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Speak, Women by Smita Bahuguna-Agarwal

Reviewed by Kinshuk Gupta

With a title that is direct and emphatic Smita Bahuguna-Agarwal invites us with a clarion call to dive into her new poetry collection Speak, Women. Divided into six sections, the collection, like her previous ones, bring out the unabashed and irreverent feminist poet Bahuguna-Agarwal is.

I am reminded of Paula Richman’s introduction to Many Ramayanas, where she writes that even though most interpretations and retellings of the Ramayana celebrate the birth of Lord Rama and consider it to be a moment of glory and rejoicing, it is only in the female retellings that about Kaushalya’s labour pains are recorded. Kaushalya is standing upright, holding on to a pair of ropes hung from the ceiling. Bahuguna-Agarwal captures this well when she writes: “They made Kausalya hold the ropes/Mother, Mother, I can’t bear this pain/A minute feels like hundred years.”

Bahuguna-Agarwal flips the narrative, or, so to say, the male gaze, and attempts to redefine a woman’s relationship to her body. She is unflinching, and almost ruthless when she discusses regressive customs, patriarchal mindsets, and socio-political discourse around women’s issues.

Even the poems which deal with the environment or politics are overtly gendered. But this is not to say that her poems are loud or rely on ‘statements.’ Her tone is mostly sarcastic when she describes the Indian Parliament as a set of dentures where old doddery fools, who are unable to ‘bite, chew or grind’ themselves, are ‘diminishing the country’s health.’ In the poem

‘Earth Day,” where she uses inverted logic, ecological concerns converge with broader political issues that plague modern times: “Grasslands are being forced to migrate/as they follow a different religion.” But one can’t also miss the empathy with which she writes for the lineage of women of her family, say, Buaji from Kothaar and Saklani Naniji of Dehradun, who had to suffer at the hands of patriarchy.

This book is also a good example of intersectional feminism, a concept that has gained traction off late. It promotes women of various identities to fight for their issues. For instance, when older women write about their concerns, there is a substantial shift in tone, theme, and style. In recent times, The Red Necked Green Bird by Ambai, Ret Samadhi by Geetanjali Shree, and Eunice D’Souza’s Necklace of Skulls all voice out the concerns of older women. “Mammarian Milonga,” where Bahuguna-Agarwal talks about her sagging breasts in a bawdy way, fits snugly into the category of older women’s voices.

In the era of post #MeToo, the poems in the first section, especially, “The Rapist at My Door,” which deals with the sexual harassment young women undergo at the hands of so-called elderly mentors, rings warning bells in our ears. In the poem ‘Guru Mantra’, the starting and the end line remain the same—He says Nothing moves. I feel nothing. Except that there is an additional line in the last—I’ve been singing since. Singing here not only signifies joy (Bahuguna-Agarwal is herself a trained classical vocalist) but also becomes a metaphor for the kind of exploitation that we hear about on an everyday basis.

Humour and wit come to the rescue every time Bahuguna-Agarwal’s poems are about to trip. Barring a few in the later sections, most of these poems are neither leaky nor are they MFA-styled dry poems—they traverse the tightrope between rambling and self-restraint—and most of them succeed in doing so.

Kinshuk Gupta, a medical student, uses the scalpel of his pen to write about his experiences as an undergraduate medical student. His work can be read or forthcoming in Joao Roque Literary Journal, American Writer’s Review, The Bengaluru Review, Mad in Asia Pacific, Human/Kind Journal, Failed Haiku, Cattails, Eunoia Review among others.

That Year at Manikoil by Aditi Krishnakumar

Reviewed by Madhuri Kamat

It’s a joy to read That Year at Manikoil by Aditi Krishnakumar. It showcases what is fundamental to the critical process of growing up that is often overlooked in coming-of-age children’s and young adult novels – the ability to be sensitive to the condition of those around and what is going on in the larger world. “That year” refers to 1944 when Japanese forces occupied Burma and Malaya and were on the threshold of overrunning British India through the northeast border and the sea. The massive displacement of families it led to, forms the backdrop of the story, which pivots on ten-year-old Rajalakshmi (Raji), who finds that her maternal grandparents’ home, fictional Manikoil in Tamil Nadu, always a summer vacation abode, is now her mother and sister’s permanent residence.

The book, a part of Duckbill’s “Songs of Freedom” thrums with the silenced song of freedom playing out within the household: despite fierce arguments, Raji’s mother is overruled by her husband and must take herself and her daughters away from Egmore to her maternal home for “their safety”; Raji’s sister Vasantha engaged to be married to her father’s friend’s son cannot stay behind to study further in the college of her choice while her brother, Kittu can do so for his law education; a male stranger must act as a chaperone for their train journey from Egmore in Madras to Trichy while her own son, Gopu can travel alone on the same mode of transport though he’s going as far as Imphal to join the British-Indian army overruling parental opposition and hyphenated loyalties; and even without consulting his wife who is expecting their first child.

On reaching Manikoil, Raji learns that the exodus is not restricted to her hometown of Madras; there are families fleeing the war in Burma and Malaya. Unable to afford train travel they walk through warzones and pack boats to cross the seas. Starvation threatens as edible crops that grew wild in abundant supply is woefully insufficient as families pour into Manikoil. The spectre of death that everyone tries to shield Raji from comes closer with grim news of the death of a student’s father on the war front. Her brother, Gopu Anna’s letters home from Nagaland and Manipur warfronts continue the theme of displacement as he writes of the seizure of tribal homelands by military garrisons and the death of a fellow soldier for this trespass. In a lovely touch, text redacted by the military censor is shown through cancelled font and as victory becomes certain, the censorship also ceases.

In her only girls-school, Raji faces name calling from both sides of the migratory factions as “being from Madras, she’s an outsider among the locals in Manikoil but to the returnees from other countries, she remained a local.” Among the returnees is her classmate Ilavarasi, the grandchild of a migrant couple from Manikoil who like many others sought to escape agrarian distress by becoming labour on rubber plantations in Malaya ages ago. Trying to ‘belong’ in her new school, Ilavarasi creates an elaborate fiction about her father owning the plantation before her lie is discovered by Raji. Ilavarasi admits that “We didn’t have much in Malaya. The plantation owner paid for us to go to school and let us look at her books – oh, please don’t tell anyone.” Raji doesn’t but only because she is schooled by her mother and her grandparents not to be judgemental.

The resentment Raji faces, however, in school and from her own cousins goes beyond the locus of her origins to cutting jibes about her Thatha (grandfather) consorting with the British and working with the Maharaja. Her school woes are further compounded by her sisters, Vasantha and Kanakavalli’s academic brilliance, which she cannot match up to. When Raji discovers her true metier – her talent for singing being singled out by family and British officer alike – she still remains unsure of being able to perform in a recital to the exacting standards of her music teacher.

The vadyars (teachers) for Sanskrit and music, Suprabhatam, murukku, temple runs bring the Tamilian household alive but it’s the finer details of the “easy rhythm set by the agricultural seasons” such as the oxen to move the oil press and personal quirks like the artificial light forbidden for reading by Thatha, to name just a few, that ensure it does not remain a stereotypical portrayal. Ilavarasi’s home is evoked through smells and her mother’s stance on the gift of the pavadai is lovely. The nuances of decision making on pregnant women’s treatment depending on their relative relationship with the mater familias is superbly brought out. The kids intimidated by and yet desirous of impressing Gandhi Thatha is a fun read as is their attempt at listening to a forbidden radio broadcast.

