Secrets and memories

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
Alice Munro
Penguin Canada

First published in DNA

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As I unroll the reels of my life’s movie, the stories of my mother and grandmother, two women who shaped my growing up unravel before me. All three of us have lives distinctly different from each other’s. Yet, when I look closely, I see we have all been shape shifters — slipping into moulds we scarcely anticipated, not necessarily with ease or delight, but always with the readiness that our circumstances demanded. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Alice Munro’s collection of nine short stories, I found many of our comrades — women across small towns and big cities juggling domesticity and the rigours of the professional world — slipping into and out of moulds and bearing the consequences of their actions with or without grace.

The book derives its title from a counting game young girls play with the names of potential boyfriends. Yet time and again, Munro’s adult protagonists prove that their lives need not remain constrained within the clusters of hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship and marriage. Like an ocean’s waves that don’t adhere to a boundary while undulating, the women of Munro’s stories don’t hesitate to spill outside the defined perimeters of their existences.

In the opening story, which shares the book’s title, Johanna takes the bull by its horns, torso and tail, when unbeknownst to herself, she falls for a prank played by two young girls. The girls write her love letters on behalf of one of their fathers, who lives in a different province. Johanna finds not just emotional succour in the letters, but true to her working-class industry, she smells an opportunity to banish her status as a pitiable spinster once and for all.

Johanna’s success in achieving what she sets out to establishes the book’s tone. In Munro’s more-real-than-real-life stories, women are not always in control of their destinies — sometimes by choice and at other times, without any. But what arrests the reader is their remarkable refusal to be pathetic, sympathy-arousing creatures. And they accomplish this with utterly ordinary, non-awe-inspiring actions.

In Floating Bridge, my favourite story of the collection, Jinny, a cancer patient, steps into the light — metaphorically speaking — even as she is engulfed in darkness. Thanks to a stranger, a young man, she walks on a floating bridge for the first time while her husband socialises with the same man’s family. But that’s not all. Jinny also receives the youth’s passionate kiss as he guides her steps on the bridge — an affection without any nomenclature, a fleetingly eternal moment of breathtaking freedom.

“What she felt was a lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given.” [Floating Bridge]

Weaving inter-generational tapestries that span not just months or years but decades isn’t an easy act to pull together in short fiction, but Munro achieves this with the effortlessness of a teenager’s unabashed giggle. Even as the characters and stories swing back and forth in time, one is left amazed and bewildered by the author’s ability to carry the innocent reader through her intricately mapped-out territories. This is brilliantly evidenced in Family Furnishings, a story that interlaces family drama, the female protagonist’s brisk, nonconformist quips clashing with the deep-set conventional thinking of other family members, and finally intrigues and secrets that make the reader see the same character in a completely new light.

In this collection, Munro explores the idea of fidelity in marriage in more than one way, with no easy answers or moral positioning for the reader. And not all trespassing, if one could call them, happen in a blatant, deliberate manner. Stories like Comfort, What is Remembered, and The Bear came over the Mountain show how ephemeral and impulsive a moment of ‘stepping out’ can be at times. And not necessarily sexual in nature either.

“Ed Shore puts an arm around Nina. He kisses her — not on the mouth, not on her face, but on her throat. The place where an agitated pulse might be beating, in her throat.” [Comfort]

Memory can be a treacherous, manipulative and even therapeutic poultice. We realize this while reading the layered narratives of Nettles, What is Remembered and The Bear came over the Mountain. In What is Remembered, Meriel cherishes the sole pulsating whiff of an extramarital affair that breezes through her long married life, yet she wants to remember things differently than the actual sequence of events that took place.

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Transitions — geographical and otherwise — often form the metaphorical motif of Munro’s stories. Nettles, Queenie and Family Furnishings, chart the perplexity-ridden phase between young adulthood and grown-up in Munro’s spade-is-a-spade candour.

