An observer walking on the sidewalks

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An observer walking on the sidewalks

Tuhin Bhowal reviews Indu Parvathi’s debut poetry collection, On the Sidewalk.

"Indu Parvathi has a poetic voice that not only picks the mundane of things, and imitates them on the written page masterfully; but also of a concerned citizen raising her voice within the realms of the printed pages," writes Tuhin Bhowal .
On the Sidewalk, collection of poems, by Indu Parvathi, Authorspress (2019), Rs 295.
On the Sidewalk , collection of poems, by Indu Parvathi, Authorspress (2019), Rs 295.

On being handed a poetry collection to read, then review it together right after a class on the usage of ‘Words’ in writing poetry by a colleague and a dear friend, words didn’t come easily—sweet irony. Just minutes before, we had been discussing adjectives and verbs, and how their creative and potent selection on the canvas of the poetic space elevates a poem from the written page tremendously. And just minutes after, we had already embarked upon the mission to scan for such luscious usage of words in Indu Parvathi’s debut collection, On the Sidewalk.

To begin with, we are not disappointed. Comprising of sixty-four titles divided into four parts, this collection is more than impressive. It is certainly a glittering collection which can be appreciated rather immensely provided that the reader is invested. In his insightful essay The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach, Wolfgang Iser, the German scholar remarked: “…If the reader were given the whole story, and there were nothing  left for him to do, then his imagination would never enter the field, the result would be the boredom which inevitably arises when everything is laid out cut and dried before us.” Before digging in a little deeper into the poems than just skimming through them, no further attempts were made to know about the poet, the poems, their settings or ideas from which they must have germinated. However, this effort was taken consciously or not remains to be debatable. In any case, that resulted in cherishing these poems with an unadulterated outlook and a fresh perspective. In this approach, these poems thus appealed in their utmost uniqueness like a backyard garden after an unexpected outburst of rain.

Living in Bengaluru, one almost cannot help but picture the famous Cubbon Park at the city’s heart after reading The Garden Keeper’s Cottage, the very first poem from this collection. These lines uncannily resemble the iconic sight of the park’s entrance which we so often frequent–

“…On cobbled paths jog sprightly youth,
rapt, some contemplate in the gazebo.”

All suggestions seem to point that the poem and its setting is talking about one gardener and his cottage, but on a further reading, can’t it be interpreted aptly that the cottage is the whole open park and all of its people who visit, walk, jog, run, stroll, or meditate are the gardeners? The answer is obvious. The theme of the poems from the first part of the book not only is action-driven but have been built around public spaces and common local scenes. Memory and experience, too, play a vital role. While the subjects in some of the poems are individuals, they comment on the working class masses at large. Thus, face to face interactions previously had been proven to be essential in bringing some of the narratives into life. The last few lines from The Astrologer’s Night are lively indeed–

“…The last time I looked back,
he was shuffling back to his house
cowering in the evening shadows
beneath the early night sky
with its ghost moon and hidden stars.”

In the Introduction to the Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, there’s a wonderful insight which turns to be even more delightful when discussed in the context of On the Sidewalk–its language and diction. In it, the German poet and philosopher, Rudolf Pannwitz is quoted critiquing the German translation tradition up until the 1900-1930s in which his tone clearly complaints that “germanize Hindi, Greek, English instead of hinduizing grecizing anglicizing German” (1917, translated by John Zilcosky). Before it is frowned upon why the matter of translation is evoked here, we’ll discuss Transporters where Parvathi prefers to use Indian words such as roti and bindi over their English equivalents. Even if one may astutely argue that bread could replace the former, the counter-argument would immediately crop up if at all, let’s say, dot or spot or punctum for that matter bring out the same rich essence as bindi does?

Coming back to the idea of describing common public spaces in the first section of this collection, the discussion would remain incomplete without touching upon A Rhetorical Question, especially its first stanza–

“Have you been amidst others
 an entire crowd
 an entire city
 an entire world
 teeming with people
 and still felt alone,
 at least once?”

The phrase ‘at least once’ harrowingly describes the loneliness which can be felt even in the teeming hustle-bustle of urban Indian cities. Repetition is used well in this short poem which not only makes the reader gasp for space and breath but also hints at the predicament of the population in our country.

As we keep treading ahead into On the Sidewalk, we see Parvathi transform as a poetic voice who not only talks and suggests mundane scenes, going on to imitate them on the written page masterfully, but also a concerned citizen emerges raising her voice within the realms of the printed pages. In plausible alternate ways of close-reading, pertinent issues like childhood bullying and abuse are dealt with in a voice neither triggering nor subdued. While Announcement playfully depicts a school assembly scene, other poems namely, Scars and Levitation are urgent:

“Inside the head teacher’s room
 a conference yet again.
 In the dark corridor,
 low rumble of her grainy voice,
‘This should not leave any scar in the child.’”
—from Scars

“…(The petrified man who hid
from the searing blue light
had a moulded mask,
flesh and sinews growing on skin.)”
—from Levitation

In the same context of dealing with larger societal issues in poetry, these poems lift the scandalous truth of authorities in power and the dirty politics that fuel them. Abstention couldn’t speak to the masses at a better time in 21st century India. The notions of god, morality and religion are not only critically questioned but unapologetically brought down.

