Naveen Kishore’s Mother Muse Quintet is a moving ode to the inevitable passage of time, to individual memory as it attempts to mark this passage, to the love that is careful remembering and to the loss that is forgetting.
Organised as quintets that serve as a mood-map, the verses circle back to the poet’s relationship with his mother and to the intimate and ordinary magic of the memories they share. There is a certain crispness to the edges of these memories that defy fuzziness. Describing his mother, the speaker says: In my mind, the sari she wore is always a pale pink. Almost ivory. And a chiffon.
There is no attempt at embellishing the snapshot nature of memory. It is what it is, even in its fallibility: It is the seamlessness of remembering that amazes me. Memories. Yours and mine. The ones you enthralled me with on our long walks. And much later, my retelling of the ‘tales’ you told me. ‘Making up’ what had slipped past me.
But, of course, memory fails at some point, as it does for the poet’s mother. There is that fog that comes unannounced and the mother’s face is “no longer the home” the speaker used to come back to. Our breath catches at the lines:
You gifted me my memory.
We did not know then
that one day you would lose yours.
In employing a metaphor straight out of Hansel and Gretel, the opening lines of Mother Muse Quintet foreshadow what is to come — the mother’s loss of memory:
She carried crumbs. Every single morning. The smell of bread. Every single morning. For as long as I can remember. For as long as she can remember. She never forgot to scatter the crumbs. In every conversation. Like puzzles. Or clues. To help her find her way home.
There is no going back
The poems draw us into a timeless space where we can rest in an awareness of the moment, even as we understand the terrible truth that the door of the past is closed to us. There is no going back and yet the human mind dwells in the past, continues to paint a picture of it, yearns to make sense of it and to communicate it to the world.
How do we take stock of the years that have slipped by? Is stock-taking even possible? And yet that is what we do or hope to do, however messily or imperfectly: what could we do what could we do to take stock halt time whatever it is that clocks do to bring back that one single moment.
Kishore’s poems are an attempt to parse all that has been or will be taken away from him: the everyday textures of the years spent with his mother, a cricket match, a grandfather who died years before his birth but introduced to him by his mother, his mother’s difficult illness, the amputation of her leg, the gradual crumbling of her self, her dementia. Every detail is vital and sensuous, every experience amplified.
The poems linger on loss, on the trauma that is his mother’s gradual fading out, on death and dying. The work he does of “overly” remembering, a resistance to letting go, the holding on to the ungraspable, to the slippery, to the dying, has universal resonance. There is a particularity to the memories he describes, to the woman who is his mother, to the boy that he was, but this particularity travels beyond its frame.
The mother herself is an intricately etched character. She opens gifts with care, belonging as she does to a generation that likes saving the wrapping. She is also a woman who has suffered much and all the speaker has as evidence of this suffering are snapshots from his own memory of her and that single photograph of his mother as a young woman who has been violated:
Fearing that the pack of braying hyenas would break down his door, my father’s elder brother, my own uncle, in whose care my father had left us, sacrificed her that day to the Holi revellers.
All I have is this photograph.
Memory flows riverine except for these blips — traumatic or violent events both familial and political.
To me, it is this verse that feels like the quintet’s natural conclusion and I will leave you with that. In case you need to find your way home.
I reached for my old lamp. Frosted
Cracked with the cold. Wiped
Striking a match. I coaxed the light
out of it.
Then I hung it on the door.
Mother Muse Quintet
The reviewer is a writer and Professor of Literature at Sai University, Chennai. Her recent book is ‘This Kind of Child: The ‘Disability’ Story’.