Book Review: Sivakami Velliangiri's How We Measured Time

Book Review by Gopal Lahiri (Poet and Critic)

Book: How We Measured Time

Author: Sivakami Velliangiri
First Edition: 2019
Poetry Primero, Mumbai (India)
Price: ₹ 200.00
ISBN 978-93-82749-92-9
Tel: +(91) 22 49235008

Finely Drawn Poems

Sivakami Velliangiri’s debut poetry collection ‘How We Measured Time’ strives for a quiet prosody that reflects the reverse journey to the childhood. What first draws me to read this book is the voice, which sounds like the poet in a meditation melting in nostalgia and sharing her experience with the readers.

Fluent and forceful, these poems push the boundaries between the prose and poetry and tend to take the form of short streams of stories with nuanced statements, to unpick themes as ordinary moments of life. Her words balance shimmering imagery with prosody so that ideas are underlined instead of obscured.

Most of the poems in this charming collection, offers a spilling forth of life rooted in memories in ways that yield to the particulars of imagination. Here is a poet who is a keen observer of things which are unheard or unnoticed.
Gopal Lahiri

They do not know I lived here once.
Everything is in colour, bright and focused.
My mind scans for nooks and corners. (Visiting)

The noted poet Keki Daruwala has rightly pointed out ’the poetry is rooted in nostalgia, memories rooted in the house and the mill compound she grew up in. and yet there is no sentimentality attached to it. There are moments when the poetry is uplifting.’

The houses sit the way they were—concubines.
The trees have grown; crowned brown giants.
I search for the doorsteps where we sat
shoes left carelessly outside. (Visiting)

In fact, almost all her poems represent her restlessness with prosaic forms. This is clearly a considered choice. It’s one of the reasons they form such an inspiring atmosphere letting the images ascend while the pace remains unhurried. Her writing become at times imposingly charming.

Those glass spikes that
once prismed the rays of the sun
now preserve their mottle.
Piggybacking me, Amma carefully stepped
between those glass spikes; she then vaulted over
to the marsh, waddled amidst the paddy fields
without so much as a scratch. (The Great Compound Wall)
There is no tedium, no preening twists of the rhetoric yet the light touches of the anecdotal details and recoil of the words in each line capture the spirit. She is nearly peerless in her ability to capture the character, ambiance and textures of the locales.

In this house I had graduated to two rooms:
A study in the front, eight by eight that let in
That fragrance that burst out of pineapples
Ripening, and a sleeping room on the terrace,
First time, first floor, with a balcony.
The sky-a half hemisphere. (A Fistful of Amargil)

Though some lose their way in the play of strange suspended images, several poems here evoke a feeling or concept with alarming exactitude. The poet aims to portray bygone days and the life as it is in all its diversity and uniqueness.

She brings a calm and restrained tone, and stoic style to her reports on character portraits, addressing history and culture in poems that combine rich images and deft use of form.

There was so much beauty
You knew something would come flying into the room
And shatter its blood on the writing table,
Like that parrot-a disarray of green feathers (The Two Windows of my Room)

Sometimes the poems are vivid and compelling. The poet weaves words that run through her delectable verses with easy order and graceful rhythm. One can feel as if he or she is an integral part of the poem.

We measured time with lunar calendar.
A fortnight-the waxing moon, the waning moon (How We Measured Time)


We swore ourselves to secrecy in
Daylight, pretending to forget
Frog-croaks from the no-see world
Which she told me was real (So, on Full Moon Days and New Moon Days))

Her free verses come across most successfully because of their simplicity, their ordinary plucking, their raw elements. There is no denying that the poet has an ability to tap directly into love, desire and darkness, something she does with rare artistry.

sitting in a cane chair
minus two front teeth
eyes popping out, (File Photos)

in a black frock with a white rose
in a white frock with a white rose
a chubby girl in silk zari skirt
looking at the photographer with full open eyes (File Photos)

Such writings have the immediacy of personal experience. It’s a style that strengthen the poet’s strengths, which include storytelling — she is wonderful at borrowing narrative into anecdotal poems — and the skilful association of words, sentences and stanzas.

Appa ironed my convent blue pinafore,
Combed my hair into two plaits,
Knotted two ribbon bows,
Polished my shoes with a hundred strokes
And cycled me to the Holy Angel’s Convent. (House Father)

Sivakami has given a lot of effort learning how to let a nostalgic moment unfold slowly across a poem, and she’s wonderful at it. She ranges in her work from the brazen to beautiful, from the expansive to the intimate.

More to the point, it raises the need of the stimulus, a familiarity forged by all pervasive connectivity without losing the quietly explanatory tone and expression, the radiant clarity and intelligence and revelling in freedom all round.

I wanted to sing about carats but carrots,
Yes, I remember the arc of flying jewels
In the dawn sky.

Sometimes even dusk. (Carats and Carrots)

Srilata Krishnan has pointed out, ‘In a voice that is fresh and unassuming, Sivakami uses the lens of memory to look back on a childhood that appears, in retrospect, almost surreal.’ The lustrous words reveal the creativity in every phrase. The book is saturated by the sense of nostalgia. I find some of the poems are well made but less distinctive, rest are shining. She writes to find the silver of truth even in plastic mongoose within the framework of childhood.

Further away, green battery eyes flickered-a hawker
Sold plastic mongoose at dusk, ‘keeri, keeri pillai. (The Mongoose and Marina Beach))

Most of the Sivakami’s poems are rich in observation, imagination and memory. She builds something lovely and durable from those memories of childhood.

John Drew has precisely said’. The poet has recaptured a rural Tamilian childhood world in perfectly rendered English: no wasted words, every line honed, each vignette falling just so, good to read’. The poet knows that by telling stories in poems she can reach out to the readers perhaps more easily. In the process the readers can make sense of our world, can connect with the past, to heal and celebrate in a seamless manner.

One day Amma peeped in: an oil lamp swirled,
Rose a little and swirled more, as if
The resident Kuttichatan prodded it up
With a stick. How could the sane verify?
What the insane see? (The Manjalikulam House)

Sivakami Velliangiri’s debut poetry collection ‘How We Measured Time’ is refined, witty and profoundly moving; laced with old hurts and gripping anecdotes. It’s a book that changes its reader for the better. It encompasses rural aromas, sprawling vistas and tiny tender moments of childhood.

The cover page design is praiseworthy. And surely, the poetry lovers should grab the book at the earliest.

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