“I have had jolts by AK Mehrotra, Kolatkar, Eunice. I would say maybe Eunice and Kamala would have made me stop and look at myself in the mirror. Today is Poornima’s day,” writes Bishweshwar.
Six months is not a long interlude between two poetry books. Poetry is stirred with memories and sautéed with time. As I get a print of Poornima Laxmeshwar’s Strings Attached (Red River, 2019), the thoughts strike me hard. What can trigger a poet weaving or experimenting with new verses to come up with one salvo after another. A certain 'urgency'?
As I flip open the book, a bright red cover with the title and the poet’s name hangs around tree twigs caught in a web of strings. From a distance it seems this is the perfect mess, potent grounds for poetry. But as we traverse through the next 100 odd pages, we realise this red can also be symbolic of the persistent anger the poet might have felt in living a life for others. From childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the fences have been pre-set. Here any breach can be dangerous and brings disrepute. The sometime disobedient and curious daughter is now a dutiful and dashing wife and a loving mother. One must set examples at every step. Specially a woman’s role sadly in Indian society is either in the kitchen or in the bedroom. To feed the hunger of parents’ wishes and aspirations, to be educated, humble and loving and settle down, be economically productive and juggle family commitments. It’s a trapeze act with the safety net of marriage and its accompanying miseries. Strings Attached mirrors this reality. The duty-bound nature of Indian society. As such is there any space for love, empathy, kindness? If Thirteen - Household Poems , her chapbook set the fertile ground for prose poetry of the Kanglish variety (as Poornima mentions her style to introduce her book), she takes it even further by interspersing new styles where she hues the emotions by a particular colour weaving memories of the past.
The book is divided into 3 sections. ‘Everydays', 'Love Songs' and 'The others in our everydays'. From the first poem it’s clear there is no room for pleasantries this time too.
If the opening line of the first title 'Shailaputri wears a yellow’ begins as ‘All that yellow makes me think of is death by jaundice' then by the ending it’s clear what this attempt is about - 'the purpose of poetry is to instigate', and it does exactly that. The primary and complimentary colours will now rule but be prepared to be scarred. This is poetry - bare and bold. Shift to green, ‘The first word in the book of pure vegetarian recipes that I receive as a wedding gift is 'blanched'. Does it mean that the recipe for a successful marriage is to unspice it to the bare minimum? We would discover it in Red. However, get prepared to be red-faced, honourable men and women. Poornima breaks the cliché in the title itself, ‘Red is not the colour of my heart’. It opens with lines -
'We are a working-class couple. We plan, three minutes of love act and twenty years of insurance plan’.
The three minutes are even borne in its absurdities. Love all red in splendour but monotone, clinical, preachy and bordering on bondage. Not literally, but in its very one manship even in the most intimate of an act. Love is curdled and the dissatisfaction can elicit post coital barbs like ‘Good for nothing' The colours shift to Poornima’s hometown, Dharwad. According to Amma, blue is the colour of sky and the water. But wait blue is also the colour of bruises, evident wounds in a relationship. The colours quickly shift - orange, violet, indigo - the rainbow of emotions on this canvas has now taken over me.
If Thirteen was raw and rustic, Strings Attached plays a melancholic and comical tune. All that clutters is pun intended! ‘The first time Amma bought me Nimnehuli, the orange candy, for two rippers a packet, I was as happy as an apple.’ She then mirrors the Brahmanical and age-old Indian obsession of fairness. It’s not enough to be just a mother. Make sure the babies are born fair. What if it’s a dark girl child. Kesar milk is the answer. In Poornima’s world, Indigo can be love, not red. Violet can be sexy lingerie or an exuberant kitten. She has spilled the palette and she is not going to stop now. The restless poet shifts track. The canvas is set. She will ruffle feathers.
‘Is birthday a reminder of mortality or an understanding of nothingness?’
In the remaining poems of this section, Poornima pens prose poems that are poignantly funny and relatable to anyone who has grown up in a small town amidst it travails. The colours become elements like water, stone, or bangles kept locked safely with the mangalsutra, taken out during rituals to be adorned where one’s participation is just as a wife for the prosperity of the husband. In one of the poems ‘It’s a dog’s life’ we are introduced to Moti the dog who funnily shows Brahminical traits. Moti surfaces many times amused by the happenings around. In the only deviation in this section 'writers can be exciting too' Poornima finds humour amidst the mundanity that life can sometimes be shrouded in. Her search has led her to see life even more close and funny. A potato chip maker who wants to be a poet now draws her attention. Sometimes the banality is better than the mundane.
The second part of the book ‘Love Songs' begins with vows. On closer reading one finds the quirks sometimes in the arrangement called Marriage. 'In an entire decade of marriage all he offered was a mud cracked land.’ Were the seeds of happiness ever sowed there? ‘He never raised his hand, but his pitch hit the threshold of my ears.’ Violence is not always physical. ‘The candle lit dinners, starry nights and the I can’t live without you texts’ are too hard to desire. There is no room for it in the seven vows. ‘Cut to suit’ and ‘Record of the cunt' are deeply personal poems. Cunt is a word not to be uttered, the acerbic poet states. Anything else is fine - cinema, camera, cylinder, clap, convenience. Coming to the c word again in ‘Record of the cunt’
‘So you put your legs up and ask me to suck you. Pleasure is your right, even though you bartered the vows for a load of things.'
