A delicacy of language describing small town lives

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A delicacy of language describing small town lives

Bishweshwar reviews Poornima Laxmeshwar’s Thirteen Household Poems.

‘Small towns are the breeding ground of Indian men to produce more men. Daughters are dowry, menstruation, and questions of morality if they are violated before the nuptial night,’ writes Bishweshwar.

A quick search on google will show you Dharwad is 436.9 kms from Bangalore, a 7 hours and 1 minute drive from the Garden city via NH 48. People migrate, for livelihood, for opportunities and a better life. Sometime the distances can be in hours and sometime in days. But is it possible to leave the memories of one’s hometown left behind locked in a trunk under a bed of a room that has remained un-opened for many years? Not literally maybe, but as the sun rays strike one day and this door opens by some miracle, the trunk is pulled out and one by one the past is lived in the present, even if momentarily. Poornima Laxmeshwar’s ‘Thirteen’ unlocks the doors of one’s memory space and removes the cobwebs and dust gathered, unearthing everyday situations of lives richer yet limited in its time and space of a provincial town and setting.

What strikes the most as one scrolls down the e-version of Poornima’s ‘Thirteen Household Poems’ or turns the leaf of the printed chapbook filled with verses and pictures is the power of words and images. In one simple word it ‘evokes’ Memories and nostalgia of a world that had its own charms amidst its small-town limitations. The freedom and rhyme of small things. Yet this world is not perfect. Its crumbling, decaying but fighting not to give up the last remnants of its glory.

It opens with the first poem ‘Things that come with a hole.’ If one’s city bred upbringing leads to wonder if the poem is going to be saucy, then you will be disappointed. Poornima is a wordsmith, a magician who can play around with words and give it myriad colours. She can be suggestive, sensual, without the need to even spell out the details. Her words accompanied with images by Sumathi S sets the tone of the book. Her observation is pinpoint, precise…

'Amma can unstitch not only tight blouses but also relationships. She says all it takes for a failure is a prick.’ Or say where she writes in the end of the first poem… ‘Appa’s shirt lost a button while he was boarding the city bus. But even buttons come with holes.’ And the the final quirks… ‘A woman must know when to stop a conversation.’

You are left wondering what actually hit you. Her world of Amma, Ajja, Kaku, Ammamma then weaves you through a world that still exists and continues in its own rhythm of a small town. The town she left long back yet couldn’t leave.

If the first piece was about tactile details and conjugal tailoring, the second one evokes smell. ‘Apple cinnamon fragrance pouch’ opens with ‘Amma always smells of turmeric, Appa of teakwood furniture’. How often do we even remember these smells? It’s the familiarity of the smells of the old guards or of a certain simplistic time that is then broken by a modernity that tries to capture smells in fancy bottles perhaps…

‘Every anniversary, I gift him cologne that contains sea-salt and the quiet secret of lemongrass. As for me, I smell of anti-depressants that blend like detergent in hard water.’

Poornima’s Dharwad of yesteryears had a certain softness. The hard water of Bangalore, the domesticity of a city life leaves little room for any froth or happiness. The smell of antidepressant then lingers in mild conjugality like the anniversary gifts that are never used or perhaps never opened, lying in the corner of a steel almirah.

We move ahead. The distances on the milestone seem familiar. We fly like a carrier pigeon carrying a small chit to a far off distant land. In the ‘The ladle that never tasted the soup’ Poornima flies further and opens doors of Amma’s storeroom with the rusted hinges making a creaky noise. And what’s in store here? Memories again. Plastic bottle lids, threads that came along with a parcel of idlis and vadas, discarded photos of gods she once believed in, her mother’s bronze kadai, her father’s Gandhi cap, her first bib, gift wraps, her recipe book which had sambhar powder recipes from all possible aunts, and two ghungroos. But then the small town limitations are set in the trite irony in the end… Her father disliked the idea of her taking Kathak classes.

So, ‘she bit the dream between her sharp teeth just like she could separate a garland in two.’ She ends with a poignant question to her Amma… ‘Do dreams burn holes on the sleeves of age and gnaw at every dawn?’

