Take the titular poem, “What’s wrong with us Kali women?” where she writes,
"There's nothing wrong. That's your fear labelling us. We are the Kali women. And all other female, male, androgynous gods. We don't distinguish. We seek. We learn. Comprehend. Embrace" Through these lines, she is informing us of multiple ways in which women are ostracized and shamed and reading the full text will let one into the canvas of skin color, gender and societal conditioning, and its generational tenacity that get covered here.
In “Homo Sapiens and Hindu Goddesses in India and America”, she calls out double standards allotted to painting women as divine beings culturally and then trampling them in real life. She yearns to be treated hence as a flesh and blood mortal. "Fatigued, I drudge along like broken subalterns, returning from a long war", these lines clearly elucidating the exhaustion on her and her ilk. Separation from homeland, adjusting to two worlds and carving out an identity free from polarities of both ends indeed extracts its toll and this realistic foregrounding in lived experiences colors her lines.
The gamut of her choices range from events that have become endemic to us as human beings, whether it is the poignancy of racist continuum as on “How Easy It Is For A Black Life To Be Taken and Jazz Vocalist” ("all around ancestors are beating their chests"), the history of African-Americans informing the evolution of a musical style that thrives on improvisational tones, just like poetry or the tenacity of memories embedded in inanimate objects like clothes, beds and comforters in an special post Covid reckoning as on “What Happened To Their Clothes?” That use of the interrogative exclamation is a running thread as regards the spirit of enquiry always being at the center. This ambivalence of life and death is also present in “Corona and Love-Life Layers”, the alliterative title being symbolic and the actual poem touching upon human avarice and indifference refusing to die down even in the face of this extraordinary post-modern crisis. As she writes, "layers had collapsed, conflated, almost disappeared", with the transparency of our muddled lives occupying her thoughts.
“Greatest Warrior is Metamorphic Mother Earth”, to me, is a pivotal poem as it's both a slant on evading our environmental responsibilities as humans and simultaneously on how we condescend feminist values without deeply caring about the history of strength and unwavering loyalty to equality that it is borne out of. Here, Dr. Nahal is divorcing herself and her soul-sisters from the 'abla' prototype affixed with them forever. She seeks to be taken as an equal, at least as an individual and not just a sex/ gender.
Her words touch upon tangible desire in “A Sip of Wine” with lines like, "the want, the craving, the kneading, like pliable dough of my sighs" and the freedom sought from yoga as a life-force, "as she stretched her Namaste hands high above her head, her clothes aviating in the taxing wind, she knew she could still breathe" in the poem, “Breathe”. So, a versatility is achieved by Nahal, given her prolific output.
For me as a reader, she is at her best when she navigates her identity as an Indian- American, without the excess baggage of being what we term a 'hyphenate'; examples of her expert touch are seen in “Spilt Milk in Native and Foreign Lands”, "foreign or home spun, a forced balanced prescription was prayed for, both exultant and upsetting", the lines here reeking of the way many of our relations seek easy escape from our problems, such as she herself faced when poised to leave her country. The title itself powerfully relays the reality of conflicts dividing loyalties. Also, she makes it clear that escape and eventual settlement in a cozy foreign land can hardly be a substitute for one's experiences of trauma and pain.
“Paying my debt to two lands”, captures her legacy across continents, nations, and cultures. The dual identity is refracted through the placement of the mighty Ganga and its parallel in Potomac River in Washington, thus the ambivalent and yet intersecting idea of her life. The truth of an elusive homeland.
She is also attuned to the legacy of her parents, as in the life experiences collected by her father in, “Loner Walks” and her reminisces of her mother's innocent, pure touch during her childhood while oiling her hair in their ancestral home's verandah as against the artifice and incessant snobbish preoccupations of the current era in, “Snoot and Snout”. The poignancy of her mother's last days hits us with a profound sense of loss in, “I did not say, I love you, to my Mama”. The point of grief and death intersect with a pall of guilt when we are away from ageing parents while in, “Teaching Chair Yoga at an assisted living home”, she encapsulates the isolation of old age with sensitive, lucid lines like, "among those not able to connect the dots and lines in their brain too well….I knew I was among those who'd seen and lived life"
So, it makes sense that her trajectory comes full circle in poems effectively chronicling her own life as a single mother and all the joys and expectations that unique station has brought to her. Take the instance of, “Fallacy of a Single, Immigrant Mom” where she writes, "that's no fallacy" or the heartbreaking tentacles of patriarchal customs during her beloved son's wedding driving home inescapable cultural truths as also how she has transcended those by dint of her steadfast individuality in, “And, then the pundit asked for my son's father's family name”. The lines are, "I had broken tradition that morning when I'd placed the turban on my son's head. His father stood by without a word. A deep sigh I gave then"- the sigh signifying pride, relief and the setting up of example by her brave choice to raise her son on her own. This autobiographical tone is prevalent in her joyful and grateful words affixed with the same ceremony as in, “My Son's Orange Wedding Procession.” She is grateful that her experiences and sacrifices suffused with constant anticipation over the years had brought her to light of that particularly auspicious day.
Beyond this, she has meditations on a woman's age ("I carry my age in a genie's bottle, finally seared with a recipe from wise women's tales"), the reality of poverty and homelessness in America confounding people back home in, “Democracy in Decline”, subcontinental paradigms affecting nations on both sides of the border ("one nation, two hearts beginning to beat their own drums at a very soiled hour") in, “Gandhi’s Chaadar”, advocating for teaching boys the stark truths about consent in, “Rape” ("you shall not touch by force, without consent.... when repelled"), and one on “Phoolan Devi” emphasizing on the pertinent word 'brutal' as being a defining factor of her short life. While “Blame” is personified as a passive spectator to human interactions under duress, “Hope” is exhorted, "get up, speak, chant again...... please don't let demagoguery pull you into an unrelenting abyss" and in, “Native”, Native American history is invoked.
In this collection, the emotional content is supreme, straddling personal experiences and those of an universal, global order. Her poems are about carrying on with a bright purpose in life, free from scrutiny because fellow humans can hardly understand the creative mindset or gallop on the journey that a robust or fully formed individual like Dr. Nahal has undertaken. A journey undertaken with the aid of her life choices and words, most importantly. Her prose style is uncomplicated and revelatory, fit to be read loudly and hence reach the youngest minds. It's because they especially need to absorb a frame of mind of someone straddling so many worlds, not just as an accomplished academic of prolific versatility but as an 'individual' per se.
I have had the privilege of reading Nahal’s works in multiple publications and to review her latest, third book of poetry and imbibe its multifarious essence gives me joy as I traverse the road to creative freedom, with such experienced compeers to guide me. This book is a treasure trove.
***PRITHVIJEET SINHA from Lucknow, India is a postgraduate in MPhil from the University of Lucknow, having launched his prolific writing career by self-publishing on the worldwide community Wattpad since 2015 and on his WordPress blog AN AWADH BOY'S PANORAMA. His works also are published in several varied publications as CAFE DISSENSUS, THE MEDLEY, SCREEN QUEENS, BORDERLESS JOURNAL, ASPIRING WRITERS' SOCIETY, LOTHLORIEN POETRY JOURNAL, CHAMBER MAGAZINE, LIVE WIRE, RHETORICA QUARTERLY, DREICH MAGAZINE, THE EKPHRASTIC REVIEW and in the children's anthology NURSERY RHYMES AND CHILDREN'S POEMS FROM AROUND THE WORLD (AuthorsPress, February 2021). Prithvijeet’s life force resides in writing.