This is patriarchy’s coital dance. This is slavery inflicted on the body mind and soul! When the body is worn, stop the reproductive machinery, insert birth control before you insert the remaining vestiges of your so-called manhood. ‘The side effects of copper T in the vagina will be cured by mechanical lovemaking.’ ‘The Circle of Life’ continues in soft, dead hues.
‘You select the delicate porcelain walls with gold streams, jade studded plants that scream price tags, powder coating powder, hiding wounds, glass houses with some knobs, marble faced, mosaic tongued, untouchable ceiling. The only way to reverse it is to love yourself the most, you damn woman'
The next few poems reflect that. The following pieces is about finding oneself and finding love in the uncanniest of places. ‘At times love comes knocking maybe or love comes and comes and comes until you are so full of it you just become rain on a lonely solitary evening.’ In 'Things as a count of years’, the poet finds memories in the present. In old vinyl records, photographs, books, old advertisement. The glass ceiling is broken. The powder coated walls give away. Begum Akhtar, the weed filled bedroom, the avocado tree, take over. The void seemed to have been filled or is it an illusion? ‘So, I visit you more in the pretext of love and you offer to teach me the language of antiquity'. The last three pieces ‘A far afternoon, A lovers guide to embroidery and Untangle’ gives a fleeting feeling that love is still elusive at times. Untangle ends with untangling is easy, just that I didn’t know how to un(love).
Seldom has a book of poems captivated me to this extent. I have had jolts by AK Mehrotra, Kolatkar, Eunice. I would say maybe Eunice and Kamala would have made me stop and look myself in the mirror. Today is Poornima’s day. The last section beckons.
‘The others in our everydays' are portraits. Portraits with a shade of grey. Rama Chandra Joshi, Gopal Krishna in a disobedient uncle are all aging ageless men caught in their labyrinth. The disobedient uncle hangs his lecherous boots, but his desires are unbolted. He now predates through modernity, a Facebook friend request. Ha ha ho ho and maid for each other spares a thought on the lives on the margins. ‘Mad women changes her blouse in public, takes a crap by the sewers next to the wall with the 'please don’t urinate here' sign, and washes herself the municipal tap, an assemblage of oddities - unkempt hair, stained tooth, a torn petticoat.’
I stop at this point and light a cigarette. This is catharsis seeping through words. This is raw and visceral. This is guilt smack on your face. This is how society voyeurs on anyone, not even sparing an inch of privacy. But this is truth. This is harsh and Poornima gathers the courage to even speak about it. In a sanitised and a clean nation, the mad woman who craps by the open sewers is an oddity. Meanwhile, get the spoons and forks and napkins out. It’s breakfast hour. Ding dong - here comes the maid. Lakshmi? Yah. Akka welcoming a curvy, energetic and embellished Laksmi with imitation jewellery and stripped cotton saree. Wait, what is it we are reading? Don’t let magic realism fool you. Our Lakshmi is anything but these, about 40, synthetic saree, mis-matched, ill fit blouse. Now Poornima is testing your memory. Don’t tell us this is an unusual visual. But we are blind. Blind in our cocoon. We see everything and observe nothing. We feel nothing. But we want everything.
Lakshmi fills her days with worries about school fees, daughter’s menstruation, her nights are filled with fights about expenses, his inefficiency to be anything but an animal. Is the poet drawing parallels here? If so, these are dangerous uncharted territories. Women are holy, women are objects to be worshipped, defiled, owned, abandoned, praised, loathed, admired, humiliated, never freed. There is a place and suitability to be followed. The colour codes, the elements and of all the gargantuan roles society has chalked out. Moving from the innards of domesticity the poet lets her vision venture. In the swank urbane of a ladies’ only metro compartment are other paradoxes waiting. Waiting to disembark. Here there is neutrality earned through a separate coach. But the time limit for this neutrality is short lived.
‘It’s a space within a space of pro vitamin shampoo odours, if fairness cream market share, of Lakme 9 to 5, of fashion disasters, of classes now face to face, crammed and breathing on each other’s neck.’
It’s a world drowning alone in loneliness. Shall I stop again for a cigarette. I have a quivering feeling on my lips. My throat is dry. I decide to drink some water instead. The last poem of the book is just a name - Jogamma, the one with cracked feet, broken toenails, wrinkled skin yet carrying the weight of stories from the past she had never owned.
Poornima ends it with:
'In her drift,
maybe her life also had walls,
the concrete cracking
and the plaster peeling.
In that distance
I also realised
the life of a jogamma,
a recluse of time and space —
the living contradiction of a society.
For a woman’s life sometime
can be just waiting
to turn to ashes one day.'
If this is not a voice, I don’t know what is? One seldom comes across a new voice so painfully raw, melodic, gentle and fierce all in a few pages. Strings Attached will ruffle feathers and put a question on our apparent happiness. But amidst all the cacophony of the mad world is Poornima giving us a hint? A role perhaps as a poet is better than others.
Bishweshwar is a poet, author, and photographer. He currently lives in Bengaluru.