Categories
Review

‘A rich tapestry of narratives’

      Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Suralakshmi Villa

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2020

Suralakshmi Villa (2020) is a novel based on a short story in a previous collection of short stories by Aruna Chakravarti. In the afterword to the novel, the author explains how the novel came about: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, on whose fiction Chakravarti had done her Ph.D thesis many years ago, commented how the short story had possibilities of being extended into a novel. In doing so, the author’s redoubtable skills have come to the fore yet again.

In Suralakshmi Villa, Aruna Chakravarti has woven a rich tapestry of narratives of human interest, focusing particularly on women(which is the author’s strong suit)  intertwined with narratives of Bengal’s Hindu and Muslim culture, history , religion art, architecture, myths and folklore in a fusion which can be described as syncretic. All these elements are woven into the narrative in a seamless way, which is in no small  measure  a testament to the author’s immense  storytelling skills.

The novel is essentially plot driven with a diverse and complex cast of characters; it intersperses the main plot of Suralakshmi’s  seemingly inexplicable decision to leave her flourishing career as a gynaecologist, her marriage and life in Delhi with the subplots of a fairly large set of characters, spanning about 6-7 decades across most of the twentieth century. The story narrates the varying fortunes of the family of ICS officer Indra Nath Chaudhuri who chooses to settle in South Delhi, in a milieu which is relatively free of the stranglehold of traditional family norms and customs, along with his wife and five daughters, Mahalakshmi, Kanaklakshmi, Suralakshmi,Dhanalakshmi and Rajlakshmi.  For  all his professional stature, Indra Nath is putty in the hands of his larger-than-life wife, Lakshmi, who rules the roost . Prostrated by depression after the premature widowhood of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Mahalakshmi, she decides to educate her daughters rather than prioritise or focus on their marriages and have them choose their husbands, if at all, in their own time. This decision has varying repercussions. Suralakshmi decides to marry a married man seventeen years older than her, that too at the age of 31.     

Suralakshmi’s  story however is not the only plotline in the novel; in the tangled skein of the novel is also the disparate-but-intertwined story of Eidun and her family, which links this story of domestic abuse with a rescue and redemption narrative of sorts. It also maps the story of Indra Nath’s nephew, Pratul, his coming of age and marriage with Nayantara and  that of their children– Kinshuk and Joymita.  

For a story with such a large cast of characters, the parallel plots are juggled with amazing skill and dexterity. What also redounds to the author’s credit is her handling of the complex timelines as well, as the novel loops back and forth chronologically, covering the better part of the twentieth century from the 1930s to 1998. The plot works in a cyclical and circular way, as it spirals and hurtles  towards its final conclusion, which seems random until its causality is made evident.  There is a conscious and carefully calibrated  structure and architectonics involved in the apparent seamlessness of the novel.

The predominance of the plot and the large cast of characters however come at a cost, albeit a minor one, in the light of what the novel achieves. Chakravarti does not explore the interior psychology of most of her characters barring a few crucial briefly sketched in character traits. Characterisation  is often done through a mirroring effect where the response of other characters convey character traits; also, analogues, contrasts and conversations are used  to convey the varied workings of people’s minds. Thus , Suralakshmi’s decision to marry a philandering bigamist Moinak Sen is conveyed through the outrage of her sisters and her stubbornness and intransigence comes up in the course of Pratul’s conversation with his docile wife, Tara or Nayantara. Her impulsiveness is conveyed but  not the inner-workings of her mind and both her ‘love’ and the conjugal bliss that follow are not entirely  convincing.

In a different register, while Eidun and her sisters-Ojju, Meeru and Jeeni’s stories are convincing in their depiction of the oppression  and  travails  of women in impoverished Muslim families, the tale of domestic abuse raises some questions. There is of course the generational aspect of it with the saga of dispossession  portrayed  in the stories of their mother, Ruksana  and the grandmother, Zaitoon-Bibi` as well, but the depiction of the Muslim male as depraved and amoral does leave one with an edge of discomfort. It seems too stereotypical, too pat and cliched,  too two-dimensional. While misogynistic patriarchies and toxic masculinity is not restricted  to  one religious group, in the novel it is one religious group that bears a disproportionate burden of it. The uneducated lower class Muslim men hardly bear comparison with the educated  upper class Bengali men (mostly Hindu) in the novel, and while this disjunction may have  been  created by the exigencies of the plot, it does leave one with a niggling sense of discomfort.

