Culture & Society

Book Review: Bitter Gourd, Poems By Anupama Raju

'Bitter Gourd' is one of those rare books of poetry where poems grow on you through re-reading

Cover of Bitter Gourd, Poems By Anupama Raju

Bitter Gourd, Poems, By Anupama Raju

Copper Coin, 2023

In the beginning was the word- mol. Daughter in Malayalam. A daughter of Malayalam, Anupama Raju begins her new poetry collection with an ode to her mother tongue, a dedication to her parents. "I was me first in your Malayalam./ Pink as a newborn, young as your Malayalam." This deconstructed ghazal, 'Malayalam', sets the stage for Bitter Gourd (Copper Coin, 2023), a set of poems that explores the phenomenology of the everyday. 

The critic and academician Derek Mitchell describes the everyday as: "everything, including that which goes unnoticed... only when we notice it, does the everyday stand out and become something meaningful for us, that is, it appears in our world." Raju's verse is the medium by which both meaning and appearence of the quotidian is foregrounded. In 'Cleaning the House', the broom, the dusting cloth and mop are like instruments of expression: "Their hold is real. Their hold is real./ Much more than words can reveal." The reiteration of value, spoken twice for emphasis, brings home the presence of the domestic, as no other words can. Raju talks of life, of aging, of love and of the city, noticing through hermeneutic grain, the acts of the everyday. The allegorical emerges through the literal: "Bus stops, bus leaves./ This is how love goes./ Somehow bus knows." (Bus Station) There is a sensuality in the manner in which these lived experiences are described and an intimacy through which they are conveyed in verse, where repetition becomes emphasis and the short lines slice like paper cuts. While these are easy poems to read, the profundity below the surface of the words has to be savoured slowly. 

Home has a larger presence in the poet's worldview. "But this time I write of a different love/ my country, this place I call home.", she writes, "We all betray our place called home./ This country that we call home." (Home) There is a bitterness in the experience of inhabitation. The exhortation in the poem that gives the book its title is evident: "Even if justice is served,/ it will be bitter,/ it'll remind you to lie low." (Bitter Gourd) And what happens if you don't? What are the consequences of holding firm? Raju's rage explodes in a poem about an unknown girl who dies and is buried under a tombstone that could say 'For the girl who died because she said no.', instead of 'For the girl who held her head high.' Mayhem and indignity are the obvious offshoots of inequality on an unhealthy planet, where "Freedom was a firefly./ It had to take you down./ It's a fight you started./ It will take us all down." (Universal Declaration of Human Fights) The personal is political. The political is universal. 

Raju's sharp observations are best appreciated in her several (very) short poems. 'What You Don't Know' ("is I am an axe."), 'Mismatch', 'Awkwardly' and 'Threadbare' all delight in their brevity. The long poem-cycle 'The Siddhartha Series' anchors the book. Told from the point of view of the Buddha's abandoned wife Yasodhara, these are poems of daily longings, the phenomenology of absence, and the insistence on faith, a personal faith that believes in return and reuniting. The poem evokes Ezra Pound's famous 'The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter', but with greater poignancy, the wife is mature, and knows her place in the world.

'Bitter Gourd' is one of those rare books of poetry where poems grow on you through re-reading. Freed of the framework of the thematic (like her previous collection Nine, which was not bad at all) Anupama Raju's poems here hold together lightly, bringing her verse to the reader, but allowing the reader to inhabit her everyday with their own.

P.S. Yes, I concur, dosas are better, both in the making and the washing-up-later, than idlis.

Mustansir Dalvi is a poet, translator, and editor. He has three books of poetry in English. He translates from Urdu and Marathi.