There are some aspects, however, that could have been more finely etched. For instance, barring a mention of Dr. Ambedkar, caste is largely absent from the narrative that does not shy away from political discussions. Despite the feminist leanings, the adult in-laws are shown not to match up to Raji’s family who are always wise, generous and all things kind and nice. This begins to grate a little. Raji’s moment of epiphany on being able to render her song strikes a false note and Gandhi’s reaction to a critical secret missive misses the mark.

What doesn’t miss the mark is the exemplary writing in charting Raji’s growth, be it the questions whose answers she seeks or her conversations with kin, teachers, classmates, Ilavarasi’s grandmother, and an unnamed woman; all of which lead up to the luminous moment when the child is considered adult enough for a mother to confide in. There’s no earth-shattering revelation of some deep, dark family secret but her political philosophy on freedom, the nation state, and the Empire. It’s a thing of beauty needing to be celebrated as children are rarely treated in real life or fiction as worthy of such knowledge. This book underlines how the personal is political.

Madhuri Kamat works for the developmental sector, pens children’s stories, and writes screenplays. She has created a pamphlet on street children’s right to take shelter under Mumbai’s bridges. Her passion for their protection led her to translate poems on their lives; pen poetry on homeless women and write a script for a short film produced by the UNICEF on migrant children in the harvest season. She has written screenplays for Marathi and Hindi television shows including the Hindi remake of “Yo Soy Betty la Fea.” Her children’s book, Flying with Grandpa (2018) and its sequel Bringing Back Grandpa (2021) published by Duckbill, are now published by Penguin Random House, India. Flying with Grandpa made it to the Amazon Editor’s pick within a month of its publication and was shortlisted for the Neev Literature Festival’s Book Award, 2019 and Peekabook Children’s Choice Awards 2019. Her other books include Whose Father, What Goes?, an interpretation of Hamlet, handprinted by Writers Workshop, Kolkata and e-books Burial of the Dead, a mystery and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya, which re-imagines the epic Mahabharata through the eyes of Kunti. Her children’s books can be found on Amazon and Flipkart as well as indie children’s bookstores in India and her e-books on the Kindle bookstore. For more of her book reviews, visit: India Educational Resources. Email:

The Country without a Post-Office by Agha Shahid Ali

Reviewed By Shreyashi Sharma

The Country without a Post-Office is a subtly crafted requiem for a valley that has known nothing but hate. It is the poet’s calculated presentation of the metamorphosis Kashmir has undergone, a cumulative arousal of clashing and contrasting ideas in a landscape riddled by generations of sanctioned atrocities from both sides of the border.

Agha Shahid Ali had consciously restrained himself from mentioning Kashmir in his poems for an entire decade. While the poems he penned in this period always ached with a forlorn idea of an unsupervised home, his home was never ascribed a name. But when he finally reclaims the name of the valley in The Country without a Post-Office, it gives off the feeling that he managed to rip off an age-old bandage that was accumulating dirt and decay under the pretext of guarding his charred skin.

Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Quashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cashmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kashmire, Kasmir, Kerseymere?

(Shahid, Agha, 1997).

He spirals into various semantic reiterations of Kashmir, and it feels like a reverberating wail into the void created by political conundrums. Dispelling all the varied meanings associated with the valley while observing, decoding, holding it in and pulling it apart- with a surgical literary precision; Ali finally brings to halt his affair with marinated lullabies sculpted in denial (which he managed to stretch for a decade) and readies himself to tackle the Kashmir question head on. He gives in, and he has never been better as an artist.

Ironically, while Kashmir rings with the reminiscent echoes for the idea of home, it is not a place the poet aches to return to. However, if given a chance to escape to a dimension made out of all the banalities of his existence, it seems he would definitely want to take with him, the memories of the valley he used to call home. He latches on to the idea of a reality where the valley is just what it is—a picturesque crystallization of nature’s best; free from the underlying air of dejected prudence it has come to recognize as its own, and all the subjugations it has encountered.

The whole idea of “Home” that The Country without a Post-Office condones, is intrepidly linked to the reverberating ambition of Kashmir’s people to establish some kind of familiarity with their surroundings. Where is this home? What is home anyway? Is it all but a distant and all-too-familiar dream which refuses to reconcile with their present realities? Or some utopic ideal they have to let go of? Home is where they are the most comfortable in. Home is where their identities lie. Yet, a home, is denied to them.

I’ve returned to this country
where a minaret has been entombed
Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps
in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
His fingerprints cancel bank stamps
In that archive with letters for doomed

(Shahid, Agha, 1997).

The genius behind the anthology, doesn’t lie in the poet’s careful eloquence or his ornamental sentences. It lies in his simplicity, his ability to portray the discrepancies of a tyrannical system with a minimum number of words and intrinsic scenarios. The title poem itself mentions a post office filled with undelivered letters, piling up in wait of finding their destination someday. In one of his darker illustrations, Ali declares: “I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir.” One cannot help but feel that more than a place, Kashmir is a feeling that the poet has delicately nurtured. It brings along with it a coagulating sense of pain, but it is also a bliss one hasn’t felt elsewhere. This duality allots his poems an intrepidly dynamic framework. The mosaic he weaves through his nostalgia and his detached ache for a golden valley, simmers within his sentences and strikes the readers. This is what makes his poems and The Country without a Post-Office universal. They transcend boundaries. His poems maintain a very strategic yet sometimes blurry balance between corporeality and illusion. One moment it is all blue and claustrophobia invades its spaces; while in the next moment he springs up familiar pictures drenched in a sepia undertone—intricately arranging them into coherence, and the reader stops decaying as rapidly as he was, a moment before. They speak of trauma, riots, hopelessness, and a dynamic range of atrocities—all circumscribed within a deafening aura of peace. You can’t help but feel calm as they dribble into your blood, spreading throughout your body while speaking to you with the voice of an acquaintance you meet on a rainy Tuesday, in a not too crowded cafe. You exchange updates on each other’s lives, and he assures you that everything is fine. It is only when you are recalling the events of the day before going to sleep that you realize that there was a lingering sadness in his eyes. You were remiss and you didn’t notice. But now, that is all you can think about- his calm and lopsided smile, the ease and familiarity you felt with him and his eyes. His eyes, that questioned: how do you run from this all-consuming smoke, when you reside in a burning house?

Shreyashi Sharma recently completed her Masters in Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


The Adivasis Will not Dance by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Reviewed by Tanushree Gupta

“We are called aadhabaasi (adivasi) because we are aadha vasi, which means half humans and you people are pura vasi, complete humans”these words spoken by an adivasi resident of Madhya Pradesh are reminiscent of the fact that an independent India, has failed to understand the Adivasi map of the world and their conceptualisation of freedom and liberty. Shekhar’s book, The Adivasis Will Not Dance, a collection of ten short stories testifies to the fact that Tagore’s (1910) “narrow domestic walls” seems to be enjoying the pride of reaching greater heights and Gramsci’s “subaltern classes” continue to be silenced.

This book asks uncomfortable questions. Does the need for development supersede the rights of the Adivasis? Does prostitution make you a smeared individual, undeserving of finding love. What should one choose between morality and survival? Contradicting the allegations that the book is politically inspired it’s in fact one that unapologetically sensitises the reader about the realities of the suppressed, whose voices are silenced by illusionary promises and irrational incarceration. “Art is never being chaste…Where it is chaste, it is not art,” says Picasso, true to that, the author says, “What is the point of just liking a book…They should bring about some change” (Shekhar 2016).

