Another Look at India’s Books: Reshma Aquil’s “The Unblending”

July 17, 2022

In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.


It takes a rare kind of a poet to make a physical body and an ethereal idea interchangeable, to create a world without a hierarchy ranking the tangible and the intangible, without the binary of the signifier and the signified. “In such poetry, an image or object, be it concrete or abstract, eludes symbolism by refusing to become something other than itself. This is art that does not need to be translated into the language of analysis.

Such are the lines in “Fisherman,” from Reshma Aquil’s collection The Unblending:

The fisherman’s web thrown to the sky
Nets no secrets
For the silver he gets from the river
He whispers no gratitude
The river twinkles through
The dignity of the fisherman’s poverty
The wisdom behind his despairs

A “web thrown to the sky” is both body and idea, object and metaphor, where neither objecthood nor metaphoricity claim power over the other. Such seamlessness indicates a poetic nerve both natural and exceptional. Images of striking homeliness came naturally to Aquil: “There it is / Red roofs in a forest of pine / Like a clasp in a bun.” But the withering of the bod — its magical disembodiment — is something that must have been known both viscerally and ethereally to Aquil, who died of cancer in 2012, in Allahabad, the city where she was born and lived most of her life. The coldness of this knowledge is palpable in the poem “Marked Out”:

They returned her

Time turned
At thirty-nine
Her glint

To nervous quiver
Her brown head

A hidden coil of energy gives power even to her more conventional figures of speech, power that makes you pause, hold your breath for a moment. Consider the pathetic fallacy of the three-line poem “Played Out”:

Irate waves
Sigh over sand
Nothing to break

I first met Aquil’s poetry through the poet and essayist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who was her colleague at the English Department of the University of Allahabad. In a talk, subsequently published as an essay, Mehrotra speaks of “her isolation from the literary world.” Such an isolation can only partly be ascribed to her location, far from the metropolitan centres of India; it was rather “more an aspect of her temperament.” While “the price of that isolation was neglect,” a life that left behind only three slim collections from small presses, Mehrotra is also quick to observe that it was a small price compared to what she would have had to pay had she moved in “what passes for literary circles in India, for that would have affected the very timbre of her guarded voice.”

Isolated and often working on miniature, intimate canvases — she reminds Mehrotra of Emily Dickinson — Aquil strikes out unexpectedly with a largeness, a spacious consciousness that embodies the weight of history, as in “Crucifixion”:

A waif-like existence on edges
Untouching for fear of upsetting
Some carry within crucifixion
History’s lashes on mind

I remember the British publisher David Graham say that only a celebrity can be a recluse — otherwise you’re simply unknown, or, in the language of the literary canon, an obscurity. If that is the case — and indeed it would be hard to argue otherwise – there is no finer instance of the obscure than the poetic figure of Aquil, now dead for 10 years.Yet the unique texture and temperament of her poetry embodies a far deeper paradox of embrace and abandon, distance and minuteness, a liberated craft that is perhaps hard to find in the work of a poet who writes in the awareness of a ready and eager audience, whether small or large. The delightful unpredictability of her work seems to owe much to her isolated life, cut down long before its time by a terminal illness.


Saikat Majumdar is the author of four novels, most recently, The Middle Finger (2022) –along with The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015), published in the US as Play House (2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism, Prose of the World (2013), a work of nonfiction, College (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). His current book-in-progress, on reading, autodidactism, and amateurism, tentatively titled The Poor Reader: Amateur Criticism and Postcolonial Consciousness, is contracted to Bloomsbury.