Santosh Bakaya’s forte remains dramatic and rhyming and wherever she combines these two, the result is exquisite. A Poetry Book Review by Shabir Ahmad Mir.
Under the Apple Bough is the second volume of poetry by Dr Santosh Bakaya (third if we count Ballad of Bapu as well.) It is a collection of 131 poems divided neatly into 4 sections viz. Memory Shards, Crippled Rhyme, Nature Sings a Symphony and O Africa.
Section I – Memory Shards
Section 1, as the name suggests, is all about nostalgia and reminiscence. The poems in this section are sharp as shards yet enticing and heartwarming. As the poet herself says:
I have left something of myself
At every crossroad of life.
The poems in this section are thus an attempt by the poet to recollect those ‘somethings’; those shards that she has left on ‘every crossroad of life’. But the recollections do not turn out as ‘emotions recollected in tranquility’ but they rather turn out as sea water fed to a thirsty sailor- it just makes makes her ask for more. And more;
And like Oliver Twist, I plead for some more.
It is a Pyrrhic victory won.
The memories are however asymmetric. They lean heavily towards the childhood of the poet and are heavily dominated by the presence of her father. The father in whose eyes ‘sun shines’ while he sings ‘Az roza sanei dilbara maenie.’ Due to this father-fixation the other memories, notably that of the Poet’s mother are conspicuously missing on one hand and on other hand the poems approach the expression and perspective of a child. For instance, in the poem ‘Paper Boats’ the poet talks about her memories in terms of colours in a child like fascination and expresses them with a child like enthusiasm as well:
Red, and blue, pink and white
Their vibrant colors burning bright
In the dark, starless night.
Similarly here is how a child sees her father:
As I see a happy father hurling his daughter in the air
The sunlight goldening his gray hair.
(The Dust Motes)
At times this childesque perspective begets such exquisite imagery that leaves the reader dumbfounded and that could only be brought forth by a childesque perspective only. Like for instance
Some memories slithering down trees
A miniscule memory
Lounging on water-sprinkled cots of summers
Yawns luxuriantly and chortles and murmurs.
But that does not mean the poems in this section are childesque. Far from it they deal with memories in a very complex way. Santosh Bakaya realizes and makes her readers realize how fallacious memories can be. They keep on shape-shifting. As time passes the distinction between what actually happened, what one remembers happened and what one wishes had happened, blurs. And this can play tricks with one’s psyche:
What should I make of this throbbing ache?
Was it something that dad said?
Or did I just make all this up inside my head?
Section II – Crippled Rhymes
The poems in this section are not crippled because of any lack of finesse or craftsmanship in the verses but they rather are crippled because of the weight and gravitas they carry helplessly. The weight of the world where a blast takes off a child’s head, where garbage is the only treasure for a poor scavenger, where a child-labor has to decide between spending his earnings to buy an ice cream or to send his earnings home as savings, where a refugee boy does not like his new name and where a refugee boy wants desperately to be with his sister who has been thrown away while they were escaping on a boat. The weight of a world which has grown foul with the ‘ stench of social apathy and indifference’. A world whose humanity is slowly dying:
Humanity was in the intensive care unit
Gasping for breath
Slowly hurtling towards death.
(Death Of Humanity)
And while this world is going to dogs, the powers that be are just watching, mechanically;
Blithely, the powerful one sits atop a fluffy cloud
Plugs his ears to the explosion loud
And with an indifferent flick of the hand
The incident from his mind banishes!
(Cul De Sac)
The angst of the poet is not localized or compartmentalized, it is universal in reach and unbiased in approach. Be it Kashmir or Orlando or Brussels or Lahore:
We were told,
Milton lamented his imminent blindness
At age forty-four.
Here, in this lost paradise
We have children of five and four
Being brutally blinded
Just like that!
(Just Like That)
Detached limbs confusedly lay on the floor
Amid pools of rubble and gore.
