“Decay, entropy and death are other elements that hover over many of Babitha Marina Justin’s poems. We see them in their raw form – bodies, graves, apartments, houses, cities – all these form a continuum in the classic memento mori style,” writes Dr MN Parasuraman.
Babitha Marina Justin’s poems are a rare blend of poetic sophistication in thought and comfortable readability in word, form and content. Much like the digital and social media-permeated universe we inhabit today, the images in her poetry oscillate between the abstract and the physical.
In some sense, her poems evoke the famous 16th century poet John Donne. Reading through them, the present reviewer suspected her of being influenced by Donne, and hey presto, this suspicion was confirmed in “Love’s Vocabulary”, wherein she says:
I checked my compass
revised my Donne
rewrote my cynicism.
Babitha rewrites our cynicism too, one might add, and the poems in her second collection, I Cook My Own Feast, beat, like her dying mother-in-law’s pacemaker-aided heart, to “preserve [our] memories/ against the violence/ of oblivion.”
Babitha’s themes and techniques are the staple of many of the newer Indian English poets. There is the recurrent theme of identity (which, Buddhism reminds us, is the biggest of unrealities) mapped on the body and deriving nourishment from the physical. This idea reverberates through as many as six of the 49 poems in the collection. Then there is the not-ubiquitous but-nevertheless-not-ignorable presence of technology. Death, decay and entropy also hover like anxieties over quite a few poems and they hit us in the raw.
Her quintessential Indianness (and “relatability”) comes through in the fact that her family is a major preoccupation of her poetry, with more than one-fifth of the poems touching on its members. Then, of course, there is the Kerala touch with three Kerala-themed poems and another three set in her beloved native city of Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum, for those who find that Malayali mouthful a little too large!)
In the opening poem, “Birthmark”, there is the frenetic, back-and-forth negotiation between identity and body that makes the boundary between them seem irrelevant:
A scar on the right cheek,
a mole on the right brow –
filling up a resume
has never been so easy
in a nation of moles and furrows
In the second stanza of that very poem, we have the always humourous cynicism surfacing scar-like on the body of the poem on identity:
Someone said her scar is a heart
in which he lost himself; she heard another say
the scar is a commode that upsets him.
This motif echoes across a few other poems such as “Houses and Apartments”, “Driving with a Poem” and in a most searing form in “Your Orchards”, a poem which is dedicated to a Kashmiri Pandit friend:
I will come from the land
laced with palms
and the scent of cloves
to see your saintly peaks shiver
their silver crowns sutured
with pine-thorns of pain.
Another important sub-thematic presence in Babitha’s poems is technology. It must be pointed out here that in Babitha’s world technology is omnipresent but she does not allow it to take the upper hand and mediate her universe for her. This comes across most strikingly in the poem “Forgetting Vowels”, a history of the language and protocols of text messaging replacing those of conversations and good old postal letters (does anyone remember them?). But in the final stanzas of the poem she warns us of the ellipsis (erasure) and illusion that we are getting in exchange for what was, for her at least, a more real world of words, spoken and written:
In ellipsis, we chisel a new
shorthand of smileys
Through omissions and ruins,
we catwalk into our future
dancing on illusions that dare us
to dream without words.
Decay, entropy and death are other elements that hover over many poems in this collection. In several poems we see them, as it has been said earlier, in their raw form –bodies, graves, apartments, houses, cities –all these form a continuum in the classic memento mori style. Indeed, death and life, decay and growth, are elements that exist so much cheek-in-jowl with each other that one can scarcely tell where one begins and the other ends. To quote just two illustrative examples, at the end of “Houses and Apartments” we have a conventional paradox sketching:
Decay is the lichen
which spreads with
a sullen, sudden slowness
in small, compact worlds.
And in the title poem, “I Cook My Own Feast”, we have the stark realities of death and massacres in London, Philippines and Afghanistan playing on TV as the poet cooks feasts of mutton biryani, smoked chicken and salad with pomegranate beads. Death is a spectacle in everyday, media-mediated-and-sanitised daily life where its odours are, “. . . cloaked with/ herbs and masala.”
Images of the family are perhaps the most pervasive of all in I Cook My Own Feast. Mother, father, brother, husband, mother-in-law, sons – all these figures are grist to Babitha’s poetic mill. In the reviewer’s opinion, the most touching family poem of all is “Parents’ Pilgrimage” which is simply about driving her parents to the airport in the wee hours of the morning to catch a flight to the Holy Land, where they were going on a package pilgrimage along with other members of their church. However, one cannot fail to be moved by “Ämma”, about her mother-in-law in her death throes, or disturbed by “Ab Dilli Door Ast”, about the breakdown of the connect between a lover-turned-husband and his lover-turned-wife.
In conclusion, whether you are looking for images that are at once simple and powerful, language that is at once understandable and evocative, or themes that are at once familiar and striking, you will find them in I Cook My Own Feast. To close a review of this labour of love, let’s close with a few of her own words on love: “. . . love and hate are/ brewed overnight and sipped as filter coffee on mornings/ cobwebbed by curtain falls”, and:
Love and exile need
a language of their own,
they need a vocabulary
to engage and break away
from their destinies.
Dr MN Parasuraman teaches English at the University College Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He has been teaching at various government colleges in Kerala for the past 15 years. He did his MA (1999) and PhD (2007) from the University of Hyderabad. His interests and areas of expertise include Canon Studies, Abridgement Studies, Children’s Literature, LGBT Studies and English Language Teaching.
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