It is this quality of stopping you in the end that’s the unique and recurring theme of ‘Thirteen’. In ‘The lonely socket in the verandah’, she moves away from Dharwad to the Western Ghats where she spent the few years of her growing up years. Her Dad was posted here. The keen observation of a sensitive mind is vivid here as well when she remarks…

‘No, it wasn’t magical, generating electricity out of water. It was the sheer act of chopping down rows and columns of trees until they could cleanup to dig tunnels in the earth to fit the turbines, and then load cement to erect a dam, sink hamlets — unsettle grief — to light up a better world.’

Finally it’s the routine of Appa’s life that catches her imagination in the ending line… ‘Appa bought bulbs and bulbs that gave up on life with voltage fluctuations, mostly, and then they were abandoned. At times, they were the emptiness that Appa felt at his job.’ The pathos of Poornima’s poems lies in these moments. Moments hanging in suspended animation. Moments that feel like eternity yet were moments at some point, circling the characters in the milieu.

In ‘The secret pocket in the petticoat’ Ajji’s love for saree is laced with black humour… ‘Ajji wore her nine yards meticulously. Her concern was to show not too much of her strong legs that knew the weight of the distance between one abortion and another.’ Ajji lives on even after going through 16 pregnancies perhaps but her body is worn out… maybe not her spirit. Broken but not beaten she lies fighting her last battle perhaps…

‘her toothless mouth open, dressed in a worn out nighty and a shawl. The nathani’s fate was undecided. Either it would adorn the village deity Mahamaya’s face or melt as easily as our ancestral history.’

Ajji will live on in Mahamaya, the village deity. She will go back to where she belongs. The village she came as a young bride many seasons before.

In her poem titled ‘The set of four cowries’, the poet again takes us down the memories lanes…

‘So, I choose a different game. I flick the money cowries as high as I can. I catch them with the vigour that life possesses while holding the nerves on my neck until I go blue, When I think I am done trying all the cowries, love comes crawling like an attention-seeking infant.’

Does she mean the cowries brought her good fortune in wealth and happiness later in life? She leaves it to the reader to guess! In the ‘Technicalities of a good poem’, she touches the subject of insanity and its social construct. Getting labelled in a society where women are lesser mortals can be even more horrific. Insanity is a crime. Time rolls but perception never change. The poet leaves Kavita, who could have been a beautiful poem in our court for justice, but justice perhaps will never be found in her case. Ragged, aged yet perhaps defiant of shame or censure, Kavita becomes a parody of our society’s ills. She puts it so rightly in the end,

‘Kavitha–a poem that could bind the curls of music so strikingly that it touched the stones where our hearts were supposed to be. Kavitha, with her now grey hair and same set of questions, is so easy to spot in her bright green printed langa and a plain red blouse. Only the prints and the colours keep changing like her understanding of good touch and bad touch.’

It’s evident here that even her rights to her body has been violated. Who is insane here? She or the society she belongs to? The answers are not easy to find.

In the ‘Undo my alternate experience’, Poornima questions the piquant nature of widowhood in our society. Even in death of a partner, society’s macabre dance continues just like a theatre.

Ammamma ground her betel nut every noon after a short nap. She wore a thin, pure white saree with no prints. I always thought she was a pile of bones, laid one on top of the other, glued by pale skin. She walked slowly as though each step took her closer to death.’ It gets starker from here. ‘She carried her own water from the well. When she lifted the pleats and tucked it on the side, I could see the red patches on her wrinkled skin that seemed like flowers blooming in spring, so full of life, so full of hope. I counted them as they stared me in the eye like folksongs passed down, generation after generation. But mistakes repeat out of futility, out of existence.’

Who crushed Ammamma’s dreams? Society or fate? Is it a crime to be a widow just like it was a crime to be a mad woman? Who decides whose fate? Is there such a thing called fate or providence?  Even in desertion she holds onto her conditionings. The epitome of manhood is still the supreme one for him.

Ammamma always narrated stories only from the Ramayana because she trusted Rama. She liked the fact that he was a one-man-woman. She also once told me that her favourite colour was gulabi.’

In the colourless world of Ammamma, colour still is the primary motif. A colour she can never wear, flaunt as her life is about ebbing her feelings now, for the departed. For the omnipotent husband. The irony of Rama, even a flawed God is exalted. The virtue here is dedicating your body, spirit and mind to one person, in life or death.