Having said that, Suralakshmi Villa is a tale well told, on almost every count. The unsentimental treatment of motherhood is worth commenting on and when Suralakshmi decides to leave Kinshuk in Delhi with his father, we are made to realise her alienation and her affiliations. She comes across as a dignified and idealistic figure, in her steadfast commitment to protect Eidun, a responsibility she has taken on herself. Even if Suralakshmi’s — and others’ — lives are embedded in a web of materiality, her decision, dignified and noble, transcends her immediate material conditions.

Suralakshmi’s decision to go away and start a charitable hospital in Malda, is depicted in the novel as an act of conscious choice, although it  is  a choice which elicits surprise from others since she leaves her house to Moinak, her errant husband and his offspring. 

Suralakshmi goes away with Eidun, leaving  her son  Kinshuk in the care of his father, with no evident sign of regret or a backward glance.  Her decisiveness here comes as no surprise since it chimes  in with what we know of her already. Even if there is no formal separation, we (and the characters in the novel) are left in no doubt about her intentions. I would go so far as to describe her choice — and her power to choose and live by her choices as feminist, since,  there is definitely an element of agency in the way she decides on a significant moment of transition and then goes ahead with its execution.

Suralakshmi Villa is definitely a welcome addition to the canon of women’s writing in India, multi-textured and multi-layered. Its complexity does not take away from its readability but  adds to its depth and power to attract and hold the attention of the reader.    

    Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review  

Categories
Interview

“There is a voice within me/ That will not be Still”

Nalini Priyadarshni in conversation with Anu Mahadev

An abuse victim in the past, Anu Mahadev is a poet based in New Jersey. She is a 2016 MFA graduate of the Drew University’s MFA program in Madison, NJ. With two poetry collections to her credit, Myriad (2013) and Neem Leaves (2015) Anu is a curious reader and lifelong learner. She is passionate and outspoken about issues such as domestic violence, girls’ education and independence, and depression/bipolar disorder. She loves music, languages, animals and long walks. She writes and edits at The Woman Inc., and Jaggery Lit, a literary magazine for Indian diaspora. In this exclusive, she responds to questions from feminist poet Nalini Priyadarshni.

Nalini: Thank you so much, Anu, for taking time to talk to Borderless Journal. I have enjoyed reading your poetry for its vivid imagery and the subtle imprints it leaves on one’s mind. If you have not been asked umpteenth time already, let me ask, why do you write poetry? What is your goal?

Anu: Thank you Nalini for this interview, and for reading and appreciating my work! To me, poetry has always been my favourite form of expression. I write simply because I have to. I am an introvert by nature, and writing is not just my outlet, but my raison d’être. It is not a “hobby”, but what I do, and I do it because I don’t know any other way to be. I do not have a far-reaching goal in mind but I do think it is important to keep the arts alive. If I can change the way people look at the world, through a different lens, by the power of the written word, I would be happy.

Nalini: When is a poem done for you?

Anu: I don’t think I have a fixed rule for that. I try not to wrap my poems with a pretty little bow at the end. I do believe in revising and editing though. The first draft is seldom my final piece. That’s something I had to change about my writing – my impatience. The teachers at my MFA program insisted on it, and drilled it into my habits. Sometimes I even revisit a poem 6 months later with a fresh pair of eyes, and I may have an epiphany! When I feel like I have conveyed what I want to, with just the right words, with economy, I consider it done. Less is more when it comes to my writing.

Nalini: How does a poem begin for you — with an idea, an image or a form? Let’s just say, what triggers a poem?

Anu: My poems are usually an emotional response to something that is happening around me. Either something I’ve heard or seen or felt – sensory triggers basically. Or a memory from a long time ago, that has morphed into something different in the present. I don’t go seeking a poem. It comes to me when it has to. I do not force anything. I’ve been told to set aside time to write every day, which I probably should do, but I don’t believe my best work comes that way. I find that taking a break keeps my writing muscles fresh, and then I can be more open and receptive to what the world has to offer me, in terms of images and ideas. I am not a big fan of forms, and don’t write them unless I am forced!

Word of Mouth

Alive in the ice and fire, was a package

of minutes with no expiry date.

We unwrapped layer by layer,

unraveled the novelty, the raw scent

of unopened nerves, neatly tied up

in twine.

You said people don’t have a shelf life,

and I laughed.

Then we tasted the hate that comes only

from familiarity, it’s boring faults,

its ripened haste like a cashew flower’s

early bloom.

You said it’s a car with no brake pedal,

no insurance and no collateral damage.

I believed you then, when there was

nothing left in the airwaves but static,

doubt and guilty breathing.

Alive in the ice and fire, is a story,

its tiresome minutiae, and I still

gape at its impossibility with impatience.

