An investigation of longing and vulnerability : Sufia Khatoon’s poetry

“Death in the Holy Month, the debut collection of poems by Sufia Khatoon, explores the word’s pain and splendours and the wisdom of living that slowly burns in the easefully flowing words. The poet pours her heart into this life-affirming prayer that screams with anguish and healing, love and light,” writes Gopal Lahiri.

Death in the holy month, collection of poems by Sufia Khatoon, Hawakal Publishers, 2018

The tone of this engaging, unforced poetry collection is quiet and nuanced yet the poet’s gentle gaze never fails to notice the real life. Her writing is consistently fresh and engaging in its search for the connection between spirituality, nature and womanhood. She has created a narrative of pain and acceptance that is compulsively readable and never self-indulgent.

The poet moves through a wide variety of topics, themes, forms and tones. The images can be as specific as white clouds that are miraculously wonderful. The poet believes, ‘Some words have watermarks/ some have spines.’

‘Death in the Holy Month’ is actually an investigation of longing and vulnerability, a reminder of the bondage and the true humanity. It’s an accomplishment, even more startling because it feels effortless. The simple structure of the poems and the lyrical quietude convey the dynamic expression of the poet’s radiant curiosity.

‘No, not of the body but of the mind
I am writing on the mellowed leaves,
Feel the burning sensation
I can meet you in dreams though.’ (Letters To The Self)

In Sanjukta Dasgupta’s words, ‘Sufia’s poems will engross and enrich readers as they perceive that in the holy Month the ladder of hope is a beacon of assurance and inspiration’.

The poet emphasis time and again that poetry and religion belong to everyone and that it can draw inspiration from a range of rituals and experiences.

‘The lizard hiding under the papaya
Branch eyes its prey,
Far lights follow angular lines
Around the peach sky.

In the middle-
Azaan and arati find the same voice.’ Angular’

Her philosophical poems powerfully connect us to the universe and spiritual world with direct, inventive wordplay that helps us rethink who we are, where the crisis of faith lies.

‘this day was the day I was innocent
I had mercy and I had love,
But now all I have is anger seeping in
The story of violence (Ageless Ego).’

In wandering, her poems deliberately cultivate attentiveness to the motions of time and space. Unfurling poem after poem, she captures a steady consciousness in strokes of thought. Her spiritual voice let us know how to survive in the face of violence and collapse. Her poems find refuge in prayers and healing and her breath becomes

‘a handful of blood,
A white flower,
Souls of the dead,
A piece on peace remained
Penned down as a prayer.’

Sharmila Ray in her Foreword has rightly pointed out, ‘As one progresses through the poems an uncanny feeling overpowers the reader as if there is some screaming going on inside the poet’s head,’. The poet bears witness to the resilience of the human spirit and brings insights in her write into wellsprings of inspiration. She probes into dark alleys and expresses for those who have no voice.

‘Days, weeks, months pass,
screaming gives way
to longing;
submission gives way to
cries,
love give way to sorrow. (How I Killed Love)

She is also particularly good at describing restlessness and there is a pleasing note about her poems’ swiftness which is as rolling-field expansive as her empathy and its structure is organised to ease the progress the journey of life. Her words flow seamlessly from abstract to reality, folding time into pleats and illuminating the fibres of wound and healing thereof. The unruffled curiosity that makes all her poetry a pleasure to read does not desert her till the last page.

‘Above body and flesh
The eyes travel to a town called Hope.
It is the most harmless thing to make a home in.’(Eulogy Of Dreams)

All, in their way, are precious but it’s a reality that appears to be drawing closer at the end. Some of her poems are beautifully balanced between the pedestrian and profound. If they have a metaphorical implication, they are deceptively light.

The poet admits, ‘Poetry is one such medium through which I have been able to awaken my quest of spirituality and understand the true essence of life and death.’ Whatever the cure, Sufia’s observation seems to keep pace with her mind. She tends to tread slowly at times, as if careful not to disturb the balance in life she finds in this world.

Believe all that I say and all that I show,
until you believe in the existence of faith in yourself
and the faith in the workings of the universe’. (Believe That My Skin Smells Of Uprooted Longings)

What strikes me most in her write, is the stimulus and the elusive quietness. Her enchanting search of humanity and philosophy, of how humans connect with their environment and community is treasured and it also rings true. There is a belief that we build ourselves on soul searching and so a path grows. Here is a poet whose writing can seem so intensely engaging, so determined to look on the brighter side as to stave of the hurdles and difficulties with ease and grace. There is just no escaping love and death.

‘Shall I become the same prayer
and ease those who live,
without knowing the true nature of death and life
and be as I am- the everlasting words. (Death In The Holy Month’.)

So appropriate for a world in which life seems to spin in an endless circle, the whispers of words by Sufia, evoke the subliminal changes of perspective stirred by the arrival of hope and trust.

Her deft rendering and intimate observation of the complex dynamics of life is beautifully enumerated. There is a poetry of assemblage where wounds and prayers combine to build a structure, not soaring in rapturous description of nature but rich in survey and revelation. She has a way of making her words count

It was like sunlight on wet moss,
Calm and living in the warmth of its home.

In it dreams floated and my soul
Floated in the foliage of those dreams,
The bubble of hope wrapped around it like a child
To a mother and lifted to the sky. (Home Is Not An Empty Island)

Sufia’s assured and engrossing poems admit both pleasure and pain, futility and satisfaction, without either to conquer the other. In fact, it is the openness of the book that makes it stand out amid its more optimistic nobles.