“I know exactly how old he was because that is something children establish immediately, it is one of the essential matters on which they negotiate whether to be friends or not.” [Nettles]

And it is this sense of negotiation, the constant trading of emotions, personal space, the necessity of belonging — that guides Munro’s characters, especially her women. This is not always easy or even plausible and must be done on the sly, but the women that we come across in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage aren’t shy of doing so.

“Young husbands were stern in those days…What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics…It was the women then, who could slip back — during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of children — into a kind of second adolescence. A lightening of spirits when the husbands departed. Dreamy rebellion, subversive get-togethers, laughing fits that were a throwback to high school, mushrooming between the walls that the husband was paying for, in the hours when he wasn’t there.” [What is Remembered]

I came to Munro as a reader with her first book of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades. Every story in that anthology charmed me as I read about young girls and women at crossroads, getting a taste of the bitter truths of life and coming of age. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, I met women who had already come of age and were mature and daring enough to dance and even miss a step or two on the paths that beckoned them.

Whenever I read Munro, I am seized with both the thrill and dread of a scientist in a laboratory, who discovers the minutiae of organic life under a microscope. Munro turns the spotlight on lives around us with such astonishing alacrity that it is but impossible not to find strains of one’s own living reality in her stories. The modern-day fables in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage hold a clear-as-daylight mirror to women’s lives — imperfect and rocky, but never without the possibility of a spark, a fresh leaf and a redeeming edge.

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Book Review: Rashida Murphy’s ‘The Historian’s Daughter’

First published in Cafe Dissensus

Title: The Historian’s Daughter
Author: Rashida Murphy
Publisher: UWA Publishing, 2016

The Historian’s Daughter could well have been titled The House of Secrets. Isn’t that what a “house with too many windows and women” is likely to be? The historian in question is the father of Hannah, the novel’s secret-digging young protagonist. Throughout the first-person narrative, she refers to her father as the Historian because of his real-life profession and her mother as the Magician due to her spell-inducing sweetness. Why then isn’t the book called The Magician’s Daughter? That’s a secret Hannah must accidentally come upon, and one that her creator Rashida Murphy guards with skilled control as she takes the reader on a voyage spanning familial and political upheavals and migrations across continents and personal mind maps.

Hannah’s fetish for secret busting is a natural function of her environment. History is the kernel wrapped in its homonym cousin – mystery. Both mystery and history flow freely in Hannah’s house in the hills, which she shares with her parents, older sister Gloria, brothers, Warren and Clive and her numerous aunts who come visiting and stay put for extended periods of time. Her historian father’s library – one he has inherited from his “despicable” British father – is the first depository that would trigger, and in time train, her sleuthing skills. A series of books on the English “conquistadors” of India sets her off on her quest to understating and even confronting the past, however unsettling.

The dramas and dark corners of family life dominate the early part of Hannah’s – and the book’s – world. While she’s happy to be under Gloria’s elder-sisterly wings and bask in the Magician’s affection, what makes her recoil at the sight of her father is a muddied phantasm the reader must, like Hannah, uncover in layers. This is also the part of the novel that brims with Persian fragrances – black tea with mint and carrot halwa; and with fables – of heroes Rustom and Sohrab, which the Magician reads to her daughters and of Rani, a less-than-heroic aunt dubbed crazy and living practically under house arrest.

The dynamics of this universe of chaotic delight changes forever when Sohrab, an Iranian young man – enters the scene. An acquaintance of Farah, the Magician, Sohrab bears about him an uneasy wind – that of the turmoil sweeping through Iran during the period of the country’s revolution in the late 1970s.

