Welcome to Indian Poetry – March 2011



If you were to look for a recurrent trope in the 27th edition of the India domain, you’d find two: aunts and brooms! Three of the poets here have poems on aunts and two have poems on brooms. It suggests the underlying theme that knits these very diverse poets together: family, domesticity, kinship.

In the Hindi poetry of Prabhat (translated by Bharat Bhooshan Tiwari), there are both – aunts and brooms – as well as a series of haunting images of a stoic and close-knit rural community. This is a community with its share of colourful characters – a doughty aunt (whose flair for comedy is matched by her zest for life) and a grandfather with an arsenal of magic brooms. It is also a community of unsentimental rustic folk, quietly committed to the daily non-glamorous grind of tending to their hearths and fields. This community seems to have endowed the poet with an ambivalent legacy – an approach to life that is retiring and solitary on the one hand, and restless and curious on the other. It is a community that, for all its emotional toughness, offers him a sense of anchorage as well as a world view of indomitable hope.

If the broom in Prabhat’s poems helps perpetuate the absurd and yet comforting rituals of domesticity, the broom in Malayalam poet Anitha Thampi's poems performs quite another function. Its role is to clear away all the festering pustules of memory, all the traces of a suppurating history. The past in Thampi’s crystalline poems can be oppressive, as suggested again in her thinly veiled critique of Kerala’s political history (in the poem that bears the election symbol of the hammer, sickle and star as its title). But this can be redeemed by moments of genuine connection. When a little girl places her hand on her mother’s breast and pronounces this her entire universe – encompassing her schoolbag, her best friend and her favourite game – it is a reminder of the warmer and more tender aspects of family, affirming that the human investment in continuity is not entirely futile.

In Marilyn Noronha's poems in English, a feisty survivor faces the world with faith, humour and resolute good cheer. The tale of the jambul tree – from a ‘fruitless’ but benign, anonymous guardian of birds and little boys, to a quiet unsung death — is also the tale of one of her aunts. But there is no sentimentality here. What sustains the individual on her journey through this random and frequently callous universe is the affirmation afforded by stray moments of kinship. An all-encompassing embrace from “my fat aunt” becomes, therefore, a memory to cherish, a memory of belonging that can never be erased by a hostile world.

Another very different aunt appears in the English poems of Gayatri Majumdar. Grand Aunt Charushila is obviously a remarkable woman – patriot, idealist, educator, free spirit. And yet, even while she is remembered with pride, this single woman’s bid for freedom and self-possession in the 1930s remains largely unacknowledged. The poet senses an untold story here – a story of a woman’s personal struggle for identity that went unnoticed beside the more flamboyant displays of patriotic courage displayed by Indian revolutionaries like Masterda of Chittagong (the man she loved).

Perhaps it is easier to write of aunts rather than parents? Perhaps aunts represent less fraught, less encumbered relationships in our lives? Perhaps aunts are a link with a larger sense of the community or tribe, which can seem more anchoring than the nuclear family?

Perhaps. What is clear, however, is that the aunts who emerge from these poems are tough, brave, quirky, funny, adventurous women – capable, as Prabhat says, of endowing life with “a certain happiness”; capable, as Majumdar says, of leaving behind their own shadowy but inspirational ways of looking at “life, love, sex, art and death”. Capable also of magnificent bear hugs, as Noronha points out, and making in a single moment “everything feel perfect”.


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