The stories in The Adivasis Will not Dance aren’t just musings upon the helplessness of the Adivasis. That would make a boring piece of fiction. It is marked by the erratic paternalism of the state, avaricious private interest, and incessant corruption. Devoid of a glossary, because the author believes they are “destructive”, these stories brim with Santhali voices in their colloquial language. Brutality being an endless confrontation when driven by superstition is aptly illustrated in the story ‘Baso-Jhi,’ a woman who was called a “dahini” by her own sons. In the story, “Desire Divination and Death” comes Subhashini’s choice to stay with her ill son or going to work. “Merely a Whore” is the story of prostitute, who falls in love with one of her clients. Faced with immense misery due to humiliation and rejection this story is a benchmark for every woman who crumbles at the mere sight of grief (Raman 2019). An acerbic love triangle ‘Blue Baby’ burns with flames of obsession that challenges the present-day idea of romance. “Getting Even” marks the chilling encounter of human trafficking while “Eating with the Enemy” takes you through the miserable life of Sulochana, a poor adivasi trying to cross the hurdles of life. These stories are in stark contrast to the “Disneyfied” noble savages and promiscuous strumpets that populate the non-indigenous imagination (Srivastav 2017).

—“‘Saali! You Santhal women are made for this only.’… At one point the policeman squeezes her breasts out of her blouse. He bites them and sucks on her nipples. That hurts.’” (41).

“November is a Month of Migration” is undoubtedly one of the most courageous stories in the entire book. Unleashing the struggles of poverty, a young girl is forced to choose between survival and morality. Is it ethical to sell your body for the sake of “two pieces of cold bread pakora and a fifty-rupee note” (42). The depiction of sex here is painful, infuriating many readers who have criticised the author for objectifying the Adivasi women. “She has to do nothing, only spread her legs and lie quiet” (41). Her silence will make you flinch, probably shed a few tears as well. Quite naturally this story reminded me of the story of an Adivasi child in Ratlam district in northwest Madhya Pradesh, who had fallen severely ill after drinking insecticide to stave off her hunger (Nilsen, 2019). Comprising about 8 percent of India’s population, the Adivasis account for a fourth of the population living in the poorest wealth decile (Das et al.). Poverty among the Adivasis is a hardcore reality probably as hardcore as the sex depicted here. The sex may offend many, but to emphasise on the literal words of the explicit content and ignore the pockets of exploitation stocked in the short story will be an ideal representation of what we have been doing for the past seven decades- ignoring the plight of the Adivasis.

The first short story “They Eat Meat!” is about Panmuni-jhi and her husband Biram-Soren. Filled with spices of discrimination, vegetables of acceptance and boiled in the oil of racism, this story of food and meat will take you through the streets of Vadodara through the eyes of an Adivasi. Biram-Soren is informed by his landlord that he must refrain from consuming meat as the people in the city “believe in purity” (6). One is forced to question how fragile this purity is, that it is tarnished by a simple act of consuming meat. They are abstained from revealing their identity. After all, no one prefers to live beside a tribal family. This story will take you back to the incident of Akhlaq in Delhi, where 200 men killed him merely on suspicion of eating beef. What stays with the reader is the bigotry and prejudice towards food. There is “purity” but no “equality.” Undoubtedly, democracy treats everyone equally but does not make everyone equal (Modi 2019). The crinkle in the nose at the mere smell of meat, and the cravings for the “simple sin of an egg” (12), will make you rethink your privilege of belonging to a community where you have the freedom to eat as you wish and cook as you like. Imagine being deprived of your daily dose of fish and chicken, after all one needs to feed the bigotry and prejudice hidden in the folds of their subconscious, we can’t let that starve, it’s the hallmark of our intelligence.

–“I am sixty years old and, sitting in this lockup after being black and blue.” (176)

If Marx’s theory on the “Law of Increasing Poverty” had a face, it would be this story, where the rich continue to get richer, and the poor remain in the dirt of poverty. The cover story of the book “The Adivasis Will not Dance” is a moving story of Murmu, a troupe-master, and the wretched condition of his people after he is beaten up by the police for protesting against the state-sponsored theft of Santhal land for a corporation. Inspired by the protests in Jharkhand by the Adivasis against the Jindal Power Plant, this story exemplifies the themes of displacement, greed, and development. The government’s 10th Five-Year Plan noted that between 1951 and 1990, 21.3 million people were displaced; 40 percent of them, were tribal people (Das et al.). Let’s face it. With lack of public representation, barely any public sympathy and physical remoteness from civilisation, snatching lands from these communities is a cakewalk for the Indian elites. Mumru’s comments throughout the story will send cold shivers down your spine. His attitude will remind you of Bhagat Singh’s “you will not be able to crush my spirit” fever. This story is a powerful narrative of the multiple forms of atrocities committed towards Adivasis: dispossession from their land; helplessness against the might of mining companies; the venality of politicians and the hollowness of middle-class sympathies (Srivastava 2017).

If the story of Eklavya was to be rewritten in a 21st century India, undoubtedly, the capitalists would play the role of Arjun, the government would be the revered Dronacharya and Eklavya, the estranged, rejected student, would be the Adivasis.

These stories shed light on the fact that an independent India has failed its Jaipal Singh. I point towards the faith of Jaipal Singh when he remarked during the debate on the Objectives Resolution, “As a Jungli, as an Adivasi…I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one is neglected” (Singh, 1946). The promise has not been kept. Let alone equality, we have corroded their dignity, land, reputation and reduced them to utter destitution. More than anything, Shekhar deserves a bouquet of gratitude from all of us, for saying it out there once and for all, The Adivasis will not Dance. This book takes me back to Spivak’s famous essay, “Can the subalterns speak?” This book will urge us to think along the same lines, but along a slightly different tangent—why can the subalterns not speak? This book is a commentary on the lives of the Adivasis, forgotten in the mainstream media and are victims of a systematic pattern of ignorance, which tells us loudly and clearly, that in India today, Adivasi lives don’t matter.


(* indicates a primary source)

“Adivasis” (2021). Minority rights Group International. Constituent Assembly Debates, Volume I, pp 14.

Dey, Debatra (2017), “Adivasi has no reason to Dance”, [Online: web] Accessed 2 December 2017 URL:

Modi, S. (2019), “How democracy has failed India’s adivasis”, [Online: web] Accessed 13 May 2019 URL:

Nilsen, A. (2019), “Adivasi Lives Don’t Matter”, Online: web] Accessed 16 Jan. 2019 URL:

Raman, M. (2019), “Lessons In Empathy From ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’”, [Online: web] Accessed 22 July 2019 URL:

Shekhar, Hansda (2016), “Review: Hansda Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance is a no-holds-barred account of life on the margins”, The Hindu, New Delhi, 02 December 2016.

*Shekhar, H. (2015), The Adivasis will not dance,. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger.

Srivastava, Sanjay (2017), “What the ban on The Adivasi Will Not Dance tells us about India’s political life”, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 14 August 2017.

World Bank (2011), Indigenous Peoples Country Brief, India.

The author is a law student in Jindal Global Law School. Hailing from the eastern flanks of the country, she grew up amidst the tea gardens of Assam. Her interests range from reading, playing the Piano to listening to Beethoven.

