trees
the leaves they have lost,
to the fallen feathers the bird,
to the sun sharp lights”

And again, the contemplation of absences and losses, paradoxically arouses a new energy in the poet.

“I must wake up with light, speak to the arrays
Till they become my voice in every morning”
“Black now fills me with hope, showcases love and light
Weave a tender ethereal story”

The poet outlines the transitory nature of time and space. And therefore, memory arches over to tell the stories.

“Your voice rears high up to meet a liquid sky connecting to memories,”

And again,

“Memories are kept in long boxes and the fine tissues drop whispers there”

The poet’s verbal acuity is on display in the Japanese short forms, Haiku and Senryu which are included in the third section of the book. This form is used by the poet in creating visual vignettes which also layer a deeper meaning. The poet holds up the little things, the details of the ordinary day to be seen through a clear lens. The images mango buds, rail tracks, sunset and twilight speak to the reader in the form of the Haiku, which are gentle yet distinct

The last segment in this book contains five Haibun. The prose and the haiku meld seamlessly.

In ‘Sight and Sound’ the poet startles the reader with a pithy Haiku,

carefree summer
go as you like clouds
drop text messages

In the Haibun ‘Snapshots’ the poet contrasts colour and erasures, flashes of brilliant memories with commonplace experience of the quotidian.

grey sparrows share
ghost stories

The warp and weft of the book is authenticity and a breadth of exposure to the core of human experience. It grabs the readers’ attention with an adroit mix of directness and suggestion.

Geetha Ravichandran is a retired IRS officer. She has published two books of poetry, published by Red River. She also contributes poetry to several journals and writes a monthly column for a leading newspaper. She lives in Chennai.

Women Who Wear Only Themselves

Arundhathi Subramaniam
Speaking Tiger Books LLP 2021
499 INR

Reader Response by
Shabnam Mirchandani

Woman as Medium and Message

Women Who Wear Only Themselves

Arundhathi Subramaniam is an experience: a sun-washed vision of graceful beauty, with a sensuously timbral poetic voice that is artfully spare, yet cerebrally alluring. The sartorial trope she uses in her latest book is a draw precisely because Arundhathi wears herself so beautifully. Ecstatic rumination drapes this book like her silk saris, and her kohl-lined eyes lead us to gaze deep into the echoes of ancient well-springs. Her sojourns lead into other women’s journeys: mystic spaces that open up a field of answers to questions we have not yet learned to ask. These do not comprise the wordy emptiness that spiritual discourse sometimes descends into, nor are they mere aesthetic condensations of esoteric conversations. They cannot be fitted into a page or even a zoom session. Not really. They are expansive vibrations of auditory, olfactory, tactile, corporeal, and numinous events that flow out of encounters with four remarkable women who inhabit themselves with awareness honed from trauma, vacillation, struggle, visions, and ultimately an evolution into purpose, presence, and improvisatory freedom.

Women Who Wear Only Themselves offers words as psychic entities, compelling a neurological odyssey, a shift at a cellular level. The narration is a palimpsestic gesture as Arundhathi weaves her own feelings and asides into the telling. She makes concerted efforts at direct communication with certain enigmatic women who serendipitously show up at different points in her life, but they are is not exercises in deconstruction or even investigation. They are grounded in a quest for respite from questions, and the women provide a way. They are connoisseurs of transparency: shedding garbs of language, perception, and convention, they appear to spill out of their skin, charging the very air surrounding them. Their spirit journeys happen in villages, ashrams, highways, and cities. Arundhathi’s dialogic unfolding of their animated inwardness is interspersed with her own resonant poems. The sentences surge and ebb like a river, sinking into listening ears with an intimacy of tone that is somatic in its vitality.