As with seeds that winds disperse all over the place, the lives of Hannah and her family get scattered, and Hannah finds herself in Australia as an immigrant. Transplanted without the nourishing support of her mother or sister, it is in Perth that Hannah has to find her own bearings. This is also where she finds love as well as a reason to return to the continent she came from – first in Iran in search of her sister, then in India to look for the Magician. Through it all, she must not only witness but also endure – hardship and the excesses of revolutions; cruel family secrets and the maturing of love, loveless hearts and an infant’s unbridled affection. The story in this part oscillates between physical and mental spaces as Hannah negotiates the distance between her present and her memories. The narrative feels somewhat jerky at times, perhaps not too different from the rugged emotional terrain Hannah herself treads through.

Through it all, Hannah also finds her own voice as a woman – one that’s not shaped or seasoned by the stronger women of her childhood. She’s funny and sharp, confident, and vulnerable – a mass of real flesh and blood. She is bold but her courage isn’t about an absence of fear. It is about running with – not away from – fear. She’s impulsive and a passionate lover, but most of all, she’s a baton-bearer of the two women who she first learned to love from – her mother and sister. This is what makes The Historian’s Daughter a remarkably feminist novel in the garb of a family saga. Rashida Murphy is clear about fashioning it so, whether it is by making Gloria prevent Hannah’s genital mutilation by their aunt; the girls’ mother staging her own silent rebellion; or Hannah’s firmness in chasing her convictions, regardless of self-doubt and social pressure. These are strong women who aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses. 

The Historian’s Daughter engages as much with its plot twists as with its honesty and narrative sweep. The language is crisp, the imagery vibrant, and the plotlines like stable trellises for the vines they support. This is Murphy’s first book and, for me, a wellspring of promise and anticipation. The malleability with which her love of history, research, politics, and storytelling meld into a whole makes her a writer to look forward to.

‘The Historian’s Daughter’ is available on: Amazon.com

Book review: How I Became a Tree

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

Title: How I Became a Tree
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Co.

PrintI was in primary school when I first heard trees talk. On my way to school every day as I sat by the window of our school bus, leaf-laden branches of trees sashayed as the bus zipped past them. I was convinced this was the trees’ way of sending me off to school with a bunch of good wishes. On still, humid days, when my green friends didn’t seem as enthusiastic, I feared about the mood of the day facing me. Though brief, this moment of intimacy with the trees lining the one-way separators on South Delhi roads, was crucial for the emotional subsistence of a lonely child like me. For Sumana Roy, the necessity of this bonding – with plant life, with trees, swaying or still – is so acute that she wishes to morph into one. And sort of does. How I Became a Tree is the story of that astonishing transformation.

But why this overwhelming desire to become a tree? Roy’s discontent with her human form is not so much biological as it is psychogenic. The two corollaries of modern life that disturb her most – excessive noise and speed – are the very things trees counterpoise with defiant ease. Early on in her intuitive journey, the author discovers tree time – a moment distilled in past- and future-less clarity. Trees teach her to let go of her slavish relationship with conceptual (man-made) time and relax in the moment. She notices the impartial kindness of the tree – equal in its dissemination of oxygen, shade, flower, and fruits to the gardener as well as the woodcutter.

The need for association with nature isn’t new. For long, it has been the favoured route for those on a spiritual quest. There are extensive records of sages and philosophers renouncing the material trip to go inside forests and sit by lakes, in search of answers only solitude can retrieve. What makes Roy’s quest deliciously different is her part-lover, part-parent, and part-playmate relationship with trees. She even becomes a tree sleuth – recording their “vocalizations” – “I had, in frustration with industrial noise and human verbosity, mistaken trees as silent creatures. My experiments with the sound recorder had brought about a new realization – that trees shared a natural sound with people.” She engages with trees in other interesting ways – by getting X-rays of tree trunks and by turning dead trees into sculptures. All these experiments grow deeper the roots of Roy’s conviction about the interchangeability of trees and human figures. She begins listening to human voices in relation to their tonal proximity to the sound of leaves in the wind. Her own skin becomes the bark of a tree and she imagines her bones getting rearranged for her to acquire a tree form.

