There are Indian English poets who write well but, for several reasons do not publish their work extensively. The published output may be limited but the effort and accomplishment of many does not always get the attention it deserves. Chandramoni Narayanaswamy deserves both attention and acclaim for many reasons. Numero uno, she is very imaginative and very large-hearted, compassionate and merited. Secondly she is highly educated and worked in the high echelons of both administration and judicature. Poets like her do not rush into print till something happens to sprout the poetic imagination and enthuse them to express themselves if only sporadically. It is a matter of personality that makes one to rush to print or wait long for emotions and feelings to crystallize. Women usually do not express feelings and emotions in print as men do. That is reason for the comparative paucity of Indian English poetry by women.
In her Unseen Abode and other poems Chandramoni Narayanaswamy has made statements in her Confession at the beginning of the volume which can be taken as her profession about her thinking and action: ‘I have always regarded poetry as the language of silent sufferings, the angst of one’s heart bursting out with or without words. … If poetry can express itself without sadness it cannot exist without mysticism: that tenuous bond between the creation and the creator which can be felt but not seen: which is distinct as the rainbow but equally illusive to the touch. That is the force which inspired me to compose these poems. Added to this is the depth of my own experiences over the years of my existence, my little joys and larger sorrows, my desires and delusions and above all my quest to know about my surrenders and myself. The poems anthologized reflect my inner being.’ (The emphasis here and elsewhere in the poems quoted is mine.)
The poet’s practice can be considered in the light of her assertions and asseverations which she called confession in all humility. They are expressions of her innermost ways of thinking from which their expression has sprung. The title of the first poem The Unseen Abode is the place of stay or residence. The abode is her innermost heart. There is deep sorrow. This attitude Milton called is Il Penseroso the companion poem to his L’Allegro. It is a set of two attitudes which can go together, of course for him in his early state.) This poet now being studied is pensive and melancholic. Without rancour, this basic stance is one of deep sadness:
Tears swelling drop by drop,
sorrow laid layer upon layer
by dumb sufferings not all my own,
but witnessed by eyes
too proud to weep
and stored in memory
too strong to forge.
She describes this as a perennial hot spring, unseen, unknown, and unfathomable wherein the poet in her lives. This is a clue to her feeling in many of the poems. This is a condition in which the poet looks out, looks within and looks intensively. This is the poet’s basic imaginative stance. This is evident in The Prick of the Golden Needle too.
The pain is intense
the hurt intolerable
yet there would be no complaint
Or severing of ties
It is the loved one
who caused the hurt and pain.
There is only one who is called the loved one – God. God is loved deeply and intensely and He is known to be the cause. The speaker is large-hearted and wise with forbearance, the quality of the soft-thinking and the devout. Ratiocination is part of devotion in some. A Bagful of Coppers has this conclusion:
For the sovereign I could have bought
a year of unalloyed bliss
a life of heaven on earth
but He ordained otherwise.
God has the constancy of the never-failing lover. The one who knows this knows the end to the feeling of despair. Pain leads only to joy. Suffering softens and ennobles. This faith and absolute trust is expressed in the poem The Never-failing Lover:
At last when life seems worthless
and pain and suffering seem endless
my voice will be hears and it will be bliss.
The Bloody Foot-Prints expresses the same conviction:
I felt no pain while climbing
There is blood
on the foot-prints now.
Why then this horror
and the heart-twisting pain
in retrospect and recollection?
This is how the poet has the mental ballast of faith.
Good-bye to Heaven is a decision to do something meaningful, some work or service. All play and makes manas, the heart-mind, dull and dissatisfied. For work heaven is not the place:
It is all peace here
no sorrow, no sin
no death and no work.
I can do no good here
for I cannot work,
all I do is sing His praises
whose mercy brought me here
And then there is a prayer too to restore her to her mother at the end of the poem:
Be merciful, kind Father
I long for my mother’s lap
She beckons me with fondness.
Restore me to her
for that is where I belong.
The poem On His Sixtieth Birthday is a song in prayer and also a remembrance. The “He’ is mercurial and saintly but never at peace. The speaker does not obey her earthly lord and turns her face away from duty. The speaker does no wrong and prays:
Forgive my error, if so it was
and keep him safe.
The First and Only Love is a highly pensive poem, all introspective. The images of tear, oyster and pearl are all evocative when the speaker says:
I can break the oyster open
and hold the pearl in my hand
Taking it for it is
The ballast of my soul
on the voyage to eternity
Is the salagram to be worshipped
every day and remembered
in the last breath.
You is a lovely little poem just in three into three – nine lines about the vanished ‘You”. Memories sweet and memories which have been soul-satisfying of this ‘You’ sustained the speaker coming flying down the times:
When you first thought of
you were the hidden treasure
to be searched and unearthed
…. …. …
When you vanished
you were the sweeet dream
wiped out by wakefulness.
The poem Heritage is a memory of the parents, father and mother. Her father is a bibliophile, a scholar, a lover of poetry and music.
