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Allow Us To Steal A Whiff

Daruwalla’s ancient longings, Subramaniam’s wry humour, Swami’s colluding worlds and Goswami’s versatility—a bouquet of poetry for all occasions

Allow Us To Steal A Whiff
Allow Us To Steal A Whiff
Selected Poems
By Joy Goswami Translated from Bengali by Sampurna Chattarji
Harper Perennial | Pages: 237 | Rs. 350
When God Is A Traveller
By Arundhathi Subramaniam
HarperCollins | Pages: 104 | Rs. 399
Escape Artist
By Sridala Swami
Aleph | Pages: 74 | Rs. 195
Fire Altar
By Keki N. Daruwalla
HarperCollins | Pages: 161 | Rs. 350

A frustratingly inherent constraint of reviewing multiple books within a very tight word-limit is that one can only touch upon each volume very briefly, but it is better to flag them proudly than to leave them fluttering in the distance invisibly. In Ranjit Hoskote’s volume, the author “becomes the storyteller of a turbulent epoch. We meet Ovid and Ghalib, poets in exile or in eclipse.” I have earlier reviewed this book in these pages (June 2, 2014), so I will take up the others.

Keki Daruwalla, an accomplished senior practitioner of English poetry, is someone whose work I have admired for decades—especially the three books, Crossing of Rivers, The Keeper of the Dead and Landscapes, which rank among my favourites of his oeuvre. His latest volume, Fire Altar, “is a journey in search of roots, meaning and religious and social understanding”, and contains poems written over a two-year period between 1991-93, inspired by the Persians and the Greeks. A ten-­rupee volume of Herodotus’s poe­try was the chief, accidental instigator behind these verses. Unsurprisingly, characters and places such as Pasargadae, Euphrates, Tomyris, Delphi, Persepolis, Cambyses, Firdausi, Arbela and many other resonant ones richly populate this layered volume.

The five Persepolis Sonnets spring with subtle litheness, “The aura fogged, air ether-clean/and lightly breathed the planet’s lungs”. In a complete shift of tonality and texture in the poem The Arab Grammarian Ruminates on the Fate of Bokhara, Daruwalla writes, “Apostatise is not a verb I am happy with./Yet I must use it here./The desserts of apostasy are well known and just—/the scimitar descending on the accursed neck”. It is ordinarily difficult to render old histories and geographies in a contemporary idiom and to make them come alive—Keki Daruwalla does this with panache and elegance.

Escape Artist by Sridala Swami was described by the jury as “a diviner’s eloquent testimony to survival in a world of dissolving certitudes, precarious relationships, transcontinental mobility and political cataclysm”. Her first book of poems, A Reluctant Survivor, was published under the Sahitya Akademi’s Navodaya Series (sel­ected and prefaced by Keki Daruwa­lla). Her new volume, containing nearly fifty poems, is quite a leap forward—both in terms of maturity of outlook and enterprise, as well as nuanced handling of the craft.

Her experimental poem, h_ngw_m_n, with lines from Paul Celan, is set up in two-columns. It works at various levels and in multifarious ways—as a dialogue between the two poets, as two separate poems, as one poem with two echoing voices, and more—setting up a beautiful interplay between the italicised and the antithesis, the black-inked and white spaces. Another poem, The Evidence of Eyes, plays with the duality of ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, and the inherent tension that arise when hierarchies collide and collude. As the volume’s opening burst, here is a clever poem in full, Hypersomnia: “This is where/everything means/becomes/the thin thought/only at day break.//You can’t make omelettes/withought breaking eggs.”

When God is a Traveller, a collection by Arundhati Subramaniam, contains “poems of wonder and precarious elation, about learning to embrace the seemingly disparate landscapes of hermitage and court, the seemingly diverse addresses of mystery and clarity, disruption and stillness”. This is her fourth volume of poetry, the first three being: On Cleaning Bookshelves, Where I Live: New and Selected Poems. Her work is marked by the clever way she brings alive the quotidian with wit and wry humour in a language that is lucid and unpretentious. An understated feminism underpins much of her poetry. Subtle turns of phrase and immediacy in her verse draw the unsuspecting readers into her intimate world-view.

Her poem Sharecropping is a good example of the above. Here are the opening two stanzas: “I’m wearing my mother’s sari,/her blood group,/her osteo-arthritic knee.//We’ve voted/for different men, same governments”. In the poem Bhakti (with some adulteration), she declares in a bold, empowered tone: “Allow me/some deluxe delusions.//Allow me to uncork you/.../so I can steal a whiff,/a whiff, no more,/of your crazy liquor.//Decant into my hipflask. Settle down into my pocket. Stay illicit”.

Selected Poems by Joy Gosw­ami, wonderfully and deftly translated from Bengali into English by Sampu­rna Chattarji, introduces the English rea­der to a major contemporary poet of Bangla who uses a linguistic tenor “that is powerful, inventive and often enigmatic”. Apart from extensive selections from three of his volumes—Surjo-Pora Chhai (Ashes, Burnt by the Sun, 1999), Moutat Moh­eswar (Shiva, My High, 2005), and Du Dondo Phowara Matro (No More Than a Spurt of Time, 2011), the book also contains in its colophon section, two formal interviews done between 2005-13 and extracts from Goswami’s essays from 1994-2008.

Joy’s poetry is wide-ranging and pol­itically engaged, but his verse can also be surreal: “What fraction of my blue book will you read?/Each page tightly stuck with dry venom/The only way to open it is to lick your finger repeate­dly//People will come and see a half-open book on the table./You’re sitting next to it. You died sitting there. Who knows when!” (Book).

In Relationships, a bare and pragma­tic scene is painted, almost like documentary reportage, with no hint of overt emotionality (perhaps the latter is couched for the private): “Relationships don’t last. Gradually they drown./When the water recedes, what remains is silt. Grass rises in it./Leaves, creepers, weeds are born.//A stray dog brings a dead crow from who knows where/Hides it in a jungle of weeds./Another dog comes chasing after him—/Snatches it from its jaws.//That’s what has happened between us—/What choice do we have but to accept it!” This book is a brilliant introductory compendium of the best of Joy Goswami’s work.

(Sudeep Sen’s Fractals: New & Selected Poems, Translations 1980-2015 is forthcoming)


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