A Moveable East by Siddharth Dasgupta 

Reviewed by Rochelle Potkar 

This book is a heptaptych of a vividly viewed life, pre-existing in memory to the conscious tick of time. 

Siddharth Dasgupta in his new collection of poems, A Moveable East has seven stopovers of rolling existence from Hunger to Flame, Sorrow to Melody, Desire to Horizons, to finally Home like a catchment of self-conversations that appear to be a murmuring jugalbandi of hypothesis, memory conspiracies of a musafir declaring sensory associations under green channels of mind travel.  

Dasgupta switches back and forward between cafes and courtyards, promenades, and footpaths to the past and present, oscillating melodiously between milieus infused with a deep quest that we all have for the truth. A truth that is sometimes found in accidental glimpses and sometimes stares so nakedly back at us in stark light to be rendered invisible. ‘There used to be a bookstore here once./ It lingers, still, like the negatives of a dream.’ Some of his poems are ways of penance and atonement, hovering over seething epiphanies, some are peans of love and yearning, and still some are records of fruition and power, corruption and courage, prejudice, aging, decay, celebration and recovery. These, grasp and integrate an overturned and shattered world in a manner of cascading stanzas.  

‘a place that reminds you of / the melodies you have known…’ 

Many poems in the book embody geographic places and people of real and imagined days like the Maqbools and Abdul Chachas, of eras of Persian, Byzantine, Turkish, maritime, Paris, Karachi, Cairo, Beirut, and Kerala. Dasgupta’s memory is syncretic in its delightful nurturing from expresso bars to expressive citizenry. And like an enriched vocabularist, he possesses that singular appreciated quality of transporting an escape also, through the willful embellishment of language. ‘Quay and wharf and pier and seagull disarray—’ where only sometimes one fears that linguistics might threaten to eclipse the imagery. 

Immersed, thence, in a collage of imagery and sensoria, these prose poetry texts become sublime hints to the reader in re-doubling, relooking, retaking moments of existence. Like living it twice or seven times over. ‘I remember gladioli. The far-off scent/of regret; our small towns lake dappled/with the embers of small town fate.’  

Sample phrases like – blustery moons, bliss of saliva, vinyl-cracked rain, honeymooning fireflies, or apricots, figs and strawberries.  

While journeying through various metaphysical cities, nostalgic with associations of calligraphic letterings, the poet’s descriptive prowess features in tones of regret, ache, torment, flux, and a Rumi-eshq thirst, as smithereens of his fragmented selves implode under homes of roofs we generally call: poems. ‘Your prayers resonating with the silent echoes of dissonance.’ 

This book is an oak tree finding the capillaries of its ancient roots, as the poet vacillates between longing and belonging, bringing home dystopic utopias fractured in realism – a cubist way of exaggerations and disintegrations. Sensory openings to temporal landscapes in self-aware significance of intricate introspection.  

‘Like a lover, frantic in departure’s wake.’ 

Each poem relies on a paradoxical bedrock of uncertainty, honesty, and vulnerability, equaled by an undercurrent desire to re-remember amid world instability, that which is lost to time, in an aim to glean retrospectives on truth. Dasgupta is a happenstance philosopher, escape artist, hesitant survivor, who plays with ephemerality as he curates the world to the utmost and outmost with a photographic memory, building a quivering pack of imaginative cards, Houses of dreams, alongside monochromatic photography to blend with mood and atmosphere. ‘An old city an instant hush, wrapped in the/alchemy of jade, of mosque, musk, and prayer.’ 

And like a tumbled bag of marbles uncovered at the centre of a table, these poems roll off centre to the gravitational pull of a reader’s reckoning. ‘Hunger inciting a literature/scripted for prodigal and poor.’ 

With sharp impressions of memory and identity, and a resolute memory that pushes through the debris of time; this book and the poet become a relentless witness that does not submit or overlook the ruins of the mesmeric past that lurks behind the quotidian present.  

The poet hones escape portals taking flights himself with us along. 

Photo Credit: Suhit Kelkar

Fictionist | Poet | Critic | Curator | Editor | Translator | Screenwriter, Rochelle Potkar is the author of Four Degrees of Separation and Paper Asylum that was shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2020. Her poetry film Skirt showcased on Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland. Many of her stories and poems have won awards.


Two Commas and That Voice by Richik Banerjee

Reviewed by Ghada Ibrahim 

There is something about the raw form of poetry that radiates from Two Commas and That Voice by Richik Banerjee that captivates the reader. From the title to the contents, the notion that poetry stems from incompletion is vividly depicted. While mainstream or popular poetry relies on narrating a story in a coherent and concise manner, Banerjee focuses on the incompleteness almost entirely. 

At first glance, his poems appear to be nothing more than a jumble of words. The reader is required to exert themselves to an extent before settling into the style of Banerjee. Once one does, the poems cradle them in a hollow embrace. I say hollow because it is in the emptiness that one finds meaning. Ironically, the poem that made the most sense to me was “A Poem.” In 12 words, Banerjee encompasses the entire essence of the book. It is important to note the exaggerated use of space. 

“His poems grant every individual reader a chance to create a narrative on the basis of their own experiences, understanding, and vision of the world” 

While reading the book, I was surprised by the deep sense of comfort the pages granted me. For once, the noise in my mind quietened down. In wake of the scattered words bedecking the pages, my thoughts snuggled in the space between. I was not reading a story and I was not narrating a script. My thoughts stepped into the light and filled in the gaps. It was only then that the power of Banerjee’s poetry really struck me. His poems grant every individual reader a chance to create a narrative on the basis of their own experiences, understanding, and vision of the world. 

While Banerjee manages to present an interesting perspective, he falls a little short in his attempt to adequately deliver a compelling read. As far as “sandwiched voices” go, the poems definitely hit the mark. However, should one choose to amplify an otherwise muffled voice, one would need to grant it the right spotlight. In Two Commas and That Voice, I fail to see the message or even the point. In a sense, it reminds me of a bawling toddler who themselves are unaware of what it is they want. In another sense, I feel it is the correct representation of the burning world we live in. Ashes to dust to the deafening noise that engulfs us. 

We do what we wish with Banerjee’s work akin to how we do what we wish with those around us. We determine the roles they play in our lives and we dictate how we treat them. We project our visions, expectations, and needs on everything around us so as to always remain the main character. Banerjee grants us the stage. We play the lead role and we pirouette center stage. And in that, the magic of his work shines through.

Banerjee does not shy away from addressing hard truths. And that grants his poetry a relentless power. It rears its head and lunges forward commanding attention. This becomes rather obvious in the style he pursues throughout the book beginning from “Tick Tick Tick Tick” in the first poem Reach For. Anaphora emerges multiple times throughout the book. It speaks to the idea of drawing the reader in and catching their attention. But “that voice” forms no words. It is a voice that inherently lacks purpose. We can hear the noise. But that is just it. It is not any more than just… noise.?

Perhaps Banerjee intended his poetry to deliver nothing more than that – to draw attention to the noise, to make people more aware. His poetry comes from a place as raw as an open wound. In that wound, we drown. 

Ghada Ibrahim is a Psychology graduate from Middle East Technical University, a voracious reader, and a published writer. She likes to live with no regrets and has been blogging and writing since the age of 15. Aspiring to publish her book one day, she revels in sharing her love for all things literary with the rest of the world. Her writings have been featured in Mad in Asia Pacific and Bloomer Magazine. 

