Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Book of Rahim & Other Poems (Westland in association with Ashoka University’s Centre for The Creative and The Critical; 72 pages; Rs 399) begins with the titular section, a set of four poems plus a fifth that’s basically ten pages of Rahim’s (Abd al-Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, a 16th-century poet and military general) couplets translated into English. The translations are expectedly brilliant. One is inclined to call them ‘recreations’, so strong are Mehrotra’s handprints upon them. But even more intriguing are the section’s four original poems. ‘Schoolboy’s Rahim’ ends with the lines:
“We read him in school. The alphabet was familiar, / but you scrunched up the eyes to read the page. / The meaning had to be cribbed. Hindi was grief, / and grief the sports field if you missed a sitter.”
Rahim’s Hindustani couplets (doha, or dohe in plural) are popular across north India and as Mehrotra himself notes in the foreword to this section, many of them “have passed into language”. Hence the sly wisdom of the lines quoted above — Rahim’s couplets were often allegorical and used puns and allusions to make their point. They would often have a readily apparent ‘everyday’ meaning and a deeper, spiritual point embedded just beneath the epidermis. Mehrotra’s own adroit translations demonstrate this amply. “He’s come to pluck flowers. / It’s our turn tomorrow, / the buds say, / seeing the gardener arrive” spells out existential terror, at one level, while at another level it is a call to action, an urge to live one’s most authentic life every single day.
To comprehend Rahim adequately, therefore, involves close reading and no small amount of lived experience. And yet, because of their broad, populist appeal, the schoolboy is expected to be able to read and recite them at school. This is the delicious paradox at the heart of Mehrotra’s poem. Just like any sporting achievement is inherently rare (to wit, most people are thoroughly unathletic) and yet, “dropping a sitter” (presumably, a catch on a cricket field) is universally greeted with jeers from the crowd.
Elsewhere, in a poem called ‘Faces’, Mehrotra engages in a poetic duet of sorts with the Mangalesh Dabral poem ‘Chehra’ (literally, ‘face’ in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani). In the latter, a mother wipes her son’s dirt-streaked face only to realise that the ‘real’ face underneath is a face marked by emptiness and wounds of the soul; a face she does not recognise anymore. In Mehrotra’s poem (which is marked ‘After Mangalesh Dabral’), this business of masking one’s real face is outsourced to the most likely candidate—the vote-seeking politician—with devastating results.
“A thought is born / like a bird inside you / and its shadow / hops across your face. / We can read // the fledgling. / But with those / whose posters hang / from every lamp post / there’s no such thing. // Under their unbreathing / skins they wear / a mask of papier-mâché, / struck off a mould / and affixed
to torsos //”
Mehrotra is also the master of the brief, cinematic image. With a few well-chosen lines he ‘freeze-frames’ a world in flux. This has always been one of his key strengths as a poet. In the poem ‘Laugh Club of Gandhi Park’ his comedic lens is fixed upon the titular group of men, “family men who can / wiggle their fiery / bellies at will.”
“They move in a pack / and eat sprouts / on the way out. // Mistimed / badminton shots / exploding around him, // a metal soldier / with assault rifle / stands guard // and a musical fountain / plays fountain music / in the background.”
In Mehrotra’s merciless description, the “metal soldier” who has, perhaps, experienced actual bombs and mortar shells exploding around him, now sees “mistimed badminton shots exploding around him” instead. The perfect, Möbius -strip like line “musical fountain playing fountain music” is the coup de grace—the military man has been defanged, the sense of danger he represents (and is supposed to fight) has been skewered. He has now been reduced to Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘steadfast tin soldier’ from the eponymous story, who falls for a paper ballerina. The tin soldier is a toy but most importantly he’s a lover, not a fighter.
In another section called ‘Book of Lahore, ’ Mehrotra writes a touching prose piece called ‘11 Temple Road’, about his family’s old house in Lahore (located at the titular address). It’s a poignant essay that ends with these stunning lines:
“Countries keep disappearing off the face of the map or changing their shapes or their names, but a piece of land remains where it’s always been, fixed in geography if not in history and schoolboy stamp albums. Perhaps this is why Indians, when they return from abroad, make the gesture of bending and touching the soil, then bringing their fingers to their foreheads. It is not, as they believe, the soil of a country that they touch but, symbolically, they are kissing the earth. They have returned home.”
Politics can be ever so crucial to one’s understanding of a poem. In the introduction to Varavara Rao: A Life in Poetry, (Vintage; 120 pages; Rs499) edited by N Venugopal and Meena Kandasamy (with translations by the duo as well as others), Kandasamy writes about first encountering Rao’s work. She first met “perhaps the most-jailed poet in independent India’s history” through her abusive ex-husband. The man cited a Varavara Rao poem about the risk of a revolutionary’s photo finding its way into the police’s hands — and used it to bully his wife into removing her pictures on social media.
