Book Reviews

Words Not Spoken by Vinita Agarwal

Words not Spoken by Vinita Agarwal
Published by Gayatri Mazumdar
As a Brown Critique- SAMPARK book 2013
ISBN 978-81-926842-2-2 PRICE-Rs 125
Contemporary Indian Poetry in English

As I read the title of the anthology- Words not Spoken, My curiosity was aroused, simply, because creative writing is primarily for self expression and communication. The minimum equipment one needs is words, flight of imagination and courage to go on board, to create magic.   Nevertheless, as all creative writers have stressed, one can’t toss words around and be expansive and extravagant. In the preface, the poet shares

‘They say that life is all about notching extraordinary moments in ordinary days. A life spent in collecting such moments is life worth lived’.

With these lines of deep insight into life, I embark on a journey into Vinita’s world. Larkin always insisted that we speak of poems rather than of poetry. It is an art of particulars, and each poem deserves separate saying and savouring.  As I turned the pages, and engaged with the poems, I realized that what Larkin said is very true of Vinita’s poetry.

 She is steeped in Buddhist philosophy and importance of mindful less of speech. You are drawn to Vinita’s world because she dares to explore the cause of human suffering and sense of disillusionment through deep introspection.  . The poet compels one to ponder on these lines by Osho- ‘Truth is an experience, not a belief. Truth never comes by studying about it; truth has to be encountered, truth has to be faced’. To this I would like to add, it requires tremendous courage and strong spiritual bones.

The anthology captures the wild, unbridled velocity of change in society and values that impact our environment .The rate of change has been so rapid, that it has become difficult to process it; one feels displaced, disconnected and alienated.

Her poems are wonderfully open, democratic spaces, inviting the reader gently in, into her world. Once we accept the invitation, we are stunned as she opens herself up.  They are disturbing, compelling on looking within, leaving no scope for living in denial.
The essence of Vinita’s poetry is uncommonness of the sense it makes.  On first reading, you know here’s a poet with something vital to share. You read once, and you are drawn to read again slowly, lingering over rise and fall of cadences, the arrangement, line breaks, choice and play on words. It’s sheer delight to read turn of phrases, play on carefully chosen words. She has an extensive vocabulary, understands how to employ them to get the best out of them.

She writes about subjects she cares about intensely, and wants her readers to care about too. It is this genuine caring that lifts her poetry from ordinary. This by itself is the most seductive element in her style.

In the poem titled - Hangman, she opens with the following lines:

Is my destruction but it might also save me
Might save me if I hunt this hunger out before the hangman arrives

Here Vinita spells out what compels her to write poetry, although there were other outlets for creativity.  The process of writing for her is like intentionally dismembering oneself in the hope of reassembling oneself. 
In the opening poem - Oolong, Orange Pekoe or Darjeeling

The tender tea is born with a name
Oolong, Orange Pekoe or Darjeeling
Born with manners / and groomed for the crush, tear, curl),

If you read this line, it makes you smile for reasons which need not be elaborated at all.

After a day’s work
The slant eyed maidens empty their baskets of flushes
Untie the cords from their heads and backs
Grab their hungry babes
Allow them to suckle.
They cower from alcoholic husbands
Wither for a price
Groomed too, for the crush, tear, curl.

In this outstanding poem, the poet touches on gender issues, class differences, Buddhist thought of inter being. Vinita, with great dexterity, plays on the words - crush, tear and curl. The poem secret spot is a monologue, where the poet is revisiting her childhood, missing her friend Bela, their escapades, simple games which gave immense joy, made lasting memories. She captures the innocence and mischievousness in these lines:

Once, you ate an Alfonso there
And held the big, fibrous, kidney- shaped seed aloft
We giggled because it looked like a clowns chin
We buried the great seed like a treasure, returned to it thrice
A day
The mango tree has finally made it.
It stands tall. A guardian of old memories.
But without your laughter it seems lonely.

In closing lines

I look at scores of other trees all around and know
That they will outlive us by far.

Every reader can connect to the poem-childhood pranks, love, bonds, separation, longing and aborted life spans. In the poem, The Logo of Being

I am born each morning
Midwiving  an awakening is not easy
The gallnuts of karma protrude from every angle
When will my slate be clean?
The answer spins out of grasp each time it is sought
Leaving behind more emptiness

I read the line over and over again - Midwiving an awakening is not easy, for sheer usage of the words with such startling dexterity. This poem reminds me of Victor Frankyl’s –‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ where he talks of Logo Therapy.

