"This fresh new book of poems does leave you spellbound, if not tongue tied," writes Bishweshwar.
Achla Grover’s The Midnight Telegrams, published by Red River begins with a dedication to her father ‘Ram Prakash Grover.’ The dedication is simple yet moving, ‘the wordsmith who crafted my thoughts and gifted me the ability to paint in words.’ What follows next would have made Sherlock quip - ‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’ To be more precise, Achla’s book is segmented into the five elements – Fire, Air, Earth, Water, Space.
Starting with the primary element 'Fire', or as this sensitive poet puts it, ‘words entwined | in flame and smoke | that arise from broken hearts | and stories untold.’ The poems that follow in this section are remarkable. They ignite a certain imagination beginning with ‘She’ and ending with ‘The rotten flower’ with the title poem ‘The midnight’s Telegram’ punched in between. The pathos is quite visible in the opening line
‘I wish I could send you my feelings | born and burnt, | with changing times | in neatly formed words, | wrapped in a silken paper | sealed with a smile’
and the last stanza
‘alas, here I am | amidst the smoke | and now, it’s just the soot | am holding on to| and there’s nothing much I can do | for the words I wrote for you, darling | have burnt my fingers too.’
The mood is set. It’s going to be sombre yet redeeming. Hope is not just a byword here. It’s primordial, as akin to the human spirit. The tone is set for the next few sections. Achla’s book strangely reminds me of Lars Von Tier's films which are sometimes poetically arranged in various chapters or sections. ‘Hangover’ is another impactful verse, that reminded me of A. K. Mehrotra’s ‘January’. If in Mehrotra’s gem, it was ‘your day luminous my turn to ahses’, Achla’s 'Hangover' goes like ‘she was like a morning hangover |his head kept spinning every time he had her.’
In the next section on ‘Air’, Achla sets the ground ready with, 'let the air transcend my thoughts on galloping winged horses and desired spaceships far, far away to your distant land.’ In 'Memory' she writes
‘tousled hair | and a fading skin colour of her eyes — just like the dust beneath her feet, | she was wind-swept.’ Again, in 'Verses' she pens ‘verses, | like horses, gallop | sometimes fast and at times, slow | in the middle of all dust and roar.’
Moments can be fleeting, like galloping horses kicking up a dust storm. Again, in 'Fly little elephant, fly', we encounter thoughts suspended in the starting line of the verse, ‘tongue tied and chained | he wished to fly tried and failed | oh, his feet were nailed good lord how he cried until his tears dried.’ Coming back to earth or the third segment Achla’s verses now ground us with the lines
‘somewhere in between dreams of life | smell of earth | and concrete jungles let me have the freedom | to love and live a little more.’
What makes this collection remarkable is the poet's treatment of the daily and the mundane. In her poem ‘Perfect office meeting’, the poet deals with the clinical nature of work in swanky offices. In ‘My workplace’, Achla paints a canvas with the lines
‘She comes back again to the purposeless and meaningless of life in a cubicle. I sit quiet | glued to the scene | fixing words | out of my mind | on to the screen | I lift my head | once a while | to ensure | the trouble is at a mile | as I continue with alphabets, | full stops, | and all it takes | to compile | a piece of living thoughts.'
We read a recurring resonance of it again in ‘Blue Bird’. I would have ideally thought that piece belongs to the section on ‘Air’, but on a closer look, I know what she means. A blue bird here works as a metaphor.
We flip a few pages and the next segment is 'Water.' The illustration in the opening page is of a nymph amidst lotuses, and a hint of the moon in the background is pretty alluring. The intro stanza is apt
‘let the blue in me | feel the blue in you over the full moon | by the high tide | let me be a little me | let me be a little you | let the blue take over me and you.’
If Blue Bird stopped you on the tracks then Blue Blood with sweep you off your feet.
What draws me to Achla’s verses is the catharsis. It's infectious. In ‘Window by the sea’, she paints a the experience of Bombay, having lived and loved the city in her own ways. The stanzas again take you on a small ferry ride of sort
‘ships not anchored stationed here and there like scattered pollens | of a broken flower | on the waters of Ganga… just beside, | toy like cars ply on highway with tail lights blinking.’
She draws a strike of lament on the canvas. In Achla’s Bombay even the non-living takes a form of a living. The city is fused. The living and the material are all fused in this giant over crowded metropolis. The recurring of everyday life is evident with the last stanza of the verse –
‘I sit by my window | observing and sipping thoughts and typing... | typing this piece | whilst watching | an evening slip by | into the dawn of another monotonous day.’
If the eventual is monotonous then there are also respites like in ‘Moony Nights’ – ‘she once swallowed the moon | now it keeps peeping through her skin especially when she is happy.’ There is an escape in magic realism. There is another poem, ‘The wandering wisdom’ where we feel a slice of Kolatkar’s Bombay-
‘hey you – | pompously anchored smokestack crown, | with a low-lying bulbous bow, are you a wayfarer? Or | did you plainly steer away?’
This is one of the longest poems in the book, but it captures the city in all its myriad hues. The ending is again what arrests me every time. Bombay veers again, a teeming lonely metropolis - the grey shores, the grey waters and the city beyond.
The final section 'Space' is where it all culminates in The Midnight Telegrams. The illustration is of a half-clinched fist to the beginning of this section, a spaceship floating with stars. The introduction on the first read felt a bit like Rumi’s thoughts but then the line struck me ‘sparkle in the stardust of your memories’. The opening poem ‘Spaceship’ begins with the lines
‘at times what you think is a thought is actually a nomad | wandering in the universe | of emptiness | from this space to another with a speed so high | just like a spaceship | but then it’s not a spaceship ships have anchors | and this, does not | or maybe it does?’
Again, the vagrant nature of our lives comes back again in ending lines
‘it’s a nomad | wandering in the universe | of emptiness | from this space to another.’
The next poem is short, and seems a bit mysterious to appear in this section. In fact, if not for the reference of stars and spaceships, the section space could have been a part of ‘Air’, one would wonder. ‘Stories from the star’ is a like a small lullaby but maybe I am missing the metaphor here. It can be celebration and it can also be freedom, with fireworks in the sky.
The Midnight Telegrams ends with ‘Illusion’. The message in this is perhaps again on urban loneliness - tongue-tied, yet spellbound, in the land of nowhere. This fresh new book of poems does leave you spellbound, if not tongue tied. And you would love to read every poem again and again, and the darkness of the night breaks into a new dawn. A city rising to another day.
Achla Grover’s The Midnight Telegrams was launched at the Red River and Reading Room meet in Bengaluru on May 22nd.
Bishweshwar is a poet, author, and photographer. He currently lives in Bengaluru.