Poetry Books

‘Paper Asylum’: The magnificent in the ordinary

I think the time for haibun has come, given the small reading screens and attention deficits,” says Rochelle Potkar in her introduction to Paper Asylum, a collection of haibun beautifully produced by Copper Coin. The haibun is popular these days, forming a rich sub-culture of sorts, not entirely because of “attention deficits” as Potkar indicates, but also because, as a mixed-genre form, it surprises us with its freshness, beginning with the fact that, like the haiku, it does not have a plural form, not in Japanese, not in English.

‘Paper Asylum’: The magnificent in the ordinary

Walk that bridge between the title and that long road of prose and turn the corner. What you will find awaiting you there is a haiku or, sometimes a senryu (which focuses on people rather than on references to seasons and to nature).

First used by 17th century Japanese poet Basho, the term haibun now encompasses many things: autobiography, diary, prose poem, travel journal, short story and essay, all accompanied by a haiku, which is like a destination one arrives at rather suddenly. Contemporary haibun contain all sorts of combinations and arrangements of prose and haiku.

Link and shift

The haibun in Paper Asylum, unlike your typical short story, are shot through with sensory details which have the intended effect of slowing you down, making for a curious reading experience. It is unsettling at first, especially if you are not used to the haibun form, to chance upon the haiku or senryu embedded in between or at the end of short prose pieces about people and landscapes. But one gets the hang of that soon enough and begins to make sense of the ways in which the haiku gesture towards or converse with the prose text.

One learns to look for that “link and shift” between the title, the prose text and the haiku. In addition, of course, there is that all-important “link and shift” so crucial to the internal dynamics of the haiku — making for a many-layered experience. To read a haibun then is to play a happy game of ‘spot the link and shift’.

Potkar’s grasp of the domestic and the familial is impressive and is a hallmark of many a haibun in this collection. ‘Asylum’, for instance, describes the intense claustrophobia of a woman who is stuck inside a small apartment with noisy in-laws and a daughter who is throwing up. The narrator’s in-laws have soured over [her] request for quiet. (The word “soured” immediately conjures up the idea of vomit.) What ultimately comes to the woman’s rescue is her ability to dream up magnificent views which causes the window frame to expand.

The haiku that follows — this globule/ of desert/ is rain-drenched/ if ever dawn/ reveals you — neatly links the prison-like interior space to a desert, on the one hand, and the magnificent view to a drenching by rain on the other. There is, at the same time, a shift in the scene that is being described. ‘Reflux’ navigates a similar landscape and does it equally well.

Small twist

Potkar is a convincing raconteur and can tell a story well. In fact, haibun with an obvious dramatic element or a small twist and those that trace the arc of a particular character appear to be her forte. Mrs. Kumar of ‘Snakes and Ladders’, for instance, is someone you won’t easily forget, though I find that the haiku at the very end of that piece links a little too obviously to the prose. This obviousness is something one notices about a couple of other haibun in the collection as well.

The haibun that really pack a punch are ‘Broken Shells’ which describes the fertility treatment that a woman undergoes and ‘Scabbard’ which begins with the idea of the colour turmeric, goes on to talk about the violence of a saffron-clad mob and takes an altogether unexpected direction. In both these haibun, the link and shift between the title and the prose text are skilfully carried out.

The haibun is a hard act of pull off and calls for a great deal of dexterity and skill. Potkar’s confident narration and her archiving of the ordinary through this quaint yet thoroughly contemporary form makes Paper Asylum a book you will want to read.

The writer is poet, fiction writer and Professor of Literature at IIT Madras.

Paper Asylum; Rochelle Potkar, Copper Coin, ₹295

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 10:17:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/paper-asylum-the-magnificent-in-the-ordinary/article25191759.ece

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