In loving trees, Roy doesn’t forget the shadow world. In fact, by her own admission, her relationship with trees is shaped largely by their shadows. In a chapter curiously titled A Brief History of Shadows, she rues how shadows are unceremoniously left out of history books and archives and, through personal reminiscences and her reading of Roy Sorensen’s Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, she eloquently makes the case for studying shadows for the things they can reveal. For me, though, her observation of what tree shadows withhold, or rather, erase, is of even more stunning import. “…The shadows of trees obliterate specificity, the colour of bark and leaves and flower and fruit. Just like the shadows of humans do not reflect race, class, or religion.”

As her disenchantment with modern industrial routine grows, the author is compelled to examine the stitches of mythology and scriptures, literature, philosophy, and art – to find threads of the human-tree convertibility phenomenon. Greek and Roman mythology tell her how women turned into trees to escape violence, human violence. Reading these episodes chillingly remind one, as they do Roy, of young Dalit women being raped and then hung from trees in present-day India. But she also finds “sahrydayas” (Sanskrit for soulmate or sharer of the soul) – humans who have shared her own kinship with trees. One of them is the artist Nandalal Bose who, while articulating his thoughts on drawing trees, remarkably compared their features and even personalities to those of humans.

Then there is Rabindranath Tagore – with both his extensive work with trees in Santiniketan and his personal anaclisis to plants. Like most plant lovers, he misses his plant relatives when he’s away on a trip and writes letters to human caretakers to look after them. It is only natural then for the universe of his writing to be populated by plant metaphors. Roy sees in his works illustrations of trees becoming doubles of humans and gardens turning into both accomplices in aiding stolen love and partners in avenging lost love. The chapter, “Studying Nature”, brings to the reader Tagore’s organic vision for spreading the joy of nature among the students of his school-cum-university, Visva-Bharati. The focus of the nature study module isn’t so much on the science of ecology, as Roy discovers, but on fostering an easy kinship with nature from which the industrial machinery threatens to pull the children away. “What his students inherited through his course was a sense of trees as participant, friend, and neighbour, in the ongoing drama of life…,” concludes Roy with endearing empathy.

For a tree lover in the pursuance of her treehood, the journey cannot be complete without entering a forest. Part VII of How I Became a Tree, titled “Lost in the Forest” was a personal delight for me. I have experienced several lost-in-the-forest moments myself, richer in the losing every time. Roy’s own love affair with the forest bears this out with succulent relish. She argues how the very act of walking inside the forest has to be an act of total surrender – one must intentionally lose oneself when surrounded by the “paralyzing restfulness” of a forest. She returns to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s forest-centred novel Aranyak to unearth the mystery of man’s tense relationship with the forest. It is at once a place for finding repose as it is a resource to be exploited. Staying inside a forest all by herself enables Roy to experience the commune of trees, their shunning of individual prominence. In this, she recognizes her own treeness, given her indifference to fame and its exhibitionism.

Roy finds more soul sharers – as a plant parent in the polymath scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose – who conducted numerous experiments to prove plants can feel and communicate; in the Buddha whose persona is essentially inseparable from the Bodhi tree under which he’s believed to have found enlightenment; and in poets, philosophers, and photographers who saw embedded in the barks and branches of trees reflections of their own self. And that is how Roy eventually turns into a tree. She imagines herself to be the Ashoka tree – A-shoka, sorrowless, as she segments the tree name.

On a personal note, Roy has taught me to love plant life in a deeper, more joyous way. Shortly before I wrote this, my partner took out a leafy indoor plant to the patio to feed it sunlight (as Roy would put it). The delicate plant died from the sudden shock. I have mourned the loss of plants before, but this was post How I Became a Tree, and I bawled my lungs out. Then, once the tears let up, I remembered I had once snipped a part of the plant and placed it in a jar of water, where it grew roots. I brought that part out of the jar and planted it in the pot that now carried the dead roots. It was almost as if someone had nudged me to do this – to bring the plant back to life.

