Naveen Kishore’s Knotted Grief opens with an image of a caged bird that has been granted the “freedom” to fly. Unable to bear the vastness of the sky, the bird reconciles with its captivation when it realises that its cagelessness is “humiliating”. Thus begins the poet’s (and reader’s) tryst with grief. Intrinsic and inescapable to being alive, our grief – in all its complications and humiliations – make us who we are.

Shared griefs

Kishore does not give you time to prepare for such sorrow. The title reveals right away what the pages inside convey – a knot of grief where the private intersects with the personal. In the daily rigours of life, we find it easier to participate in collective grief rather than sitting with our own. Perhaps this is why the collection opens with “Kashmiriyat”, which is also its lengthiest segment.

In 105 poems, Kishore illuminates the perpetual grief and conflict that looms like a shadow over the valleys of Kashmir. Here we can ask ourselves, what do we know of such grief? And the answer most likely to be is – nothing at all. Yet, news headlines and Kashmiris remind us every so often that despite the relative peace in the mainland, there is much suffering not very far from us. In fact, if we were to talk about the famed, heavenly beauty of Kashmir, the conversation is also very likely to lead to the unimaginable violence that the residents face every day.

“Watermelon heads
every single day”

This deceivingly simple poem reveals a startling contrast – extinguishing a human life is no different than cutting up a fruit. Though of course, here human life has not been granted the dignity of a clean death – they have been violently butchered. After all, the spillage of brains and guts in a land ravaged by violence is as ordinary as the mushy waste of an exploded watermelon.

While reading “Kashmiriyat”, I had conjured up an image of a child wandering through the streets of Kashmir. The year does not matter. I imagined this child witnessing scenes of suffering as he walks from one house to the other. He sees dead men “learning to dream” with their eyes shut and women “hurrying to bury the dead” at sunrise.

Night is perpetual in Kashmir, yet the earth rotates on its axis as if all is right. The child is a mute witness – there’s not much he can do – yet he is the only one who can recount the griefs of his people to posterity. While I was reading with this complicated image in my mind, I come across these following striking sentences. The poet seemed to have read my mind.

“. . .on a clear and blue sky is heard
the song of the winter wind
utterly and completely silent
a child’s memory of the future?”

Even in the face of endless grief, the poet notes how the people of Kashmir desire life and beauty. He imagines that the stones hide beneath them “reams and reams of poetry”, the dead “hum[ming] in whispers” about their dying, and a magician cuts a body in half as the audience applauds with “bloody hands”. The juxtaposition of creation and death paints an eerie picture – can there be hope where there is so much sorrow?

The segment closes with the return of the caged bird – still a pitiful creature longing to return to its cage. We are left with the hapless bird’s cries ringing in our ears and a knowing/gnawing fear that the nights in Kashmir will continue to burn “ceaselessly endlessly incessantly unceasingly interminably constantly perpetually continually relentlessly.”

In the second segment, “Street Full of Widows”, I imagine a battleground after all the warriors and victims have exited. The disjointed sentences (the wide spaces between the words) perhaps signal to a void that can never be filled.

“When you have seen enough/the night explodes/and another day begins/” Kishore highlights the plight of women in such conflicts – waiting, grieving, moving on with life. Harmless games of children also bear witness to a perpetual suffering. What answers do we have for them and how do we protect their innocence? The poet admits that we cannot and life goes on as it always has.

“The deserted street
allows the child
to play hopscotch
she hops on one legs
the other
muttering names
of missing friends
under her breath
the lake waters
in silence
no one speaks ill of the dead
no one

Private griefs

The segment that comes next is “Selected Griefs”. Here the poet probes into the grief that afflicts us in private. The poems confront our lifelong nemeses – regret, guilt, ageing, and death. Every morning we wake up to find ourselves at mercy of another unpredictable day. So much of it is beyond our control yet we are plagued with worries of forgetting and being forgotten.

“There was no sign of rain that morning
in fact it was business as usual
wake up turn to your husband request your tea
collapse into his almost arms
and to think she had no practice
and that’s the thing you see
it was entirely unrehearsed
her exit”

The segments “Tilted Sky”, “Under the Skin”, and “Birdcall” use images of the natural world in dream-sequences to illustrate the fantastical nature of sorrow and longing. Short segments with a few long-ish poems, reading them one after the other left me breathless. The poems make you acutely aware of fleeting time and the minutes of life ticking away.

So why do we read about grief and sit with our sadness when the world around us is already on fire? Knotted Grief reminds us that our sorrows can also be our life source – it can teach us to create, value, fight and resist, and ultimately, find joy in living.

Mary Oliver said it best in her poem “Heavy”:

“It’s not the weight you carry
But how you carry it –
Books, bricks, grief –
It’s all in the way
You embrace it, balance it, carry it,
When you cannot, and would not,
Put it down.”

— 'Heavy', Mary Oliver.

Knotted Grief, Naveen Kishore, Speaking Tiger Books.