Book Review: Johannes Manjrekar’s Jacarandas are a Deep Shade of Blue

Author- Johannes Manjrekar
Red River, New Delhi-110091, Price- Rs 299/-

Reviewed by Gopal Lahiri, Poet and Critic, Kolkata, India


Mesmerising Haibun

Haibun is a poetic form that allows combining a prose poem or poetic prose interlaced with a single haiku or a series of haiku. This form brings a fresh perspective through a lens that primarily focuses on the landscape, and the sketches of life. Basho, the doyen of the Japanese form-poems, coins this word, ‘Haibun.’

The haiku and the poetic prose of the haibun rely on each other for a more resounding experience. In How to Haiku, Bruce Ross writes, "If a haiku is an insight into a moment of experience, a haibun is the story or narrative of how one came to have that experience." Furthermore, a haibun should have a profound, inherent sense of aware (aha moment) and in absence of this sense, the poem becomes just a routine list of life’s experiences and nature observations.

Gopal Lahiri

Johannes Manjrekar’s ‘Jacarandas are a Deep Shade of Blue’ reveals in his haibun, an exponentially larger ranges of tone, mood, and lyricism. They shine in its expansive forms. What is striking is his use of metaphorical, symbolic, and imaginative language to create haibun of intense feeling and strong personal reflection of his childhood. He is one of the great practitioners of haibun in India.

Nandini Manjrekar, the late poet’s wife writes in her Foreword, ‘Johannes came to haiku in the early 2000s. I think the form attracted him because its aesthetics spoke to the language of those inner conversations- depth in momentary and fleeting, the unexpected yet critical turn of emotion, the shadows of the image in which the words rested, and most importantly, a stillness and patience in the poet’s gaze. Haibun, best brought out his skill as a storyteller. Johannes left us many stories, but he left us too soon.’

Robert Lowell says, “I am sure that writing is not a craft, that is, something for which you learn the skills and go on turning out. It must come from some deep impulse, deep inspiration. That cannot be taught, it cannot be what you use in teaching.” Johannes handles deftly the broader, deeper understanding of human experience.

There is no denying that Johannes recollects the childhood days on his pulse. The poet cherishes the familiar. The language is plain but seems elegantly lit from within. He has an eye for the vivid image and let his poems take shape from the shapes of personal experiences.

Writing haibun and haiku are something so essential, so intimate that it can not be defined without simplifying it. And in this collection of haibun the poet brings the emotion and shade of the childhood with skill and artistry. He has a keen eye and revels in meticulousness. He applies surreal images at times foe the constant sense of longing.

Out of nowhere it occurred to me that someday jacaranda would be blooming and football players shouting and I would know nothing about it then or ever again and suddenly I was overwhelmed by the thought of ever again and began to run, run as fast as I could and I kept running till I get got home and my lungs were bursting and the pain felt good because I could feel it and because all it was just a burning in the chest.

evening tea
my parents talk
about their day (Jacarandas are a Deep Shade of Blue)

Johannes makes social observation with deceptive simplicity. His anguished irony, his humility before the perplexing plenitude of reality, the depth of his quest for clarity and truth. And he finds his way to write such a beautiful haibun so stunningly.

The little girl stares after the plane a moment longer after it has dropped out of sight. Then she is off, half-running half skipping down the street, sliding her shadows ahead of her.

streetlights come on
a bright contrail
bisects the sky. (Sky Shadows)

In the following haibun, the address is so direct it feels almost artless against an unjust, unloving world. It creates a transcendent feeling.

The two small girls sitting in the grey-brown dust are playing something like a pat-a-cake. The one letting the dust trickle between her fingers is wearing a dress that is a bright shade of red. The one watching is wearing nothing at all and her hair is bleached shade of brown. It is the colour of malnutrition.

sun and clouds
the little girl snuggles up
to her mother (Heartbreaker)

Paresh Tiwari, himself an exponent of habun, rightly mentions, ‘Reading Jacarandas are a Deep Shade of Blue has been a reminder of how powerful the form can be. It has also been a lesson that the secret to good writing is expressing compelling ideas and deep emotions in the most distilled, simple words. It has been an aide-memoire that Johannes embodies simplicity.’

The poet writes in a way that is simple and assured. And he strips his haibun down to its root values, its solid core and the narrative tells the truth at all costs. His writes are finely honed, questing and humane. He loves Plato’s characterisation of the poet as,’ that light substance, winged and sacred.’

The girl and the young man who appears to be her father are sitting on a pile of stones by the road side. Suddenly the girl says something and smiles brilliantly. The smile hovers on her face for a while, but the man just keeps looking straight ahead.

winter evening-
a bulbul injects its notes
into the traffic (Stone Pile)

The poet believes that poetry nourishes intimacy and fosters understanding, that human connections are more powerful and enduring than cultural differences. He has a gift of transfiguring the ordinary and brings the essence of life at the heart of daily life.

She was among the prettiest girl in school, one of at least three I had a secret crush on. One day we collided in the corridor outside our classrooms. I feigned annoyance and called her stupid, she merely laughed her tinkling laugh. For one long moment we looked each other in the eyes before returning to our separate lives.

Stuffing my satchel-
the suddenness
of the school bell. (Schoolache)

Johannes Manjrekar is one of the rare poets who insists on our humanity. We love to read his haibun, most of all not for its radiant moments of wonder and being, but because of its tenderness towards the human. His haibun is a permanent gift for all of us.

The cover page is impressive. Elegant and alluring, this book offers us the essence of life and a must for every bookshelf.


Bio: Gopal Lahiri was born and grew up in Kolkata, India. He is a bilingual poet, writer, editor, critic, and translator and published in Bengali and English language. He has authored 8 volumes of poetry in Bengali and 12 volumes in English and solo/jointly edited 8 anthologies of poems in English and published one translation work. His poetry is also published across various anthologies as well as in eminent journals of India and abroad. His book reviews have been published in Indian Literature of Sahitya Akademi, (Print journal), Muse India,, Different Truths, Kitaab (Singapore), Setu (US) online journals and many others. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prize for poetry in 2021. He is the recipient of the Poet of the Year Award in Destiny Poets, UK, 2016, Setu Excellence Award, 2020, Pittsburgh, US and Indology Life-Time Achievement award, West Bengal, India.

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