That’s when I realized Sumana Roy isn’t merely a tree; she’s a plant whisperer.

How I Became a Tree is available on Amazon India.

 

Dead Man Talking — Hassan Blasim’s short stories

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Hassan Blasim
Penguin
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

 

What is left when a place dies a thousand violent deaths?

A million stories sprout over the graveyard. Each narrator is a Scheherazade (of One Thousand and One Nights), except none of them is compelled to tell a tale for fear of being killed. Some of them have already crossed over to the other shore and even the 18114111-_uy475_ss475_ones living know death to be staring them in the face. Yet the emotive force — mind-bending and magnetic — of the voices echoing through Hassan Blasim’s short stories forces the listener/reader to be pulled into their universes — macabre and enigmatic as they are.

I felt the sharp stab of Blasim’s storytelling knife in The Corpse Exhibition — the very first story in the collection. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the boss of an organization curating the corpse exhibitions speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of displays — one of the top pieces the boss cites is that of the corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child both naked placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

Read the rest of the review here.

The Starling’s Song

ss_frontcover1The Starling’s Song

B.L. Bruce

Black Swift Press

Available on: Amazon.com

Review by Bhaswati Ghosh

For those of us who live it every day, urban life can be unforgiving in its demands. Yet, there are release buttons that can help us slow down and turn towards the natural world and its rhythms. This movement isn’t as much a result of curiosity as it is of a desperate seeking — whether to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw of modern living or to simply let go of the puzzle altogether. The Starling’s Song, a recent poetry collection,  constructs a fine floating bridge to negotiate that distance — between nature’s tranquility and human restiveness. B.L. Bruce makes us walk on that now-steady, now-wobbly bridge with Feel, her very first of the three dozen or so poems in this chapbook.

Were you here I’d point out/the coyote’s tracks through the sand,/the distance between where/each paw fell,/tell you he was running. I’d reveal the place/where, beneath the dune grass, the gull’s/body lay torn open and hollowed, say/to you, This, this is how I feel.

Bruce’s piercing vision captures and reflects images from the non-human, organic realm with a rare crystal sheen. But this eye isn’t limited to being a camera; by juxtaposing nuances from the world of plants and animals, the poet is able to find clues to anxieties peculiar to the human condition.

I’ve not yet discovered my gift/of bearing, not yet realized/a power to propagate, to nurture.//I cannot understand myself,/but know the fawn abandoned/when the doe is hit on the highway,/the keening of quail, the scream/of the cottontail’s young/as they are taken by the red fox. (Mothering)

This undercurrent of disquiet is what takes The Starling’s Song to a different level, beyond the genre of mere nature poetry. While Bruce’s brushstrokes of imagery are luscious enough to hold the reader in a spell,  it is her layering of emotions and memories, especially uncomfortable ones, to those images that makes them quaver with loneliness and heartache in strangely soothing ways. In Waiting, she says,

Mist moves/to the edge of the forest,/catches the last, dusted light, keeps/joining the woodsmoke./ I am waiting/for you, for the sound of you/on the road, on the doorstep.

In her poems in this collection, clearly written from the vantage point of delicious proximity to nature, Bruce doesn’t stop at exploring the self and its relationship to others through an intimate association with the world outside concrete walls and human organization. Nature isn’t always a peaceable therapy to help reconstitute memories and make sense of them; it can be equally pain-inducing and cruel, based on what the mind reads of it in a given moment. Bruce’s Picker is chillingly reminiscent of Seamus Heany’s Blackberry Picking in its desolation and disturbed unraveling of the seemingly innocuous and even joyful act of berry picking, as

I am bending low/over row after neat row/of red, ripe strawberries.

Turns to…

…I remember/the mushroom picker’s daughter./She watched a man get sucked/into the maw of a machine that/sorted and weighed the day’s pick.//From a window above,/she looked on as the machine/spat out the man’s blood…

Now, overripe berries/ooze in the August sun./I weigh them, put them/in baskets, and drive home/where I’ll wash them,/boil them, add sugar,/and make jam.

