In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.
Without the concrete there is no experience, and without the abstract there is no understanding. Frequently conceived as two poles in the creative employment of language, the concrete and the abstract enact a ceaseless tension that is the very soul of the reading experience. It is true of all literary forms – in fiction, sometimes it plays out in the relation between the use of the telescopic and the microscopic lenses. But a compassionate and sensible relation between the concrete and the abstract is the very throbbing heart of certain kinds of verse.
Sarabjeet Garcha’s slim collection, from one of India’s most interesting and wide-ranging poetry publishers, Poetrywala, is a deeply memorable instance of such verse. Lullaby of the Ever Returning is beautifully crafted without the prickly arrogance of craft, vulnerable in its humanity, at once ancient and childlike in its invocation of private and communal memory. It is this voice that, for instance, in the poem “Generosity”, enables the paradox of generosity to shape the energy of enmity:
I could forgive
such a waste
of all those
I took to
Garcha has a poet’s mythical sense of time, even when he is taking a close look at immediate reality. He knows well what it means to feel eternity in an hour; but he also knows the reverse, to see a grain of sand in the whole wide world. Such a mythical, endless sense of time is striking in a poet whose love for sensory experience brings together bread and book:
Elsewhere, hunger shrieks a hallelujah
in ears deafened by slogans
and fingers crave the feel
of unleavened bread
as a bibliophile lusts for the
leaves of an out-of-print book
He is also a very physical poet in another sense: in being deeply, almost subliminally rhythmic, in the sense of possessing a delicious music that you feel, not at the tip of your tongue, but inside it, a live, purring animal trapped within your flesh. Such is the circle of music within which he captures the meaning of Sikhness, the very meaning of family:
One day on the Ahilyabai Holkar Bridge
my brother smashed a mugger’s teeth
with his ridged iron bangle,
one of the solid Ks that encases
a Sikh’s wrist
as if in a guru’s
I would use mine to plant
noon-kindled glares into
my classmates’ bored eyes
Sensory appeal, in the poem, draws its shine from the bloodied richness of history:
was as if the
glint from Guru Gobind’s jewelled
sword had doused Grandad’s backcombed silky hair
Embodying Garcha’s preoccupation with the material and the tactile, the earth is a primal repository of memories. Falling down, in “The Drunkard’s Rituals”, becomes a magical way of dreaming up multiple past lives:
On falling down
he would kiss loose dirt,
taste its texture,
gulp its grammar so that,
by the time his legs could
give him back his dignity,
he would have hush-hush
chronicles of lost civilisations
swirl in the solitude
of his mouth.
The haunting epigraph to the collection, the lines by Alicia Ostriker, have a strange relevance to India today: “Some claim the origin of song was a war cry/some say it was a rhyme/telling the farmers when to plant and reap/don’t they know the first song was a lullaby/pulled from a mother’s sleep”. These words, unleashing Garcha’s sensory rendering of historical memory, resonate with the war cry the Indian farmers, many of them Sikh, have raised against the escalating neoliberal machinations of a vindictive and intolerant national government. Garcha’s English poetry is indigenous in multiple senses of the term, the way it touches soil, bread, and memory. Such poetry, while easily lost in the noisy bustle of mainstream English-language publishing in India, nevertheless draws attention to the vital work done by Hemant and Smruti Divate’s bold and experimental small press, Paperwall, and its poetry imprint, Poetrywala in leavening the landscape of Indian poetry since 2003.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels: 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 general nonfiction book on higher education, College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). His new novel, The Middle Finger, will be published in fall 2021.