Terrarium is one of the few contemporary poetry debuts that is both autobiographical and universal in its subtleties. It is remarkable how a single poem “The Heart of a Mango” reminisces over childhood, eating mangoes, homesickness, and laments family ties in the same breath: “I estimate my father has eaten over one thousand mangoes./ Which means my mother who has known him half his life/ has sucked on five hundred stones./”
Like many of her contemporaries, such as Akhil Katyal and Arundhathi Subramaniam, Urvashi Bahuguna’s poetry is both personal and political. In this collection, she begins with a poem that lays out the moments in school life that made her aware of gender politics and at the same time, taught her ways to break out of those limitations. She writes in the title poem, “What we knew for certain was that Mr. Joseph pushed us/ as hard as the boys. He expected us to slice the sky/ as cleanly, to slip our bodies into the mud as willingly,/ to taste the dessert of the win as raucously./”
In Bahuguna’s hands, poetry becomes a therapeutic device to sift through her personal experiences, to make sense of her and others’ actions and the world at large. Like a child learning to weave her imagination into her reality, the poet dives into past trauma and surfaces with wisdom, as delicate as pearls.
She tries to untangle her relationships with her mother, father, sister, friends and her ex-boyfriend by weaving them all into words. The result is a series of poems like “In Search of Lice and Love” (Long after it was plausible, I kept asking my sister/ to check my hair for lice...), “Song” (Like any good daughter, I buy my mother/ a bird book...), and “In Praise of Drool” (The New year’s Eve I slept on the floor I knew/ one of us had to leave. It took another seventeen/ months because there is no manual on how to resist/ a man who steps off a moving train...who says he will change in the morning.).
A theme that runs through her work are shifting geographies. Weather becomes a piercing aspect when she describes a city and one can’t help but think, “Yes, this is exactly how I remember that city”. She unpacks existing societal structures such as family in a hard-hitting manner: “How to explain to you, your failure/ is our failure...Do you dare talk back/with words we have taught you?”
Mental health and sisterhood
Bahuguna also takes on the monumental task of talking about mental health through poetry. In her essay, “When you are very, very tired, you can’t throw your tired away”, Bahuguna describes, in great detail, the pain of being tired at all times and how she tries to cope with it. It resonated with people like me, who have gone through the same, many times over. Her poems, “Outrun”, “M For”, “Medical History”, all deal with the feeling of sickness, sadness, headaches, heartaches and illnesses that run in families.
It is refreshing to read a poet describing depression, in the following lines, “I lie down on my blanket/my hand between my breasts/comforting motherlike /a scream caught in the chest.” Through poetry, Bahuguna, reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, moves deep into the abyss where many women find themselves. But here is why she departs from Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”.
Bahuguna dedicates entire poems to talk about sisterhood. Overwhelming and depressive moments acquire a different tone when you surround yourself with strong female companions. Female friendships, often the subject of romantic comedies, acquire the seriousness with which they must be engraved in contemporary Indian poetry. In the age of social media networking and fickle friendships, it is the old-school friend circle that will keep you afloat, that will cradle you to sleep during tough nights and soothe your soul with laughs. Bahuguna knows the worth of female friendships first hand and it comes through in her work as well.
There are many things that cannot be said in words, or so I thought before reading Bahuguna’s poems. She finds a way to say the most troubling, unsettling things about life, love and relationships with poetry. The effort alone makes you want to cherish the poems but it is an added bonus that they are delightful, resonant and unforgettable as well.
It is hard to imagine that this biographical debut collection exploring love, fear, promises, expectations, cherished memories, and bitter past in such a nuanced fashion is the work of a young poet. The wisdom reflected in her carefully woven poems, using the choicest words that lend a melody to her sentences, feels like the work of a seasoned poet. That is strength of this book.
Terrarium, Urvashi Bahuguna, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.