Kushiara and Other Poems is Rimi Nath’s debut collection of poetry. Named after the River Kushiara, flowing through Karimganj town and separating Assam from Bangladesh, the collection comprises 60 poems of rare musical quality. I first read it in 2021. I did not plan to write about it.
But after reading it the first time, I found myself going back to it again and again: a poem here, a poem there now and then. I was intrigued. What was it in this book that drew me into its world this way? I decided to find out by having one more careful reading.
The first thing that strikes me about this collection is its unpretentiousness. This impression is heightened by the book’s epigraph, a quotation from Rabindranath Tagore: “These paper boats of mine are meant to dance on the ripples of hours, and not reach any destination.”
As I read on, I realise that this is, in fact, the reigning spirit of Kushiara. There is no attempt to impress, no attempt to make any claim about anything. The very first poem will bear this out:
‘That is not our country,’ the father says
Pointing his finger across the River Kushiara
The child, in her anxiety and wonder, utters
‘Are the foreigners on the other side human beings?’
The father nods
A sense of longing
They live in an invisible valley
Marked by slow time
Marked by stifled growth
The poem is my favourite. It is so affecting that I can feel the poignancy of it deep in my heart. The girl, in her innocence and wonder, asks if the foreigners on the other side are human beings. Little does she know that her father, filled with “longing” and “dejection” was once upon a time one of those “foreigners”. And what is their fate now? Has the man chosen well? Having lost his home and his happy past, having been forced to point at his erstwhile country as “not our country”, he is faced with a living-dead present, characterised by invisibility, ageing, decay, darkness and flooded streets – all the indicators of a failed and miserably neglected existence.
But despite the painful past and the ugly present, there is no ranting here. The voice is not even raised in protest. In a haiku-like style, the poet simply shows us a picture and lets it speak for itself. And what a speech it has rendered – deeply wounding, permanently searing!
But this is not the only poem that is haiku-like. When I finish reading Kushiara, Tony Conran’s famous description of the essential qualities of the haiku as “loneliness, tenderness and slenderness” strongly comes to my mind. And this, in turn, leads me to consider the Zen Buddhist philosophy “less is more”, which is the reigning spirit of the haiku and the minimalist lifestyle. The poems, without my realising it, have taken me by the hand and shown me the very core of Nath’s poetry: literary minimalism.
One thing leads to another. I remember the plays of Samuel Becket, the stories of Raymond Carver, the poetry of the imagist poets and especially the beloved poems of Ezra Pound and Edna St Vincent Millay:
And the days are not full enough— ‘And the Days Are Not Full Enough’, Ezra Pound
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.
My candle burns at both ends;— ‘First Fig’, Edna St Vincent Millay
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light!
The same brevity and economy of words characterise Nath’s poetry:
I remember you remembering me in this song
Next time when I see you, if at all,— ‘Song’
I desire to look into your eyes.
And the metaphorical quality, too, is quite strong in her poetry:
I let life’s worries— ‘Sorrows’
Blow away in the wind ...’
Dev Anand’s song wafts
Through the damp, rain-washed air
A bird nearby
Collects raindrops on her delicate body
Like her, I too, will shake off my sorrows
Repeatedly, with relish.
As in minimalist writings, there is a tendency to focus on surface descriptions, allowing context to dictate meaning, as in this short poem:
The angry rains pour like— ‘Angry Rains’
The river swells with
With such a poem, readers can take an active role in creating the story based on the suggestiveness of the lines:
I found the stairs— ‘Today’
In the sky
Like any contemporary minimalist style, Rimi’s poems use a pared-down narrative:
The 90s’ nostalgia— ‘Nostalgia’
Waking in dreams
You are my last poem
That feels deeply
Even when the poet raises philosophical questions, she does it sparingly, with great simplicity:
In limbo between sleep and waking— ‘Limbo’
Work is unreal
The idea of living is fictional
Is it death consciousness?
O my heart— ‘Baul’s Song’
Why do you build a home inside?
The baul sings of transience
He sings of walking in time, and
Passing through timelessness.
This winning combination of simplicity and profundity is, in fact, what attracts me so powerfully to her poetry:
I read the signboard ‘Nellie’
And take in the quiet beauty
Limp clothes sticking to their happy bodies
It is ‘gorubihu’
I search for traces of the 80s— ‘Nellie’
Miserable heart ruminating
I look through the car window
And look at the frolicking clouds
No hint of the massacre in them
Is it silently coming back?
Here is a poet whose art is truly ‘less is more’. In just a few words, without any elaboration or moral recriminations, under the guise of a travelogue, a passage through an idyllic landscape, she captures the whole history of the horrible Nellie massacre that had claimed the lives of about 2000 “Bengal-origin Muslims”.
Even when Nath sings of love, she always keeps her emotions in check and reveals only the minimum of details: in the most subtle of ways. Consider these lines:
As I look at the ring on my finger— from ‘The Core’
As I look beyond it
And find the core in you
These lines are, to my mind, the subtlest in the whole collection: any attempt at elaboration would only spoil their beauty and complexity. But the other love poems, too, are almost as quiet and restrained as if the poet would rather hide than express her feelings:
I open the window— ‘Dragonflies’
Dragonflies are everywhere
They bring back the day
The day with you.
My love for you— ‘My Love For You’
Is like the book
I read in bits and pieces
Savouring one line, one page
At a time
Keeping it away for months
As one goes back to
Fine yellow memories.
But the most remarkable quality of this poet is her haikuist sensibilities. Many of the short poems in Kushiara carry the picturesqueness of the haiku and its unique feature of “show, don’t tell”. Just one or two examples:
Give me the soft glow— ‘Gift’
of the evening bushes
And the half-moon above a star.
Birds in rows of branches— ‘Exams’
Waiting for their time
In keeping with such sensibilities, the poems dance “on the ripples of hours” oblivious to anything else but their own existence. The sad and the happy: all float quietly down the Kushiara, the River of Time. It is not very strange then that Kushiara should recall the words of Shelley: “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician...”
There is a wide range of themes in Nath’s Kushiara—nostalgic longing, love in all its poignancy, complex relationships with people and places, and philosophical musings on time, history and the human predicament with its violence and bloodshed, its ironies and lighter moments. Hers is a voice never raised in anger or passionate utterance. Her strength lies in her quiet lyricism, her mystical connection to nature, her wistfulness and her sense of the pathos of things.
No wonder Nath’s poetry has taken “a strong and lasting hold on the memory”, to use the words of Longinus.
Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih is a poet and the author of the novel Funeral Nights.
Kushiara And Other Poems, Rimi Nath, Dhauli Books.