But more precious than all these
and priceless beyond words,
the heritage which I treasure most
is your better half
whom you bequeathed to my care
when I was still in the cradle.
It is worth noting that the poet has dedicated this, her first collection, to her grandmother and the later, the second, to her mother. This reveals apart many other things, the close blood bond down the generations. After all memories and our love and understanding of our forefathers are always energizing, promoting kindness and compassion. The long poem Abhimanyu is not about the character from the Mahabharata but about the ambitious modern man. Abhimanyu was courageous, proud, ambitious and blessed. So is the modern man with his emotions and achievements. When physicians advised the Abhimanyu of this poem to ignore the cardiac murmurs, the palmists had a different prescription. When the surgery was done he went into a deep slumber and he felt no pain but never woke up.
Now shorn of my unsatiated ego
and my mortal coil
sprawled on the hospital blood,
I survey the same hovering around
for I know not where to go.
The important point is that modern man hardly tries to know where one would go after the loss of his breathing life and that the ego knows no satiation.
Like all of us and even more, our children love and admire the rainbow. The poet is a kid with her love of nature, birds, flowers, and most importantly the rainbow. The poem Rainbow in the Hand is the song of a wondrous existence. The little child while the mother is serving her the meal is washing her hands. Seeing the rainbow and wondering at the thought that the rainbow is the atom, the universe, the star and the galaxy, all rolled into one. With he mother’s loud call with loving care, the bubble is washed away.
It was neither the rainbow
not the universe
but a little soap and water
that was in I my hand.
Small is beautiful and the shorter and stronger the image, the more exhilarating it would be remaining longer in the imagination loving people.
Take All My Honey but Not My Fragrance is a poem of praise as well as a prayer for something never to be taken away.
Bees, birds, butterflies,
throng to me in hoards
to drink the honey.
… … …
So try not to take my fragrance
It is he essence of my very being
Inseparable from me.
The poet is an ardent devotee of Durga. Considered by all of us Ma, Mother, She is the speaker of the poem teaching us all, all that is to be learnt, practiced and performed. She thirsts not for blood as is pained when dumb animals are beheaded:
Had you sacrificed the evil in you
you would have offered
real pooja to me
and I would have showered
my blessing on you.
But you choose to rouse my wrath
by taking an innocent life.
The poet is full of compassion for the hungry and the downtrodden. People eating just leaves and tuber to keep them alive make her heart throb with anguish. Speaks a Face I Saw in Kalahandi is a powerful poem. Even democracy with people’s representatives in power could not do much except raising their hopes and hunger. Here is the heart throb:
I mind not the hunger
I have learned to love with them
I would not have felt
sorry for myself
if with empty promises,
You had not raised my hopes
Only to dash them to the dust.
The poems on poverty reveal the sensibility of the poet to feel deep compassion and empathy for the hungry, penury ridden men and for women ill-treated also. A Rickshaw Puller Looks Back is a long poem. After he suffers a bone-breaking accident, his son becomes a rickshaw puller:
I too had watched it
invisible from another plane,
the brand new rickshaw
drew me along to my hut
as my son took it there.
The Rag-Picker Laughs Last is another heart-breaking poem. The man has the last laugh when the bottles he collects, washed, find their way to the stores and to the kitchens of houses. The Children of Shivakashi are kids thrown into the less paid labour of makings of fireworks at the risk of their lives. A child tells us:
I have burnt many hands
many a time
playing with fir
e to make fireworks
and no doctor came
to treat me.
There is a story poem Equal and Unequal, of two boys, Ram and Shyam, the poor one and the rich one, both rendered poor after a cyclone washed all:
To one and all the cyclone was
God’s wrath and terrible curse
…. …. …
And the blessed leveller
That had finally made
All unequals equals
Within the span of hours.
Spring is a poem of joy after poems like The Roaring Sky, Rain, Monsoon which convey sadness and sorrow. Spring is described as intoxication for the young, comfort for the old and pleasure for all. The poet honours the Drooping Deodar as the ascetic of the forest:
Majestic and tall
with single-minded devotion.
Towards the end of the collection there are four poems about the sad lot of women like devadasis, unfortunate ones widowed early and humiliated for the rest of life. The truth is said in the poem It is a Man’s World. Widowed women’s plight is shown with great compassion in the poem Alakshmi. For no fault of hers she is ill-treated life long. The martyr is honoured and sung but his wife meaningfully called Sukanya is driven to drown herself is brought home not draped in the tricolour as her husband was but differently.
but in her own sari
dripping muddy water
A single lotus floating in the pond
Where she found her last refuge.
Aparajita is about a little girl deceived, duped and molested but she behaves like an ideal, loving woman with the heart in the right place:
Yet you picked up
a little love child
left on the road to die
and reared her with loving care
you work and live
and care and give
and also love.
