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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,