While the collection evokes the best of Kamala Das, the Nandy magic is missing.
This book is pure nostalgia. It is the third edition of the book that first appeared in 1977. The book did well in both the editions, says Nandy. The ink sketches by Manu Parekh — that the blurb calls ‘ stunning' and Nandy says ‘are brilliant' — look puh.
Pritish Nandy has already given his verdict on this book. It was always a bestseller and the book ‘ is about love. The magic and mystery of love, and the miracles it brings to your life'. There are two photographs of a young Kamala, looking aristocratically pretty, the Kerala way. Nandy, with white beard, and ring in his ear, is no longer the debonair man that the once young raving Kamala set her eye on, with his attractive prose poetry albums and ‘his belt wide as a poster'.
Down memory lane
Nandy's postscript ‘Remembering Kamala' is a walk down memory lane about their first meeting in Mumbai, in Bank House where Kamala then lived and conducted poetry meetings. Pritish Nandy looks with a little pity at Kamala's husband though, the guy who suffered it all ‘because Kamala became as famous and as notorious, if not more as Madhavi Kutty after she started her English writings'. Nandy also remembers endearingly that Kamala took credit for midwifing his torrid romance after his meeting ‘ with an amazingly beautiful woman from Ahmedabad' in one of the poetry meeting episodes in Bank House. He mentions ‘another whirlwind romance, another book of poems' but doesn't include any babies. By now we know, that Bank House, Mumbai, is poetry history for Indian Poetry in English.
Tonight This Savage Rite contains many Kamala poems that have been anthologised worldwide. Included are the poems “In Love”, (Of what does the burning mouth of sun, burning in today's sky remind me…oh, yes, his mouth…) as also her controversial relationship poems “Stone Age” (Fond husband, ancient settler in the mind, old fat spider…, ‘you build round me a shabby drawing room where she manages to shake away the cage and run to the other man when you leave/I drive my blue battered car… I run up forty noisy steps to knock at another's door (where she meets her ‘lion)….. Ask me the flavour of his mouth, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake, before it clasps my pubis). Kamala's talent lets her defend her infidelity (?), allowing all the blame squarely on the man she weds.
There are celebrated poems as “The old play house” and “Morning at Apollo Pier” as are her best-loved poems as “The Sunshine Cat” (A streak of sunshine lying near the door like a yellow cat…) and “Summer in Calcutta”. Kamala's poems are mostly spun around her broken marital relationship and search for free uninhibited love. They are known for their passionate intensity, natural sensuous perception, and chided for their strange lack of craft as well.
I prefer pre-1977 Nandy, with poems such as “Near Dehapriya Park they found him at last” or ‘ ”Calcutta if you must exile me…”.Those poems will not be forgotten. Nandy has memorable love poems too, such as the one with the line your hair caught on the metal strap of my watch… I am quoting Nandy from memory, back in the early 1970s.
Sadly, the Nandy magic is missing in this collection. Was Nandy aware of his failing poetic powers when he gave up his poetry, to turn to finance and the media? Take “Tonight”, the first poem in this book. Within my hands, your small breasts move into the twilight: yes, we have loved like the wind that swirls into the seasons... A lot of words, but, where's the impact?
Or “Tattered Skyline”? When daybreak returns, we shall realize once more that forever means an empty room, a tired night swirling into nowhere when I shore up to your tattered skyline. Heard that before?
Take “The Wind”. My tongue travels to your navel, and downwards: I cling to your body, my breath in the shadow of your breath. Someday perhaps the sea will reveal will reveal itself, the delirium of the flesh fatigue at dawn.
The act is well explained, but through fatigue, not poetry. Though Nandy uses poetic words ‘winter', ‘whirlwind' or ‘the rain shall undress you into silent submission' while trying hard to pull himself through, they don't reap dividends.
Here's “Come Closer”. I have been walking down the river, listening to the one way wind blowing our shadows across the water: I have been listening to the voices of flowers watching the runaway rain. So what? Ishita's redesign of the book is the book's crowning feather.