Broken becomes whole, and whole broken, as the stories pour out of Arundhathi’s uniquely honest surrender to helpless awe. The skeptic, writer, poet, translator, and seeker in her are awake, yet hushed, as she delves into deep listening. Letting go of herself, she lets the women in. A candid epistle to herself takes shape as Arundhathi documents her own transformation and turns it into a conversation with the heart of questing spirits who share her thirst. Pages fill with the tangy pickled wisdom of Indian women of different stripes, their flavors distinct. They dance into our sound palette like the bangle clink of kitchen hands, bringing with them the green truth of herbal thoughts, the fragrance of thirst-quenching rain, and the eloquence of silent darkness as it melts into the sun.  Fiercely female, they speak, unmindful of an audience, or a reaction. They have an authenticity that is its own life force.

Annapurani Amma, who as a child had the voice of an ancient goddess embedded deep in the grooves of her psyche, is now nakedly adult and still in communion with the long dead saint. She is powerfully graphic in her physicality. Paradoxically, this is what evaporates Arundhathi’s subjectivity as she witnesses transcendence in real time. It plays out in the mercurial language of Amma’s cosmic laughter. Balarishi’s abode of flowing mantras was once a rickety ride, where a young unsung heroine found release in song distilled from the gift of receptivity. She waded through the marshes of existential struggle, prejudice, stereotype, stifling norms, and a feuding family. Her devotees now sing their way home to her and dwell in her chanting. Their bliss has no name. Lata Mani’s injury-induced oblivion brings us void as vision. Lata’s long arduous process of becoming occurred after her body’s violent tryst with pain-ridden emptiness. Her aphorisms stem from simple yet “majestic” endeavors such as plucking faded flowers off a stem, a feat considered life-affirming in the invisible world of disability. She is holy in her quiet strength and her powerful vulnerability. Maa Karpoori’s ashram is in her personhood. An extremophile, she propels forces through intense awareness under the watchful guidance of her guru’s compassion. All paradigms are turned on their heads, as we see submission as strength, blue denim as ochre robe, student as teacher, silence as voice, calendar god as friend, urbane traveler as dervish.

Rumi once said, “What you seek is seeking you.” Four women sought and found Arundhathi’s consciousness. There they sing, frolic, mediate, marinate, emote, jest, and rest. We readers are  treated to a banquet as nourishing as mother’s milk, and an embrace as divinely feminine as mother earth’s. Our latent bhakti braces us for the rigorous freedom described in this book, as  its cover reveals to us with artistic splendor, the self settling luminously upon the self. Arundhathi seeks us, as we seek her.

Where does Arundhathi’s voice land in this magisterially disorienting time? Our world today has turned into a morphological opera. Suddenly, words have developed the creative potency of astral wings, releasing metaphysical essences that are ontological revolutions in themselves. Dystopian imaginations are in overdrive, their provenance being reality itself: a bitter concoction of hope and hopelessness. Yet, no linguistic repository exists that can possibly reduce what is happening around us to human signification. We have a massive cognitive blind spot where comprehension should be. This new matrix of being has shattered paradigms of individuation, prompting affective shifts towards an archetypal eye beyond language itself. A geometry of spirit which transcends the limits of anthropocentric thinking invites alignment with a refracting lens, a return to vintage cosmic couture, a reclamation of voice as clothing, an expression of intimacies and intimations, an embrace of fellow humans through the ethereal/authorial medium of gaze, gesture, word. That happened to me, friends, when I read Women Who Wear Only Themselves, a book that was cleansing rain to my parched senses, until they turned into a lake held within its shores. The words of this book transmute subjective discovery into celestial flutesong, inviting a soul dance into familiar spaces one has never visited.

Shabnam Mirchandani is a mosaic artist, music aficionado, and lover of poetry. She lives in Pittsburgh, USA. Shabnam embellishes repurposed objects, mostly pottery, as an expression of her spiritual and experiential engagement with places and friends. Music serves as an acoustical template for the sculptured shapes that emerge from her contemplative approach to her creations . She favors the artisanal mediums of stone, clay, glass, and metal in her practice. A former English teacher, she has an ever-renewing interest in the versatility of language as a portal into creative exploration and experimentation. She views it as a bridge to self-awareness, as well as a foundational tool for thriving cultural ecologies. Shabnam also has an avid interest in evolutionary cosmology. All these inclinations coalesce as a polyphony which finds its way into her writing life. Shabnam is fond of preserving the tradition of epistolary relationships, preferring the long-form letter to nurture her love of writing.

