Anna Sujatha Mathai has three collections of poems in English Crucifixions; We, the Unreconciled; and The Attic of Night. Many of her poems have been translated into Indian and European languages.
This latest collection includes poems written over the last several years and represents her deep desire to find a meaning in life despite its difficulties and darkness. Theseis a tautness in her poetry and once discerns in her a yearing to evolve a vocabulary in consonance with her poetic rythms.
She was extensively involved in theatre for many years both as actress and director and was founder member of the Abhinaya Poetry Theatre Group in Banglore.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria is a poet and novelist. Her first novel The Other Garden was published in 1995 to critical acclaim. Awarded Senior Fellowship for Literature by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, India, she has recently completed her second novel Or Else…. Dialoguing with classical dance, painting and the moving image she has presented her poetry in performances in India and abroad. This is her first collection of poems.
In its golden jubilee year the Sahitya Akademi (Academy of Letters) decided to showcase and anthologise Indian poetry in English by women writers in two-in-one volumes. A fairly comprehensive anthology of women poets is under preparation simultaneously. The present two-in-one collection contains the work of Anna Sujatha Mathai and Priya Sarukkai Chabria.
In some ways, the two poets are a study in contrast. Sujatha Mathai has been publishing poetry for more than three decades and has three volumes of poetry to her credit. Priya Sarukkai Chabria, in her forties, has been published in many journals but has yet to come out with a book. Mathai's poems are confessional, at times lyrical. She feels "a deep sense of loss" at not being able to write in Malayalam. She does not draw upon the conventions and poetics of other languages. Priya Sarukkai Chabria experiments with poetic forms, and draws from the wealth of the Tamil and Sanskrit traditions. She roots the first section of her collection in the Tamil akam tradition of the second century BC. As Chabria says, "I found I was dialoguing with different forms, Indian, Japanese and western; that the poems conversed with each other within a series, and with series written in other forms; also 1 was constantly in dialogue with myself." And while Mathai is a paint-er of bleak landscapes, Chabria's poems are full of joie de vivre.
Anna Sujatha Mathai studied at the universities of Delhi, Edinburgh, Bangalore and Minnesota. Her mothertongue is Malayalam, but her writing is confined to English. She has taught at Delhi University and been involved with the theatre. Her previous poetry collections are Crucifixions, We, the Unreconciled and The Attic of Night. Her poems have been translated into several European and Indian languages, and she has given readings at various places, including The House of Culture, Stockholm, and the Danish Writer's Union, Copenhagen. She has also worked as a professional social worker in England and the United States. These new poems of hers, written over the last decade, reveal a "struggle to find meaning and illumination in dark and difficult years", to quote her own words.
Sujatha Mathai's poems are lyrical and meditative at the same time. There is a fluency and effortlessness about her poetry, not just in the cadence but also in the flow of thought and how a metaphor moves to a conclusion. For instance, take the following lines from the poem 'Secret Enemy':
Hearing your name in a crowded room the forgotten pain, long denied, firmly put away- like winter clothes that moulder in trunks until the summer ends; that pain begins to ache again, the dull ash, dying embers burn fiercely once more. Who could conceive in winter that flowers wait beneath to spring but upon one, and startle?
A name triggers off a memory and forgotten pain, moves through metaphors of winter clothing mouldering in trunks to ash and embers and then to spring flowers bursting through the cold crust of winter, am bushing the poet like a secret enemy. We come across the same flow and depth in lines like:
The otherness of the self like another shore. The oneness with the other like an old claim from another birth ...
blinded by desire's terrible sword, torching the grain in the granary, bringing death by hunger, the lean years, bitter as bajra, husk on the tongue where ripe grain should be, the pogrom of the peaceful, the ravaged night of the locust.
In another poem, 'Sea Creature', she finds herself as "algae and fossil / harbouring shipwrecked fragments / and dead men's eyes." For once she seems to give in to defeat, finds herself cast "destitute on a foreign shore". The good and the evil oscillate:
The icon and the jeweled cross, hope and betrayal- these were engraven in my skull, pearls clamped within my oyster brain.
The shipwreck image occurs again and again. She has a fine poem called 'Shipwreck' which takes off from a line by Emily Dickinson. There is an inner strength in Sujatha Mathai's poems and she seldom flounders in self pity. In 'Hot Coal and Diamonds' she says: I have looked into the abyss, over the edge of the volcano crater and the fire has singed, but not burnt me.
Mathai is a poet of twilights. Receding memories, personalities fading with age, parents slowly becoming irrelevant, the 'loss' of children which is equated with fledglings flying away- all this comes out in her poems.'
