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The anxiety of being Sujata

There is an unevenness to Sujata Bhatt's Indian poems because she feels compelled to put on her post-colonial hat. Her European poems are invigorating, says ARVIND KRISHNA MEHROTRA.

SINCE writers are autobiographical creatures, and the poets among them are more obviously autobiographical than the novelists, it is not surprising to find Sujata Bhatt telling us as much as she does about herself and her family in her poems. Looking at just those in her new collection, her fourth if we do not count the selected poems that appeared in 1997, we learn that her father, a virologist, was living in the United States, in New Orleans, in the early 1950s. In New Orleans in 1953, she writes, "some people thought my mother was Spanish / or Italian or Greek". Once when her mother was sitting in the rear of a bus, where the Blacks normally sat, the driver asked her to move to the front, for that was no place for her. To her credit, her mother refused to change her seat. It is also in New Orleans that Sujata Bhatt, as a five- year-old, learnt her first English words, a whole new alphabet to go with the new world as she puts it. Later in the same poem she writes, "In a convent school in Poona, / . . . the very very old Miss Ghaswalla / managed to change / my New Orleans style. / History is a broken narrative / where you make your language when you change it." The phrase History is a broken narrative is the poem's refrain as well as its title and the title of a section in the book. It is not every day that one meets a poet who can milk a cliche so assiduously.

Bhatt's father's mother thought less of her beautiful, fair- complexioned daughter-in-law than the New Orleans bus driver did. She comes across as another Miss Ghaswalla, another of those wicked old crones that leap out of story books, petrifying the child the story is being told to. Honeymoon is addressed to her and this is how it concludes:

What great bitterness was it
that made you decide
your twelve-year-old daughter, my father's sister,
had to accompany my parents
on their honeymoon?

It is not unusual for Bhatt to end a poem with a suggestive question to which there is no definite answer, or to conclude it with a pregnant dash. A good example of the latter is "Diabetes Mellitus", which is dedicated to her other grandmother, her mother's mother. It is also short enough to be quoted in full:

Imagine, if Gandhiji had
had it - the wrong chromosome 

perhaps the inability to metabolise sugar he would never have been able to survive all his fasts. Like you, he would have gone quietly, in a coma

This is school magazine stuff at best, but, to be also fair to her, not all the poems in My Mothers Way of Wearing a Sari are quite as bad. On the contrary, there are some that are positively invigorating, and reading them is to be reminded of the Sujata Bhatt of "White Asparagus", that redolent, much-anthologised, even magical poem about female sexual desire from Monkey Shadows. One of these is not about desire at all but about an object, "A Mammoth Bone". In it she traces the bone's journey from the Dogger Bank , where it was caught by a Dutch fisherman, to its new home:

Now it lies beneath my desk,
near my feet - like a dog
tired and happy
after a long walk

The poem appears towards the end of the book, and if the dash works this time it's not just because the reader has grown accustomed to its use. It works because the poem itself works. "A Mammoth Bone" flows from beginning to end with great rapidity, its short lines lifting cleanly off the page, without muddle or obfuscation. Too many commas and full-stops would have been almost like an impediment. The punctuation aids the poem; the poem justifies the punctuation. The dash comes from Emily Dickinson of course, and it is a tribute to Bhatt's craft that she has used it to good effect.

Sujata Bhatt, then, is an exasperatingly uneven poet. She can write like a novice, and, again, she can write like someone who knows her job and takes pride in the fact that she can do it well. Is there any pattern to this unevenness? To me it seems that her Indian poems, and not just those about her family and her New Orleans or Poona past, are far less successful than those in which she writes about whatever she finds attention-grabbing in the present, in Europe. It could be a mammoth bone or a birch outside her window in winter, skintight with ice. Or something triggered by a visit to Andalusia, or Lodz, or Riga. Bhatt is among the few Indian poets who can write memorable travel verse. Or it could be someone speaking. "A Swimmer in New England Speaks" is one, and "The Snake Catcher Speaks" another. And here is Jane to Tarzan: "Already you have changed my eyelids, / my ears, the nape of my neck - / The way I lift my head to listen." But ask her to listen to the "Voice of an Unwanted Girl" and she lapses into the kind of prose Delhi-based Indian journalists write when they are trying to do something special, which is all the time: "Mother, I am the one you sent away / when the doctor told you / I would be a girl - your second girl."

The difference between Sujata Bhatt's Indian poems and her European ones is that when she is writing the former she feels compelled to put on her postcolonial, multicultural hat, so much so that she titles one poem "The Multicultural Poem". Think of the self-irony, the deadpan humour A. K. Ramanujan would have brought to a poem with a title such as this. But think also what Sujata Bhatt's fate might have been had postcolonial critics caught wind of the fact that when she uses the word khadi in one of her poems, she finds it necessary to gloss it in the next line: it is hand-spun, hand-woven cotton. Fortunately, poetry is not what they're scenting after here. At least not yet.

My Mother's Way of Wearing a Sari, Sujata Bhatt, Penguin, p.108, Rs. 150.

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