Book Reviews

Reflected Images

in the Poetry of Rajiv Khandelwal

Rajiv Khandelwal (1957 born) brought out Conch Shells and Cowries (CSAC) a collection of poems in 1998. After a gap of many years, he has come out with another anthology appropriately called 21st Century Love poems: “Love is a lot of work”. (LILOW) It is still at the pre-publication stage. These volumes contain more than one hundred and fifty verses. To go through leisurely these lyrics is a delightful experience, for if one reads quickly, one would fail to notice many finer shades of words and meaning.

The poet is probably in search of meaning of life and the enquiry has a crush in different areas from the material to the spiritual. He seems to enjoy in sensuousness and frankly, it is an effort to find its correct meaning. Word has not only earthly connotation and but it goes beyond. He says:

Go back unaware my love
let what is broken so remain
I will bury the nostalgic moments
(Last Few Words”, Conch Shells and Cowries 3)

In ‘Last Few Words’, a spirit of resignation reigns and “Search and Destroy” (CSAC 4) signals fatal chauvinism bordering on insanity. “Ask Me No More” (CSAC 5) faintly hits at the conscience of people, for coldness governs, and goodness and nobility prove bondages but he laments at the death of a poet. A wretched pecuniary condition of poet disturbs because a poet is not very much respected socially and if it is, it is a big pretense. The poet in Khandelwal understands that vulnerable poet would write about dehumanizing aspect of system and thus, annoy people in power. It is impossible to notice ‘corrective effect’ on ‘the shallow society’ the poet rightly tells.

There are Days
when my arid mind
gropes in the desert
of consciousness
for the mirage of thoughts
(Thoughts of You” Conch Shells and Cowries 8)

Thoughts invade each one but if words do not reach and it ends in futility. The poet is prone to seek relief somewhere in someone unknown and undefined, and there he communicates in images which at times, fail to clearly reveal what the poet wants to say. He says bluntly that thoughts keep spinning and attempt to form a verse but fail as words escape. Strangely or tragically enough, mind is the battlefield, the poet feels and in contemporary life everything happens within and if anything materializes outside, it is the consequence of anarchy reigning supreme within. Here, uncertainty and mental illness form a pattern, and the poet relishes. ‘Choices’ (LILOW 55) talks of insanity persistent in apparent display of wisdom that baffles, and refuses straight definition.

He says, ‘You see/I have a choice/I can stay insane/or play sane/But/You have no choice.’ At this stage, a highly individualistic thought emerges, which allows no scope to grow and stand firm in an effort to humiliate and destroy identity of another man, a chronic disease of a modern man who moves ahead at the cost of killing or annihilating others. One wonders at the quaint search for meaning, thought and philosophy. loss of faith distresses.

Rebuild the bridge
of faith amongst
the people
…just open
some window.
(“Open the Windows” Conch Shells and Cowries48)

…and then just move to ‘Faith’ (CSAC 71) where he is more lucid and authentic when he observes, ‘Even though much is lost/all is not lost/what remains/is the faith of the roots/in spring’s arrival’ and thus, seeds of hopes and belief are sown, a positive attitude after getting out of the deadly pool of mental folly.


Strangeness troubles a man when he fails to reconcile to realities and truths, for life is a movement, replication, recoiling, rejection, withdrawing, and hitting back with a vengeance so that meaning is obvious. If life is thought as ennui or a sort of uniformity, it becomes a burden. One is a stranger when he is cut off from life and living. However, still hopes and dreams enrich life to make it worthwhile when he says: “Each day the petal unfurls a new fold/Each day there is a birth Each day a death/Each day is a mystery Each day a Discovery.” (‘Conch Shells and Cowries’ Strangers 66) A ludicrous fall is obvious when he wants to learn from the life of a whore. Emphasis on ‘Each’ signifies worries. Such thrust and stress frequently conveys poet’s internal feelings and anxieties. Oft repeated words in a single verse structure a technique the poet employs like a shrewd businessperson. Again, there is a hint of merger of soul with the ultimate reality in ‘No More’ (CSAC 67) and ‘One Flower no more’ (CSAC 68). Poet is sparkling and teasing in the use of imagery where he departs from his usual terrain of rambling assault dripping sensuousness aplenty.


