Book Review: Explorations by M Mohankumar

U Atreya Sarma
Collection of Poems
M Mohankumar 
Authors Press, 2020
ISBN 978-93-89615-55-5
pp 95 | ₹ 295/ $ 15

Reviewed by: U Atreya Sarma
Captivating poems we can relate to
Poet M Mohankumar who started off his career as a lecturer in English, later on joined the IAS, where he retired as Chief Secretary to Government of Kerala, after an impressive tenure of more than 35 years. Explorations is his the 9th poetry collection containing 71 poems; and we can relate to any of them. That’s the merit of this book.
Life is strange like fiction – if you just edit out the drab routine things – and poet Mohankumar knows this well for he is also a fiction writer, with a collection of short stories The Turning Point and Other Stories to his credit. To get the heck of it, you should cruise through the poetic story ‘A Fairy Tale of Life’ where a neglected child – repelled by his “wicked stepmother ruling the roost” and his indifferent father “doting on his young wife” – happens to turn the tide and becomes an example of vicissitudes of fortunes.
The title poem ‘Exploration’ flows in the spirit of Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses.’ Sample a few lines –
It has been a long and difficult journey.
We were on untrodden ground. Undaunted,
we went ahead. Nothing could deter us:
neither lies nor dangers nor the prophets of doom.

True, we lost a couple of men on the way.
Lacking nerve, or faith, they lagged behind
and drifted away. We are sorry for them.
And the concluding lines “We will not rust unburnished | Some work of noble note may yet be done,” replicating Tennyson’s exact lines, should have been duly credited to him. There is another poem too ‘Wanderlust’ with the same spirit of adventure – though “It was perhaps | a failed exploration; but even so, | an enriching experience.”
The poem ‘The Idakka Player’ talks of the influence of environs on musicians. The poet says that he –
...realized why so many of our great
musicians have come from places
close to the precincts of temples
resounding with sacred music.
And such a musician in this poem is always modest, for after being greeted for his “splendid performance” by the poet, he attributed the credit to the “timber” that his idakka – a percussion instrument – is made of. Notice that the word ‘timber’ is homophonic with the musical word ‘timbre’!
The poem ‘The Ways of His Life’ captures the stages of life in a quick and crisp manner with striking imagery.
of childhood days.
Dusty country roads
of adolescence
Finally, when it’s the second childhood –
And now, in old age
cow-paths again –
without cows
or grazing ground.
Everyone loves to love and be loved. That’s why love poetry is always the most popular and enchanting. But which is the best love poem so far? The one by Sappho, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Kalidasa, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats or any of the modern poets? No, not at all, for none –
Can rival the sheer poetry of the glances
Exchanged by lovers in a crowded room
Or the unspoken words that pass between them.
How true!
Marriage and its ways are always a mystery. In many cases, it wouldn’t go the way one dreams. It’s only stoic philosophers like Socrates who can endure any development. “Marry or not marry, you’ll regret it” is a paradox uttered by the wise man, as is mentioned in the poem ‘Socrates.’ He finally chose to marry, and his wife Xanthippe once emptied “a kettle of hot water on his head,” and another time “a chamber pot over him.” Yet he kept his cool, saying that thanks to her ways he was getting toughened as a “better philosopher.” Something to learn from his experiences for adjustment, compromise? For even a divorce and another marriage are no guarantees for a life of milk and honey thereafter. This is the purport of the poem ‘Socrates’ retold by Mohankumar in an engaging way.
Mohankumar is an adept not only in distilling his life’s observations and experiences into poetry but also in wielding his funny bone. Let’s read and enjoy the entire poem ‘After the Return’ –
When I was abroad
they would ring me up
or send text messages
enquiring, ‘When
are you coming back?’

