The soul is forever in equinox: A review of Inhabiting by Basudhara Roy

- Jindagi Kumari


Basudhara Roy’s book of poems, Inhabiting, recounts “moments” lived inside and beyond spaces and self; life and art. The collection not only promises “words plentiful”, “a handful of soul” and “salt” of “thoughts” (‘Circle’ p. 23) but also the “whole dark being” of the artist.
 Needless to say that the title “Inhabiting” is a metaphor where inhabiting is not limited to known and identifiable places. However, the sundry implications and possibilities with which the term appears make it more than a metaphor. A poem by Indira Sant ’Kanav’ quoted in the beginning of the collection states: 
In a room 
twelve feet by twelve feet
I count thousands of miles;
a window two feet wide 
shows me the whole sky; (ll.1-5)

“heart’s piggy-bank”
The lines hint at a “chasmophilic” vision of the poet, an outlook enabled by her love for small spaces. Poetry carves newer routes for the poet for diving deeper into the self and revealing newer facets of the immediate personal and socio-political surroundings. Imaginativeness is the space where poetry and poet inhabit each other. The short poem ‘Nativity’ inducts readers to the genesis and a mysterious, mother-like, bond between the art and the artist. In the poem ‘Reckoning’ the speaker calls poems her “heart’s piggy-bank”:
my pleasure only comes
at my long day’s end,
from recounting them to you. (ll.19-21)

In her lyrical piggy bank, the poet hoards “raw and rude” experiences; of love, pain, relationships, and questions about womanhood. The poem ‘Names’ offers an approach to relationships where it might help to leave “things cozily scattered” (l.20). A quest for perfection, and attempt to achieve clarity by naming and branding, may play spoilsport mitigating the purity and possibility of the unexpressed emotions. 
‘Years’ stresses that acknowledging the non-negotiables in relationship is as vital as negotiating gaps. The poem speaks through elemental imagery. Time makes the “Sun-born”, “heat-bred” persona with a “tropical bosom” journey from “what would I know of ice” to “I know ice now”. Evocation of climate, continents, and territories underline range of Roy’s imagery widening from “home” to the universe. 
 Roy’s selection of central imagery in poems fascinates for its novelty, aptness, and intuitiveness. ‘Reflections’, for example, recreates both the magic and the shock of love through the picture of kantha embroidery: “…The magic lining ripped / off love’s kantha work, you’re left fingering / its rude …underside. (ll. 13-15). ‘To love you’ illustrates the role of empathy in relationship:
I must travel to your long -lost
innocence, to the wondrous suns
of your youth, to its deciduous rains,
to your tops, kites, marbles, books (‘To Love You’, ll.9-12)

The persona’s live imagination of the trajectory of her partner’s bodily and mental evolution; his physical environs, aspirations and fears, shows the poet’s innate understanding of human psychology. Marked by a tender and broody mood, the poem hides a quiet irony in the refrain “I must”. The persona reminds us of the archetypes of Parvati and Sati; the epitomes of unquestioned giving and penance. 
 “love for liberty”
A group of Roy’s poems in the collection voice a determined love for emancipation of women. These poems interrogate and expose the unfairness of patriarchy. The following verses attack the patriarchal appropriation of iconic Hindu deities Durga and Kali as representatives of women:
It’s their tools you always wield, unmindful
of why all your hands should serve them
or why tools were never yours to begin with (‘Advice for Durga’ ll.33-35)

Structured as a series of questions, the verse coalesces Durga’s image with Ishtar, Inana, Astarte, Cybele – mythical figures of similar stature; powers and symbolism, from other part of the world – to convey how history, stories, and iconography have manipulated and failed women. After her earful to Durga, the poet moves on to sing a lullaby to Kali, whose fierce persona appears to be a camouflage for her troubled self: 
suspended between your witnessing teeth, is an ageless battle
between silence and speech. Your tale, Kali, remains untold
  …Only your body
 is a crusading ship, determined to reach meaning’s shore.
 Rest this vigil for a moment, Kali. Lie down in dust with me, (‘For Kali’ ll.31-35)

The visualization of Kali as a woman conflicted between speech and silence and extension of camaraderie to her render her a symbol of aggression against societal oppression: 
“Rest from being a warrior, Kali. Let me calm your commitment,
caress you into a sleep. You must be so weary of being a scream.” (ll.39-40)

‘Letter to an Unborn Mother’ captures women’s sufferings as mothers which is, normally, concealed by the generic and dreamy portrayals of childbearing and childbirth. It is imperative to be mindful of the mothers who are “resented, unwanted, (and) loathed. There are mothers who are scared and insecure of: “knives, syringes, need of heirs”, “…nutrition /forbidden, unafforded”, “… food-poisoning, … ragging”. The poem petitions that all mothers be set free from prejudices of various kinds:

 … And what nation 
 tell me mother, can safeguard
 us from such persecution? What
 flag, what colour, what anthem
 mother, can finally set us free? (ll. 61-65)

‘Memories of my Grandmother as a Clock’ narrates the intriguing life-story of grandmother whose recall and conversations tear through patriarchy and admonish women in family to make their minds “invincible” “fortress”. The poem ‘Woman-to-Woman’ exhorts women to gather their inner strength; “sing of what rushes in your veins”: 

 …only when you draw sap
from earth’s breast, home the
earthworm in your soil; only when the

sky stretches above you free, … (‘Woman-to-Woman’, ll. 61-64)

The poet uses myths, memories, and observations, and continues to sing inspiring anthems for women’s liberation.

 ‘A Story of Water’ and ‘Graffiti’ are poems that fit dozens of contexts and exude numerous meanings in the short reading moment. Reflecting upon the havoc causes by the pandemic, ‘Graffiti’ creates a somber atmosphere that envelops the soul of the reader. Some of the haunting analogies are; “vagrant wind” as “widower bereft of faith”, death as “receding of form into space”, the effect of epidemic as “sprouting unbeing like flowers”, and the need to “catalogue all lasts”. Suggestiveness has been a strong feature of Roy’s poems in her previous collections, in Inhabiting it is achieved with a simpler and more curated diction marking a greater self-assurance in the artist. Besides, poems in the volume seem more organized in terms of emotions, language and the appearance on the pages— barring a few where the argument seems slightly overdrawn. One of her reviewers, Anisur Rahman, rightly observes that “Inhabiting is a way of putting both the poem and the home in order.”
 The collection, Inhabiting, appears to be what “Diary” had been to Anne Frank— a treasure of intimate and essential interactions with self. But many of these interactions are also passionate pleas and steely conviction for societal reforms. It is Roy’s poetic combo offer of the flavours of “caprice magnanimity turbulence” obtained from a deeper plunge into the singularity of her voice.

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