poetry picks

Three emerging Indian women poets with voices you cannot ignore

Often flying beneath the radar, these poets are likely to be heard of widely, and soon.

Today, many eclectic Indian women poets are examining the role of form in contemporary poetry. They need to be spoken about and their work duly showcased. Here are three such writers:

Sohini Basak
For Sohini, poetry has been a tryst with a series of astonishments. She confesses that she chronicles everything obsessively till a poem is born. She's fascinated by trees, windows and streets. She has a quaint kinship with poetry, and says that it all began with writing rhyming verse about animals.
Sometimes You Dream of Wolves Not Foxes
fur green I watch your face emerge
at the vanishing point of dawn
you tread the dry river beds with ease
you have crossed higher fences fir lined
valleys blur with the sound in your throat
I claimed this road but you made a bridge
this earth is no longer mine nor wholly yours
could we be both dew and gravel?

Sohini writes about  animals with the same “phantasmagoric and anecdotal impulse” of a Russell Edson poem, minus the Ted Hughes bravado and bestiality. Could this be born out of a Jungian impulse : dreams originating in the unconscious moving autonomously into the conscious and external space of a poem? Her ruminations end on a timorous, indecisive note: could we be both dew and gravel? Sohini says the poem was partly inspired by Wisława Szymborska's  poem, 'The Joy of Writing'
It started with matchboxes. On my first collectible I
Recall a black ship sailing, so on the second, its twin found
En route to school. I traded in duplicates. With time,
Memorabilia changed to notebooks. I collected in between:
Eagle’s feathers, shiny wrapping paper, phone numbers,
Magnets, and all those letters addressed to you. Rhyming
Billets-doux, confessionals, pieces of my mind and heart
Engraved in red: ink feelings spilling over the borders.

The word “mnemonic”, is for me synonymous with “The Kreb's cycle”. It reminds me of everything  that is grade twelve. It's how one teaches oneself to learn; in the absence of a teacher, or a parent who sits with you while you do your homework. The word is also the story Memento Mori and Jonathan Nolan.

Sohini's poem Mnemonic opens with the word “matchboxes”. Nothing  grand, nothing spectacular but just the arresting image of the sentence: It started with matchboxes. One would expect pyrotechnics after an opening like this.

But no. She goes on to talk about objects almost as stealthily as W.G. Sebald, including photographs: delicately, sumptuously. Sohini's assiduous obsession with collection of random objects, bric-à-brac,  brings to mind the Polish poet Anna Kamieńska and her lines from the poem A Nest of Quiet: A Notebook:

"I’ve liked boxes since childhood. I kept my wretched treasures in them, scraps, bits of glass. Then letters, family keepsakes. But now there’s nothing good enough. Can you fit love into a box? Even the final box can’t hold a person."

Sohini writes further :

"Realizing that age calls for gravity, it was pebbles."

Pebbles! She pens this sentence as a profoundly simple thought, almost as simple as a barn swallow caught, mid-flight. I can't think of pebbles and stones sans the Beckettian genius of Molloy – the stone sucking sequence: luminously absurd. Sohini gives us that too.
Sacrilegiously I have packed away the thingamajigs. In
Memories I trade, to deserted islands I ship them away.
En fete, I made a bonfire with the fire hoarded inside

Sohini Basak’s poems should be read because she collects boulders and all things that have weight.  Her poems teach you How Not to Freak Out When You Wake Up Invisible. And you learn words like thingamabob. It's a win-win. Read four of her poems.

Nandini Dhar

First, a candid statement from Nandini Dhar posted on her blog about herself:

"I was a very political person even then, leftist in a way that my views could never really be comfortably accommodated anywhere in America– whether it’s a grad seminar, graduate student hangout, community creative writing workshops. But I was yet to be completely disillusioned by the dominant strands of US (neoliberal?) identity politics. My understandings of race, gender, class and capital were far more book-learned, tended to be in binaries, and shorn of the complexities of lived experiences. I used to live in an organizational/collective void, failed to find any viable political collectivity myself, and was using my poems to fill up that void."

If Virginia Woolf were to to participate in a television drama series like LOST, whom would she like to be lost with? Who would have the authority to call her Mem-Sahib? Does Nandini explore the same dissonance and smallness of gendered desire that Woolf was interested in? Is Nandini simply tearing Woolf apart?

