The beauty, honesty, and charisma of Jhilam Chattaraj’s poetry shines brilliantly in her work; A Review

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The beauty, honesty, and charisma of Jhilam Chattaraj’s poetry shines brilliantly in her work; A Review

Kanchan Dhar and Kanakalata Mishra reviews When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays, a collection of poems by Jhilam Chattaraj.

Jhilam Chatatraj’s When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays, 2018, Authorspress, is a collection of forty poems. Private and daring, these poems are inward conversations that depict her journey from adolescence into adulthood, confrontations with love, relationships, and their inevitable consequences. The poems are relatable; they beautifully convey a range of honest emotions experienced by women in general. Her upfront expression of women as sexual beings is brave and intense. The first poem “A Poem’s Life” could be very well-read as “A Woman’s Life, or as “A Poet’s Life.”

The poet writes:

They taught me to hold the poem against a wall,
choke it with questions (lines 1-2).

The thought seems to be a sub-text to the idea of a woman who often gets mauled in a relationship. There’s a deep sense of anguish embedded in the poems:

While all,
I wanted to do was
cup my hands around their warm mouths,
feel the silk of rhymes (line5-8).

The above lines hint at the kind of relationships the poetic persona probably desired for. The lines also depict her tenuous association with words and poetry. Poetry is beyond her control and born in the most quotidian realities of life. She explains this in the poem, “The Way I Write”:

Words, like bubbles boil over my tea
Like worms, they peep out of the cauliflower (5-6)


Words leak from my body,
stick to my broken hair
scattered like fallen angels
on tear stained pillows (lines10-13).

“Arrival” is about the difference between the way men and women perceive sexual relationships. The poem begins with a sexual invitation and leaves one with a reckoning that somewhere the poetic voice was already aware of the penalty of the invitation; that it would leave her “unworshipped,” and yet she allowed it to happen:

Before you become a beauteous
bug, lost in the folds of a rose (lines 6-8).

While one thinks the idea is too clichéd in a modern world, Odia poet Kanakalata Mishra writes that Jhilam’s poems are reminiscent of Odia songs like:

mohu machi bhala pai jane na /the bee doesn’t know how to love
Phula chahen mohu taka nei /the flower says, come take my sweet
Taku bhala pau kehi /and in return, come, love me a bit
Jete rangina heu /but no matter the colour
Jete rupa thile thau /or the beauty of her
Mohu machi mohu chahen /the bee just wants the sweet
Phula chahen na /and never the flower
Mohu machi bhala pai janena /the bee doesn’t know how to love
(transliterated and translated from Odia to English by Kanchan)

Such a perspective reverses the threshold of understanding; sheathed in modern sororities, many might rather believe that such ideas are not to be encouraged; that we, as modern women, in a feminist-conscious world, should know better; truth being, these emotions today are as real and valid as they were in the past. And any form of denial cannot change reality. The poet understands this and expresses the same.

The poem, “Benaras” records the trauma as a consequence of the Indian male gaze and “Blisters” traces that pain back into the girlhood days.

“Bodies” is about two bodies at sensual work, but it is the poetic voice that found agency in the body inviting the other; a theme repeated. She writes:

hold me like
moist clay between your
fingers (lines 1-4).

The idea of entrusting one’s body to a man (a recurrent theme in the book)—men who don’t even stay back, can be held in judgement by many. On the other hand, one may argue, it still means taking charge. What the woman in the poems wishes to do with her body and her love is absolutely her choice. It is her desire to experience physical love, her want to find the right man she can trust herself with. The expression of longing and sexuality is certainly bold and commendable, but when the poems are read in conjunction with one another, it could simply be read as one relationship gone bad after another; when the trauma from abuse sticks through, when healing is difficult, when the kind of man she desires exists only in a dream. In this context, the poems could be considered confessional in nature. However, the use of “I” and “me” in the poems could also simply be grammatical tools the poet has used to navigate through the kernel of ideas in the poems which could be objective and distanced at the same time.

“Chaos” depicts depression, dilemma, self-blame, guilt and loneliness. It is also the chaos within. “Distance” is about love that remains attached to the poet’s private spaces and corners, such as her home, walls, novels and bed sheets.

Odia poet, Kanakalata remembers another Odia song:

smruti eka rupa janha / Memories are like the silver moon
suna jhara sehi ama puruna dina / Our old days, like the silver of the moon

(transliterated and translated from Odia to English by Kanchan)

It means when memories go silent, they take on the stance of the silver moon, the silver of which you cannot catch, can only admire from a distance. What are these distances—boundaries of betrayal? A supposition. And, in spite of these, we can’t forget the silver moon; we keep holding on to those emotions, such as in the scent of an old bed sheet, and that’s when the poem is born.

