In a publishing world where the latest design technology is at the service of book covers, holding Nivedita N’s ‘Writing by the Window’ is like fresh air from humbler, simpler times. In a lot of ways this cover, especially created for Nivedita by her friends and lying beautiful in understated elegance, is symbolic of her whole collection. Her poetry, like this image, is free from ornate attention-seeking frills. Her poetry is also, like the inception of this cover, a result of her home and her world coming together to inspire her pen.
‘Writing by the Window’ is a slim collection of poetry, prose and what she calls ‘phroetry’ – Photo + poetry or photo + prose. An experiment with mixed media, so to say. There is no one, predominant, theme which binds the 33 pieces in the book into a bundle. Neither is there a common message that the poet is trying to bring forth. While there is a logical progression of thought in each piece, keeping the content’s flow smooth, the book evades recognizable patterns of rhythm and meter and aims to keep much use of figure of speech at bay too. In short, Nivedita’s book is trying to stand apart from others in its genre.
Nivedita is viewing things like we do sitting by a window. You see the outside world while you also see the inside of the home, simultaneously. This becomes her thematic foundation. A lot of her poems delve into the personal domain – of grandparents and relationships, old friends and friend’s mothers. Love, in all its human forms, hence comes through as a theme in many of her poems. Equally prevalent in the book is her voice speaking up for those on the margins; from the unconventionally pretty to the conventionally overlooked. Nivedita also gives political expression to topical goings-on in Andhra Pradesh, rooting her voice in a socio-cultural context.
The very personal
‘Why did you swallow the last breath, Grandpa?’ reflects a personally felt intensity, with a picture taken from her ammamma’s album. Nivedita questions her grandfather why he did not trick death; why he left her grandmother longing …
‘even today. At times, she unties her hair
and stands in the vacant balcony
under the moonlit sky
and looks up, plays with her hair
And in that moment of time,
She looks so old yet so young.’
‘His Mother’ is another poem I liked, which liltingly marries the idea of infancy to old age, wrinkled fate lines to those ‘very light’ ones on a child’s hands. Growing up and growing old become the two sides of the same coin in a mother-child relationship. And then the final irony of life and death …
‘i carry her on my shoulders to the
she is tired, dead.
as a child,
i played monkey on her back,
giggled, chuckled, till she said
New is replacing the old, and old is making way for the new. The poems are pregnant with a looking back, ‘To reminisce what we lost when we embarked to gain’. ‘Arjun’, a deeply introspective piece sees her delving within herself in the garb of a man ‘President – Baalshiksha Foundation’, torn between the aspired values of doing something worthwhile and acquired skills that we call professions, asking:
‘Where do I belong?
Here, where my mind lies? Or
There? Where people are wise?
Where do I belong?
Here, where people want me? Or
There? Where I am supposed to be?
Through musing and reflecting, introspecting and questioning, Nivedita’s personal poems are an attempt to understand and then portray – the minds of those departed, the lives of those left behind, the everyday that is common to all our homes and finally, what it means to love.
Myriad forms of love find expression. ‘In the Land of Krishna’ sits a widow, head tonsured, famished for pleasures, suffering willingly. And in the poet’s home lives her father, pushing away ritualistic suffering from his just-widowed mother, ‘demanded sensitivity’ for his mother when she lost her “Kanha”. The mother? Blushing like Radha eating jalebis, her husband’s favourite, with the ever-observant poet spying at her from behind a curtain. Beautifully visual piece!
‘Caged Love’ sees Nivedita asking herself if we wrongly call them love birds. And then as if to quell the question and make love inexplicable ...
‘when the green one died, the other gasped for breath
The one in blue
lost its breath too. How?’
There is the typical lingering-longing love waiting at the platforms and taboo love between a Brahmin boy and a Dom girl, both ‘born out of making love’ but shunned for choosing a different other; a love busy ‘Listening to heart’s verses, the Gods silenced the curses.’ Much like in ‘Jogwa’ where the lovers’ worlds are full of ‘potholes’, and their minds with questions - ‘why should I serve the Almighty butchering a life gifted by him?’ Let love flourish beyond man-made walls because ...
‘It felt divine
More divine than what we
are forced to do in the name of divinity.’
