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'Sanskarnama': Poetry for our times

  • Published at 08:03 pm July 15th, 2018
  • Last updated at 04:43 pm July 16th, 2018
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A book review

I was frequently reminded of WH Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" while I was reading through the poems in Sangskarnama written by Nabina Das. I had long forgotten Auden's poem to be honest, except a faint feeling of wonderment at his heartfelt yet powerful tribute. Parts of one line have nonetheless stayed: "For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making ..." Initially they came with a sense of grief whenever I felt that social and political injustice tilted its head and became the order of the day. And what can poetry do about it? Does poetry make anything happen? Can poetry play an active role in giving new directions to social movements that the progressive sections of society are involved in? 

Well, as far as Bangladeshi poetry goes, there were numerous moments in history when poetry did make things happen, getting entwined with epoch-making episodes of our history, propelling them on, but then there also were those moments when poetry seemed to have turned ineffective, cutting all ties with history and delving into pure aesthetic exercise.  

After finishing Sanskarnama, I've come to realize that whether or not poetry makes things happen, poets are too lunatic to not rise to the occasion; they are too impulsive to not write verses about the burning social and political issues of their time. In desperate attempts to end the madness that plagues their milieus, that makes foes out of friends and killers out of innocent people, poets respond to divisive propagandas and their social-political manifestations, turning poetry into an act of resistance. 

No doubt that so do fiction writers but there is something different about poetry, something more urgent and raw and authentic, causing both immediate and lasting effects on readers. From her introductory note to the last poem in this collection, Nabina makes it crystal clear that the poems she offers are expressions of her rage against the rise of the Hindutva ideology and extremist elements in politics responsible for widespread violence against the untouchables, the religious and ethnic minorities, and women in India as well as other parts of the world. 

She is aware, however, that poetry is different from sloganeering. So, she carefully picks her angle, filters her rage through irony, wit, and sarcasm, and combines them at times with songs of peace and love, as if, to show that the story might as well turn out to be one of hope and compassion on the other side of the coin. 

In her preface, she charts her path and describes her own poetic approach as precisely as possible. "If obeisance is the norm, if slavery is the rule, if gender oppression is the tenet—Sanskarnama is my protest and faith both." 

The very first poem is an apt gateway to the whole collection. Itchy sarcasm counterbalanced by her imagination right from the beginning:

In the first poem of the collection, "apologies for our times," she thus begins:

"Is there really time to say, sorry, we won’t long any more or is there/more time for side-winking the Modis and Yogis as well as sleep?

... But I’m sorry for all the songs that I had composed, for imagining/children will live and the oxygenated world would be better one day?"

In the second poem, "body perennial," she proceeds to offer her body which "dies" and after which "sadness becomes a ritual." Even then, this apparently dead body is what she offers: " ... here, this is my body/take it and plant it/with its neat folds, crisp desires and smooth/geographies of softness/make it a tree you covet and nurture before/the smile dies unwatered."

This is more than just an articulation of the speaker's female sexuality; this is nothing short of transgression: offering the female body as an act of love at a time when the female body unleashes fear in the men camps and hence comes under violent assaults routinely. She rather urges us to "lower" our bodies "in our hearts, perennial, from where no one leaves."

But her lovers are anti-nationals, a fact she celebrates:

“My lovers are all anti-nationals/… every time they serenade me loud/they send Jai chasing after Ram/… will an anti-national day give us a permanent spring?”

She does not relent in packing punch after punch at the Hindutva elements, exposing their ludicrous arguments about Hindu revivalism, but then lacing it with irony in a way that would surely stun you into silence, making you rethink everything that you see around. That’s why the question: “will an anti-national day give us a permanent spring?” This ironic effect, though at varying degrees, is evident in most of the poems. Also consider “my neighbour is a gau rakshak”: “Everyone has a gau rakshak neighbour these days/not everyone knows what they look like/… our gau rakshak neighbour asserts Hindu khatre mein hai /our conversations span all greatness of Bharat Mata Shri/then Nirvana becomes a Bengali mithai he offers me with tea.”

Some of her most powerful strokes are to be found in the title poem, “Sanskarnama,” which is evidently about her homeland where “dreams invite slaughter,” where women “want to meet in the city of hearts” but they “walk like Atwood’s women.”

The self-conscious speaker then traverses many paths and times, waxing nostalgic and digging into memories that still burn: the forced partition of 1947 (in poems such as “another toba tek singh,” “em-bordered,” and “partition stories”), sometimes seething with rage toward riot-mongers, killers of Muslims and Dalits and women, above all, toward violence sponsored by the state itself. Play of irony and ridicule goes hand in hand, so do the emotive touches: rebelling at one moment and suturing the angst with words of hope at the other, removing all the dark patches and bloodied contours from our vision. “thinking tank” is a strong case in point, which instantly reminded me of Bangladeshi poet Shaheed Quaderi’s poem, “Greetings to you, my beloved.” Quaderi says, “Fear not, I will take such measures/That crossing forests and thickets,/Barbed-wire fences and barricades,/Carrying memories of many battlefields,/Armored vehicles will come to your threshold/Laden with violins,/Only for you, my beloved.” (Translated into English by Shawkat Hussain) Nabina, taking her cue from John Lennon (“Imagine”), turns military tanks into libraries and baby’s cradles, “Imagine a world where tanks/ can be libraries. The hatch a perfect bookaholic’s hole. Think how/there’s enough perch to hang/legs on the sides, read a Pamuk/ or a Kamala Das, chat up a Chomsky/ and make love to Lorca.”

The personal and the collective merge in Nabina’s poems so effortlessly that not even once in the entire collection does she come across as straining to maintain the balance, or to get to the heart of the matter. 

Whether or not poetry makes anything happen in these times remains to be seen perhaps. As regards this collection, I believe Nabina's poetry has all the potential to reach a wider audience, moving well beyond those border posts that she hates and dismantles in her creations, and also to become instrumental in keeping the fight alive and kicking, the fight for justice, for ending all forms of rioting and killing and assaults, for a better world that we dream of leaving behind for future generations. As Nabina’s rebellious speaker would put it:

“In this land, praises are only for goddesses/ sanskar only for the pious. No scope for flesh/to speak. No sidelining the defining rekha/that poor boy Lakshman drew. So let’s fold up … and let the rivers be open to … women with thighs slapping against the rude tide/women who bite the poison ivy to spit honey …/Then a thousand years pass by our arteries’ throb:/In this scripture, the women rewrite the lines and shloks.”

I also hope that someday some critic will elaborately discuss the eco-critical potential of this collection. Eco-criticism is an emerging school of literary criticism emphasizing environmental aspects in poetry or fiction. This book deserves to be lauded for its eco-critical vision, too.


Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.