Madhura Banerjee is a poet whose poetry reminds me of a painting in the illustrated text of Hamzanama in which the sea and the grass come alive as much as the people within the landscape. Though much more gentle in energy than the story of Amir Hamza, Madhura’s poems are a journey into cities that are just as real as its inhabitants. The roads in the city of Calcutta and the neighbourhood come to listen to her, “they’re forgiving” she writes, the wind soaks “the embroidered carpets in the royal bath,” “cobwebs trace the memory of water”, and the words aim for something of a touch - to “join hands/dance and embrace.”
Madhura’s second collection of poems Monsoon Arrives at the Junction Crossing published in 2019 is dedicated to a world where one lives through memories. It is divided into three sections and opens with a prelude, “The Seasons-In-Between I”. Three similarly titled poems act as bridges to different sections of the book as one moves from summer to winter and returns again to the summer fields.
At the centre of the first section of the book is a city that we see through the poet’s eyes. It is a perspective through which the city is not just a collection of heritage, but of the “poet’s heritage”, too, as Madhura tells us. While standing amidst the fear of perhaps having lost her way in her own hometown, she stumbles upon the city waiting for her one day with its arms wide open. So, with her, we follow it and the many stories it shares with us.
Remembrances through the journey move from familiar sights such as the old school library, the bisharjan or the old classrooms with children in ankle-length socks and ballerina shoes, to finding familiarity in the people one notices: a blistered neighbourhood of The Gangulys’ Gardens where “homes are wounds”, the family albums with young cousins in costumes, and a grandmother who sings stories about the rain, about how it thundered itself in a day before her marriage. Of monsoon, Madhura writes:
“The rain comes bearing history,
Of love that surrendered to the inevitability of summer,
Of fragrances that
Knocked evening prayer bells
Into the rhythm of old footsteps no more.”
Picking up a piece of history here, a piece of heritage there, we catch quiet moments that were spent near multilingual lakes with the music of Tagore or in watching stars as kids, searching for missing grandfathers. Small shops rust over the years and she turns to nostalgia through a record of small details in her mind such as in “Empty Winters on Park Street”:
“this shop sold photo frames -
Pink plastic ones with sparkly butterflies
Golden haired families encased in glass”
There is a longing to stall time in the past, much like in these photo frames—“sometimes we would stop there”. Personifying time as one with volition to slacken, she writes, “Time relaxed its tight plaits, and threw its dew-stained forehead/over the horse carriages and colonial statues.” Madhura no longer speaks about the physical passage of time but the desire to make it stand still. Later in the book, however, we catch Time sitting with its rickety arms as it ages, threatening to slip out of “the oversized sleeves of gold buttoned up to the sky.”
Her personifications are as varied and sentient as life itself, ranging from houses that breathe through conch shells, “a hoarse prayer through lungs of tattered curtains” to the arriving and departing of the seasons as in the poem “Bisharjan”:
“The season always departs on ferryboats, into the Ganges —
The houses on the riverbank clipped, like a string of lights,
Against the night sky, where rainclouds whisper
In the hushed blue language of winter.”
As we proceed into the next section, we meet many characters, some of whom have lost parts of themselves — abandoned women, fading homes, the balloon boy with the helium voice, the widow at the steps of Devprayag, and the man with the bioscope who knows “how quickly the reels have spun their way out of reality.” Encountering them, the poet yearns for the preservation of her memory, but the only tangibility she finds is in newspapers, which she hoards from every city, knowing, as is evident from her poems, that they may only serve as triggers and not containers for her miasmic memories:
“Can you bring back the mangrove forests,
The banks as wide as the sky, such that
The stars swam like diyas upon its aarti waves?
Or do the rivers shrink into veins,
Running beneath our chins —”
Despite this, however, she writes in hopeful wonder in the poem “It is Easter Somewhere”:
“Maybe there still is a world somewhere
Where days resume in the voice of missionary children,
Knitting the winds in a harmonized chorus.
Maybe there still is a world somewhere
that rolls off the slopes into seven AM eyes,
where shoulders carry the weight
of years left in backpacks —”
I am reminded of Meena Alexander’s words repeatedly, especially in the last segment of the book. “We write poetry, so we do not die of history,” Meena wrote, searching for the lost women in history through her poetry. It’s difficult to miss that Madhura nurses a similar sentiment which she conveys beautifully:
“the papier-mâché streets, still wet from a new coat of cement,
bearing the perpetual scribbles of my mother’s old cycle tracks.
A loose page of hyacinths here and there,
freed from its bindings on the swamp shore, bookmarked by
an old mossy boat, with parakeets nibbling on the boatman’s hands.
And when the day dissolves into the lungs of the steel township,
and factory chimneys exhale breaths of alloyed twilight over the horizon,
the sky and the river wear different shades of old paper.”
Madhura’s book is packed with images of seasons and the lilting rhythms of what is observed as well as imagined, but it is also full of questions—first those that she asks with the curiosity of a child, for instance, when she writes to the boatman: “O Majhi! How do you choose when to set sail?” or when she peeks at the monastery children and asks: “Does autumn make the bare branches curl like letters?” Soon though she moves to larger questions which have no answers: “What use is fate for those who have to forget their history?” when she writes about Bhasha Dibosh, a day commemorated in honour of the Bengali Language Movement in Bangladesh that fought for Bangla’s position as the official language of the country:
“How do you sing the anthem of progress
when your language has succumbed to blood?
What good is a prayer,
when your gods are at war?”
To not read Madhura Banerjee’s collection of poems will be to miss the surreal experience of finding surprising memories in desolate spaces. It is to miss rain with its “ravined skin” and its tantric dance, as it arrives carrying a sack of apricots on her crumbling back. It is to miss a poet who leaves us with “a vibrant painting and a blank canvas at the same time” of the places she has been, when we finally arrive there.
Nandini Varma is a writer and researcher based in Bombay. She is the Cofounder of Airplane Poetry Movement, an organisation that is dedicated to poetry education, through which she has conducted several poetry workshops in schools and colleges all across India over the last six years.
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