I refer to Arnold Benett's idea of restricting the scope of  the essay being apolitical and non partisan. Nandini is not tame. No sir! She's feral. Her blog describes her as a 'professional faultfinder and inveterate bullshitter.' She writes the poem irreconcilable:lines for virginia mem-sahib in the voice of Mary Beton's cook. That is incredible.
Sample these lines:
since 1835,
when abhinavagupta, shudrak, and rumi were forced to sit
tight-packed on a single shelf, leaving the rest of the world to alphabets
that jumped out of ships and judge-sahib’s wigs, textbooks have perfected
the art of making crazed scribbling-chicks look tame.
tame enough to be tapestried into buttercream muslin pillow cases
tame enough to be painted on jasmine-white schoolroom walls

And these lines where she critiques the institution of marriage, cheekily calling it 'holy matrimony'.
you were running,
your skirt hitched up to your knees,
from the very old man
with scissors for clipping the wings of women
who build abodes other than the ones thrust upon them
by holy matrimony.

These lines remind me of Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out and the text below:

"Marriage, marriage that was the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by every one she knew, and a great part of her meditations was spent in tracing every instance of discomfort, loneliness, ill-health, unsatisfied ambition, restlessness, eccentricity, taking things up and dropping them again, public speaking, and philanthropic activity on the part of men and particularly on the part of women to the fact that they wanted to marry, were trying to marry, and had not succeeded in getting married. If, as she was bound to own, these symptoms sometimes persisted after marriage, she could only ascribe them to the unhappy law of nature which decreed that there was only one Arthur Venning, and only one Susan who could marry him."

What I found rather interesting is that through a vexed yet persuasive voice, Nandini's poem compels us to look at diverse polar critiques of Virginia's work: Arnold Bennet, David Daiches, Robert Stanley Martin and Naomi Black.

Divya Rajan

Divya lives in a Buddhist monastery in an idyllic town, south of the Himalayas, inside her head. I also managed to find out that she loves growing different varieties of mint, parsley and she “pines for greens”. Her parents being avid readers, she learnt to devour nutritional labels, newspaper wrappings and manuals. But her poetry is serious, often cathartic and distilled.

"It is said that the quintessence
of poetry is a cold, dry, exhausted
- Inoue Yasushi

What do you think of when you hear the title Factory Girls? Not loo breaks and desiccated leaves borne by acacias. Yet, Divya Rajan gives you exactly that. It is all Radiohead – think of Radiohead's video for All I Need, MTV's exit campaign: the glacial distancing, the aching capacity to embrace the ordinary.

Divya's poems are steeped deeply in the wabi-sabi aesthetic. There is a deep sense of astringency and frugality to her poetry. Yet, I find a deep sense of purpose; the kind that is cultivated. I'm tempted to quote the lyrics of a Radiohead song and compare it with her poem Factory Girls.

I am a moth / who just wants to share your light / i’m just an insect / trying to get out of the night. Divya Rajan is all Thom Yorke and here's why:
From behind glass frames, scarred
with moth- like mausoleum fires, we
pore at tall steel buildings, megaliths
with stretched spines,
new ones preceding the old.
They kiss the sky with corroded lips
the shade of jaded gray.

She talks about the putrid conditions of women working in factories with extraordinary humanity and understated panache. The following closing lines are frightfully close to the extended look at the sneakers at the end of the Radiohead video.

"We work hard
to kill people we don't know.
The ones who can afford
to die."

Divya Rajan's poem reminds me of what Naomi Klein said: “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.” This poem compels you to reevaluate your loo breaks and whom you think of when you visit your closest shopping mall, and think hard.

"It's all wrong/It's all right/It's all wrong."

The second poem that I'd like to discuss is titled Brand Names are Important. Divya starts the poem with an epigraph from the film Poetry:

“ 'When Alzheimer strikes, the nouns are the first words to go.' That’s what the doctor tells the central female character in Poetry, Lee Chang-dong’s poignant movie."

Divya is peerless in her knack for chronicling unobtrusiveness, pain and rusticity. Sample these lines:
There was a time when she’d ogle
At the incongruities, disproportionate parameters, faded corners
Of the used blender, dishwasher, coffee grinder, microwave, oven,
Appliances on pitch granite. She’d touch the surface
To check for grease, ready the ammonia solution.
Not anymore.
Clutches of the consonants, arching vowels
Into strict oblongs. It’s important to tame the waywards,
They don’t crack like consonants, fluidity begging
To be reined in.
Hamilton Beach, Frigidaire, Bosch, Kenmore.
Whatever is repeated, thrives.
That’s true for floss, and other things too.
Waking up with dislodged memory, is a fear
She shall not succumb to.
Forgetfulness is a trait she shall not inherit.

This poem silenced me. That's probably the greatest homage to be paid to stunningly adroit words put together to make a poem as fascinating as this. I'll leave you with the same tranquillity I experienced.

Read Divya's poems.

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