The poem The Best is Yet to Be is about the first born in the third millennium, year 2001 when things looked up for some, the blind can see, the deaf can hear and people may live longer. Science has done great things to make life merry and fast but destruction is approaching fast with growing distrust and mindless enmity:
If man can break that chain
Of two thousand beads
Black and white, pure and poisonous
Gather only what is pure and precious
Discarding all the rest
Then time would rejoice forever.
And hope would smile and say
The best is yet to be.
The collection contains powerful and memorable poems since the unseen abode describes all the vicissitudes in the human life with a thinking mind and a feeling heart with empathy and compassion.
Sunflower and other nature poems is the second collection of twenty-five sweet poems, sweet because they stem from love and affection, two concepts sweet in and by themselves. By way of an introduction in A Flashback the poet wrote: “Nature has always been a book to me; sometimes a picture book to be gazed at in sheer pleasure; at other times as the mood turned pensive or thoughtful, a book of philosophy to comprehend which a century is not enough. …I started reading that book as a child sitting on the eastern verandah of our house in the evening and spent hours trying to decode mysteries. … No book gave me the same thrill as sky-gazing in monsoon with the moon and the stars buried under the clouds. Given the chance I would indulge in that pastime even now …’
The child like quality of being imaginative and contemplative with a deep love of nature is evident in the poet’s poems in the second collection. Love wins all: love is the ambrosia that sustains the universe. Love of Nature is closely related to Love of God. Pantheism is theism basically and nature love is nature worship. Sanatana Dharma, which came to be known as aarsha dharma and later as Hinduism (the words are used more by the aliens than by us) has this supreme pantheistic attitude. The Hindu pantheon is drawn largely from Nature. The panchabhootas are aspects of the Supreme as well as Nature, the manifestation of the Supreme Being.
The very first poem Sunflower reveals the poet’s childlike outspoken feeling:
I yearn turn and burn
Ever since I was born
Only to be spurned at every turn.
Why did He create
And ordain me to exist
As helplessness incarnate?
Nature is God and God is nature. The poet with the milk of human kindness and compassion in her is a child, always pensive, thoughtful and loving, loving both nature and god. For her everything in nature is lovely and everything of Him and about Him is lovely and everything is a blessing devoutly to be wished. Green seeds, laughing waterfall, the river and the stone are all the titles of her poems and also the manifestations of god for her. The cactus and poppy are equally lovable by the one who knows love. Flowers and books of verses are equally fascinating. The Gold Beyond Reach reveals her lover of the yellow flower:
I take it home to capture the scent
Between the leaves of a book of verses
For whatever was once gold
Is forever precious.
Many of the poems read like fables and most reveal the poet’s earnestness in observation and analysis leading to valid, impressive conclusions. We live in an age of decadence in all walks of life: even Nature has come to be helpless. But the poet, though melancholic, does not lose faith. She has faith in goodness. A strong streak of devotion runs in all her poems.
The recurrent themes are very easy to identify tree, leaf, flower, thorn, champa, bird, a crow, sunflower, lotus, seed, pool, to cite a few, all nature-related. Most of these could be treated as the favourite symbols/metaphors of the poet. Salagram, bilva patra etc are brought in artistically and convincingly to buttress her themes and expression. There is moralizing that is soothing, reassuring and good intentioned. Here is a poem about a pool, The Lone Sentinel, which is a fine poetic word picture oozing sweet romanticism:
A pair of shadows hand in hand
Emerge by the pool-side to enact
The bliss of stolen moments
With whispered talk, backward glances,
Waxen touches and lingering kisses,
The water lily smiles a benign smile
Shakes its head and reminds itself
“I must be mindful of their heedlessness.”
Another poem which sounds intimately personal is ‘The Prying Poppy’ ending with:
So also a lone romance
Vibrant but short-lived
Enlivening for a spell too brief
A life of derived happiness
Is ever cherished in remembrance
Fresh in the archives of memory
May his soul be blessed with peace.
‘The Queen of Many Hearts’ is about a flower, the lotus again. (There is an unusual mistake in the poem - ‘imageries’) This could be set right in the next edition. The concluding lines of the poem read like devotional poetry:
When the heart embedded in coarse flesh
Expands and rises high like the lotus
That too will reach out to Him above
And reign over many other hearts.
‘The Garden Queen’ is also about a flower reminding us of Torulata Dutt’s poem Lotus. Here three flowers vie for supremacy, the Dahlia, the Gladiolus and the Chrysanthemum for their respective traits, size, multi-colour and the colour of gold. The poet’s imagination is as dainty as that of all the flowers;
At last the jurors came
… …. …
And spotting the silent red rose, kissing it with tenderness they hummed in unison:
‘Our own darling Rose
The daughter of the soil
Fragrant and full of honey
You alone can be the Queen’;
… … … ..
And then chirped the verdict
‘None but the Rose He has endowed
With beauty, scent and modesty
Is fit to be the Garden Queen.
Narayanaswamy Chandramoni, The Unseen Abode and other poems, Har-Anand, New Delhi, 2003