Time Regime by Jhani Randhawa

Reviewed by Sushumna Kannan 

John Donne views poetry as a yoking of the unfamiliar ideas. These poems overdo it. At least in the first part. Sensory vicissitudes are yoked quite forcibly right in the first poem. Except for a couple of lines towards the end, the poem is about as obscure as obscurity can get. Cutting out wordiness or verbs does not mean they all get deleted, poets. Spacing could have been reduced in the first poem, “Primavera.” There was excessive white space—to the point of incorrigibility. Choose your first poem carefully, play it safe, I wanted to say to the poet. Luckily, just when I began craving for full sentences, with more meaning in them, they appeared.  

Subsequent poems had full sentences towards the end. The poems introduce a multitude of interesting concepts from the sciences such as the negative pyramid or engage with the Humanities, mentioning the historian Walter Benjamin. The poet’s wide reading oeuvre was exciting to uncover. There are urban images of driving, a road trip, hiking. There is a nice ode to the fire element every now and then. There is a play of light and darkness and related visceral experiences. There are good words, better sentences, excellent phrases. Yet, I yearned for more explanation while I reeled under the splatter of resonant and new images. Clear meanings do not emerge. Everything is cloaked in words. Obfuscated by meandering connections. The poet makes her reader work very hard. She needs to drop more hints to her readers.  

One rare full sentence in the early part of the book that made me pause was: “I’m looking at the ways we travel to meet our lovers, or leave them. At the grammar.” There are glimpses of ecological themes: “I have considered the spaces silver, grey, an absence of green. Citations. How I am upset by this modernity.” And then, the urban sadness theme: “Your workday carves stone. To make room for their emptiness, you express becoming sad about getting older, and it feels profound.” Some of her lines require us to skip a phrase and backtrack while reading to make better sense and to read them together again: “When I shock open, I meet the dream: stones are in our stones are in our mouths.” 

And then again in this poem, the indented sentences must be read together, while the unindented go together. I am not demonstrating that through this poem as much as offer a glimpse of the style:  

“Germ aligns with edge, love at the
Formal, fast
corrodes with
My empress spread her news
Into the earth in augur bruises
The sand mistook for cloth, and salt
Her letter
on the glittering turn.” 

I loved the internal dialogue voiced out in this fashion:  

“Which food, whose music was revolutionary, what revolution, how have
we been, and how will we continue because of course we will. We will? We will.”  

How the brevity of “with and without skin” achieves so much within such a short amount of space is remarkable: “we’ve leapt into the river, a yonni of silt, and
emerged both with and without skin.” 

The poems prompt an endless back and forth reading to simply stay on topic:  

“I am a child
behind a tree    in a parking lot     the sky” 

The South Asian references feel like a chance encounter. There is no excessive nostalgia or reverence.   

“i begin to feel sad for reasons that my dead grandmother might not have felt sad
about: no women can facilitate gurdwara service, perform simran for a group
in a sacred place like this temple on the west london high street” … 

“…the death i am mourning. or is it her life i am mourning?
or, as v says, the death of someone else crashes into one’s mourning
for one’s own death”.  

The academic style sentences that sprang up in a poem that was sorting through some issues not necessarily simply about identity were nice:   

“Dealing in
the casual language of empirical psychoanalytics, Hershmann tangles himself in
error again and again, and repeats ritual scenes, displacing their historicity
and his own presence as witness within the theater of convention. 

Throughout his argument, Hershmann reiterates (though this is not his intention)  the limits of Eurocentric reasoning. Meanwhile, he still manages to convey that the Punjabi subjects—whose sexy, dirty hair he’s been detailing and chasing—remain opaque to themselves; they are subjects, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, whatever, whose private performative languages are illegible even to them.” 

 The rush of words here are well-done: “We must decide how we love in these seasons. Some might say to whom we how it takes precedence.” 

Some of the poems demand the reader to have infinite patience, to work backwards. Words often act like clues and the poems are like jigsaw puzzles. I ended up grouping similar words first in order to work my way back to make sense of them. This reminded me of how we read poetry in my BA class for an ‘annotation.’ If I had a hard copy of the book, the page would have numerous encircled words talking to each other, looking like a mind map with arrows connecting words and their various senses. There is too much distance between words and ideas and images, and the poet only gives the faintest clues, stretching associations to the farthest possible distance. The poems get better with fuller and longer sentences as we progress through the book. I just hope the reader sticks to discover the latter ones! Although a difficult read, I would recommend these poems to readers and ask them to appreciate their ingenuity.

Senior Reviews Editor Sushumna Kannan has a PhD in Cultural Studies from Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, India. Her research on the South Asian devotional traditions and feminist epistemology focused on the medieval saint, Akka Mahadevi and her vachanas. She received the BOURSE MIRA, French research fellowship in 2006 and 2007 and the Sir Ratan Tata fellowship for PhD Coursework and Writing in 2003 and 2007. She has published her research on Bhakti, dharmashastras, ethics, women’s writing in Kannada and English as well as on translation theory in peer-reviewed journals and as book chapters. She is currently working on a couple of book projects and the translation of Kannada fiction into English. She also writes poems. One of her articles was nominated for the Laadli media awards 2017. She is currently Adjunct Faculty at the San Diego State University, San Diego, USA. For more of her writings,

Mamaji by Elisheba Haqq

Reviewed by Jasmine Vyas  

I could not put down Mamaji, Elisheba Haqq’s memoir about moving to Minnesota from Chandigarh, India in the 1960s and surviving an abusive childhood. If you are a fan of Educated, The Glass Castle, and enjoy books that are funny and wistful, you will love Mamaji 

The author, Elisheba Haqq, immigrated from India to Minnesota in the 1960s as a preschooler. She writes about life in a family of eight children with her abusive stepmother and at worst, abusive, and at best, neglectful, preacher father. Throughout the book, she harkens back to Mamaji, her biological mother who died suddenly when she was three years old. 

I love memoirs about chaotic childhoods.  I am deeply fascinated by the world children build for themselves to survive cruelties beyond their control. How are some children able to get to adulthood and lead functional lives, while others experience the trauma so deeply that they are never able to heal?  In Mamaji we observe the eight Haqq children grow up in small, snowy Minnesota towns as outsiders both in their communities and in their own home.   

Haqq shares many strategies that she and her siblings coined to insulate themselves from their cruel father and stepmother. In reading her account, I wanted to hug the Haqq children while also laughing out loud with them. For example, the children were not able to properly grieve their biological mother and cry. So, the children play a game called “Mamaji is dead.” They said the phrase and looked at each other, trying to keep a straight face. Eventually the children played the games so many times, they burst into laughter at the phrase. In this way, the Haqq children formed their own darkly funny emotional shelter.  

Despite the difficulties Haqq faced, this is only one of many laugh-out-loud moments.  One favorite of mine was when the children convinced their prissy aunt, in her neatly wound sari, to sit in the back of a children’s toy car. The children tied the car to an older sibling’s car with a rope. What happened next was a hilarious incident that Haqq tells masterfully. 

The memoir contains deeply sad elements as well. As in Educated and The Glass Castle, Haqq’s father and stepmother keep her, and the other children isolated from the outside world. The children are not allowed to socialize outside the home and their every choice is dictated by the adults. They presented as a happy family to outsiders but inside the house, the children performed grueling manual labor and consumed only meager meals. In this way, Mamaji illustrates the dynamics of abuse within a family, and how victims, particularly within immigrant families, can be isolated.  

