Kashiana Singh’s collection of poems Woman by the Door is the fruit of nine years’ labour. She recapitulates in it her lived experience since her emigration from India to the United States in 2013. It explores her feelings, emotions and reminiscences of travel and homemaking from the perspective of a woman. Singh, the winner of 2020 Reuel International Poetry Award, lives in North Carolina. Being a management professional, she cherishes discipline in all activities, including poetry writing.
The book under review is named after the title poem “Woman by the Door” which represents the interior monologue of a diasporic woman who confesses, “I sit by the door today/ talk to myself/ my voice quivers/ as it reaches into the valley” (Singh 97). The emphasis on her gender identity and her experience of being a part of the Indian diaspora in the US are key features of this collection. A door is a liminal space between the home and the world. While a window which allows a view of the world outside mainly underscores the experience of confinement and domesticity, a door offers possibilities of mobility, agency and freedom from claustrophobia. The poems in this volume unfurl a woman’s passage from the domestic space to the world at large, ‘door’ and ‘travel’ being the dominant metaphors in the recapitulation of the route and the landmarks. The image of a woman standing by the door conveys, on the one hand, the idea of waiting and, on the other, suggests her liminal position as an immigrant who stands, Janus-faced, on the threshold of various cultural conventions. The threshold enhances the symbolic significance of the doorway by evoking images of border and border crossing in her journey across geographical locations, cultures and time.
Dedicated to her grandson Kabir, Woman by the Door is divided into three sections: “Apertures,” “Portals” and “Detours.” The title of each section highlights a motif of travel. In the register of photography, the word ‘aperture’ refers to “the diaphragm of the lens that controls how much light passes through into the camera” (Singh 1). The mood and clarity of the picture depend on the proportion of light passing into the device through the ‘aperture.’ The first section (“Apertures”) presents a series of poems that throw optimal light on the woman’s recollection of the familiar picture of ‘home’ and ‘homeland.’ Each poem is like an old photograph in a family album. The minute details resuscitate nostalgia and personal history. References to the tree of lineage—grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren—in the poems such as “In My Nani’s House, Curds and Whey Were a Religion,” “Nanapapa,” “In the Image of My Mother,” “Orb—For Kabir’s Parents” and “For Kabir” not only construct a family archive but also fortify one’s sense of being connected to one’s clan. The spatio-temporal distance activates the mind’s eye which, like a camera, hovers over the mindscape and recaptures the vivid home/land images with love and affection.
Moving out through the door does not mean that she has forgotten the kitchen space. In fact, she carries the memory of aroma all along the route of her journey. Whether it is an Indian fruit such as ‘mango’ or a homecooked dish such as the ‘bitter-gourd curry,’ food in Singh’s volume exude homesickness of a diasporic woman. In poems such as “In My Nani’s House, Curds and Whey Were a Religion,” “For the Evil eye” and “The Kitchen That is Also a Monastery” food and the place of its production intersect and serve as sites of dialogue with the gradually fading ancestral conventions. She captures the essence and the pace of life of the bygone days:
I have tried so much to do what Nani did but the
curd I make always looks like half fulfilled wishes.
As if it is telling me to have more patience, wants
me to breathe in, breathe out and stir the silence.
(“In My Nani’s House, Curds and Whey Were a Religion” 5)
The quality of patience that is embodied in the figure of Nani (grandmother) is lacking in the inhabitants of the fast-paced globalized world of today, and with the passing away of the old generations we lose much of the traditional cuisines and other cultural practices of the yester years. Singh mourns the loss of such cultural heritage. The course of her travel takes her away from the roots to other places and other cultures which lead to continuous reconfigurations of places and cultures.
In the second section titled “Portals” (‘doorways’ or ‘gates’) the woman situates herself in the present time when healthy living is blighted by environmental hazards and Covid-19 pandemic. She associates these disasters with the loss of placidity in the Universe her ancestors had been familiar with. Poems such as “Portrait of a Mother in America,” “Becoming Planets: After Greta Thunberg,” “Happiness—Refrigerator Magnets,” “All in a Day, in 2020” and “Empathy” represent the transition of the world from a safe ‘dwelling place’ to an unsafe one. Although existence in such unhomely conditions is marked by anxiety, uncertainty and unnamed fear, the woman gropes for a doorway of hope in the darkness of death and disease. Thus, she proclaims, “The sun still rises and scenes still get created, recreated with babies and dogs on walks, with parents wearing N-95 masks. It is okay or will be soon, and everyone thinks it is charming to be alive, still” (“Happiness—Refrigerator Magnets” 42).
The third section “Detours” is about the “[a]lternate [alternative?] routes that deviate from the norm and help reshape our direction” (Singh 67). It is about re-viewing the experience of travel for exploring relationships, rituals, the pandemic and loneliness. The woman navigates through the tangles of roots and routes by ruminating on the joys, the conflicts and the griefs that crossed her way at various phases of the journey. The bygones linger like fugitives in her thoughts (“Begone” 78-79). The detours show that the pull of the pristine past and the uncertain future can neither be discarded nor be deleted from the praxis of ‘being-in-the-world.’ She tries to cope with the present-day crises by re-collecting every bit of personal loss in a potli (desi word for a travel bag, a pouch) (“Grief in a Potli” 74).
This volume has focused exclusively on a woman’s diasporic experience. The immigrant woman’s introspections on roots and routes open up the vista of a fast-changing way of cultural life. Desi images and references to household objects are abundant in her reflections and reminiscences. Reading the poems is an enriching experience. Singh’s book is indeed a valuable addition to the corpus of contemporary South Asian diasporic poetry.