“I lost my desire for a photo / (…) the stench of / iron heels and brutal feet / The stink of khaki dress.”
This is a convergence of the political with the personal, albeit with a deeply unpleasant outcome. Later, when Kandasamy read N Venugopal’s The Making ofVaravara Rao: An Intimate Portrait by a Nephew, she began to understand the sprawl and the versatility of Rao’s incendiary poems, and the germ of this anthology was born.
Rao has spent close to a decade in various prisons, and India’s extensive alphabet soup of anti-terror legislation —TADA, MISA, UAPA — have all been used against him, but no charge has been proven in court despite over 40 years’ worth of attempts. His association with various labour rights’ movements down the years comes through in poems like ‘A River Born in Nasik’, where Rao contrasts the way banks treat wilfully defaulting businessmen who continue living lavishly and farmers who have nothing to repay their loans with.
“Everybody paid lip service and announced their debt to the farmer / But the farmer is the only one who doesn’t enjoy loan waiver / The farmer does not get remunerative prices and warehouses / Banks that cherish serving the Mallyas and Modis / Turn barren cows for farmers. / As the idiom goes, for a farmer it is a forest to sell and a fire to buy.”
A true patriot is, by definition, anti-establishment and therefore an enemy of the state — Rao’s poetry demonstrates this dictum in style. This is not a unidimensional collection, however. Not everything is about taking on the state’s tyranny. Rao’s work reveals that he is a deep thinker with strong views on everything. There’s a sharp poem about Marilyn Monroe here, another one about Roop Kanwar, the 18-year-old widow who was burned alive in the name of sati in 1987 (everybody accused of abetting her death was acquitted). As these lines from a poem called ‘Woman’ show, Rao has given a lot of thought to the intersection of feminism and left-wing revolutionary politics.
“Woman! / Your tears will not crush your oppressor / And bathe your rage in flames of fury, / Speak for your rights, / Step in unison with the marching feet. / Leave the system that treats you as an object. / Become a force, become an individual. / Join hands to overthrow patriarchy. / As the flaming red sun rises / There shall be triumph.” (Translation by Meena Kandasamy)
A Life in Poetry is a must-read if you read poems at all, regardless of your own political affiliations. Some things are bigger and more urgent than the business-as-usual, binary choices one makes inside that tiny room with the ballot box.
Mehak Goyal’s debut collection of poems, Failure to Make Round Rotis: Poems on Rebellion, Resilience and Relationships (Juggernaut; 216 pages; Rs 399) opens with two epigrams, one apiece by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Audre Lorde. The one by Adichie says, “The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina.” This is the starting point of the book and upon this foundation, Goyal builds poems that demonstrate the many inequities in the life of the average young woman. Every now and then, Goyal comes up with a startling image or an unusual descriptor; her best poems are elevated by righteous anger but also by holistic emotional intelligence, insights into the nuts and bolts of the human heart. However, the collection is marred by suboptimal editing, evidenced by the fact that a lot of these poems are too similar to each other.
Here, for example, is the entirety of a poem called ‘Report Card’, in which terrible parenting is taken to task.
“A: Kiss on the cheek, hug, Baskin-Robbins / B: Pat on the head, do better / C: Lock in dark bathroom / D: Smack soft skin / E: Hurl slipper / F: Hostel”
Later in the book, we encounter another poem called ‘Result Card’, which recounts the life of a depressed person who dies by suicide.
“D is for Dolce & Gabbana / she wanted written across / her small breasts instead of GAP. // D is for disappointment. / Her friends enjoyed / drink, spin the bottle, make out. / She chugged / physics, chemistry, maths. / Yet, failed miserably”
Neither poem is disappointing, but I’m not sure why literally the same device is used in both. This is a recurring problem with Failure to Make Round Rotis. The book is over 200 pages long but a good editor could easily have whittled them down to 100 pages or so.
This failure-to-edit also manifests itself through triteness. As an experiment, I wrote down the concluding section of a poem called ‘She’ without the line breaks. Here’s the passage in question.
“She absorbs my negativity like a high GSM towel sops up heavy sweat. She pushes me to be my best version like an architect fights for his building. She sacrifices her needs to fulfil mine like a tree for humanity. She made me who I am. I love you, Mom.”
As I suspected, this reads a lot like a heartwarming social media post on Mother’s Day. However, when this same text appears in the middle of a poetry book, one must ask if everything that has been written with good intentions (and by extension, good politics) is worth felling trees for?