None of the poems in The Starling’s Song is too long and brevity certainly seems one of Bruce’s key strengths. The shorter the poem, the more punch it packs. Blood and Seed are two such examples that are able to carry enormous weights on their slender shoulders. Ripe with muscular strength, these poems eschew the need for strong-boned superstructures.

I eat a pomegranate/and think of you,/delicately, patiently/separating peel/from seed. With my tongue, suck/the tart juices/from the kernel,/spit out what’s left. (Seed)

What strikes the most about the poems in The Starling’s Song is the rawness of the word imagery. There isn’t a lot of coating going on, nor is there any attempt to ensnare the reader with mysterious metaphors or complex philosophizing. Instead, there’s a refreshing starkness — of both scenes and the longings and aches they echo within the human mind.

And yet, even the pain — with all its stabbings– has the ability to redeem a certain kind of peace, as Bruce discovers and relays in Chorus, the penultimate poem in the collection.

Even now the arresting silence/in your absence has a music to it.

Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? Book Review

Could You Please, Please Stop Singing?
Sabyasachi Nag
Mosaic Press
Available at: http://www.mosaic-press.com/product/could-you-please-please-stop-singing/

Review by: Bhaswati Ghosh

First published at http://www.citrusmag.com/#!bookwarm/ddvnt

It’s a sobering morning as I write this. My Facebook feed is flushed with faces wearing the French flag, quotes denouncing horrific events that shook the world, and raging debates on selective outrage. The world is reacting to the violence that has Beirut and Paris mourning hundreds of people — denizens and tourists — who lost their lives in serial bomb blasts.

Tired and benumbed, I turn to a different window on my computer screen — to read Sabyasachi Nag’s poems from his latest collection, Could You Please, Please Stop Singing?

When words — even prayers — do little to palliate the mind, “Mamuda’s Fries,” Nag’s first poem in the collection, brings me warmth with its textual imagery. It’s a simple poem on the face of it — about a father returning home with fries for his family at the end of a draining work day. The batter singes like the rest/of his walk. Yet, as he closes it off, Nag manages to frame in the poem an everyday family portrait that transports you to a comforting spot.

When the fries come,/they let them sit a while, radiant/on the puffed rice, then the stories/roll, greased, like the wheels/of a worn ritual.

What it is that we really mourn when mass attacks happen? The loss of life and innocence, for sure, but do we not also feel aggrieved for all the possibilities of “worn rituals” that are thwarted by the untimely ceasing of the rolling of stories Nag talks about? In trying to grapple with brutalities, somewhere we probably also feel the loss of the mundane sinews that bind the core of our daily lives – the smile that brings us home, the bric-a-bracs that feed our memory as comfort food does our palate.

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This soft pulse of relationships throbs throughout Nag’s poetry. The book is dedicated to his father, and it isn’t difficult to see why. The bond between a father and his son echo in many a poem. In “Sweat”, a father’s homecoming is celebrated by his son with games even as his departure is etched in sensory notifications – duffle bags, polished shoes, but also “Chewed betel from his breath.” And, of course, there’s his sweat.

The air will be naked soon./For one more day, his sweat/will linger in the wardrobe /and the laundry room.

In “Wheels”, a prose poem that reads like a journal signposting a father’s life cycle through five decades, from a hardworking man whose square shoulders evenly stretched under the weight of fish and produce he routinely brought home to compensate for long absences … to someone pulled down by gravity, stooped over the curved, steel handle bars of the red rollator, leaving nothing to chance, as always, trying his hardest to make the wheels turn, turn… Here, Nag at once encapsulates the mechanics of middle class life with a child’s exhilaration of having

him (the father) back from the trains and morbid news as well as the works of physiological aging, which, despite all denial or resistance, pulls one into its inevitability.

