Book Reviews

A Slow Train to Gwalior - review

A Slow Train to Gwalior is a collection of love poems and drawings by Amitabh Mitra. The book opens with lines from Pritish Nandy’s Lonesong Street -

What happens when the letters stop
The empty mailbox stares at you
What happens when you drive alone
The tired highway leers at you ...

The poet peacefully dwells in the angst-ridden reality and brings out the joy and beauty of living with his outstanding sense of aesthetics and his robust sense of hope. For me they are belle-letters and are vibrant depictions of moments lived in despair, surmounted with the conviction of achieving an unsurpassed love, which he searches in the nooks and crannies of everyday existence, his Gwalior.
For me his poetry is pure delight and the reason is because he doesn’t hide his quest for love with clichéd jargons ... he just lets his words flow with his heart and he allows them to ‘travel all the way over a thought on a flutter of an eye...’
He watches his ‘Gwalior’ with ageless eyes and it comes galloping ... slowing down at nostalgic lanes, by-lanes; taking lazy turns by the forts, wheat-fields, bazaars; stopping by at every familiar frame ‘searching for the hidden rain’....
This “Slow Train to Gwalior” is like Gwalior itself, a symbol of easeful life fleeting past a string of exteriors each of whose inside is an independent world loosely hanging like clusters of dreams. Dr. Amitabh Mitra has strewn them with painless words.

These are belle-letters, love-poems or love-songs whatever one may call them and could easily be sang with the accompaniment of a harp or a tambourine ... they are lyrical ballads telling tales of eternal life, love and nature with an immensely contemporary idiom ...

‘a single drop of rain on
your eyelid
that fell through time
letting you know of
the quiver in my

The illustrations are equally poetic. The colors as well as the form evolve a dreamlike open-ended-ness, inspiring in a multi-layered thematic movement within an apparently simplistic style. The bold innocent lines journey towards a destination that is farfetched yet real ... these opposing strains lend to the paintings that essential poetic fervor, which is most needed in order to constantly match the realistic-nostalgia of these poems.

Dr. Mitra has definitely succeeded in vanishing the thin line between poetry and painting. As we journey in the slow train through the painted tracks and gray sky towards a destination that signifies hope, fulfillment and everything that is ‘Gwalior’ we realize that we have merged with the mental colors and the visual abstractions ...

‘i always believed in this train
that stole our thoughts
and traded them with

There is an easeful passage of colors and contours of a smoking engine passing through austere thoughts into the innermost caverns of human consciousness and coming out through the dark tunnels into the surface of expressions where the poet becomes the painter with words dwelling on the realm of magical realism...

‘and I wondered only if
the train had such windows
where the sky would creep in
and flood us
the desert outside would never be the same’

The most charming aspect of the book is the consistency of the theme that runs smoothly throughout the book, right from the beginning to the end. We are led into the path of a quest for Love. As we journey with the poet on his slow train, we become part of all those fragmentary moments with the poet himself and along with him we ‘grasp the few grains of the storm outside...’

The solitary rickshaw waiting for someone unknown is a recurring image that takes us back to the sepia colored past and so are the ‘trees that run with us’ along the miles we travel together with desperate thoughts of love and togetherness waiting for a ‘promised rain’. History leaps out from the forts and caves with

‘... hordes of Maratha worriers
cascading behind a broken window
hunting relentlessly
for stolen

As the scene changes to the ‘wintry old Delhi’ it brings back in mind those years gone by, riding steadily on an old-fashioned rickshaw and the glimpses of the fleeting past freeze on ink and paper with Amitabh’s detailed nuances of a time lived in quest for the intangible ...

‘... haunted
i see you turn around
catching the freeze
in your grip
as the rickshaw
catches another lane
another city
in wintry
old Delhi’

While he watches his timeless love gliding picturesquely through history’s eternal flow, he is also aware of the movement of time and the dimensions it curves within the mortal seasons....

‘your garara emblazoned
with fire drops on a street of Gwalior
i found you treading nimbly
on an afterthought of swept empires
in the reign of a mortal season ...’

The whitewashed mosques, chador, durgah appear as recurring images in a way that is most fanciful as well as historic ....

‘loving was a
sweeping feel
of the chador
of the unspoken
of the durgah that

Time moves on as the engine crawls from one scene to the other and Amitabh’s reverie takes a pensive turn as he ruminates upon the calligraphic inscriptions on minarets and tombs, which seem to mourn the lost glory of the bygone days ...
Nostalgia sweeps him off as he recalls the kite-covered sky ... now no more the same...

‘a kite, its paper melted away
hangs on the parapet’

The narrative shifts to an evening that ‘had grown from many a summers’ and the poet hears ‘a voice invisible had crept on to the marble of shades tiled in fervor ...’ he also recalls an instinctive evening when ...

‘...There would be an evening
I would hold my cheeks
On the cold metal’

The most fascinating aspect of Amitabh’s poetry is his narrative is deeply touching. In all his works he weaves a narrative that jumps chronological barriers and to some extent the geographical barriers too.... so much so that there is always an uninhibited flow of images throughout.

‘qawallis pour in under the door
the durgah splashes its
midnight loudspeakers...


‘nizamuddin reeks of a dust filled stare
in a July Delhi
where you once stopped suddenly
and asked me of
ruins, ravens and our love
that might rest there
one day’

These images speak volumes about Amitabh’s understanding of the universality of history ... anywhere, everywhere ...

Just to refer to another poem from another collection of Amitabh’s works ... the lines below do not restrict themselves to Mdantsane only, these children could be from any nation battling for a square meal ...

‘mdantsane children take to the streets
happiness is as hungry
a barren sky chides of dreams
the sun looks down
dishevelled laughter
(from Mdantsane)

...... the poem below is another example of Amitabh Mitra’s unique narrative style...

‘nobody knew
who stabbed him at his back
he came to the hospital
with a knife protruding
the mdantsane sky was lashed in two
its anger held the knife
while it rained outside
in shame
as usual.’
(from Mdantsane)

In the current collection ‘A Slow Train to Gwalior’ the poet is always positively conscious about the presence of absence. The entire charm is about capturing this ‘absence’ throughout the narrative and Amitabh does this without letting the poems degenerate into a series of melancholic reflections...

‘and many trees grew around the gates
in your absence and even invaded the path
crawling lucidly to reclaim a once perfect day
the door majestic stood ramrod cracked
mirrors had stopped
seeing long back
and the smell... yes perhaps
there is a remnant of you there
just the miniscule of that sweet

The poems could have become morbid and cold without the essential glint of hope and optimism that runs parallel to his nostalgia. Amitabh has garbed his poems with this satin silk feeling of warmth that perpetuates a sense of eternity in the temporal world ....

‘but our shadows
would stretch
to this river bank
to this fatigued sky
to this ever running train
to you
and me

What one gathers after reading these poems is that these are sufficiently capable of standing the test of time without the support of the illustrations, which are of course independently alive in their own way ...

I wouldn’t say that this book would be better without the illustrations keeping in mind that the illustrations are meant to complement the poems, which they really do ...

But I really feel that the poems are strong enough to stand on their own, anytime.
As a coffee table book this would earn accolades for sure, but these poems are for me much more than just coffee-time reading....


More by :  Dr. Amitabh Mitra

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