The awakening of consciousness is not like crossing a frontier, not like religious conversion, it is long and tedious, different for every person. It is becoming conscious – a deliberate, rigorous reconstruction of self. She speaks of her experience as a woman, not confessional strategies that would individuate her, but comradely strategies which can open doors for her readers, enabling them   to connect with their deepest self, explore why they feel the way they do. She shares her reality as perceived by her. To speak the truth in poetry there have be words, images, courage and conviction to use them.

All living creatures suffer in one or the other way, it takes dignity and intelligence to overcome this suffering. In fact she takes up almost all the issues that are of vital importance; need to be addressed in 21st century, so we can leave a world where our grandchildren can thrive.

The title poem - Words not spoken - is filled with melancholy, a feeling of emptiness and a sense of guilt and regret over words not spoken while her mother was alive.  She spreads herself in words, like a consummate artist, who  dips the brush in his palette, applies colours on the canvas ,   with careful brush strokes.

Brokenness stood on the spindly legs of a
Yawning regret of words not spoken
Scabrous conscience aches
For the words not spoken

In the poem Consecration, Vinita almost makes one choke on reading these lines

They consecrate the Buddha statue
To bring it alive
Fill it with sacred scrolls
Something within is dark and empty
Like a hollow statue-
Glossy outside, unfinished inside.
Winds do not stir it, storms do not move it
Yet it shatters to smithereens
By a lightweight butterfly kiss
And just the hint of simply simple love.

Vinita effortlessly moves from outer world to inner world. A Musician Son,  here the poet talks of a mother’s instincts, natural pride in her child’s unique talents, growing up, watching from sidelines, an eye for small details, passage of time, role reversal, gentle advice, speaking up when vital to protect the child from disappointment, above all the importance of patience.

a feathery cloud can slash a mountain half
Never stop trying
Between one chord and the next
In a pause as small as the smallest visible star
I think you hear

Vinita speaks to her budding musician, in a language he can understand.
The poem – The image and the   Form once again captures her disillusionment and emptiness.

I switch off the television
Turn off the lights, get into bed
Ready once again
For the scornful play of distance.
I am in pieces in the morning
A smashed mirror glinting with images
The images I love… the form I abhor

Here in this poem with remarkable restraint she shares how we cling to images and mental formations.  In the poem ‘ Ancient Traumas’ she explores the lives of women in rural and urban settings. One accepts the tyranny of man as her destiny stoically; other just feels overwhelmed and frustrated

I the quintessential “urban, thinking woman”,
Feel my wave of empathy splintering into frustration
On the heavy boulders of ancient syncreticism.
Under its shadow every dawn is grey…

In the poem – Tonight she boldly shares her frustration and her rage spills over in words.

Tonight, I shall invite your embrace
Because even I want to know
What it’s like to spend a purely physical night

This poem brings to my mind the haunting lines of the Greek Dramatist Menander, ‘Woman is a pain that never goes away’.
In Textile Homeland, she captures the pathetic state of our country, fractured society, and longs for peaceful coexistence and harmony.

Ah, let India’s real colours shine, not these shades of grey!

In the poem chained sparrows, Vinita very poignantly questions her mother

Mother do you want me to be like those little birds
Who roam closed alleys and speak borrowed words?
Let me speak to you of locks whose keys I have found
Of mystical answers revealed if only one looked around
True happiness lies in being free
Not in being chained to the breast.

Here, in this poem, Vinita sends a message out. 

I the quintessential “urban, thinking woman”,

This line stands out in the entire collection and raises many uncomfortable questions. It’s an invitation to her readers to go down the civilizations, study the travails of women, and explore how they can scoop out what’s best for them.

Vinita’s first anthology of poem is a compelling and engaging work. It presents her journey as a woman, humane and compassionate.  Her poetry has universal appeal, and her readers worldwide can take away something vital to help them figure out how to live life on their terms, without being apologetic about it. With this impressive work, she is likely to make a place for herself amongst Contemporary Indian poets writing in English.  In spite of the fact that her choice of themes is grim, it’s her mastery over the language which stuns and makes one smile. She has found the keys to the door of her happiness, having done that I personally believe there’s no turning back, no bailing out. Something deep inside you won’t let you.  You have to keep going; take the next step… and the next… and the next, until you begin to feel at home in the world.  As I close the book these lines from   Simone de Beauvoir  best known book - ‘Second Sex’ - comes to my mind;  that women who have finally begun to feel at home on the earth like Rosa Luxemburg and Marie Curie “brilliantly demonstrate that it is not women’s inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority.

Somehow I found echoes of these lines in Vinita’s work. Readers are certainly going to look forward to her next anthology of poems with much anticipation.


More by :  Mamta Agarwal

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