One of the pleasures of this book is in the shifts of tone that reflect Sufia’s sensitivity to her surrounds. She is calm, sometimes effusive, her writing occasionally borders on the solemn. The solace ‘Death in the Holy Month’ offers is rare, uplifting and obligatory. She is drawn to the idea, expressed in her poetry, that difficulty in life is inevitable but can be overcome if there is a will.

Death In The Holy Month
by Sufia Khatoon
Published by Howakal Publishers
Price- INR 180, ISBN:97893-85782

***

Gopal Lahiri is a Kolkata-based poet, critic, editor and translator with 18 published books to his credit. He has guest-edited Setu, an online journal. His work has been published worldwide.


Five poems by Sufia Khatoon

 

Winter

I can breathe you in Winter,
your soft folds settling on my parched body hair
and nourishing the barren roots of my skin.

It has waited an entire summer
to hear the murmuring of the migrating pigeons
above my worrying temple,
they are always in your search.

The skylight of my soul now burns in the diwali diya
to feel the familiar fragrance that cradles my memories of you –
the wrinkled hands, the baby skin smell
and the soft glow of regeneration.

Jauhar azaan breaks through the line of imagery, I tried recalling.
I often forget why is it I love to love?
Maybe the craving for you makes me forgetful. 

As I open my mouth
words roll over my tongue
and plunge in the ink of exuberance,
I can see new beginnings in the fallen
shiuli flowers and buds of daisies in my garden.

It’s drizzling love today
and a strange feeling of hope.

***

Beyond light and dark

My body is moving from one street to another –
crossing junctions, people, passages,
cars, red light, subways, dogs, malls, honking,
brawls, lovers fingers
entwined inside cafes, whispers through
noise, urine mixed mud on sidewalks,
hands soaked in sweat,
eyes inside illuminated advertisements,
children selling candies, smoke leaving
angst lips
and the purpose of time.
I find a green patch under the jamuni sky
and lie my head down, overlooking the Gulmohor
branches laced with mid-night bats.
I close my eyes, I find fear mixing with the
earthy scent when my aching sole touches it
and somewhere beyond light and dark,
I see the uncertain
marking my journey with pride.

***

Filigree on the urn

I make a cup of tomorrow and sit by the perched summer
I hear the sound of lovers copulating on leaves of Gulmohar
while the sciatica of the urban landscape stretches constantly
to find relief in people desiring to own them –
even the very hands that created them.

I wear the old off-white peacock blue duppata
I smell and feel its memories, its life passed on –
marooned in the discomfort of diabolical times
and I find daylight combing my tangled soul.

Do you know the shape of water is the filigree on the urn
meant to store ashes of a loved one?
I bathe in silver lining, the forlorn skin looking
for comfort and leave breadcrumbs
for the crows, it might reach the dead under the barren soil.
Perhaps my couplets can reach the sky and make it rain love
on my dried and withered lips waiting for dust storm.

***

Cure

The room with traction beds on either
side and blue washed walls
monitors everyday
sighing of sullen eyes.
Physiotherapist carefully tags
two poles to the calves of ammi
and it suddenly wakes up to a heartbeat.
Fifty years of waiting to make a
run out of mundane pursuits –
fifty years of void.

In the big and furnished waiting
room outside ,I think through
the shifting weight of coming to
terms with life in the past two days.

Al latif and the breeze
constantly embracing my
retaliating nerves.

The recorded outburst –
this morning soldiers died again

terror attacks…

Fury unleashed in the pupils of common man
the propaganda formulated
the talking and fumigation of unspoiled hands.

It is all temporary –
the rage, the loss, the anger
and the scars dipped in exuberance of pain
until the countries find a good physiotherapist

to cure it.

I slept through sepia restlessness
last night, the lines echoing louder –
“Have I found life

and

a home to rest the paranoid heart?”

***

My country is sick

Madariwala bangs the trumping dugduggi
nach mere bandar paisa millega
and the kids gleeful momentary smiles
falls off the edge of this day.

From above my window
down in the alley
I see the monkeys somersaulting
to his commands,
his discourses that of a man of political faith –
promising yet empty.

I mixed the sky with the shadows of
the dying embers on the burner
that the child on my way back home
still kept gathering in his tiffin box
perhaps it is a dream of peaceful footprints.

What was left of the autumn leaves
burned down in the graveyard of
those who died
at war
kept dispersing –
diluting away from my grip like
those depressing dark days sulking away at my feet.

I walked in the hail storm
the bile overpowering the sense
of reasoning.
In the park man says to man
“We want to avenge and we want to kill”
while reading the newspaper.
Who dies truly
common man or the country?

The layers of luminous turquoise colour
on the grainy religion of the tongue
becomes more prominent with each
passing stroke on the painting of the graveyard
and the once forgotten patriotic poet in the grave.

I couldn’t see the spring flowers again
they had fallen off and swept away in the storm.

I asked the sweeper cleaning the roads
since 1947
“Is my country sick or the people’s mind?”

***

Sufia Khatoon is an author, performance poet, and artist who lives in Kolkata. Her poems and short stories have been published in various national and international anthologies of repute. She is a multi-lingual poet and “Death In The Holy Month” is her debut book of poems.


Read more poetry and book reviews by Bengaluru Review here:

Bishweshwar reviews ‘Strings Attached’, Poornima Laxmeshwar’s latest collection of poems.

Five poems by Nilim Kumar, translated from Assamese by Dibyajyoti Sarma.

Devi Sastry reviews ‘Lepakshi: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting’ published by Niyogi Books.


 

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