“From what time to what time?
 How many days? What duration?
 What abstention will please God the most?
 What food to consume or not consume?
 What pleasure to forego? What thought?
 In what proportion and when?
Gratifying God is a complicated affair.”

Part II of the book continues to critique our problematic built systems – the educational and the political bodies but with a radically different approach. Species from the animal kingdom are used as props to establish ambiguity and satire. While Structured…Unstructured doesn’t fail to mock the stagnant outdated educational regimes in our schools, Migrants is a poem which is more about the things it is evading to say than what it actually is. It laughs hysterically at our tumultuous political developments running the largest democracy in the world by employing cats, dogs, and more (or most) importantly cows as characters in the narrative of the poem. Certainly, the thought of cows becoming philosophers mulling over their offerings and salvation is whacky even for a bizarre surrealist novel’s plot. Another poem which is worth mentioning is Monkey City. To transliterate the title would be to claim that a title, say, A Monkey-Like City would just as well befitting, at least logically in terms of language and meaning-making. This is shrewdness on Parvathi’s part that she intentionally chooses to omit the like establishing the urgency of the layered meaning that the poem veils by detaching itself from the more commonly used boundaries of a simile to a better-framed metaphor. Even if one claims to be the calmest, most level-headed person, continue to stare at a monkey, chaos and commotion will eventually catch up. Pondering over the current affairs of our states, who’s to stay in peace then? Not only that the poem is well-written induced with vivid imagery and senses galore comprising of sounds being closer to reality than fiction, but it is also utterly heart-breaking.

“…The monkeys stir, the silence quivers, waits
and shatters into shards of animated squeals.
They swing from tree to balcony to tables inside
black langur faces dispassionate, eyes unseeing.”

Wislawa Szymborska, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet answered letters from aspiring people wanting to write poetry for the newspaper Literary Life. One of her remarks (translated by Clare Cavanagh) reads: “The fear of straight speaking, the constant, painstaking efforts to metaphorise everything, the ceaseless need to prove you’re a poet in every line: these are the anxieties that beset every budding bard. But they are curable, if caught in time.” In Parvathi’s Intersection from Part III of the collection, this seems to hold true. While the narrator is talking about returning from work on an ordinarily routine day, use of lofty adjectives like cloistered and fervent make the poem a tad heavy on the page. Thus, poetic anxiety is visible here on close-reading in an attempt to raise its aesthetics.

Another poem from this Part titled Elephant Car mocks itself. It would be comical imagining an elephant trying to fit itself in a car. The poem probably has the longest lines from On the Sidewalk and certain lines like “…I grieve for the old days, the forgotten temples of the past, /the sweets already eaten and the spent toys from the shops, /the lost little things and the bigger things that the little things /held together,” not only are verbose but also tend to sound like lines from well-written prose. Modern poetry and forms have lifted the ideas of what goes in poetry and what does not but a little more urgency, absurdity, even surrealistic undertone for that matter might as well have been craftier here. To slightly paraphrase Shyam Selvadurai from Funny Boy, it’s often said that in being more specific, we eventually end up being more universal. In this context, Outward-Inward makes a wonderful start with the lines–

“If my nose would open inwards
 to the earthly smells of life,”

This image evokes in the reader the urge to actually imagine their nose opening inwards and inhaling the scents of our surroundings. Certainly, the nose is a tangible organ. But soon after, the lines fail to concretise themselves with phrases like ‘my very being’, ‘rhythm of life’, ‘life’s habits’, etc. In the space of a short poem of seventeen lines, life repeats itself six times. The other poems then go to reflect and introspect on our own natures, customs and habits which has always been one of the major functions of poetry in general.

The final Part of this section reads mesmerisingly well as one prepares to finish this collection. The loveliest thing about it is the fact that most of these poems can be interpreted meta-poetically and meta-pedagogically which is definitely one of the most fascinating aspects about close-reading. Rebirth can easily be talking about revision or the process of rewriting a poem’s draft. The poem ends with ‘I continue…’ which can easily be the most succinct comment upon the life-long endeavour of a writer. Transference is vivid in its imagery and entertaining in its narration. In an online symposium, Billy Collins, the witty American poet remarks that if a writer is standing near an open window with the freedom to look either inside or outside from it, a fiction-writer would peep in gauging the mannerism of the characters inside and the setting of the scene while a poet would wander outside from the window, getting lost and immersed. This notion reflects very subtly in this poem, especially in the lines –

“…Outside, blooms a mango tree
in lavender garlic vine remorse,
two sparrows busy in their bird-lives
thinking sky blue bird thoughts.”

The titles of a couple of other poems Full Stop and Poetry again establish the fact that these poems go a step further in talking about the actual art and craft of writing poetry, the processes and struggles involved.

To conclude and not return to the title of Indu Parvathi’s eclectic debut collection, On the Sidewalk would be unjust. Not only it picturises scenes, actions, experiences occurring in the backgrounds, and on the sidewalks but also doesn’t forget to highlight more pressing issues which plead for concentrated focus in our current times. On the Sidewalk observes, reflects, critiques, and mediates with a dexterous poetic license.

Indu Parvathi; Photography : Sudhir Damerla.
Indu Parvathi; Photography : Sudhir Damerla .

This review, commissioned by Bengaluru Review, is written by Tuhin Bhowal . Tuhin is an aspiring writer and photographer.

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