My childhood was spent in the Blue Mountains, Nilgiris, surrounded by a faultlessly blue sky, endless stretches of hills, and a gentle people,” Shobhana Kumar says in her introduction to her collection of haibun — a Japanese form in which haiku are interleaved with prose. It is to these words that I found myself returning after having read the book. For they felt somehow like clues to the work, almost a foreshadowing of the gentleness and the spaciousness that I had just encountered.
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“How do you touch a place that is unnamed yet?” That is the question ‘Lethologica’, a wry investigation into the nature of pain, poses. The haiku that follows is not so much a response as a deliberate detour, a deft linking and shifting characteristic of the Japanese poetic tradition: “meditation/ learning to focus/ despite pins and needles”.
What is it that Shobhana sees? What does she want us to see with her, I asked myself. In ‘Colours’, her eyes come to rest on a “lone corner” where “a widowed grand-aunt sits amidst piles of wedding gifts”. The invisible is nudged into half-light. So this perhaps is what the poet feels is her calling — to write the forgotten and the invisible, like the alcoholic whose “last call to his family is cut half-way through” or the transgender abandoned as a son but coming back to take care of her parents as a daughter.
Shobhana draws deftly on the two interconnected archives of the personal and the social. Her haibun are not laboured but are of the moment, the accompanying haiku offering the prose a soft yet unexpected landing. ‘Post-mortem’, a short biography-in-images of a wall-painter working on a new highrise who slips from the fourth floor trying to save a fellow painter from falling, concludes with a stunning monoku: “broken a kite falls into the sewer.”
I found the separation of haibun into sections and the use of the theatrical vocabulary of acts and scenes somewhat distracting. This, however, does not take away from the integrity of the collection, beautifully produced by Red River.
Shobhana tethers life moments to images with brevity and exactness, which is where the work of poetry lies.
A Sky Full of Bucket Lists; Shobhana Kumar, Red River, ₹230
The reviewer’s latest book is the poetry collection , The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans.