Book review

With the sea and the whale, it is present times that resonate in Ranjit Hoskote’s new book of poems

Ranjit Hoskote’s ‘Jonahwhale’ is an entirely new experience in reading verse.

There is a lot of sea in poetry. Some poets attempt to come to terms with its sublime fury through their verse. A few navigate through its currents, lose and find themselves in its secrets. But very few of them go on to recreate a parallel sea. Ranjit Hoskote not only imagines a parallel sea in Jonahwhale, but also creates a poetry-related experience that may forever find a place in the museums of literature. Technique, intellect and historical research lend beauty to the poems.

The book is a compelling performance anchored in three movements: “Memoirs of the Jonahwhale”, “Poona Traffic Shots”, and “Archipelago”. Punctuated with references to the Biblical prophet Jonah, who spent three days inside the belly of a whale, and other historical maritime figures, the book’s success lies in the manner it resonates with the present times.

There are also artful references to Melville’s Moby Dick and we frequently meet Ahab and his great white whale. Hoskote’s book thus becomes a Pequod – the ship in Moby Dick – except that it is the whale that seems to hunt us in this case. Questions of identity and existentialism are evoked or raised in the whale, in Bombay, in your city or mine, which makes these poems universal.

Is it the poet walking past familiar cafes and restaurants in his city or is it that the Jonahwhale is trying to find his way in an alien world in these lines?

“Find affection, I told myself. That’s fundamental.
Find a voice that doesn’t draw blood
each time you hear it. I walked past myself,
I rippled across lean men and sleek women
laughing behind plate glass, their hands caught
in pools of light, wine gleaming in brittle flutes.”

— “The Churchgate Gazette” from the first movement.

For some reason, this poem reminded me of Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock, probably for the way it alludes to urban loneliness and empty conversations.

There are some brilliantly titled poems in the first section that take the reader on a surrealistic spin. Tongue-in-cheek, absurd, bordering on the weird, the trip is absolutely delightful. “The Atlas of Lost Beliefs” demands that we turn to page 37 of the atlas, to…

“…surround yourself
with apsaras, kinnaras, gandharvas, maenads
satyrs, sorcerers, bonobos, organ grinders,
stargazers, gunsmiths, long-distance runners…”

The bizarre list goes on. In some of these poems, the poet is bolder than usual.

It is sensory anamnesis at its best as we get to hear and participate in slices of recollections and re-created history, as told to us by the poet’s sea-bound narrators. And the first movement is, perhaps, the best example of this experience. “Ocean”, “Ahab”, “Lascar” are precise in the way they evoke marine memory:

“…Ocean reciting from his depths
every drifting epic of pursuit, every song of shipwreck,
every trace of raft and sail and trailing anchor
flotsam  jetsam buckram vellum
he could remember…”

— “Ocean”

Sometimes you need to refer to Hoskote’s notes to comprehend the context seeping through the poems. For instance, “Lascar” refers to a sailor from the Indian subcontinent, or a lashkar soldier from a bygone era. As the notes explain, the poem is rooted in maritime history and the lascar in it is travelling from Bombay to Liverpool to London in 1889. The layered complexity emerges in these lines:

“…History gave you one name. Fear
gave you and your cousins others.
To novelists: Savage.
To pamphleteers: Cannibal.
To scholars: Anthropophage.
To your captains: Seacunny, tindal
syrang, topaze...”

“Baldachin” gives you pause. To smile, reflect, thanks to the rhetoric and images.

“Lord of lost perspectives,
this might be the wrong prayer:
Give me back the untroubled pleasures
of the sovereign eye….What would you cast: a spell or a stone?...Afterwards, the archipelago runs aground in bloated water,
the water burns our feet.”

The second movement, “Poona Traffic Shots” didn’t quite resonate with me as effectively as the first or the third. However, part IV provoked with its refrain dotted with striking imagery.

“Everything I hear is a track on the fictioner’s disc.
Everything I read is fury gift-wrapped in zinc.
Everything I dream is cement picked out in neon.
Everything I sing is about Babel and Zion.”

An “archipelago” of unanswered questions and futile answers await the reader in the third movement. Reduced to its essence in a no-nonsense manner, the poem “Under the Tree of Tongues” gives no hope. But who said poetry has to offer hope? Under this tree, “there is no healing”.

In fact, there are a few tree poems in this last section. In “Tree Line”, we have a tree of “an absent biography” and “litmus of lost events”. There is also “The Oracle Tree”, that offers no prophecy.

The section and the book conclude with the whimsical “The Poet’s Life”, in which we see the story of a man who – among other things – married birdsong, talked to parrots in Greek, collected the rust and shadows, licked his stamps himself, and opened the door to the deck and prayed the tree would burst with apples.

Jonahwhale braves the ocean and other elements in complex ways. A book to remember.

Jonahwale, Ranjit Hoskote, Penguin India.

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