Aside from these emotional and funny moments, Mamaji shines in elucidating a little-known group, Indian immigrants to the United States in the 1960s. There were few Indian immigrants in the US at the time, and not much has been written about them. I enjoyed reading as Haqq explained the many misconceptions of the Americans around her about India and Indians. To add another layer of nuance, Haqq’s family were Indian Christians. Her father was a preacher and reading about the family’s involvement in Minnesota Christian churches was fascinating. 

For all it does well, the first chapter of Mamaji feels disjointed. If you feel this way too, skip the first chapter or two and dig right in, to when the family moves from balmy Chandigarh, India, to Minnesota on a frigid Thanksgiving Day. From that point on, I could NOT put this book down.  Highly recommend this powerful book! 

Jasmine Vyas is an aspiring children’s book author, book reviewer, bookish podcast guest, attorney, and privacy professional. She loves to read and talk books. You can hear her on the podcasts Your Favorite Book and My Favorite Book. She is currently seeking a publisher for her first children’s book. Outside of reading, she loves spending time with her husband and three children and being outdoors. 

Bombay Hangovers by Rochelle Potkar 

Reviewed by GJV Prasad 

It is often said that poets are also good writers of short fiction. The short story after all is a prose genre closest to poetry and stories have been narrated in and as poems for centuries. Both genres can be indirect, building up moods, rather than explaining characters or forming them fully, sketch-in events and locations with quick strokes, and depend on the reader’s imagination to help in reading the work, to find their own meanings—to create their own moments. It is textures that you look for, the hidden layers that speak to you in well-crafted short stories. And it is this that you get in the sixteen stories that constitute Potkar’s Bombay Hangovers 

These stories are not a drunken romp through India’s most famous city, nor are they about the aftereffects of such excesses. But Bombay (not Mumbai, you notice) is a city that gets to you, that holds out myriad dreams and fulfils some, that lives in hope that crowded gullies will lead to broad boulevards, that the crowded slums and local trains can and do meet skyscrapers and the world of airplanes and one can make connections across these unseen but clearly felt line and cross over occasionally to the other side. Bombay is the city of unlived lives, of distractions, of boring routines, of exciting possibilities, and treacherous slopes. Most people live out their lives of ordinariness in the midst of possibilities, aware of them. Potkar’s stories explore these everyday lives.  

The stories have intriguing titles, and the writer wants us to be active readers filling in the blanks, forging connections, letting our imagination run over the stories she sketches for us. The collection begins with “The Arithmetic of Breasts” (this is a title you don’t have to struggle with), a story about a couple, a mathematician husband and his home-maker wife who had a doctorate but did not take up a career. It is a rather wry story, one that shows how the male gaze works, how a couple fall in love, how their life together weathers the years (they have two daughters), and how they get through the wife’s breast cancer and mastectomy. And how they love each other. And make love to each other. The writer doesn’t judge, doesn’t pass comments, doesn’t give us her opinions. This is one of the ways in which life plays out, she shows us.  

In “Parfum,” Russi becomes an expert perfumer and in his desire to create the ultimate perfume, the scent of his woman, his wife, he drifts away from her, not even knowing her routines, and finally finding the real perfume elsewhere. “Fabric” shows us the rise and fall of Kailas, who from aspirations to higher management in the mills ends up as a security guard in a mall after the disastrous strike that saw the closure on mills in Bombay. The story is really about the impact of his life on two women, his two wives, and how it plays out at the end. Other stories explore how various emotions play out in the life of characters. How is one roused to anger? Does it lead to action? What are the complicated emotions that arise with lust, with sex, with adultery? When is adultery exciting? Would a man want to murder his wife and her lover when she seems to be so different with the other man, almost becoming a different woman?  

When you write about Bombay, Goa can’t be kept out, as it were. So not all stories in this volume are about Bombay. One is relieved at the ending of “Salad” (a partly Goa story), an intricate short story that could have turned tragic. And when you have Bombay based stories, how can you not have one on Kamathipura, the red-light district? The narrative point of view changes from the third person to the first in the narration of this story, “Mist”, but it is again a matter-of-fact telling, even when it is about to have a fairy tale ending for one of the characters at least. And “Honour,” again a multi-layered story, asks the question about the impact of criminal action of one member of the family on the others (do we think of the criminal’s family at all?). Just like we don’t wonder about the impact of raising an intellectually disabled child, someone who is mentally a child when he has grown to adulthood, on the siblings and parents. Turn it into sibling and parent and you have the story “Noise.”  

Potkar is interested in showing us what it takes to live certain lives in certain spaces. All the stories have women playing significant roles, though it is not only women that Potkar is interested in. How do women cope with trauma, with the particular fate that seems to characterize the urban patriarchal jungle – molestation and rape? Bombay allows her a place name that can be seen as particularly apt (“Andheri”) for such a story. How do people cope with bullying – is school, in the workspace, in the residential community? What does it take to stand up and carry on even better than you had done before (read “Paranoia”)? And what is the impact of domestic abuse on the others in the family (“Slice”)? A curious story ends the collection. It is based in 1857, the year of the First War of Indian Independence (or the Mutiny). It ends with an act of personal mutiny, an act of independence, which seems particularly apt in these times.  

You may think that these stories could be from anywhere, but Potkar anchors them in the topography of Bombay – in specific areas and communities. “Euphoria,” for instance, is a Bombay story – nowhere else in India could you imagine the three characters who get together getting together at all.  The really short short story “Our Lovers” could have been set anywhere but Potkar anchors it to Bombay brilliantly. Bombay Hangovers is a collection meant to be read one story at a time, to be savoured slowly, so that one can think of people we know and stories of we don’t know but we inhabit.  

GJV Prasad, formerly Professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University is a poet, novelist, and translator. His teaching and research have focused on Indian English literature, modern drama, and translation. His recent publications include four edited volumes – Violets in a Crucible: Translating the Orient (co-edited with Madhu Benoit and Susan Blattes), India in Translation Translation in India, and Disability in Translation: The Indian Experience (co-edited with Someshwar Sati), and Reading Dalit: Essays on Literary Representations– and a short monograph on Khushwant Singh. His latest publication is a translation of Ambai’s stories, A Red-necked Green Bird. 

There’s No Good Time for Bad News by Aruni Kashyap

Reviewed by Sushumna Kannan

Aruni Kashyap’s book of poems looks at the armed insurgency of Assam dating back to the late 70s and 80s and tells its previously untold story through the varied effects it had on the everyday lives of ordinary people, some of whom were related to the participants in the insurgency and others who were mere witnesses to the insurgency. More importantly, the poems are mostly non-partisan in dealing with the topic and record the experience of violence through intensely visceral descriptions. The book records various responses to the course and aftermath of the insurgency and hence can be used as a resource for teaching about conflict-prone zones. Kashyap’s style of long-winding sentences with intriguing enjambment suit the chosen themes. There are several wow-lines carefully encased within each poem that leave distinct images in the reader. I read this book with great earnestness and lost the notes I had made; all my first impressions were on stylistic aspects. Here are my thoughts on a second read.