Nalini:   Plath said, “Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it and the imagination to improvise.” What is your opinion?

Anu: I believe the next line is “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”. I agree fully with her quote. There is no reason to limit yourself to just a few aspects of life, because you are experiencing those at the moment. The world is your oyster, as they say. Everyone always has something interesting to say, whether they know it or not. Everybody has a story to tell. The fear of whether you will get published, or what if people don’t like it, should not come in the way of your writing. Easier said than done, I know, and it does seem daunting. But write the story, the whole story, and worry about revising later. Everything will come together at some point. Be brave enough to explore your soul.

Pencil

her pencil writes —

of styli, quills

scratched sound waves

impenetrable

between the lines

wood shavings

scattered word fragments

soft chipped graphite

shaded fingertips

empty notebooks wait

in silence, ruffled pages

reams of white

soon to be covered in print

this day

broken only by these faint

noises, muffled roar

traffic, teapot, dryer

her tapping toe rings

against the chair

the pencil writes —

of such things

when her thoughts

cannot sing her song

Nalini: Some of your poems come with a tinge of nostalgia such as– photograph in b/w, saudade while some of your poems like Laws of Poetry and Needlepoint Theory advocate breaking down old order. What can you tell us about this tension between belonging and charting new paths?

Anu: I don’t believe there is a tension or a tug between the two. Yes, I tend to write a lot about the past, the memories of growing up, family ties and so on, but also about what affects me in the present and what the future holds. Some poems are keen and curious observations about what a character might be feeling at a certain point of time. Some are extrapolations of my experiences, where my imagination takes over. I am equally part of all of these. Maybe I tend to write about loss more than anything else, and the pain associated with it, but these are personal experiences, and it is cathartic to write about them.

Photograph in b/w

sepia toned acacia tree, two

little girls standing—

one, bigger, smiling, two

dolls in her hand

one, smaller, wailing, one

doll, clay-baked mud

matching dresses, hairbands,

shoes, one happy

— she’s not an only child

anymore, she won’t

share though, the other

screams for mom

separated soon after birth,

reunited as sisters

strangers in the womb

awkward, holding

hands, trying to understand

how a family behaves

the definition of love, where

it comes from

Nalini: Do you recall a moment in your upbringing or childhood that, when you revisit, seems to presage for you a life in poetry and writing?

Anu: I think that being a shy and quiet child led me to books and writing, long before I realized that it was to be my passion. As an introvert, I grew up to be very observant about others and the world around me, and felt that I could see what others simply took for granted. As a sensitive child, I was generally ignored at school. Left to my own devices, I gave myself the freedom to explore. Without cellphones or Google, and with plenty of time to be bored, my imagination soared. I guess around the age of 10 till about 17 is when I wrote plenty. Life took me in other directions after that – engineering and computer science and so on. I got my second wind after my son was born and I was home for several years. It felt like poetry had never left me. I started writing again and enrolled in an MFA program for poetry at Drew University. After that, there was no looking back.

Nalini: How did you overcome the trauma of abuse to lead a normal life?

Anu: I suffered mental and physical abuse for four years in the mid 90s. Coming out of it was a Herculean task because first of all I did not know that I HAD to come out of it. As a victim I had learned to accept things as the status quo, believing that I had no other choice and that it was fate which brought me to that situation. Whatever little self-esteem I had had been eroded to such a bad degree that I could not think for myself any more. But the two things that were untouched were my faith, and my love of books/writing. Those too would have gone had I stayed longer, but I soon understood that this was a toxic relationship. And that it was better to be alone, no matter how terrifying that sounded.

Nalini: What role did writing, in general and poetry in particular, played during this difficult phase of your life? And how has it changed your perspective since then?

Anu: Overcoming the trauma was no small feat. What I did not know at the time was that I was also suffering from chronic depression. At first, building myself bit by bit felt like an ordeal, but soon, having removed the bad influences from my life, it was actually peaceful. Nobody to boss me around or show me the consequences if I did not do something right. Or waste my time after a long day at work. I returned to books and kept a small journal to chronicle my thoughts and my progress. Over the years, I have written more about living in abuse, and seeing my life on a sheet of paper has been surreal, but it helped a lot to write openly about that phase and get it out of my head. From believing that nobody would love me, or that I was not fit to have a normal life, I now believe that everyone is deserving and capable of love.

My desire is to help women in a similar situation understand that the power of the written word can work wonders. They light the fire that results in changing a thought. I know it seems crazy but Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear” would help me. It was for a country, but at that time, I felt like it was written for me to wake up and take action.

