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Remembering Frost

Poetry can offer kinship even when its readers are apart, in space and time.

Poetry can offer kinship even when its readers are apart, in space and time. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It was on a sunny, sultry afternoon decades ago, that I had my first acquaintance with Robert Frost.

That summer vacation, we were on a visit to our paternal grandmother’s house. After lunch, everyone else was taking a siesta. As there was nothing else to do, I decided to pay a visit to the attic. There may be some old books there, I thought, and I was planning to make a small library at home. I had already borrowed a small shelf from grandma and neatly arranged my Enid Blytons, Indrajal comics and some old magazines on it. I also acquired some abridged versions of Dickens, Shakespeare, Cronin etc., which my senior cousins had as their English textbooks. So a treasure hunt in those cob-webbed terrains of my ancestral house could result in some booty.

My search was fruitful. There was a pile of books in a corner covered in dust – old textbooks, magazines and some hardbound books. Stories by Maxim Gorky (well, I had heard about him); then Chekhov (may be good), and then a small volume of poetry with red-tinted edges: a book of Robert Frost’s poems. For a nine-year-old, it was an unfamiliar name. I may have dropped it back in the pile had it not been for the pictures; the book was so beautifully illustrated. Though the poems didn’t make any sense to me at that age, the pictures captured my imagination: tree-lined avenues, old chapels and houses, birds, brooks and boulders. (That 1946 edition came with commentary by Louis Untermeyer and was illustrated by John O’Hara Cosgrave). I picked the poetry book too and made my way back.

Later, I noticed that the flyleaf had my father’s name and his college hostel address. Below that, his three nephews had written their names and made their stamp of possession. I too promptly wrote my name under theirs, placed it on the library shelf and simply forgot about it.

It was years later that I remembered the book. We were reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening“ in class and our teacher asked us to do a report on Frost. By then I had acquired a penchant for poetry. So I happily agreed to collect the necessary material. On a Saturday afternoon, I hunted for that small volume on a top shelf and began to read – and got hooked for life!

From that day, a dose of Frost was my remedy for all weathers. I would read and re-read and would often come to the conclusion that I had (only) a lover’s quarrel with the world (From the poem “The Lesson for Today”).

Or the poems would pep me up just like

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

(Dust Of Snow)

During a contemplative mood, Frost made me wonder was something brushed across my mind/that no one on earth will ever find (from A Passing Glimpse).

Like all good things, that short romance also ended. Leaving behind books and poetry, stepping into the harsh reality of day-to-day life, balancing home and a career where facts and figures and mathematical precision counted more than poetical leanings, my love for Frost got shelved again.

* * *

Some years ago, my brother who lives in Connecticut, rang me to say that he was coming for the holidays and had got a surprise gift for me. No amount of cajoling would extract the actual details of this mysterious gift. As he usually brought some fancy items or chocolates, I did not fret about it much.

On his arrival, it was the usual excitement about meeting after a long time, sharing news, the usual teasing about how our looks had changed (for the worse, of course) and Amma trying to feed him all his favourite dishes in one go (as if he were starving abroad). The mystery gift was forgotten for the time being. After lunch, when everyone assembled in the drawing room for chit-chat, he produced a parcel for me .

It is a gift to you from Judith – he announced dramatically!

Now Judith was the eighty-plus old lady who lived alone in the apartment next to his, and as they were on very friendly terms, we were familiar with that name. She was a chatty, chirpy and pleasant American lady, she loved Indian food, her daughter visited her only rarely… these were details we knew. But we had never met.

I opened the parcel wondering what it was all about. It contained a book and two photos. A beautiful hardbound edition of Robert Frost’s poems. The photographs were very old – one of a young Frost and the other of an older Frost at a family gathering – both autographed by the poet himself!

Seeing the mystified look on my face, my brother explained: “Last week, when I was visiting her, I saw this book, and casually mentioned that Frost was your favourite author. Then she told me that Frost happened to be one of her father’s good friends and she was also an ardent fan of Frost. On the eve of my departure she came to my place and handed me this parcel with the words, ‘Give it to your sister. I don’t know her, but I know she will love it. And I would like to hand them over to someone who values them before I die.”

I was deeply touched by the noble gesture by an unknown kindred soul. I wanted to send her an e-mail, but my brother didn’t have her e-mail address.

“OK, I will send you her mail id once I get back,” he assured me, “And I will tell her that you were delighted with her gift.”

My brother went back after his short holiday and the matter of contacting Judith slowly slipped from my mind. It was some months later that I suddenly remembered that I had not as yet thanked her properly. The next time my brother called, I reminded him to collect Judith’s e-mail ID. He was silent for some time, then slowly said that Judith had collapsed in her home the previous week and she was in hospital at that moment.

“She won’t be coming back, chechi, she is totally paralysed. Even if she gets better, she will be shifted to an old age home,” my brother said.

Judith was moved to an assisted living home from the hospital and left for her heavenly abode some time after. My unwritten thank-you note still fills me with regret. But every time I take that volume in my hands, or wipe the dust from those old photos, I still feel that invisible thread of bonding that connects an elderly American, a middle-aged Indian and a famous poet who are practically strangers to each other but share a legacy of invisible kinship.

jayavattappilly@gmail.com


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Printable version | Aug 28, 2022 1:34:16 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/remembering-frost/article65750560.ece