In the next poem titled ‘Starchy Memories are the toughest to wash away’, she paints the picture of a somewhat regular married couple in a small town. ‘On pleasant January mornings, Kaku wakes us up to help her with the sabudana sandige.’ If you are wondering this world is sweetly cohabitating then perhaps the ripples are not yet seen.

‘Suddenly, the air is filled with the pungent odour of green chillies, (overused) to add some life to the otherwise ordinariness of sabudana.’

Can things be spiced up if the fire is dead? So what if it’s dead. Defiance to the ordinary is the hallmark of marriage, the sanctity is more important than sanity and most often, it’s the wife’s duty to make it work. Hence her observation,

‘How can you make salad without cucumber? I ask. Everything is independent; she answers with a distant look, stirring the mix with an unnecessary vigour. She holds her mangalsutra and utters something to display her annoyance at the koel’s singing – kooooooo, kooooooo.’

The marriage can be monotonous or in tatters but the mangalsutra has to shine and the Tali has to dangle happily in family functions. This is fertility. This is dedication. But on a second thought, is the man in shining amour strangulating you? Trying to control you since you are labelled as an obedient wife? Hell no, how can it be. He is the Lord. Kaka will go mad if she takes the damn thing off. His concern is the symbolism that gives him an identity. Servitude to the master is rather celebrated. This is slavery poised as marriage.  Such ironies keeps getting tossed by Poornima all through Thirteen. Words are her arsenal and she will not spare.

There are no limitations here though lives can be limited. She ends the poem with a quiet poignancy,

‘Kaka, living his days dreaming of a career in theatre, stuck in his Public Works Department (PWD) job, and Kaku working as a teacher in the government school by the pond where the buffaloes rest after grazing for miles. Or was Kaka Chippy Hackee caught in a wrong marriage?’

Kaka’s world won’t change, nor will Kaku’s. But a small streak of light falling through the ventilator shows the particles that are unseen otherwise. The dust will never settle. It was never meant to how much the exterior surfaces are clean.

In ‘Of cure, fantasies and phantoms’ she writes,

‘While cleaning the pooja room, Amma had thrown away the small silver idol of the snake god at the roots of the peepul tree. She later told me that she dreamt of snakes all night.’

This is so universal that it immediately strikes a chord. The Elephant, the snake, the rat… The motifs that decorate our gods are venerated beyond imagination, although in reality I believe the motifs are doing better as species in western civilizations. Here everything has a purpose. Without purpose life has no meaning. Worship for a purpose. Worship for that prized bride, worship for that mid level management job change, worship for your children’s joint entrance exam. Worship so that they become as successful and rich as you, maybe even richer.

‘We would visit the temple at least once a year where the festival obligated us to pour milk on the idols and eat sweets at home. Amma advised Pammu and me, pray to the snake god to keep you away from all skin diseases.’

But then a ritual is a ritual and the exhaustion in Poornima’s voice in the next line makes it clear,

‘I gave up reasoning that very year when I discovered the first tiny white patch on my skin, sure of the purpose of its arrival amidst the mundane. At the break of dawn, Amma made me wash the steps of the temple for one whole month. She asked science, politely, to fuck off.’

The steps may later give place to feet… lotus feet, pedicured feet to be washed, wiped and cold creamed if needed, one wouldn’t know.  In servitude to the lord and what he blesses us with is happiness. Or is it just a ‘myth’ shrouded in ‘mythology’ from where the word originates?

In ‘The comfort of life is repetition’, the trauma finds a quiet escape.

‘Riyaaz is as necessary as routine, says Maushi. Every day she cleaned the tanpura. It was as if the monsoons had gotten rid of the heaviness of a lover’s heartache. While Mian ki Malhar captivated the boundaries of a harmonious downpour, she drowned in it without any resistance.’

In a small town the right to love is also proliferated with doubts, suspicions, questions. If it’s not consummated in holy matrimony, trouble looms ahead for the lovers. Breaking stereotypes is not easy in a society that has become hard as clay. Mausi’s music couldn’t save her. Being a rebel is a liability here.

