Lounge picks five recent collections of poetry that move between the past and the present, private and political
From exquisite lyrics to lines burning with passion, the tenor of these poems varies strikingly
GO TALK TO THE RIVER: THE OVIS OF BAHINABAI CHOUDHARI translated by Anjali Purohit (Yoda Press, Rs450): Born in 1880, married at 13 and widowed at 30, Bahinabai Choudhari remained an unsung genius during her lifetime. It was only after her death in 1951, when her son published her poems, that she became recognized as one of the most poignant voices from Maharashtra. A cotton farmer from Jalgaon district, Choudhari was named after a 17th-century Bhakti saint who was known for composing abhang, a form of devotional poetry. Like her namesake, Choudhari had a remarkable facility with words, all the more so because she was unlettered. She had the gift of turning even the most mundane everyday situations into poetic truth.
The changes of season, stages of harvest, characters in her family and neighbourhood, nothing escaped her keen sensibility. In a few lines she could distil the essence of a person, even of a favourite tree or cow, as though she were creating a verbal impression of their soul. Purohit’s translation, bolstered by an excellent introduction, attempts to faithfully capture the rhythms and nuances of Avirani, the regional variant of Marathi Choudhari composed in.
SWEET SHOP by Amit Chaudhuri (Penguin Random House, Rs299): For those familiar with, or fond of, Bengali sweets, this collection is a real treat (pun intended). Chaudhuri takes us into the narrow lanes and dingy alleys of Kolkata, where scores of sweet shops, famous or obscure, appear like pure serendipity.
From the legendary sandesh made by Nakur Chandra Dey to the delights of Bhim Nag, a fine web of tastes and textures are invoked by Chaudhuri’s limpid lines. Like the tea and madeleine that unlocked the floodgates of memory for Marcel Proust, the sensory magic of these sweets also open other doors for Chaudhuri. Looking into Bhim Nag’s shop in the north of the city, he thinks that “The interior/ has, despite its abundance, the quiet/ of Ramakrishna’s room in Dakshineswar./ On one half of white sandesh rose petals/ rest with funereal simplicity." Chaudhuri executes such leaps, from quotidian gastronomic pleasures to the remembrance of times and people past, with delicate expertise. His frequent use of Bengali words is refreshingly seamless, unaffected, and without the anxiety of glossing every word in footnotes or, worse still, in the body of the poems.
MUSHTAQ HUSSAIN’S DARBARI by Srijato, translated by Arunava Sinha (Yoda Press, Rs125): Srijato is to contemporary Bengali poetry what the Beats were to American literature in the 1950s. His lines have created waves of controversy, especially in 2017 when he composed a scathing poem in the wake of Yogi Adityanath being appointed the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Having escaped a possible 3-year prison term then, he came on the radar of Hindutva activists earlier this year once again, at a programme in Silchar in Assam, where he was publicly heckled. Now those who do not read Bengali can finally sample some of Srijato’s acerbic brilliance. Violence, sex, destruction, decay, blood and gore are the staple of his verses. Although his imagery may seem gratuitously horrific at times, it is impossible to deny their breath-stopping potency: “I am cold unless I can set something on fire in the city every day," as he writes in the 51st poem of this series of 55 poems in prose. Even the most innocuous act, such as the consumption of a fruit, dovetails into a vision of diabolical violence – executed in Hiroshima, Auschwitz or Vietnam. There are lines you won’t forget in a hurry.
TERRARIUM by Urvashi Bahuguna (The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, Rs350): There is a sure-footed ease about this debut collection that bespeaks of years of careful preparation. From the very first poem, which lends the title to the volume, Bahuguna impresses with her unflinching presence. Her voice, edged with anxiety or mellow with nostalgia, assumes depth and definition as we turn the pages of what often seems like a private album of photographs etched in words. Here’s a snapshot of her father holding forth on the best way to eat a mango, there goes her grandmother, nimbly catching crabs and putting them into boiling water. The rhythm of such scenes of domestic bliss is disturbed by the memories of mourning a lost love. There are poems about leaving a place and learning to love a new habitat, about upheavals happening in planetary scale, and the terrarium (which is a glass container containing soil and plants) inside which the poet lives. Whether it’s the interior of an apartment that is yet to be emptied of the traces of an ex-lover or the relentless Mumbai monsoon that seeps even into the deepest recesses of the mind, Bahuguna is deft at folding thoughts into images that stay with us.
LOVE WITHOUT A STORYby Arundhathi Subramaniam (Westland, Rs499): The opening poem of this exquisite collection (‘I Grew Up in an Age of Poets’) pays homage to the late Eunice de Souza, especially to her immortal line that it is best to meet poets in poems. The sentiment hits home as one reads each of these verses, made out of pithy phrases, weightless as air but filled with gravitas, luminous as the clear light of day but also shrouded in mystery. There is a haiku-like simplicity to Subramaniam’s lines in this volume, a progression of thought that often crystallises into gem-like aphorisms. A long poem about Avvaiyar, “legendary poet and wise woman of Tamil literature", is at the heart of the anthology. Titled ‘The Fine Art of Ageing’, it is a meditation on the passage of time, in the mind and body, the depredations of our mortal lives, and the vanity of all human wishes. “For lovers flatten/ into photographs," as Subramaniam reminds us, “photographs/ into reminiscence,/ reminiscence into quiet." From friendship and love to human kind’s primeval pull towards the divine, Subramaniam’s range of concerns and richly inventive style cast a spell from beginning to the end.