Literary Review

Always trust the witches: Keki Daruwalla on poetry from the Northeast and elsewhere in India

"Metre gauge railway tracks running through forests have turned into a metaphor for a way of life that we have left behind."  

The instruments of darkness, by which Shakespeare, and perforce I mean the witches, came to me a few nights ago and they first said:

“I see through dark, take my call

The queen will win but still she’ll fall.”

The second witch, more explicit, said:

“Double double toil and trouble

Trump will win. All will be rubble.”

The third:

“Fair is foul and foul is fair

Poisoned will be Delhi’s air.

New York? Worse, if you walk in

to a liberal’s affrighted lair.”

Being less credulous than Macbeth, I paid no heed and am left with regrets. If I knew a bookie and had trusted the witches, I could have made some demonetised money by betting on Donald Trump. Moral of the story: never underrate a huckster or a groper in an election.

To poetry then. There are some poets you feel honoured to write about. Two of them — Eunice de Souza and Saleem Peeradina — have published recently. Peeradina, once from Bombay (not Mumbai then), lives now in Michigan and teaches at Siena Heights University. His fifth collection, Final Cut, published from Valley Press, Scarborough, U.K., is as effortlessly chiselled a volume as you are likely to find. The poems are still life vignettes on birds, fruit, and ruminations. To quote Craig Raine, “These poems are hymns of praise — to birds, to objects, to fruits and to our human bodies...” He goes on to say that “Saleem Peeradina is one of the most important Indian poets writing in the English language.”

The first poem ‘The ‘Lesson’’ is on a different scale, as he discusses the art and craft of poetry: Take a sheet of paper the size of a drawing pad. The universe,/ as we perceive it, must be accommodated within the borders/ of this rectangle. Draw a circle the size of a marble to represent/ the earth, then hitch the moon to it. This travel companion will never/ leave the Earth’s side. Now surround them with planets in their proper/ elliptical positions.

These are not throwaway lines. Each painter puts his personal universe on a canvas, as poets place it on a page. A novelist puts it on many pages. There’s another lovely poem ‘You, in a Dream’.

Slipping forward out of history’s past, I was

Zhivago on a tram and you Lara, so near,

on the pavement heading out of view

to a future I could not hold back

with a wave or a shout. If I missed you

by a heartbeat, I missed you by a century.

de Souza’s Learn from the Almond Leaf is more a booklet (26 pages) than a volume. The poems enchant all the same. Take the title poem, all of it:

I learn from the almond leaf

which flames as it falls.

The ground is burning.

The earth is burning.

Flamboyance

is all.

Another snapshot poem goes like this: The moon is feeling her age./ All this waxing and waning/ A long haul/ to no purpose./ Even the dogs howl. One thought the poem was going nowhere, but the last line with its burden of omen and augury, brings a brilliant end. Just one poem, ‘Kite Season’, has her trademark stab: The trees are festooned with kites/ of many colours./ The trees are festooned with birds/ hanging by a wing/ an entangled leg/ glass-coated string.

This year’s Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize, instituted by his daughter Aparna Rayaprol, went to Goirick Brahmachari, an economic research consultant, hailing from Silchar, who now lives in Delhi. The winning poem ‘Meter Gauge’ is a corker: The narrow track that runs through the wild forests of Dima Hasao,/ Disappears from my memory. Every day I forget a little--/ Many tunnels/ And bridges we had crossed once,/ Now reappear,/ In a song./ How the elephants taught the night train to whistle,/ How these birds fell. How they died and melted/ On to that river. How we took to hate/ and burnt those bridges. How we collected storms,/ To forget a road that led to our homes./ How we burnt down a memory.. The narrow track that runs through the wild forests/ Slowly disappears from the map. There are no bridges./ No trains run through them./ Only the ghosts of disjoint tracks/ That meander in the cold shivers of the night winds.

Meter gauge railway tracks running through forests have turned into a metaphor for a way of life that we have left behind. A small suggestion. Cut down the article ‘a’ from a line. It should just read “How we burnt down memory.” Others shortlisted for the prize were Chandramohan S., Harnidh Kaur, Priyam Goswami and Ray Shankar Sen.

Why are poems from the Northeast dismal? Sample this: Shillong, 1980... My uncle a communist, a Brahman,/ is kicking the soft belly of his sister, The wooden floor/ of old pinewood Shillong, that silence of my mother’s/ 1980 Shillong, falling apart with the thrusts of his shoes/ on her soft skin. This is the silence of the shadows/ of my grandparents watching over the proceedings. But there’s humour too: My mother orders her monthly groceries/ On amazon.in, but collects her monthly gossip/ at the local store.

Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet and novelist.

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