The most powerful poem in the book is “I Made Grief a Cup of Coffee”. This is what not many can do—accept grief. In regular life, we commons are so busy chasing happiness that we practically lose sight of the lustre, the worth of it. Grief scares us. Grief, an emotion, becomes a character here that occupies the poet’s empty spaces after a lover leaves. Grief, a fickle friend, inspires poetry in her, then silently leaves, just like the lover. The poem has humanly truth to it and is almost Dickinsonian in tone. If you have never touched grief, you can never taste happiness:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who never succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need (lines1-4).
(“Success is counted sweetest,” Emily Dickinson)

The most intriguing poem in the book is “Journeys.” It’s a story of two women’s journeys: one, alone and tired, making way for home; the other, glazed and happy, travelling in the shadowy comforts of a husband who happens to be a molester:

In that ordinary rush, I do not know when your man [reviewer’s emphasis] stained me (line 9).

It is a story of shock, trauma and victimization. The poet, waking from her discomforts and shocks of travelling in an evening-packed train, takes a subtle dig at the other woman with the expression “your man.” It is, however, not sure if it is in pity of her ignorance of her belied marital state or if it is an instance of a reverse vent of anger. “Journeys” leaves one confused.

The most beautiful and poetic poem in the collection is “Palash.” She writes:

Palash is the colour
of my lost eyes
fixed at the splendour
of orange sprayed boulevards (lines 1-5).

Here, Kanaklata adds:

Palasha phulati dise kede manohara / Ah! how charming is the Palash flower
Basana na thile taha kede anaadara / Alas! No scent leaves it so unloved

(transliterated and translated from Odia to English by Kanchan)

Her “lost eyes” are perhaps like the scent-less Palash, but the colours have been rooted and blossomed in some very intimate moments of her life:

This march, Palash came back to me
In henna hands (lines 19-20).

Here, “henna hands” possibly indicate a marriage, as per Indian traditions. Palash, despite having a conscious lack, is celebrated. After all, life is never perfect.

The two most dominant strains of thought in the book are: wanting love without responsibility and birthing of verses. The former is related first through the poem “I Met John.” John here could be a possible love interest or a metaphor for the many lovers the poet might have met, or a figment of her imagination representing the kind of man the poetic voice desires, but very different from the one sleeping right next to her:

The alarm beeped,
he slept unmoved.
And I wished,
John was there
simply to laugh with me
over a cup of tea (lines 21-26).

John is carefree and fun, with “sparkling eyes, glossy hair and so unshy,” but also really only in her sleep. Her desire for someone like John is like chasing a scent that doesn’t exist. Love and marital commitment are two very different phases of a relationship with someone. Perhaps, what she desires is a love life that comes without responsibilities, something that changes with marriage. The theme continues into the poem “Learning Love,” where the poet remembers a love in the past that was carefree, without limitations or restrictions—situations which took a turn after marriage, which comes with its own share of sores; a distance (emotionally or physically?) is pretty much implicated. “Love-Birds” furthers this idea still. She writes:

I envy birds […]
they love like no other […]
They never complain or call names (lines 1,3,13).

But reality is lost here, practicality is lost, because we are humans! We can’t be like birds; we hurt! In “Losing,” she concludes this idea by admitting that she “lost a lover to a husband,” two parts of, perhaps, the same individual. Perhaps, the poet is not able to cope with the change. Perhaps, the heart wants more. Perhaps the old felt better. The lament is imminent and unabashedly acknowledged.

The latter theme, birthing of verses, is central to the book because it relates to the title When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays. Love doesn’t stay. The poet seems to grieve that she could never mother children like her “Grandmother” did, but she also acknowledges that she has instead birthed verses. That poetry happened and poetry stayed. The underlying grief is unmistakable, but it has been accepted and the result is growth and beauty. One could observe here that birthing verses are greater than birthing children; artistry, by many, is considered a higher form of creativity. Therefore, it does not, should not, matter “What They Say.” Poetry here is not a residue of an ended affair; brain children sprouted from the seeds of grief left by lovers who never stayed, but the bloom of her heart and soul. It is thus not a consolation but a triumph of a brave heart!

Love poems, one might think, are easy. No, Sir! Love is complex, its language and expression too. This would be the opinion of two poets: one writing in English and the other in Odia. Honest and bold, Jhilam Chattaraj’s poems breathe real life and weave a million women’s minds and hearts into conceivable structures.


Kanchan Dhar is a writer, independent researcher, and occult expert from Pondicherry/Odisha. Reach her at. She blogs here .

Kanakalata Mishra is a writer, editor, and poet in Odia, with a career in teaching spanning over 25 years.

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