Parents living with children soon become invisible, cut off, doors to the past which are never opened, - uncomfortable reminders of mortality,
Mathai has a constellation of poems on children, including one on a child she never had, the child within us. Maybe the child
Dreams of a mother- he knows everyone has one - and of food - he lacks both. The twenty first century barely brushes its wings across his imaginings.
Mathai has to be respected for culling intense poetry from anguish and her dark world view. In the title poem of the book, a poem dedicated to Maria Tsvetayeva, the Russian poet who eventually committed suicide, Mathai chooses life, when faced with a choice.
I lay at the point of death. You said choose. Choose between life and death. With only one choice, I chose life as my beloved. Priya Sarukkai Chabria has worked as a freelance journalist, writing primarily on women's issues, travel and the arts. She co-founded the film society, Friends of the Archive, and co-scripted a short film Dhaara, which opened The Critics Section, Oberhausen Film Festival, Germany, in 1989. She has read papers on matters relating to the cinema and music at seminars in Madrid and UCLA, USA. Her first novel, The Other Garden, was published by Rupa in 1995 and was praised for its "rich imagery, clever word play, (and) soaring imagination that borders on poetry". All these qualities mark her poetry in the present volume.
The first section follows the tradition of Tamil akam poetry. To quote Martha Ann Selby from the excellent introduction to her anthology; "Akam is half of the most basic genre division of cankam poetry. The other halfis puram, and it comes as no surprise that those two words are antonyms. At their most basic levels of meaning, akam means (inner' and puram means 'outer'. By extension, akam comes to refer to a person's 'inner life'. More specifically, akam means (love' in all its textures and hues. Puram is all that is outside akam," Traditionally male poets wrote akam but the voice was 'assigned' to women. Now we have a woman poet resurrecting the genre and writing in it. Her voice should be no less authentic than that of her male poetic forebears. And Priya Sarukkai Chabria assigns a voice to the male lover as well:
Through widening darkness she entered my vision like lightning dipped in gentleness. I wished to hold her like a mountain holds fire-clouds, free yet bewitched, her tenderness raining down the slopes of my life. But I lee! wooden: she is trusting and savage, unschooled in the rules of men. Her giving will be incandescent, her body flaming into mine, to burn the bark of my defenses; creeper-like These poems go much beyond passionate outpourings. Love not only starts off the journey within, but also deals with angsts. "Has he shed the bark of his fears?" the woman asks herself, as the poems alternate between 'He says' and 'She says'. She has an entire anxiety-ridden poem on fear in 'Dialogue-2' - the nayika's fear of voices, the fear which like a ladder descends into her body, the fear of the body itself and its "silent surges". Priya Chabria's poems don't fall into easy traps - the victim turning coy and blaming the victimizer, stylized laments over the stone-hearted. lover and that sort of thing. "There is a victim, but RO victimizer in love", she says. In any love encounter one of the two have to come up against the-cold rock of apathy though. Take these extracts from poem 4 (,She says'):
He promised me the earth, the skies, more- he promised me myself, this journey within- as I wade through the darkness of my heart. My tenderness gnarls as I flame against deadwood, eyes shut in grief.
From the first torrid burst of love the poems progress to the time when ardours cool off: "Now the coldness between us / makes for a tattered sheet / of melting pain."
'Dialogue-2' contains poetry for a stage production and in this section she examines the concept prevailing in Sanskrit poetics of eight types of female lovers. One also comes across standard Sanskrit poetic responses, say, to loneliness or the sakhilikening the meeting of lovers to the hestitancy of a cloud, or the trembling of dew and later the upheaval in a sandstorm. She has poems on loss, anger, celebration. The final parting of lovers is shown through the symbol of snakes sloughing off their old skins.
Like a snake sloughing off old skin, he leaves. Leaves me with scales of memory.
But Priya Chabria moves to contemporary reality with considerable finesse. The poems in the section 'The Grove' deal with the intended slaughter of the grove, because buildings have to come up there.
I shifted near a grove. Here time spreads on gossamer paws and birds cut life to size in clear notes.
She 'sites' the poems, piles the details on but with poetic elan - "cavalcades of light", "night rain turning the leaves to glass", "lamps misted/ by spider webs, the terrace / roosting with doves."
It would be futile to go on section by section. Priya Chabria has a sense of the shape of language and its tensions. There is a hard-fibred assurance about her poetry, which remains tightly focused throughout.
Both Sujata Mathai and Chabria write uninhibitedly and yet refrain from any excesses. They also refrain from strident confession, but the poems are transparent and the reader can see the woman behind the poem.
Children’s Books (475)
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