I have before me open a manual titled “How to Review a Book” which states four cardinal characteristics of a good review. It goes on to state the components of a review which are author’s introduction, purpose, approach, followed by comparison and evaluation of the book’s merits.
I have before me now Ananya Chatterjee’s fifth collection of poems titled Barefoot on Splintered Glass. Following the diktats of the manual, I need to introduce the author first. Ananya is a friend of mine and a fellow poet. I don’t think I can be more objective than that. I have read and appreciated her previous books and reviewed a couple of them too. I am acquainted with all her poems — both published and unpublished.
Now to get back to the book in question, I must make the reader acquainted with the content of the book. The book has 60 poems divided equally into four seasons — Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring. It also has a quirky Foreword by Jayant Kripalani. My manual says to avoid repeating the table of contents (which I have just done unfortunately) but rather give an idea about the author’s thesis. So what is the poet’s purpose in writing this book? I may as well ask what is the purpose of flowers blooming on a tree. Poetry comes naturally to Ananya as flowers to a tree. The seasons are the most regular and perpetual of the natural phenomena in human history and so are poems in the life of this poet. But to be fair to the poet, as the second characteristic in the manual states, I must explicate to the reader with some quotations to show how the poet handles her materials and what her approach is.
In “Summer”, the poet’s “March tiptoes towards April” and she uses the “private memory of fingertips” to dial a random stormy afternoon to “catch a low, wild tune/dripping off her unmade lips” (“Mother”). Then she “hugged the daylight” and how “little by little all turned little” (“The Flight”) as she soared into the “five o clock sky, tattered and minced/by cut-outs, cables and leftover smog” (“Terrace Dreams”) until she foresaw the one whose “shadow will snatch/the light from my skin” (“Futility”). She stops by a Gulmohar to realise:
The robin hasn’t visited this year.
In the yearning of the Gulmohar –
the silence of her abandoned leaves,
I sense a forgotten familiarity.
Is this how all stories must end?
I stop by the birdless tree –
caress the violence of her branches.
I tell her there will be others. Soon.
But she knows this already, doesn’t she?
The high and low of every season.
The ache, the ecstasy. Stop. Repeat.
The ache. The ecstasy.
Perhaps then, it is the other way around.
Perhaps she is the one comforting me. (“Staying Away”)
Someone whispered to the poet “Autumn is the season of homecomings…” and “cottonball promises danced/in the blue” until she saw:
The leaves having folded
their greens for departure,
exhale the unmistakable
salt breath of heartbreak. (“Feeding on Autumn”)
And when she reaches “the doorbell/of my childhood” she finds “grief/weighed down by a retinue of leaves” (“Autumn Holidays”). So she asks not to remind her of “lilies/orange hearts / twittering blackbirds… such terrible beauty” (“Waking Up”) because “Spring memories/shouldn’t be unfolded too often.”
Or daylight shall destroy
their splendid darkness. (“Fragile”)
When the sunbird surmised about a “mountain of emptiness in a fist-sized heart”, the lizard by the doorway said “on winter twilights/no one dies of lovelessness” (“Diagnosis”). But “when the last winter sun/melts in your eye” (“Readiness Check”) the poet can say:
Whoever says dying isn’t beautiful
hasn’t seen the crumpling
of October leaves (“Fall and Rise of a December Born”)
Also she knows that “no past [is] bloodless enough to recall” (“At the Departure Gate”) and so she dreams of mountain’s “milkless peaks” (“Penance”). And yet “On cheat days/I twist clock arms to lick memories” (“Defunct”). Once again “love arrives soft-footed” but:
You shall wake up, feather-headed…
hugging your nausea and insanity
with the ferocity of a chronic gambler
who signed off his life to the
game of forever…
And lost every time. (“High Stakes”)
Despite that the poet cannot help it because:
On Spring nights, more often than not,
my heart has quietly
walked out on me… (“Night-prowler”)
And she can only lament about:
a sun-splashed Spring
that had no business
being this perfect. (“Heartbreaks Should Happen in Monsoon”)
The poet pleads:
Quit. Quit soundless like the morning mist,
vaporize like the October dew,
no love bite, no glaring residue
on the velvet petals of the wild Amethyst. (“Walk Away with Care”)
She finally learns to sustain and says:
what flows between us stay nameless
like wildflowers on a moss-eaten wall (“Nameless”)
Using the tropes of the seasons in her poems, Ananya has dealt with human relationships and nature interchangeably. The robin-abandoned Gulmohar and the heartbroken human are the same. By doing so, she has given what is transient in the human world a semblance of permanence of the natural world.
John Keats in his “Ode to a Nightingale” has called the bird immortal. He has shown how nature defies death through its cycles of rejuvenation and Ananya uses the seasonal cycles to defy all endings. And now that I have used a comparison to evaluate the book’s merits, as stated in my manual, I think I am done. I have both successfully established my authority to write the review and hopefully submerged my personal opinions and reaction which may have a favourable bias towards the poet. Dear reader, you may now go and read the book because someone has walked on splintered glass to bring to you a touch of immortality.