Many wanderings lead poet to display anxiety about consciousness of man situated in the vortex of enigmatic modern living. ‘Condolences To A Poet’ (CSAC 6) speaks about ‘the dehumanizing aspects of the system that bugged’ a sensitive heart, for small-minded people do not show grace, and immediately next the poet bemoans ‘Failure’ (CSAC 7) of poet, for society does not value words of wisdom exhibits interest in material consideration. Confusion in abundance makes life difficult, and the poet makes it quite clear, for “…who can guide traveller/who doesn’t as yet know/where he goes” …and later on, the poet is explicit, ‘when nothing/in life/is definitely/definable’ the situation seems pitiable. Today, man is much occupied with love for modern living and its enticing delight and pleasures physical, and finds no end to hunger and thirst. ‘The problem’ looks at a modern man forever without an end. Here, it is virtual death of desires when he says:

The problem is/ You leap/ In and out/ So fast/ You are/ Just beyond grasp/ …The dark joy of chase/ Light as a whisper/ Luminous with fulfillment/ Glows with the stolen illusion/ of those times. (‘Love is a lot of work’ The Problem 47)

Poet is conscious of the ‘footprints of Conscience’ that are ever ‘illusionary’ but despite efforts, freedom remains unrealized. ‘Battle of Independence’ talks of social bondages and suffocating souls refusing to oblige societal dictates. He is worried about motherland and his duties. He recalls days of slavery, colonial injustice and seeming comforts with subtle lures and incentives, and when he reaches period of freedom, he remorsefully sits back and seriously contemplates.

reflecting the abject poverty filth corruption
Casteism, neglect of mass Education,
Derailment of land reforms, holdfast of group of
Colonial bureaucracy
The soul wept tears of despair
But the mind refused to register…
(Dreams of Independence”, Conch Shells and Cowries 38)

Such instances amply demonstrate that the poet is worried about the miseries of free nation where people grapple with various problems that rulers create professing democracy and equality.


Away from the feelings and thoughts of love and passion unbridled, the poet feels about the people and their sufferings and therefore, foreseeable anguish and grief disturb. He understands that people are free, and sovereignty in truth is nowhere and there, an eagerness to attain real liberation is reflected. At this moment, the poet is emotional and ardently speaks of issues facing the country. This thought in slightly different strain reoccurs in ‘Crying’ (CSAC 46) where he talks about the crooked preaching moral values and truth, and here he is terse and cutting. He makes scathing observations on the rulers. Rulers’ conscience remains tainted he feels. Everyone feels pained but none fights against wicked powers -negative powers that guide in the garb of goodness. Irony pierces deeply when he says, ‘when the radio blares/ Saare Jahaan Se Achha Hindustan Hamara.’

He regrets that ‘Politicization of Criminals/ Criminalization of Politics’ has brought miseries where Gandhi’s principles no longer work. The poet is irreverently sardonic when he speaks of culture of this century where mechanical life grants satisfaction, a queer fall out. In ‘When you chose to remain Incommunicado’ (LILOW 99), the poet talks of politics of corruption, terrorism and façade. The poet frequently speaks to ‘you’ –an obliquely known, and yet not very intimate. He is anyone to whom the poet wishes to confide. Such indirect manner of speaking is a switch where the poet reveals inexplicit inner feelings. When he fails to fathom the mystic play of events outside, he often indulges in speaking to an invisible ‘you’ and releases his suppressed feelings and thoughts, hinting at the inscrutable ways of life. He observes:

Each moment of togetherness
sometimes with corruption speed
At times rationally
Timed like Taliban movements
at times, irrationally
Like those of Indian politicians on terror tourism.
(When you chose to remain Incommunicado,” Love is a lot of work 99)

‘Counterfeit Perspectives’ (CSAC 49) reveals hypocrisy of men who exploit women right from the birth of a baby girl, for it is of utmost importance for men to satisfy their animal instincts. If women are not kept in the background, they are likely to cloud visionary perspectives of men, a cynical and injudicious thought of men it is and therefore, the poet peels off dirty layers of men’s psyche. ‘We are closing our shop’ (CSAC 52) is more strident, direct and incisive indictment of society with regard to the status it grants to women. Men are responsible for the commercialization of bodies, values and ethics he feels.

Similar thoughts continue to visit other lyrics one notices where the poet is sharp, raucous and coldly rounded. ‘Creativity’ (CSAC 61) is another severe appraisal of modern creative endeavours that do not create human beings but give birth to money spinning artists, and this is ‘Creativity at its best’. Creativity signals queer indiscipline in noisy concerts organized as if men were lovers of art but these indicate a barefaced display of crazy artistic tastes. Here, meanings are sought in dangerously contradictory situations, and the process continues. ‘It happened again’ rationalizes poet’s living in existential disorder and mayhem where he tries to find logic while validating life and living:

In chaotic ways
And after bouts of sanity
Delighting again
In being knocked down
Bounce it again
Any cold and austere
Spin logic in tangents
Cause chaos
Or create symmetry in contradiction
…madness will seduce sanity tonight/If only in the head.
(“It happened again,” Love is a lot of work 53)

‘Messiah’ (CSAC 63) looks at the duplicitous approach of clever people who often profess that ‘Service to Humanity is the Best Work of Life.’ Modern social workers are crafty and astute:

Did we help the poor in their misery
or they us?
in supporting us in our cause to be socially popular
as the Messiah of the downtrodden.