And now,
scarcely a fortnight
after my return,
they ask me, ‘When
are you going back?’
It also unmasks the superficial conviviality and lip service many of us are guilty of in our present chock-a-block lives devoid of a yearning for a life of abiding values.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the character Jaques says –

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances...
But in real life there are certain actors who always gloat in the role of the characters they play, more so when the role is an attractive one, and live in their own dreamy world not willing to make an exit from the stage back into the “work-a-day world” as a common man that they are. Some people can’t simply come to terms with the realities of life. This message is driven home through the poem ‘The Thespian.’ When a gentleman in my circle of relations, who was into the theatre as also into the spirits was dissipating his life, his family tried their best to rein him in by tightening the purse strings. But he got upset and left far off from his home for a place that had been his acting headquarters with a fond hope that he would be taken care of by his quondam actor comrades, but the aftermath proved bitter and fatal – again aggravated by the sudden Covid-19. That’s the danger from lazing in a psychedelic realm.
To pull us out of this fatally mawkish morass and make us cheerful once again, let another spark of humour from the poet come in handy –
It was not
my fault.
I did choose
the right stool,
and would have
sat on it,
had not someone
pulled it back
(Between Two Stools)
And with this cheerful spirit, let’s venture out to explore ‘The Other Side of the Mountain,’ for –
Always you were fascinated by the unknown
And the obscure... ...
Why not get out of the rut of monotony?
Why not seek a life of rich possibilities?
But caution prevailed.
Why the caution? What happens finally? Explore for yourself, dear reader for you too love adventures. Of course, I had already done it myself, as I recorded it in a similar poem ‘In the bosom of a breezy hill’ (Ref: My poetry collection, Sunny Rain-n-Snow) –
All along I have longed to live
Close across a lofty sylvan hill
... ... ...
I have only scaled for the delight of discovering
A wonder world lying on the other side of the divide
Sometimes, out of the blue, our mind picks up some nostalgic signals though long since buried. Why and how such remembrances are triggered is a mystery. Without our consciousness, we simply slip into humming a tune. Likewise, the poet, who is luckier, is wafted back by wind and rain for a rendezvous with a slim and smart girl with “luminous eyes framed by | curly hair” whom he has never seen once the school life was over.
... Always
I was the topper of the class – till you came;
You came like a breeze, unnoticed – and proved
A match for me, sometimes more than a match.
(On This Night of Wind and Rain)
And the story of Dasaratha through the poem ‘Dasaratha’s Distress’ underlines the inscrutable ways of Fate, the writs of which can never be changed or hypothesized like “had it been otherwise...,” for we simply can’t fathom the possible underlying twists in store of the qualified Fate. Excessive euphoria could lead to excessive generosity like how Dasaratha offered two boons to Kaikeyi “when one would have sufficed.” Ati sarvatra varjayet – Excess of anything is undesirable, modesty is the virtue.
Let’s be what we are – neither more nor less. Why try to either facelift or deface our original face? Let’s face and accept the truth, for truth is beauty. Reflecting like this on his face, the poet weaves the poem ‘This Face’ – a witty treat! Its core thrust is, he can’t countenance tinkering with his face, for –
This is my face –
The only one I have.

The poem ‘Obituary’ is a gibe against the stereotypical formats or nonchalant ways of the media. The protagonist in the poem leads a right and measured life but ‘the less gifted’ overtake him, and finally when he is in ICU, the newspapers announce his death. He is annoyed not so much with the false news of his death but with the brevity of the obit. So he takes care to draft his own obituary and hands it over to his son. But when the man really dies and the obit is passed on to the newspapers –

But when it came out the next day, it was brief
as before, ruthlessly edited.
A similar thing happened when my 103 year old father passed away a year ago, being in hospital just under a day. A man of grit and discipline, he was alert and healthy till the last minute. A stringer called us and we briefed him. But the news report said that my father had been suffering from age-related issues for quite some time – which was just trash.

The delightful book Explorations is thus a captivating kaleidoscopic of musings and observations from the sapience and rich experiences of the poet who is gifted with a keen mind, an aesthetic heart and a noble soul. 

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