“Star-crossed”

I remember a different time when Orion brought us

good luck. When the Big Dipper would point to Sirius,

and we thought the spirit of every dog lived there

When I would stare at your freckled back and look for a map of cities

where we would go, where we would separate

The hunt is important, you would say, so is the capture

who cares what happens after that?

They say it’s easy to get anything, maintaining is the hard part –

clothes, toys, luxury items,

relationships,

you with your blasé look — I, still hungry, look for a side of a cold bed

that’s no longer slept on

Your mind, partitioned into different countries,

a concubine in each harem, an echo in each chamber

I’m singing the same song, in a different intonation,

the way you did when your tongue first caressed my nape, my mouth,

my name

Crumbs of red velvet are still crumbs, in a vagabond’s palms.

Nalini:   We live in an age of Twitter and Instagram. There is a deluge of poets writing micro poems and riding on instant fame. It might seem that poetry has become more popular in recent years but is it really so? What do you think of instant/micro/4-line poetry written around popular notions?

Anu: I have nothing against micro-poetry, as long as it is well done. 4 lines can sometimes convey more than 40 lines. And as for the popularity, one can say they are easily relatable to the masses, therefore they become famous. However, the trend I observe is that there is nothing fresh about the poems themselves – they are trite and clumsy. I am not saying that someone has to come up with some out of the world topic – come to think of it, many poets write about the same things, but they do so in different, refreshing ways. That is what I find lacking these days. And in general, the opinion is that it is very easy to become a poet, as opposed to a fiction or a screenplay writer, and therefore everyone feels like taking it up. I have a problem with that J Poets go through rigorous technique training too, just like the others, and so, writing 4 lines one day doesn’t make you a poet. They are born, and then made just like in any other profession. I am not trying to sound like a snob. Certainly, everyone has the freedom to write, and everyone’s aims are different. If you want instant fame, sure social media will do it for you. But if you want to write everlasting poetry, something that will be quoted for generations to come, then that isn’t the way to go about it. I am getting to know several poets who write beautifully but don’t have a book out. So that definitely is no measure of success!

Nalini:   Talking of social media, Facebook poetry groups are ubiquitous. I keep removing myself but still I must be in a million groups. Though I must admit they are great places to read, share one’s poetry and interact with other creative minds. Poetry group, The Woman Inc.  that you run is one of my favorite for the powerful poetry it shares. How do you think internet and social media contribute towards well-being of the poetry?

Anu: I think it is great that these groups exist. I was a hesitant poet once, very unsure of my writing, and these groups gave me the confidence that I too could write. What I like is that the feedback is honest and sincere. I don’t like groups where everyone simply praises each other for a great poem, whether it is true or not. And if I am added to such a group, I remove myself. I myself started a small Facebook group for New Jersey based South Asian poets, where we post our poems and solicit blunt critique. That is the only way to grow. It is great for the future of poetry because budding poets come alive and develop their writing skills, and go on to write far better than when they started out with. Not to mention the community it creates. Such communities are important for the arts to thrive.

Nalini:  And now a question that all those who write poetry ask themselves at some point of time — what does it mean to be a poet?

Anu: According to me, being a poet means being connected to a deeper part of yourself, and feeling each moment, each ripple. The response that you create when you see something that moves you – a painful event, an injustice, a happy moment, the beauty of nature – these are just examples that make you want to bring about a change, even a small one, in the world. I think being a humble student for life is a poet’s personality. There are days when I struggle with the impostor syndrome, thinking I don’t belong here, or my writing is awful. But to persevere, and have faith in that part of yourself that is able to capture a different view of the world, is what makes you a poet. To be able to distinguish between seeing something and looking at something, to be part of that self-discovery that expresses who you are as a person, defines who you are as a poet.

Nalini: Any words for budding poets?

Anu: Read! Read your favorite poets, poets you’ve never heard of, the classic poets, the Pinterest poets, anything you can – this will expand your horizons and you will also learn to distinguish between different varieties of poetry, different styles of writing before gravitating towards some and developing your own style. And write regularly. Continue writing – I cannot advise that you do it every day because that is not what I do – but often enough, and find a mentor, a sounding board whom you can approach from time to time.

Also, start slow, and then find journals to submit to. You will get a lot of rejections before you get an acceptance, and that can be frustrating. But if getting a poem published is that important to you, then keep at it. You are creating something out of nothing, and that is a powerful skill. Be engrossed and be committed to your art. Feel each word. Get your ego out of your head and be open to receiving feedback. And in the midst of all this, don’t forget to have fun in the process.

