Poetry and the art of kinship

Welcome to our thirty-first India feature

India, poetry, Arundhathi Subramaniam
© Andrey Armyagov via Shutterstock.

The 31st feature of Poetry International’s India domain trains the spotlight on four strong and singular voices. They represent different generations (the oldest born in the mid-50s and the youngest in the late ’70s) and different languages (Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi and English). They also represent very different orientations in stylistic and thematic terms. However, if there is a preoccupation that runs throughout this feature, it could be kinship.

There is the deeply poignant poem by Malayalam poet Savithri Rajeevan on the act of bathing an ageing mother. Written in an instructional mode, suffused with tenderness, the boundaries between agent and recipient, bather and bathed, mother and child blur in the course of this intimate ritual, turning this eventually into a poem about the nature of memory, time and love. The ageing body is seen not as a thing of pity or revulsion, but as an infinitely precious object: “Do not lather/ that body/ softened by time/ with the heady fragrance/ of soaps.”

In Bengali poet Srijato’s work, the quirky and asymmetrical behavioural patterns of kinship are skilfully evoked in a poem about parents: “My father was once a great friend of mine/ My mother, my friend's wife/ Then, as is usually the case/ The friend grows distant/ His wife comes closer.”

In the selected poems of Anglophone poet Ravi Shankar, the theme of kinship plays itself out somewhat differently. It is not family he talks of here as much as the experience of always having felt to some degree “extraneous” – “I never owned/ What’s been taken from me, never have belonged/ In and to a place, a people, a common history.” And yet again, in another poem, he evokes with lyrical irony the predicament of being brown in a white country, of being the “Sand Nigger” unjustly hauled up for speeding: “Sober as a compass, headed up north,/ no mullah or drug mule yet still I’m brown./ Got the Sand Nigger Blues.”

Hindi poet Geet Chaturvedi’s stirring fable-poem, “(Other) Worldly Folktale” offers a fundamental insight into kinship and the myth of separateness in his retelling of the ancient dance between Seed and Earth. What the poem offers is a reminder of interdependence, of reciprocity – so obvious and yet so often overlooked. As he writes at the close of his poem: “I go and stand very near the Tree and whisper, You hear me, you are Seed even now. The very same Seed. Don’t let height intoxicate you. Even now you are not grown. You are merely Earth’s imagination.”

Four exceptional poets make for a rewarding edition. Read on.

© Arundhathi Subramaniam  
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