Culture & Society

Book Review: Naveen Kishore’s ‘Mother Muse Quintet’

Naveen Kishore's 'Mother Muse Quintet' is more than just an ode to the memory of a mother. It is a recognition of beauty in fragility, glory in defiance, refuge in silence, and calm in chaos.

Book review of Naveen Kishore’s ‘Mother Muse Quintet’

Naveen Kishore’s second collection of poems titled Mother Muse Quintet showcases the poet’s commitment and compassion for unpacking the abundance and emptiness of soundscape in human existence. A world which is, perhaps, obsessed by what is seen, Kishore’s poems urge us to lend an ear to the heard and unheard so that a different kind of ‘sight’ emerges, one that has not been discovered in the busyness of everyday cacophony. 

The sounds that the poet draws us into through his verses reveal a universe that has been neglected or dismissed by us, either knowingly or unknowingly. This universe, informed and enriched by memories, some forgotten, some remembered, some even made up, opens another door of possibilities that had been hitherto hidden from plain sight, as evident in these lines: “…my retelling of the ‘tales’ you told me. ‘Making up’ what had slipped past me. I gave them the happy endings you never had.” The ‘you’ here is the poet’s mother.

A kaleidoscope of sounds, smells, shadows, and sights, Kishore’s poems are deeply personal but have a universal appeal. The mother, who is at the centre of all the poems —some just a few lines, others coloured in prose— does not have a static, stagnant, tangible form, and rightly so. “In my mind, the sari she wore is always a pale pink. Almost ivory. And a chiffon. Let us give her a name, shall we? Mother.” The mother is identified by what adorns her. The first images that one could think of immediately are the softness of the ‘pale pink’, the strength of ‘ivory’, and the splendour of ‘chiffon’, all at once. It is as if the poet has assumed the role of a potter but the spinning wheel is dictating the potter’s hands and not the other way around. Therefore, when the poet writes that it is the “…seamlessness of remembering that amazes me”, what comes across beautifully is the blending of a mother’s fading memory and her son’s inheritance of the mother’s once agile memory. 

However, there is lament and despair when the poet reconciles with a harsh reality: “You gifted me my memory. We did not know then that one day you would lose yours.” She does not lose her memory. After all, it stays alive in her son. “An entire lexicon of memory” is the ultimate gift that the son gives his mother. Also, important to consider is the fact that in the act of recalling, it would be an unfair expectation to have an incident or an event remembered in whole or in a chronological, logical way. No, a memory does not strike with a sense of definitiveness. It is infinite. Because one image leads to another, which in turn clicks open yet another window in our mind’s eye. Every fragment therefore is a whole. The fragment, the shard of glass, the last ray of the sun cannot be treated as broken parts of a whole, each of these fragments make a whole picture. 

This is why when the poet’s mother says, “Build me a self. She pleaded”, the poet replies, almost taken aback by the request: “A whole one?” There is no whole. Instead, every crevice, each hole, every crack guides the poet to the memory of his mother, a mother who once had an elephantine memory. The poet comes across as a practitioner of the Japanese art of Kintsugi; except the threads of repair are not washed in gold but mended in black ink on a piece of brittle white.

The recurring image of the white in the foam, fog, clouds, milk, etc., cannot be missed in the verses on memory. White is symbolic. White can mean transcendence. White can mean a state of blankness where you let your imagination flow or scatter on a canvas. No judgement whatsoever. White can mean stillness, blindness, even darkness. Yes, white can assume the cloak of darkness when memory, the act of forgetfulness, and compulsive remembrance all get entangled in a knot because the lines blur in the transformation of recalling to putting it to paper. The metamorphosis may not be always to the liking of the poet much like a potter’s dissatisfaction with the final creation. The invisible gap between the recalling and translating or transcribing is magnified, and the white spaces in the fissures of memory and language demand and crave attention. Screams, silences, and pauses all accumulate in this white. And the potter’s wheel starts spinning again. 

On her 75th birthday, the poet gifts his mother a mirror that she ends up never using. The son always thought why she never had a dressing table of her own. Maybe, there was no need. An entire mirror to see the reflection of what stares back at you? Would it have been unnerving for the mother to see herself in entirety, something she was not used to? Named ‘Prem’ by her father, the poet called his mother by her name Prem and added ‘ji’ to it as a mark of respect. Prem means love. Her father wrote screenplays for silent films in the Lahore of the 1930s. And she would enact every scene to her son, remember all the lines effortlessly, and don 20 different characters without losing the nuance or integrity of the plot. 

The poet is mesmerised by his mother’s magical ability to remember, to preserve, to conserve. Soon after, Partition happens. Years pass on, so does the mother, who slips away quietly after nursing a lot of pain and struggle. The poet releases the ashes into the river. What remains is a scar on the palms of his hands. The only gift that a son received from his mother apart from her memory, was this scar — finally, a gift that could be seen and held.

Mother Muse Quintet is more than just an ode to the memory of a mother. It is a recognition of beauty in fragility, glory in defiance, refuge in silence, and calm in chaos.

(Mother Muse Quintet by Naveen Kishore was published by Speaking Tiger.)