Letter to an Imaginary Pen Friend and Other Poems by Kumarendra Mallick
Sampark, India; 2009 (Rs 295); ISBN 978-81-7768-031-7
The publication of Kumarendra Mallick’s debut collection of poems deserves attention. A scientist by training and occupation, he has been recognised for his seminal research into electromagnetic methods in the exploration of minerals and groundwater; he received the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in 1986. After his retirement in 2001 from the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad, where he continues to work as an Emeritus Scientist, Mallick turned his talent to poetry. He first posted his poems in Muse India, the literary, online publication, in April 2007. In 2009, his debut collection was published. One of his poems, “Obama’s Day…” celebrates the swearing-in of the 44th President of America on 20 Jan 2009.
Letter To An Imaginary Pen Friend And Other Poems is a generous collection containing seventy three poems, which have been organised thematically: “Spiritual and Philosophical,” “Romance and Love,” “Nostalgia,” “Nature,” “War and peace,” “History and Politics,” and “Themes Never End.” Mallick explores the big issues in life, his scientific mind harnessed to the cause of poetry. A poet at heart, his language is simple and direct:
“The day ends,
The homing feet of the cattle
Spiral the dust.
The homecoming birds
Pull evening over the sky,
Just as kids in a haste
Cover the cricket pitch
Seconds before the shower.” (The Unseen Painter)
His poems are deeply spiritual; they work best when he finds words and images that are simple, concrete, secular capturing the essence of his personal faith.
It is no coincidence the collection begins and ends with poems about the nature of divinity and our purpose in life. In the first poem, “… to a new shore,” he begins with:
“In life’s coastless ocean
I am a lone sailor
On the way to the island of my soul
Leaving behind the known shore.”
The word God is never mentioned; nor are we told it is a poem about life’s journey, the journey of the soul to its home, a concept familiar to most religions traditions. He writes of viewing
Through time’s ever changing window.
Crossing tide and ebb,
Wave after Wave
I go sailing to a new shore,
Know not how far though.” (…to a new shore)
In the last poem, “Who has seen the God?” Mallick is more specific about the nature of God; he takes Christina Georgina Rossetti’s poem, “Who Has Seen the Wind,” and creates his own poem imitating her.
“Who has seen the God?
Neither you nor I:
But when a man in rags smiles
God is somewhere nearby.”
The last stanza of this four stanza poem is:
“Who has seen the God?
Neither I nor you:
But when a soldier falls in war
God picks up, never checking which faith he belonged to.”
Though rooted in the Indian tradition, his humane imagination consistently shines through his work.
In “War and Peace,” he spells out the malaise of our times when peace is
“a state of immobility,
is a sign of stagnation.
So, we are at war
in a state of uninterrupted motion:
political war is democratization,
and economic war is globalization.”
His sensitivity to contemporary issues is illustrated in poems like “In Defence of Lord Rama,” where he writes in the introduction to the poem that the dark spot in the Ramayana is the ordeal Goddess Sita had to go through the test of fire after Rama won the war.
“Is it a dominance of man over woman?
Is it the tall ego of man always to doubt woman?”
Mallick asks rhetorically. And his answer is not that Sita is flawed in any way; on the contrary,
“the flame test
Is for the mortals,
Who find spots even in heavenly moon
And in source of life – the sparkling sun.”
His social consciousness is expressed in poems like “Hyderabad bleeds…” where he condemns the “mindless act,” whereby men forget their shared humanity, “the faces, once so well known.”
In “An Imaginary Letter to a Pen friend,” from which poem the collection derives its title, he writes prophetically:
“War is a funeral fire
it will perish man, and
his lovely creation;
it will devour his love, honour and value,
devalue rupee, sterling, dollar, euro
and every other thing.
The war between haves and have-nots
requires no nuts and bolts
to close, but just a bit of love and trust,
that shall never rust.”
Even before the book appeared, nemesis struck – the western world was indeed humbled thanks to the greed, stupidity of its bankers and the lack of leadership among its politicians. In “Farewell to Arms,” he addresses the new generation hoping they will not make the same mistakes:
“Your soft, supple shoulder
shall grow stronger and stronger,
and be shapely tomorrow.
Let it not bear the burden of the gun,
but, instead, the globe, as did Atlas …”
Mallick conveys a burning awareness of the world, the need to see the entire universe as our home. In “Alphabets”, he asks:
“Can one chart the course
the eagle takes in the sky?
Or, the path a blue whale
traces in the bay?
Likewise can one arrange,
rearrange the alphabets of thought
that crystallize in the heart of a saint?
The syntax of love may not pause,
May not stop to sprout in a foe’s heart.”
Here is his vision of ‘Love Conquers All,’ or ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’, pointing the reader to the power of love, compassion, and the interconnectedness of the universe. In “How Shall I Define Love?” he plays with consummate skill, reminding us of the Metaphysical poets, about the nature of love and our inability to define it – a bit like our inability to define God. All one can say is it is not this, it is not that. Love “qualifies the whole of life and soul,” like God, like Poetry.
His transcendent yet passionately human vision comes across in his poems. In “Neither you nor I” he writes:
“Neither you shall succeed
to make me forget
nor shall I fail to retain
on my lips your sweet name,
even if you throw me
in the desolate desert of Sahara,
in cold Arctic or Antarctic,
on a lonesome island in the Pacific
or on an iceberg in the Atlantic.”
The poem sustains its momentum and diction till the end. As the poem appears in the section “Spiritual and Philosophical,” we know he is referring to Divine love. The poem could equally have been depicting a human, mortal, romantic love. In “I shall wait…” he writes in a similar act of supplication, awaiting Grace.
Lonesome in the harbour
I shall wait,
I shall wait for many a sunrise
and many a sunset
for you to step into my little boat
and hold the rudder…”
Even in a highly sensuous poem like “Bathroom Mirror,” erotically charged, he writes:
And still as a shrine,
You have, oh mirror!
Installed within you a deity beauty,
A priceless treasure you treasure;
When I wipe away the mist
And clean your surface up,
I see her not,
You keep all her secrets – ”
This sense of the individual self spilling out to embrace another, albeit the universal Self, reminds us of the mystic poets – be they the mystic and Romantic poets in Europe, the Transcendental poets in America or the Sufi poets in Islam. The Bhakti tradition in Hinduism is familiar to Mallick. His family background and education equipped him to be steeped in the richness of such a tradition. He draws freely from Indian myths and legends. In fact, it would be impossible to understand his work without an appreciation of what can be referred to loosely as Indian thought. Yet his poetry is never religious.
The poems would have benefitted from better editing; there are several typos and a few archaic expressions. However, there is a body of work that reflects the many strands that go into the making of Mallick’s world. He has absorbed myriad influences and integrated them into his personal vision. Mallick’s poetry is a felicitous confluence of a refined poetic sensibility, a scientific imagination, and the mystical transcendence of ancient Indian thought. His images drawn from fields as diverse as nuclear physics, politics, history, cricket, nature and experiences rooted in his personal life reflect the measure of his considerable poetic achievement.