The first poem is the diary entry of a soldier recording post-traumatic stress disorder. This is followed by “The Prime Minister’s Visit,” a subtle critique accompanied by disappointment more than anything else. A bomb explosion and what it unleashes is recorded next as an earthquake and flood. In “Fake Boots” the reference to “alien Hindi words” and wives burning in bed because their husbands have been disfigured is well-told. The poem shows children play at war, as happens in several conflict zones across the world. Neglected festivals indicate how the culture of the place is destroyed when violence becomes an everyday affair. In “No One Would Hear Me If I screamed,” a riot is viewed from the vantage point of a newlywed bride who admits: “Propriety gagged me, just the way conscience was gagged by emotions in the subsequent years.”

“The House with a Thousand Novels” reveals the reflective subjectivities of the north-east, an engaged people or civil society, who read and think. Yet, the novels are also stories of loneliness, loss, and sorrow. In “The Chinese, Who Came Much Later,” we see Kashyap’s characteristic style of reporting unconnected events and their horror to paint the chaos of cities and other places. The diversified picture doesn’t localize one or another party as enemy or friend but critically looks at both self and the other, with each bringing its own problems, reckoning with its own context as it were. In “News from Home,” we see the distinctness of the geographical landscapes of the north-east emerge, cocooned in apparently rambling and random observations. “August” captures well how the month of India’s independence, and its celebrations are accompanied by riots and mindless violence. “At Age Eleven, My Friend Tells Me Not to Wear Polyester Shirts” captures how riot-prone areas with the increased likelihood of arson are negotiated in everyday concerns of what to wear, while also pointing to insecurities and camp-shifting perceived among acquaintances who have begun to speak in Hindi instead of Assamese. The title poem “There Is No Good Time for Bad News” is a powerful poem about a mother called to the police station to identify her son’s body. She makes 32 visits over the course of two decades before she confirms it is him and walks out with no tears: “it is him, this blood on the floor is my blood, this body on the desk is my flesh.” “My Aunt Talks About Being Raped By Soldiers” can be triggering but is well-rounded and captures the experiences before and after so well that it is more empowering than tragic. In “Dear India: A Collage Poem” Kashyap breaks not only molds of universality or particularity but also merges them in strange ways. It is not only his American readers who must look up a reference to Maine Pyar Kiya in another poem, but also his Indian readers who must look up some films and novels: “Dear India, have you read A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood’s novel set in November 1962, about a gay man in LA? Have you heard of the book?”

The beauty of Kashyap’s poems is that his intellectual positions never overpower the emotions experienced by the people in his poems. The emotions themselves carry the poems, whether they are of overpowering grief, deep-seated trauma, or fear of bomb blasts. Kashyap doesn’t explain the context too much, which is great for fostering imagination in the reader. He retains local, regional, or national references (I am secretly hoping his American readers find and watch the movie, Maine Pyar Kiya!). Do read this book if you are artistically or politically invested in peace missions, conflict zones, state control, border and integration issues.

Senior Reviews Editor Sushumna Kannan has a PhD in Cultural Studies from Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, India. Her research on the South Asian devotional traditions and feminist epistemology focused on the medieval saint, Akka Mahadevi and her vachanas. She received the BOURSE MIRA, French research fellowship in 2006 and 2007 and the Sir Ratan Tata fellowship for PhD Coursework and Writing in 2003 and 2007. She has published her research on Bhakti, dharmashastras, ethics, women’s writing in Kannada and English as well as on translation theory in peer-reviewed journals and as book chapters. She is currently working on a couple of book projects and the translation of Kannada fiction into English. She also writes poems. One of her articles was nominated for the Laadli media awards 2017. She is currently Adjunct Faculty at the San Diego State University, San Diego, USA. For more of her writings,

Selected Poems by Jayant Parmar, Translated by Dr. Baidar Bakht

Reviewed by Rachita Swain

Ghazals— does this word not evoke lyricality, does it not delight you even in its hiraeth? Originating in Arabic poetry, this form of poetic expression has blended in the Indian culture so much so that many Indian poets across various regions have adopted it as a part of their own being and expression. Most of you are acquainted with the Ghazals of Ghalib and now, with Gulzar. But here, in this book, is an Indian poet, Jayant Parmar, writing ghazals in Urdu and winning hearts; soothing eyes with his paintings as well (until you lay your hands on the book, his Facebook timeline, strewn with sketches and snatches of his poems, will reveal much).

You can call him a poet of his times, if you may infer from his book Selected Poems, translated and published in the year 2020. Each of his poems aim at grasping the reality of an event within the frame of a canvas. He states plain facts; not much of his ideas are elusive. But that perhaps steals the essentiality of a poem before you are done reading it to the last, especially when you are already aware of the political situations and the ideas implicated. However, this happens specifically in his poems concerning the atrocities that have been rendered on the marginalized section. The poem, “Thousands of Hands”, speaks about it candidly: “I asked for a home,/ And they/ Buried me in the ground./ I asked for a small patch of land,/ And they/ Burdened my head/ With the rock of exile./ I asked for a morsel of bread/ And they/  Put a burning coal on my tongue.” These lines, as many of his poems, talks about the discriminations meted out to these people in retrospect— that they were denied the basic rights of survival, starting from being deprived of a roof over their heads to a morsel of food just to stay alive. These poems move by leaps and bounds. But I suppose that is what it is meant to do— so that you can witness as it happens or has happened over time, and become a part of it, in the very process of reading it. M. F. Hussain’s horses resonate with that of his own— the swift black steed from his painting that begins the book resuscitates to gallop to its destination, if not by the land, surely by his words inked on the paper.

That quick rush, however, recedes in his Ghazals. Although they deal with the same theme, the tone changes. The protest against injustice remains intact. But here, you’re in for soul-soothing verses. In the poem, “I Chased a Symbol”, he feels delighted in a moment’s respite from the symbols of nature: “…Everything was lost in the sand./ And suddenly,/ Moving aside the curtain on the window,/ A tiny colourful butterfly/ Came and sat on the lapel of my jacket.” Poetry and his own self are made for each other; they belong to situations and places that hold the potential to exist in places where terrible events of the past can be reversed at his will. So, you will find not just pictures of social discrimination but also the ability, and the will to rise above them. We come to believe that he, as a spokesperson of his own self as well as his class will rise out of the ashes, like a phoenix, to be re-born again. He is proud of being a “Dalit Poet”. And, his Ghazals give room to ample picturesque scenarios for that to happen; poems like “Nainital” are illustrations of such serenity. Much respite awaits the reader in “A Ghazal”, which acts as a sort of messiah to him and to our mind: “You filled it/ with seven colours:/ The page of my heart/ was ever so pale”— when fear had overwhelmed him.

You are more likely to come across odes to many famous poets and artists of the past like Octavio Paz to Post-Impressionist painters like Vincent Willem van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. His acknowledgement of their works points to contradictions— that, even vibrant colours within a still life, can create the effect of a melancholic disposition, on the corollary, to the inherited loneliness and blackness that he executes in a series of poems with black imagery— “black wings”, “black birds” (who want to shed their darkness and scarred bodies and break free from age-old chains of stigma and fly high into the sky), “black horses”, “black grass” and so on and so forth. All that blackness induces a somber mood like the interpretation of human suffering in van Gogh’s paintings. As with him, so with Jayant Parmar: their art, while being inseparable from society, are a sort of refuge from the turbulent chaos. But if you ask him about the roots of his poems, you’re in for a surprise. His own pencil doesn’t stand as an independent entity. Its existence for the poet, Jayant Parmar, serves to bridge the gap between the present and the past. The continuation of generation serves as vantages of beauty among much turmoil, from the aroma of Ghalib or Gulzar from the East to the madness of the West. There are themes in them that either haunt him or delight him. A gullible persona that he assumes in his poetry is that of a naïve child. He will say that a little bird gets him the pivotal elements required for poetry: “The sparrow also brings/ A bit of the sky/ And some raw material/For my poems.” Yet, the tension that generally prevails in the verses is stripped of all fantasy. Even as they retain the colourful palette of nature, the poems are laid out before you, in flesh and blood, as you’d see the real world, with people who have it intact with places, and things, and beings reflecting an anti-romantic sentiment.

