A Bombay in my Beat by Mrinalini Harchandrai
Reviewed by Sushumna Kannan
Mrinalini Harchandrai’s Bombay in my Beat is an evocative book of poems with well-used words and thought-through ideas. It explores the city through myriad organically–emerging categories such as gender, class, politics, ecology. Yet, the articulation of the aural sensory realm and experience trumps in this work like in few other poetry collections. One might think that to write about the city (especially Indian ones) naturally engages with the visual more, but no, not here. The aural world is inaugurated anew and how!
Cities everywhere are now officially a crucial part of our identities. “Where are you from?” is the question we ask to understand another person, replacing almost any other form of introduction, especially the odd, uncouth, “who are you?” By finding out where one is from, we seem to imagine the person in the city and know a part of them and their experience instantly. Your city is the keycode to your culture and being! It is also not surprising anymore to speak of cities as having their own character and personality. They seem to make us even as we make them—a simultaneity that is rare to find even in our most cherished relationships with other humans or with ideas.
Harchandrai uses the above-outlined place of the city in our milieu as her starting point and delves into deeper explorations. She excels at exploiting images for conveying two different ideas at a time in her run–on lines. Her first few poems capture the city as a series of sounds in an amazing wealth of words that are definitely not synonyms. The reader realizes with awe that there are indeed these many words related to sounds in our languages. Harchandrai also springs surprises on readers with ideas and images that begin one way but end up in an another. This is exciting and intellectually stimulating. Each poem is filled with twists and turns that keep the reader going. Harchandrai also makes new words and verbs that you want to quickly start using, such as: “as water sheets roads.” The contemporary and updated slant to her language is unmissable, we hear in the city, “a balloon-seller’s sales pitch.”
Harchandrai’s clever use of words reminds us why poetry is hailed as the greatest form of writing. Poetry achieves in a short space on the written page yokings that otherwise seem impossible. Harchandrai’s poems are unusual but bring believable and truthful forms of expression. In a number of poems, the city and its sensory drama pervades, yet a quick aside on a deep subject leaves us with an unexpected poem. We realize how much there is to say with the city as the locus. After all, it is the setting for the way our world unravels starting every morning. Yet, the city is not the subject of all poems, it is where we derive our stock of images from and shape our perceptive capacities with, as in:
bombs cracker and blast
from up near heaven
slam building-top ambitions.
We realize how inevitable the city is to our living and how its intangible aura offers unparalleled and singularly impressionist experiences. It would not be surprising anymore if we plan our cities not for functionality but from combining scientific perspectives that tell us what variety of objects, colors and structures humans need to see and perceive to build their sensory abilities optimally. We might well be at a stage where we cannot un-think cities anymore. After all, the most nomadic of our renunciants now have relatively stable housing, within a city!
Harchandrai’s unexpected deliveries are not over-clever, there is a noticeable simplicity to all the poems; her sentences are taut and well-timed: she wastes no time or printing ink to make her points. The changing weather of a city with an impatience for and critique of rapid and uneven urbanization is captured like this:
a caravan trail of clouds
looking for parking spots
neon graffiti stood their ground
arms crossed, dryly nonchalant
the dripping tongue
of a homeless dog
meeting only iridescent tar puddles.
From the homeless beggars at traffic signals, cafes, clubs and temple bells and patriarchy to noting changing cultural values, Harchandrai covers a lot of the experiences that are compulsorily an aspect of any city-dweller’s life.
Lady driver!” his complaint palpable
in his grimace
I send him a hex
Writing about migrants, class and cultural difference, she gives us a quick glimpse that says a lot:
Morals, walking like a man
swishing loosely knee-length
in my tailored skirt,
their women layer
for measured movement.
Harchandrai mourns the loss of love in one-liners occasionally and notes the impossibility of survival without embracing conceit in Bombay in the title-poem, which is written like a rap song:
The buzz is constant, like flies on meat
today’s Jogeshwari gypsy, tomorrow’s Alibaug elite,
a chance to just be, just see, what fate you’ll meet,
damn it, can’t slam it, Bombay’s the heart note in my beat.
In another poem, she writes:
which came first, Mumbai or Bombay
or Bom Baia or Mumbai?
Chicken-egging takes metropolitan proportions
She writes on moral police, capturing how the policeman blushes instead of those caught in the act of PDA beautifully. The city here is not an impersonal one, it is characteristically Indian, it is specifically Mumbai:
She stole one
and got caught rouge-handed
by Moral Patrol,
as the pandus passed by
in their righteous safari,
pairs of eyes glinted
through the bushes,
dogs and elephants and giraffe
mesmerised by daylight robbery
of a kiss in the Hanging Gardens.
Harchandrai’s voice, wherever impersonal, in small doses, comes more from being well-traveled and not from hasty assumptions about universality. Her own location is quite clearly upper middle class and she makes no attempt to hide it. In this sense and in many others, she writes what she knows. Harchandrai captures all the woes of the city in succinct images that leave you nodding in agreement and wishing there was more of these smooth–reading lines. There is occasionally a wry laugh at the collective urban self, yet I would call the poems mostly uplifting. There are emotions, of course, of slight hopelessness but they are not overpowering or excessively sentimental.
Harchandrai’s work is reminiscent of T S Eliot and Johnathan Swift’s poems, especially the latter’s, “A Description of a City Shower,” which is a critique of the anonymity and the self-centeredness of city-dwellers—a divide that is exaggeratedly present in India through language, culture and clothing. Decades later, it seems we are not done with critiquing the city yet; we have to of course critique it when it grows grotesque and cherish it when it enriches us. It seems we have replaced nature with the city as subjects of our poetry—after all, we replaced the one with the other in reality!
Harchandrai’s poems have a lot of references to music; the writer knows her writing and her music too. A must-read for fans of the never–sleeping nishachara city and the form of poetry.
Sushumna Kannan has a PhD in Cultural Studies. Her research on the South Asian devotional traditions and feminist epistemology focused on the medieval saint, Akka Mahadevi and her vachanas. She has published her research on bhakti, dharmashastras, ethics, women’s writing in Kannada and English as well as on translation theory. She is currently working on a couple of book projects and translation projects. She is currently Adjunct Faculty at the San Diego State University, San Diego, USA. For more of her writings, see: www.sushumnakannan.weebly.com