Ceiling panels fell on the dead,
Ah, brutal was Death’s tread.
(Brussels, Our Hearts Weep)
It is not just the mindless violence that has got the poet riled but it is also the hypocritic lives that we all are living that pours pain in her poems. Lives that are informed by faux-intellectual debates and discussions about social ills and universal rights in cozy cafes while we ignore the dust laden scavenger boy outside the café. The scavenger boy who grows from an invisible boy to an invisible man. The invisible boy who becomes a metaphor for the whole humankind-poor and neglected. The poet in this discourse rejects the Bourgeois public sphere of Habermas and instead calls for a better society that is more humane and caring than just debating about being humane and caring.
Section-III Nature Sings a Symphony
In Section-III, Santosh Bakaya again returns to her favourite haunt of Owls, Egrets, spparows, mynas, bulbuls, dolphins, gulmohars, brooks, streams, glowworms… As in her earlier book, Where are the Liliacs, nature again provides a counterpoint to the world of violence and hate. Once again she presents nature as the our only salvation in this fast denigrating world. As in her own words;
The cacophony of shrill hatred can wait
Vampires can wait, blood-suckers can wait
The jangling discord can wait
The mangling of innocence can wait
(I Will Talk of Frankestein Tomorrow)
Same sentiment is again repeated in, When Death Forgot His Duty in which the soothing world of nature lulls Death to forget his duty. And peace returns albeit with a threat.
The thing to note here is that Santosh Bakaya’s connect to the nature is not wordsworthian, in the sense that nature is not to her a medium of animism and pantheism or a mystical experience. Although there are exceptional flashes of wordsworthian nature in instances like,
Again, and yet again,
In nature I heard the same refrain
In every particle, in every dust mote,
I glimpsed your signature.
(I Hear the Same Refrain)
I woke up, half dead, heavy my head
But the morning woke up green
Soft, its tread…
At this musical mirth on earth.
My hands came together to applaud my rebirth.
(A Song on Earth’s Lips)
By and large her connect to nature is that of celebration. A joie di vivre. It is here; in the world of chirping birds and gurgling streams and pristine meadows that one can witness the symphony being orchestrated by the Almighty in sharp contrast to the gore and mayhem that man is wrecking upon man. The contrast a telling commentary upon the absurdity that is man’s ego:
And the invisible painter paints on with a frenzied brilliance.
Unfazed by an itinerant songster singing of life’s evanescence.
(The Invisible Painter)
Section IV – O Africa
This section comprises of poems written during the poet’s sojourn in Accra, Ghana [May 2016] and opens up with the brilliant, Rage Rage, which is an invocation and instigation at the same time. Invocation of the grandeur of Africa and instigation of Africa to reclaim its place. The poem uses brilliant use of alliteration, consonance and assonance; maintaining a cadence of almost a chant at places.
But rage on, against the emasculating poverty
Suffocating captivity, ravaging humanity.
Rage on with a fierce urgency, o benevolent sea!
In your lashing, thrashing, clashing, slashing, teeth- gnashing.
The poems in this section are the word-paintings of the landscape and the people that the poet had come across during her stay at Accra Ghana and seamlessly the poet sublimates these landscapes and people as metaphors for Africa itself. Thus be it the little shoeless boy or the fiery girl or the dignified fisherwoman, they all are Africa and Africa is them. In them the poet discovers (and hopes for) the resurgence of the Africa with a dignity and pride that is heartwarming and inspirational:
The salt of tears on her tongue has long died
Look, there is a new energy in her stride.
(Stolidly She Walks)
Overall in Under the Apple Boughs Santosh Bakaya comes across as a poet confident of her prowess and voice. Her forte remains dramatic and rhyming and wherever she combines these two, the result is invariably exquisite. Her poetry is not incisive, it is descriptive mainly and prescriptive at times. And within her limits she is fast finding her feet and emerging as a voice to reckon with.
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