In the collection of poems, “Pencil aur dusri Nazmein” in his book of Selected Poems, the daughter in the poem “Pencil(3)”, carries forward the legacy of willful innocence. Like him, she too draws “Black birds” yet her mind is brimming with naivety. Her pencil sketches are more than just blackness— a peacock wears goggles— innocence blends with ambition as she goes on to draw next, “a tiger chatting with a cow”. In her world, she forges brightness of her own making. But the nib of her pencil breaks when she is forced to conform to the societal norms; she urges to break free from the cage and becomes violent in that process which is put through a lengthy metaphor of the legacy of blackness, inherited from decades of impositions: “The school master/ Gives her some homework,/ My little doll/ Breaks the tip of the pencil/ In anger,/ Extinguishing the candle of the pencil./ The white sky of the paper/ Is left with only dark smoke.”

While social injustice is an essential part of his identity and that of his entire class, he re-invents the filiations forged by the upper wrung of the society. But by no means does he feel estranged from his nation nor can we locate any form of dislocation emanating from his verses. He is more than in love with the people and places around. Countless other authors writing in the vernacular have expressed a crippling sense of alienation from their surroundings, from the people who have relegated them and their class to blackness. At the end of the line, the poet knows that even if his audience deserts him, his poems “Will never refuse/ To listen to my woes.” The entirety of Jayant Parmar’s Selected Poems relays the same emotions. What can make the poetry collection accessible to all kinds of readers is beautifully simplified version in the English translation rendered by Dr. Baidar Bakht, who doesn’t hesitate to retain the lyricality of the Ghazals. For readers, who aren’t very well-versed with the Urdu semantics of the Ghazals and Nazms, this translated book, with its introduction by Gopi Chand Narang, makes it all too feasible.

Ranchita Swain

Rachita Swain lives in Bhubaneswar and is an MPhil scholar in the Department of English Literature and Language at Utkal University, Odisha. Deeply interested in Bhakti movement and literature, her present thesis is on its application and influence in Contemporary Indian English Poetry, specifically, Jayanta Mahapatra and Arun Kolatkar. She writes poems and aspires to publish a book soon enough. Her articles and book reviews have been published in local e-journals.

After I Was Raped by Urmi Bhattacherrya

Reviewed by Kinshuk Gupta

In a society that shies away from sex education and affirms boys’ aggressive sexual presence through irresponsible media portrayals, many boys grow into adulthood thinking that forcing themselves upon resisting women is normal. It is thus that India tops the charts of unsafe countries for women, as we continue to hear about countless incidents of sexual abuse every day. As is often reiterated by professionals working on these issues, these snippets of news comprise only a small percentage of the actual cases that often go unreported because of families worried about their social prestige and the inadequacies of the justice-seeking machinery.

Although one of the major constituents of crime in India, sexual abuse, is the hardest and trickiest to understand. This, I believe, is an important reason why a lot of writing has been happening of late, around the subject matter; an attempt to deconstruct the complexities involved. On the vague understanding of the crime, Sohaila Abdulali writes in her book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, that:

It’s the only crime to which people respond by wanting to lock up the victims. It’s the only crime that is so bad that victims are supposed to be destroyed beyond repair by it, but simultaneously not so bad that the men who do it should be treated like other criminals.

We tend to think of sexual abuse in terms of a crime; our thinking has moved little beyond the causes and motivations. We are ready to dress the survivors in the armour of boldness and are always at loggerheads with society and law to seek justice.

Urmi Bhattacherrya—a former Gender Editor at The Quint and recipient of UNFPA Laadli Award for Gender Sensitivity—in her debut book, After I Was Raped, moves beyond the hackneyed tropes on rape. She tells compelling stories of women who have been brutalized not only by their perpetrators but also by the law that has exacerbated their suffering.

Narrating the stories of five women—a four-year-old girl, two Dalit women, an eight-month-old infant, and a young professional, she grapples with the hard question of where does rape end? In the foreword, she observes:

Media messaging will tell you it ends in the silhouette of a single frosted palm cutting its way down a glass pane.  It will tell you it ends in a news bulletin about a ‘Woman, aged X, raped by men or a man, aged Y’—with the aforementioned women never to be heard of again.

On the surface, the premise of these stories is pretty similar, even clichéd, but what sets this book apart is Bhattacheryya’s compassionate tone. Even while reporting these stories, trying to reach to the core of the truth, her writing never feels matter-of-fact, rather is rich with details that deeply move the reader. She writes about Smita who got raped by her lover, now oscillating between love lost and self-loathing thus:

Plans with Smita hinge on a fulcrum of variables – how “safe” or “dangerous” a certain cafe, metro terminal, or local watering hole feels to her; whether a certain item of food served by an unsuspecting bearer will potentially trigger a memory or elicit a sob; and whether she can return home by sundown or before her parents chastise her for being “out” – whichever comes first.

Another important aspect that I particularly liked about the book is that it doesn’t end with the story of survivors. Bhattacheryya tries to investigate the reasons for delayed justice or no justice at all. Narrating the story of Nidhi, an eight-year-old, who was lured away by a bhaiya and later raped, she talks about the insipid judiciary:

Sometimes the judges are on leave. Then there is large pendency of cases. You don’t get frequent hearings to present your case—so much so that sometimes if you miss a hearing, the next one might be a year later.

The pervading hostility in the courts, which relies blindly on facts, comes across multiple times in the book—the two-finger test designed to check sexual habituation; questions about sexual history; prying eyes of men attending the hearing. She also talks about women lawyers, who despite being determined, are unable to provide justice to the victim, and themselves suffer variously.

Kataria spoke of incidental trauma latching onto the body, mapping itself as myriad physical ailments…That second-hand trauma becomes a part of you.

Often it is assumed that rape ruins lives, that women shattered by it will never have a semblance of normal life. However, Bhattacherrya, through her sensitive portrayal and humanistic approach, tries to affirm that despite rape being a defining memory in one’s life, it is not the end of life. And precisely not the way one wishes to be labelled for the rest of their lives.

As Anubha Bhosle writes in the blurb: “this book shatters the silent heroism of survivors—a myth we love to perpetuate. This book, a voice of survivors as called by Bhattacheryya, actively questions the broad rubric of patriarchy and misogynistic mindsets that are eager to relegate the victim to a guilt-ridden, hopeless life. One cannot afford to miss reading it.”

Kinshuk Gupta uses the scalpel of his pen to write about his experiences as an undergraduate medical student. He was longlisted for the People Need Change Poetry Contest (2020) organized by The Poetry Society, UK. His haiku have been nominated for the Touchstone Awards and the Red Moon Anthology. His work can be read or forthcoming in The Hindu, Modern Haiku, Haiku Foundation, Contemporary Haibun Online, among others. He currently works as the Poetry Editor for Jaggery Lit.