The wheel of bonding between the poet and his father keeps turning as Nag chronicles the growing up of his own son. The same wisp of endearment marks these poems, as also perhaps, the same yearnings and the gaps that separate them. Nine and he keeps his laces flailing./Is that an attitude thing? Nag asks in “Absent”, then answers, He thinks them– laces, have needs/to write on puddles, tangle with weeds/drag the dirt, sometimes swallow/pollen, ragweed, dander – be out of sorts. The father’s wonder and happiness on his son entering his teen years is poised by steady genealogical conviction. he leapt like a lemming almost into his own/

and all that hair on his legs and underarms/cannot convince me yet,/he will grow up to be much taller than me.

Like relationships, a number of motivations inform and bear upon Nag’s thematic range and expression. Food is a prominent trigger, and while reading some of the poems in this collection, I couldn’t help but admire the poet’s facility with cooking and the secrets the kitchen can reveal about life in general. How else could he know this about the “Fine Art of Chapattis”? Roll them to the shape of moon,/Mars, continents, faces of gods,/feelings, fear... and Serve hot and buttered, just when hunger/is in the same room as lust. In “Reasoning”, which sounds curiously similar to “seasoning,” Nag blurs the line between gods and devils, even to the extent of provoking one to examine whether there’s a line that distinguishes the two entities at all. Asafoetida is at once god’s flavour/and devil’s shit – attractive to moths/wolves, believers//There must be a reason –//why dharma and pot mix without particle blenders/temples polish stairwells with milk/and silver is smoked in myrrh.

Coming from Calcutta, where the urban poor share the cityscape with the richest of the rich, Nag writes about the subaltern often in Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? Even as he contextualizes the lives of the underdog, he remains sensitive not to smudge the dignity that is mostly denied to them. A poem I haven’t been able to shake out of me is “A City House Help Returns Home”. Self-explanatory as the title is, the poem reminds one of the many young house helps in India and the blank, tear-wiped look one sees on their faces. Nag doesn’t stop with mere observation, though. He seems to penetrate that vacuous look as he talks about a young boy returning home on a break from his city job. Between servings of gruel and green/chili, salt and a splash of mustard oil –/he’s scared someone will ask:/what brings ya back? Having posed the little boy’s dilemma — sad as it is — Nag answers it with words that strike like a whiplash: His little brother who/ works in the pickle farm,/his cousin who climbs coconut trees,/his friends who smoke the berry hives –/they know.

Could You Please, Please Stop Singing? is a very urban collection. The stress, grime and anxieties of city life are palpable, even viscerally felt in a number of poems. In “Through Uneven Slats — a Riot” Nag says, Rush for news, rush for bread,/rush around clots, rush past mangled hair,/rush through smoke, and smoke. “The New Enemy” speaks about the contempt for the urban poor in a language so raw, it hurts you with its force. Nag plays on Robert Pinksy’s line “A country is the things it wants to see” when he says A country is the things it wants you to not see./So a finger snaps crying out for a sledge hammer/itching to drive a nail into her bulbous head, smash her chiseled rib cage,/Whac–a–mole her deep into the shit hole/so she doesn’t slime back out again –

The spectre of violence – riots, terror attacks, even break-ins – punctuates the collection with uneasy periodicity, compelling one to acknowledge the political thrust that drives the poet. He draws this thrust from diverse sources – Badal Sarkar’s play “Ebong Indrajit,” the Indian mythology, world literature and more. The violence he talks about isn’t just external. In the poem that bears the book’s title, which, in turn is inspired by a line in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, Nag denudes the violence that often rages inside the human mind. The poem, reflecting on the impact of the singing of a busker woman in a train has on the narrator, verbalizes the voices that speak within us – in turmoil and clamouring disquiet. In a train you are alone with a young busker./She sings of loveless nights, an endless moon–washed/river on the other side of the planet./ On hunches, supine/she touches her scummy finger nails to your knees,/shocks you with static.