A review of “Women Who Wear Only Themselves” can be read here.

Women Who Wear Only Themselves

Arundhathi Subramaniam
Speaking Tiger Books LLP, 2021,
499 INR

As I read the introduction to Women Who Wear Only Themselves, I was reminded of a book by yet another Arundhathi- Arundhathi Roy and the iconic title of her debut book, The God of Small Things. The God of small things- the one who watches over the ants, the beetles and other little creatures- does not get massive temples or frenzied, opulent rituals. That god exists in relative anonymity and in the truncated lives of his devotees. But it’s a reassuring god. A comfortable god.

This is the sort of divinity that Arundhathi Subramaniam brings her readers. Published in 2021, the full title of the book is, Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys. As the title promises, the book contains Subramaniam’s engagement with four female mystics. These engagements are at times chance encounters that evolve into deep spiritual relationships and lead to engrossing introspections on the ways that people can exist.

Spirituality in India is a multi-billion dollar industry, with some spiritual leaders amassing massive followers and fortunes. There is a huge demand for wise words, sayings and tangible symbols of spiritual affiliation. And the more contemporary a guru is, the greater the following. It is into this cosmos of noise that Subramaniam tosses a bubble of silence. The four women she writes about are not at the centre of the spiritual industry, they are not owners of media houses or million dollar educational and industrial conglomerates, rather, they are women whose vestments or the lack thereof (in the case of Annapurani Amma), points to an essential innocence. These goddesses of small things are individuals whose connect with the cosmos and themselves makes them self-sufficient. They require no hordes of devotees to assure them of their powers.

Arundhathi Subramaniam brings four spiritually awakened women- Sri Annapurani Amma, Balarishi Vishwashirasini, Lata Mani and Maa Karpoori into our midst to ask us to redefine our ideas of what spirituality may mean.

Each of these women have their own means of connecting to the universe and have made their peace with the realities that surround them- be it skepticism, the expectations to ‘perform’ spirituality as per the imagination of the people or the singular focus demanded by monkhood. Subramaniam has brought each of these personae to life by pointing out their core philosophies, laying bare their vulnerabilities and narrating them as they are.

Women Who Wear Only Themselves is a brave book. It presents without judgement and seeks to speak truths. The authorial voice, which also acts as eyes for the readers, is an impartial one. It intercedes, introduces, expresses doubts, seeks to find the horizon. There is no hagiography. Each section of the book is extraordinary in that it presents women in different stages of their lives, experiencing the Divine or the Universe in their own way- be it through the ardent devotion to the Guru as with Annapurani Amma, the music of the cosmos – as with the Balarishi, the understanding of stillness and the revelation it can bring as with Lata Mani. In the segment titled What it takes to be Redwood Tree, Subramaniam quotes Lata who reveals that the Devi asked her to be like the Redwood tree.

‘The roots of the redwood are shallow but the network is horizontally extensive and extraordinarily resilient. At the same time, the vertical trunk shoots determinedly skyward, while the branches plane towards the earth. It is a perfect image for the rooted dis/passion of the tantric way. We are fully present on earth, densely connected to each other, and equally to that from which we came, and to which we will return.’

Subramaniam then goes on to observe,

That image has stayed with me. The redwood tree as an axis between temporality and foreverness. Between earth and vertigo. I am reminded too of a couple of lines in Lata’s book: ‘Truth is merciless. It demands that we not set up residence anywhere, but remain ever ready to resume our journey onward.’ (128)

Women Who Wear Only Themselves carries within it the power that these women exude. Their uncomplicated assurance and belief in the Goddess and their spiritual guides. They speak of visitations from gurus and saints who are hundreds of years old- their devotion is unshakeable and doesn’t rely on showmanship for garnering devotees.