In a slightly different context, the poet talks of government packages to business houses facing closure or downfall and thus, looks after the interests of the rich while poor work and perspire in a democracy and live in anguish. In ‘A Dream away’ (LILOW 4) he says, ‘While the ranks of the jobless/ keep rising everyday/ I am/ not looking for a job…’ and sorrow of not getting employed properly and then seeks consolation, ‘We can again feel together/ Grieve together/ Hope together.’ It shows determination of the vulnerable poor.


Love and passions dominate Khandelwal’s poetry. ‘An Encounter’ (CSAC 10) is a love poem generating passions within giving freedom to varied experiences in mere imaginings and the encounter turns into a faded resolution when the poet decides to ask in ‘Today’ (CSAC 12) about intents of beloved. A subtlety alerts. Even a smile of a beloved gladdens a besotted heart. It is different in ‘Learning Strategy’ where techniques of business are applied in love. A man wants success in love and marital relations but fails. Emotional and physical relations suffer wintriness and apathy. Unfortunately, in highly mechanized life electronic gadgets, computers and Google guide, and then create interest. Going back to loving warmth remains an idea only where love is just a faint feeling but in reality, it is nothing, (LILOW 5, 6)

In ‘Thirst’ (CSAC 17), he describes unsatisfied feelings of love and passion. A modern man disastrously lives dissatisfied at the physical and emotional level, for he only knows to take, and does not believe in giving love. Acts of charity are useless for him. ‘Why I love you’ (LILOW 25), makes love disgustingly a wheedled and saved in hard-disc activity. Innocence and music of words in ‘Seal of love’ (CSAC 17) startles while ‘Games’ nostalgically recalls moments of joys and pleasure of love innocent in childhood. Sexual imagery dominates and at times, undemanding and relaxed warmth in passions appears scorching, intense and sensuous.

Modern thought is quite apparent with deep sarcasm when noble souls face disgrace while the wicked and the scoundrels get fame and honor. The metaphors of a flower and a thorn justify the thought in ‘A Tiff’ (CSAC 74) for ‘…the thorn/ in the Crown of each/ Indian Social reformer.’ This lyric reveals real faces of social reformers and thus, a life of deceit and hypocrisy pervades the system.


A beloved does not make life easy. ‘When you come into my life’ underlines the thought, for struggles and challenges prick deep. The poet is quite sad about life, as he cannot get out of the minds’ clutches and feels:

The pall bearers carry/ the corpse of my Hopes /and missed opportunities/ life free but dead. (‘Conch Shells and Cowries’ Paradox 76)

Pessimism engulfs, as he has no resolve or spirit to live and fight. In ‘Recession hits love’ (‘Love is a lot of work’ 3) one finds a teasingly shocking lack of warmth where modern rush to live life comfortably –a vicious hope to earn, accumulate and plunder marital relations. Hints of recession obliquely point out at the chilliness in human relations. ‘Nothing much happening/ Except/ She has no time/ Has a lot to finish.’ Relations are just not important, so mechanical and cold are human ties in a highly advanced scientific and technical age. ‘Motorbike’ poems act as a powerful symbol and define limits of love, passion, insanity, craze and obsession for more, and frostiness in relation without caring for the real behind the fascia.

Complexity of human relations defies precise definition as is apparent in ‘Definitions’ (CSAC 75). In ‘Just Hope’ (LILOW 65), another kind of duplicity and dichotomy of human conduct is revealed and the poet is aware of the uncertain behavior of a modern man who cannot be trusted for long. A groping in dark areas of vagueness with loss of sense in words haunts. Poet in Khandelwal observes that ‘You’ an unnamed man (a symbol of each one of us) turns up without any evident obligation or purpose:

Why do you insist /On breaking/ Again and again/ The already broken/ Just hope/ The shattered crystals/ Do not crystallize again/ In fond hopes/ Of your nurturing. Living in fragmented state of mind and physique is like a curse, a modern man carries with him like the legendary Aswathama. A tragedy with a modern man is that he appears tall in a little physical and intellectual frame. The poet appears startling many a time.

Khandelwal makes a good beginning with terrific imagery and startles with the sound and sophistication of words but in passion for newness, melody and rhythm, he indulges in the luxury of language imbued with the spirit of high-speed modernity where words get multiple meanings conveying many hints. Obscurity if teases, also pushes a man to comprehend hidden aspects of life running so fast. If Conch Shells and Cowries contains lyrics of simplicity and beautiful similes, the poems of Love is a lot of work strike hard with novelty of metaphors conveying many meanings in a single lyric and shift the burden to poetry lover standing aghast and bemused undoubtedly.


More by :  P C K Prem

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