Nalini: Thank you so much, Anu. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Anu: Likewise, Nalini! Thank you.

(This interview was conducted via email.)

Nalini Priyadarshni is a feminist poet, writer, translator, and educationist though not necessarily in that order who has authored Doppelganger in My House and co-authored Lines Across Oceans with late D. Russel Micnhimer. Her poetry, prose and photographs have appeared in numerous literary journals, podcasts and international anthologies including The Lie of the Land published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. A nominee for the Best of The Net 2017 she lives in Punjab, India and moonlights as a linguistic consultant.

Categories
Poetry

Fear in Times of Corona

By Amit Shankar Saha

 Fear in Times of Corona

Wish Fulfilment

Today when you read your poems and I am far away

the rains will bend their direction to mourn the distance,

the lights will sit heavy on the evening of remembrance,

a lake in Kashmir will abruptly freeze in sorrow,

a mirage in Kutch will waylay a traveler for water,

memory will weave a flower patterned chintz curtain,

the dreams of the curtain will cover the world like a storm,

a poet will squeeze the universe in his palms and say,

“Today when you read your poems and I am far away

I wish the words that escape your lips come all my way.”

Quarantined Night

Fear of your inexistence
surrounds me at night
like muggers in a dark lane.

Fear that hoods my head,
covers my eyes, pummels
my chest, kicks my gut.

Fear that leaves me bruised
with no one to accuse
in a dark lane of the night.

This night I quarantine the night
in the madhouse of viral nightmares
between pillows of sleep and death.

This night isolated from all
other nights of quarantined darkness
reminds of one who died distanced.

This night the dead poet awakes
from Rome's Protestant Cemetery,
breaks the distended curfew of death.

This night I too break the curfew
and in my viral thoughts visit you
to write my name in water.

This night that brings a latent promise
and footsteps of familiar delight
is the madhouse of saddest sighs.

Amit Shankar Saha is an award-winning poet and short story writer. He has won the Poiesis Award,, Wordweavers Prize, Nissim International Runner-up Prize. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets and Assistant Secretary of Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library. His poems are in Best Indian Poetry Anthology 2018 and he has read at Sahitya Akademi. His collections of poems are titled “Balconies of Time” and “Fugitive Words”. He has a PhD in English from Calcutta University and teaches in the English Department of Seacom Skills University.

Categories
Poetry

Come to the Summer of my Arms & Bristle Stories

By Nalini Priyadarshni

Come to the Summer of my Arms

Come to the summer of my arms

the winter of our discontent has lasted too long

peppering our wisdom with salt and snow

settling into nook and crannies of our being

shadows of the moon on your forehead

has lengthened to reach our eyes

that have been growing dim

with each revolution of earth.

Come to the summer of my arms

we have harvested too long the silence

sown with the best of intentions

that has been whittling us beyond recognition

think of the moles and the birth marks that

need to be salvaged before we forget they exist

or keys that must be forged to unlock life

read books we discarded as unreadable

Come to the summer of my arms

for one of us cannot thaw without the other

winter of our discontent

inch by inch recovering the expanse of unexpressed

so that intimacy could be tilled into rows and rows

of languid kisses strewn with endless possibilities

perhaps then, someday we will

live our way into the passion we always sought

Bristle Stories

They arrive uninvited

like guests during summer siesta

and find strength in numbers

Stubborn as teens in combat boots

looking for trouble at street corner

my chin hair refuse to die

or remain dormant

They recoil every time I wax

Let me celebrate victory after a laser

Disappear for maybe a couple days,

but always return snapping gum vivaciously

 to sun themselves unabashed

bold and burping on a cloudless terrace

On weekdays, they foil with vengeance

 my all attempts at prettiness

refuse to apologise

throw tantrums, stomp and yell

spitting at the feet of men smiling at me

Feeling right at home, my bristles stretch themselves

claiming more space with each day

play cards, exchange stories and smoke cigarettes

Greedy

unapologetic

bordering on contemptuous

they reassure the woman in me

that they are paragons of

proud and vicious feminism

The woman inside me wonders

if greying calls for a truce

to make peace with my rebellious mongrels

Nalini Priyadarshni is a feminist poet, writer, translator, and educationist though not necessarily in that order who has authored Doppelganger in My House and co-authored Lines Across Oceans with late D. Russel Micnhimer. Her poetry, prose and photographs have appeared in numerous literary journals, podcasts and international anthologies including The Lie of the Land published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. A nominee for the Best of The Net 2017 she lives in Punjab, India and moonlights as a linguistic consultant.