The segment on Maa Karpoori A Leap into Monkhood, is where the author is at her intimate best. There is a sense of the autobiographical. The introspective tone reveals vulnerabilities of the sort that have often crossed our minds as well.

I relate to the idea (even if I don’t feel called to live it) of paring away inessential identities, of giving up the seductive daily jugglery of roles—employee, offspring, spouse, parent—that we are encouraged to believe is the excitement of human life. Outsourcing one’s material anxieties to a monastic order to lead a life of social engagement or contemplation also makes sense to me. Simplifying life makes deeper sense still. (135-36)

 This book is also illuminating for one who is interested in knowing what Subramaniam considers Bhakti. Considered one of the most strident voices of the modern day Bhakti tradition, it is heartening and encouraging to have Subramaniam speak of Bhakti outside of any specific ideology or as a regimented, unimaginative way of life. Bhakti for Subramaniam seems to be freedom from the fetters of hierarchy. It is a beautiful communion with the Self and with Nature. 

For bhakti is not obedience, as many believe, but commitment—and commitment not to a person or a belief, but to an unfolding inner journey. And as the journey deepens, one of the most extraordinary discoveries the bhakta makes is that surrender is not one-sided, but deliciously mutual. (158)

It is this surrender that creates these extraordinary women who wear only themselves. Their voices are like hurricanes and their eyes see everything, their minds are unafraid. Take this exchange between the author and Maa Karpoori:

I turn to Maa. ‘How would you describe monkhood?’

‘When what is unnecessary falls away, and only what is absolutely needed remains. When everything is yours and nothing is yours.’ (161)

Sometimes, as a reviewer, I feel it is best that the author themselves speaks. For all the words that I have written above, Subramaniam sums up the soul of her work beautifully, succinctly.

If this is a book about language, it is also one about attire. A recurrent trope is clothing: Annapurani Amma’s nakedness; Balarishi’s journey from ochre to denim; Lata Mani’s search for a verbal fabric that combines the cellular and the cerebral; Maa Karpoori’s embrace of her monk’s apparel. There is a process of weeding, of stripping down, paring away needless acquisition, sheaths of unexamined habit, that each traveller speaks of, in order to find herself. There is also a process of crafting a new garment, a new wordskin—lighter, airier, less stiff, more porous—into which personal discovery as well as insights garnered from other sources and traditions are internalized, woven in. Which makes this, at heart, a book about language as chosen attire—a way of wearing the self.

Poetry is a language of concealment and revelation. It offers meaning as well as a respite from meaning. A shadow-light weave of layering and unveiling, of mystery and clarity.

And that is how I see these women. Not as case histories to be proved or disproved, but as weaves—of sun and shade, semantics and silence, suspended between logic and lyric. Their language ranges from the dense to the sheer—sometimes Persian carpet, sometimes pure pashmina. (167-168)

The book is interspersed with poems that reflect the soul verse of the book.

Goddess II
after Linga Bhairavi
In her burning rainforest
silence is so alive
you can hear

While the book talks of four women in conversation, it will strike the reader that there are actually five women who are equally invested in their search of the Divine. The Goddess, Energy, Cosmos, Eternity- call it what you may, courses through the veins of the five seekers. It may finally dawn on the reader that in her own way, the author too might be wearing just herself. In the twilight hours or in the quiet hours of the dawn, when we feel a shift in the Cosmos, it makes us aware of the immensity of the canvas that we face. The ensuing wonder and humility are what Subramaniam brings us through this book- that- and the lives of truly remarkable women.

Sonya J. Nair

A reader response by Shabnam Mirchandani can be read here.

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.


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

Sing of Life

Priya Sarukkai Chabria.

156pp, ₹499, Context (Westland), 2021


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)


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.


            my songs

                        i feel about

                                       searching, touching


                                                     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

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