‘On many such evenings, the rebellion that clouded her mind poured like raindrops without too much of a pitter-patter.’ You can be martyred yet no one will celebrate your life. ‘She looks at her black Titan wrist watch thrice as she lectures me about how thunder feels like a howl of failure.’

Everyone saw it coming but no one did anything. To support lost causes is a bigger failure at times in the scheme of things. Maushi’s slips... ‘The day she swallowed those tablets never to catch another rain, I knew that death, too, could be as vain as a life plan.’ Mausi’s death has no insurance premium. She didn’t find a husband with a prized education to buy her a joint family insurance that will take care of cervical cancer, disobedient glands or even death. It ends with her end. Society will breathe a sigh of relief. She is perhaps saved, she is not a widow nor even a decorated bride in all regal hue, lipstick, sindoor, mangalsutra and tali intact on her final journey to the pyre. She finally melts in the fire like the ragas she liked singing on the tanpura.

Small towns are the breeding ground of Indian men to produce more men. Daughters are dowry, menstruation and questions of morality if they are violated before the nuptial night. The poet is at her brilliance to point it out subtly in ‘Transmutation of memories’.

Ajja read Devi parayanam for hours, almost until noon. He sat on the deer skin mat; of course, he was purely vegetarian (minus onions, minus garlic). He would finish reciting the verses and then open the books that invoked the blessings of the goddess. Maybe that’s why more than half the house was filled with women of all ages and sizes—a blessing gone wrong I presume.’

The heady cocktail of casteism, patriarchy can consume the bravest souls. Ajja goes on his final journey but with his prejudices intact, in life and in death.

‘He used only his own bronze plate, bowl, and tumbler and wouldn’t allow anyone else to use them. When he fell from the bed and hurt his head, he knew death had walked in with the odour of low-budget phenyl.’

However in a society so bound on purposes, even death is a change of inheritance and wealth. The celebration of widowhood continues. Misfortune is fortune.

‘While cremating him, Doddappa took out Ajja’s pavithra finger ring. He then sold it for a fair price and got a Navaratna ring made for himself. He gave away everything else including Ajja’s spectacles, white clothes, long line of homeopathy medicines and books that preached their dosage. Ajja loved shrikhand and vada. Every year on his shraadh, they were prepared and relished in the name of love and respect.’

The final piece in this short, impactful book doesn’t spare at how we look at society yet again. As a mirror or as a translucent glass. In ‘Appearances that refuse identity’,

‘Gorayya was too old now, and his costume was as heavy as people’s expectations—the ones who visited him whenever there were religious ceremonies that required his blessings. An upanayana, a christening, a marriage, and they would invite him.’

Assigned roles with no assigned dignity. That is how boundaries are drawn. He will bring you luck on but will have to retreat from your shadow lest it’s defiled. Hence Goraya will keep performing the charade for your change in fortunes. For your celebrations. He is the harbinger of hope for this hopeless society. The book couldn’t have ended in a more poignant note.

‘He always carried the chinchi, a sling bag with two pockets. One was filled with bhandaar and the other with the few coins and notes that were donated to him for his service. He entered the house with a wide chest, feeling important, to perform a religious task that made him respected in an otherwise thankless world. He sang aarthi songs on Yellamma in a low tone and always ate his food seated in a corner. Beyond that he didn’t matter. He was as fatherless as a nameless wildflower.’

Rarely, do we find the delicacy of language describing small town lives and its myriad contradictions as in the verses of Poornima’s Thirteen Household poems. One can remember a soft Jayanta Mahapatra or maybe a stern A K Mehrotra invoking images though their verses and weaving magic. I remember Mahapatra in one poem on his hometown had started on epic poem with the lines, ‘In these malaria infested lanes of Cuttack…’ Belonging to the same town I know exactly the feeling. Reading Poornima amidst her brevity and power of language in these 13 magnificent pieces, I feel I can breathe easy with hope for a better dawn.

In the end I would also like to congratulate Sumathi for the powerfully colourful frames (being a photographer myself). The pictures and the verses are a perfect blend to shatter the consciousness of an otherwise non chalant society. Never have two creative minds created such an impact on me in the short read the book is.

Bishweshwar is a poet, author, and photographer. He currently lives in Bengaluru.

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