Nag ends the poem with words that reverberate like the plunk of a train rolling on a track. Why does the train abruptly stop?/Why is the revolutionary walking out the door? The honesty of Nag’s poem lies in his not offering an answer. In its vulnerability.

And although it might sound sweeping, those very attributes – honesty and vulnerability – define the collection as a whole and make Nag’s a voice worth returning to.

Everyday shadows — Book review

61AAigRVfILEveryday and Some Other Days
Pooja Garg Singh
Authors Press
Available:
India: http://www.amazon.in/dp/8172739605
Worldwide: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/8172739605

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were out and about to take in the last of fall’s sunshine and carmine-toned leaves. We posed with and photographed coloured trees, nestled our feet in dry leaves, tired those feet by walking miles in the autumn sunshine, and then relaxed them at a cafe that offered lazy views of the weekend downtown besides coffee and Bailey’s cheesecake. Two weeks hence, tree branches wear nothing or dead leaves, snow has replaced leaves on the ground and coffee will be no more than a homemade indulgence. That’s simply how the character of everydayness changes–across seasons and terrains, external and internal. In Everyday and Some Other Days, Pooja Garg Singh mediates the fluid space between every day and red-letter–or some other–days with unruffled ease. This is how she does it:

The year buzzards came to the fields,
She was out tilling a book in her hands

….

Next morning, when the dawn came
She was out in the charred fields

Sowing poems and reaping them — [ The Song of Everyday and Some Other Days]

Moments, slippery as foam escaping a kitchen sink, are arrested by Singh with a marked sincerity of tone and liquidity of expression. The mundane is her best, most trusted ally–in poem after poem, Singh demonstrates how the mundane of yesterday is never quite the same as that of today; how different sameness can feel in another hour, zone or mood.

For what seemed like ages, we held hands on the telephone
You fed me crumbs from morning mist, watercress at lunch
Poetry you read on the underground [London – New York]

And this–distances and their interplay with human relationships–keeps returning to the songs of love and longing Singh pens. This appreciation is visible in “Approaching Winter,” in which a trace of the unknown and fearful joins the love and longing. “Yesterday, Tomorrow” blurs the spaces between time–Nothing stirred behind the trees/But I thought I heard your shadow fall/It was this evening/Or so I think/But it could have been yesterday/Or tomorrow or ten years later/Or before. Curiously, the loss of physical nearness evokes a new kind of bonding, one that spreads itself over and also absorbs the larger universe.

If rains were our promise
I hear this distant gray rumble above
and a sticky mustiness overcomes my limbs
Does it mean you are coming home? [Homecoming in My Mind]

Interestingly, Singh is able to bring about this sense of memory-induced proximity even through the most everyday of images. In “Umbrella,” the protagonist looks frantically for a lost umbrella so she could pick her child up from the bus stop on a rainy day. Unable to find it, she runs out …soaking/-and terribly late. She chides herself for losing precious time/looking for that umbrella your father took with him/when he moved away with his things last week.

Singh’s canvas–personal on the surface–is at once universal in a way that offers an experience of the poet’s sensibilities that could possibly get refracted on the reader’s life lens in some other way. “Alzeihmer’s Fugue”, written from the perspectives of a father whose memory has betrayed him and his child, ends with these heart wrenching lines–I take more pictures now and I write more often/Hoping my son will find a way to me when he feels like an orphan.

Reading through the poems in Everyday and Some Other Days, I felt a tinge of wistfulness–a sense that in all of life’s ordinary stories, there’s something that still remains to be found. Yet, this yearning is not a despondent one, but the journey of a questing, curious spirit. I finished reading the book–cover to cover–at one go. But this isn’t a book that’s likely to sit on my bookshelf. It’s one that will hop into the car on my way to work, keep me company in the kitchen as I go through my chores and let me get through a dreary winter evening. It’s a book that fills me with a sweet yen–of seeing another book by the same poet.