And then, how can there not be love that inspires writing? The cheeky poet has stolen a Telugu dictionary to ‘double the choices’ of words to express herself for a someone special and then 'in the pursuit of finding an apt word to describe you, I found another world for you!’ ; a world? A Telugu book shop, fast becoming obsolete.
The ‘you’ in so many poems remains a charmingly enigmatic beloved we are told nothing about. While I felt the mythological poems lacking in a power that resurrecting epics can carry, the idea of redefining love in ‘Draupadi and Krishna’ deserves mention.
Voice for the unconventional
In the quietest of tones, Nivedita has dedicated a few poems to speak for or about things we force into silence. Over two pages of prose, Nivedita sets about to make a case for Bougainvillae over roses, and thus academically for Writing over Maths and Sciences. The narration celebrates unconventionality – of looks and choices. As does ‘Wild Flower’ which is ‘untamed, raw and unkempt’ and ‘Gattu’, with the freedom of exuberance which comes from rolling in the cesspool, 'and become clean from within.’
‘Gabbilam [bat]’ stands by bats, ‘Blamed! Named!’ reminding the reader of socially discriminating attitudes and ‘labelled symbols of disgust’. A symbolically sound poem, ‘Menstrual Cycle of the Pen’, portrays a marriage though a paper and pen, where
‘Says the shy pen “No! Not even in the night.”
the pen is too embarrassed to explain.
Upset, the paper rolls itself and sulks;
The pen holds its rib and cries in pain.’
But the pen in ‘Stubborn Pen’ is more courageous and the poem a representation of writer’s block. 'Unbound, it refuses to be a puppet’and her pen does not want to write. It says:
‘Benevolently, I’ve spilled over papers
But now, with my own refill I’ve had a fight
We strike. We do not wish to write!’
Those on the margins of the world are being given a voice. But rebellion is brewing in the poet's own home turf!
Nivedita is observing, sometimes with a contained anger but mostly calmly, what changes in regimes mean, for instance, to the ‘Middle Class Poet’ to whom ‘It matters … if Congress or Telugu Desam rules, for the power cuts are frequent under Congress’ rule’. A beautifully telling poem ‘Hyderabadi Pigeons’ lays bare Nivedita’s mind through the pigeons' eyes. ‘As AP Dies’ about Andhra’s funeral as it stood divided is rife with latent rage this State-personified felt, in its own words in this poem,
‘I saw my lawyer come and embrace one and all
and get down to business right away
money was distributed to the pundits
and the calculator moaned
as it was pressed hard
even my relatives mourned, louder now.’
Points I ponder about …
... and there have been some keeping me busy. Hopefully, Nivedita will not ask me as she does the world in a poem – ‘Who allowed the self-appointed editors the freedom to preach?’ Perhaps then I will have to meet her for tea and over ‘Tea(Chai)’ too,
‘… … Arguing
Dirtier the glass, tastier it gets!
Making promises to change the world;
for a while, our own worlds we forget!
Come, let’s together have some tea –
one spoon sugar for me
how sweet would you want it to be?’
I enjoyed Nivedita’s poetry for its simplicity (though not for the stray editorial errors that sneaked into a few poems). It attempts to speak like a friend does over tea, to be understood instantly, and to be felt unpretentiously. While complex use of poetic figures of speech was not attempted and thus can’t be admired, the idea behind the writing of each poem shone through, because of how Nivedita chose to express and also because of the photographs and footnotes in parenthesis most poems come coupled with.
I wonder without answers about this experimentation, though. What effect do these photographs and notes, innocently explaining the origin or inspirations behind the poems, have on the reception of the poem itself? Yes, they do add to the personal intensity of the poetry if we are told whose mother is being spoken about, for instance. But, do they rein the poetic sentiment in from flying to universal levels, by localizing it solidly in the poet’s heart and hearth? Then, could making a glossary of all allusions at the end of the book help the reader run amok in his own imagination and interpretation while reading; something some readers love to do?
The strong after-taste of 'Writing by the Window' is one of a deeply felt memoir; ‘a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions’ as Wordsworth called poetry. And Nivedita, we can sense, is firmly planted at the window in her house; looking without but mostly looking within room.
[This review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]