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‘Mandalas of Time: Poems’ – A Review

‘Mandalas of Time: Poems’ – A Review

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mandalas of time

Navamalati Neog Chakraborty discusses the ‘Mandalas of Time: Poems‘ by Malashri Lal. She explains how it offers a profound exploration of women’s experiences through verse, reflecting on mythology, cultural heritage, and contemporary struggles.

Richard Flanagan had said in his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North that, “A great book compels you to reread your own soul.” I felt the truth of this statement as I read the verses presented by Malashri Lal in the compilation, Mandalas of Time: Poems. The scent of lived experience appearing in these verses points towards a kind of sacrament. One expects a passageway carved through the difficult obstacles of civilizational history, especially for women. While going through each poem, I could feel that the poet expresses her integral self and offers her own interpretation of different aspects of life.  I imagined a hallway of doors opening towards different vistas of meaning and a deliberate trampling of stereotypical images.

Revisiting mythology is one of the strategies for prioritising women. The first poem establishes the truth of the God, Ardhanareesvara, as both woman and man, “Ubiquitous, limitless reminder of equality”. It is not about dichotomous gendering but of a shared destiny. The overarching relationship is beautifully structured and defined. Iconographic symbols are not about gender differential, they are steeped in the complementarity that Parvati and Shiva represent. Radha’s story finds its own place in such a universe. In the poem Krishna’s Flute, the flute says…

“I’m not Krishna’s flute alone

Radha must structure my symphony of love.”

Radha’s Dilemma asks a very pertinent question as to whether Radha, on whom Krishna had “bestowed endless Touch” can give her charanamrit to the grievously ill Krishna when his sixteen hundred wives had refused to do so. Sita is brought centre stage in Mandalas. Imagining Sita waving a silken Pankhawhile Ram ate his frugal meal in Chitrakoot, Lal draws attention to the “Bare essentials mocking Palace memories”.  In the touching narrative of “Sita’s Rasoi”, the poet idealises Sita for the maternal love she shows to the orphan child Bakha, the playmate of her twins Luv-Kush, and she insists on serving equal shares of their spartan meal.

Malashri Lal turns towards misunderstood women in traditional lore as well. In Manthara Dasi we find the hunchback’s wisdom expressed in a deep truth when she says,

What wrong did I do in protecting my child

Doesn’t every mother dream of a princess, a queen?”

Lal picks up another courageous woman in Rani Padmini Today with the queen’s laudable sacrifice, though it caused a controversy a few years ago with the film Padmavat.

“Padmini prayed and implored her maids

To light a pyre of Chandan wood

The Bards tell of a myriad of women

Self-immolated for the good.”

In all such contexts, Lal’s thoughtful feminism appears as culturally contextualised, yet posing contemporary questions. Having grown up in Jaipur but being of Bengali lineage, Lal is interested in “Shila Devi of Amber” who was brought from Jessore in Bengal to Rajasthan by Raja Mansingh and bestowed with “Honour, glory, wealth”. The poet attributes memory to the goddess who is said to ponder over the fate of her companions in the marsh

The dolorous fish, the raucous frogs,

the earth-hugging worm

In the poem Shyamoli, Malashri Lal contrasts the feudal heritage of her childhood in Rajasthan with the reformist Bengali lineage as women need to be empowered to realise their full rights.

                                                                                BetweenPoshak and Purdah

                                                                                White Thaanand patriotism

                                                                                Can one push these ghosts aside?

The narratives of the past are retold and then linked to modern India and its changing circumstances: the double burden on working women, the prevalence of female foeticide as the 2001 census revealed, and the neglect of the girl child.   Lal questions    patriarchy’s ways in her six-line verse ‘Crushed’ as to how a young girl’s ‘virtuous conduct’ is assessed:

eyes hooded guardedly

Body cringing into wrinkled tightness

Is this what elders called

‘Maidenly virtue’?

And those who survive the onslaught of time, and age with bodily ailments and social loneliness have their own suffering. People seek refuge in a “Geriatric Paradise” of clubs and parks.  It is “Autumn” that reminds us how time brings a mismatch between desire and age, hunger and our satiation, memory and forgetting. The elderly are caught in the paradox of 

Waiting to go

Wanting to live.

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Through this human drama of the inevitable cycle of birth and death, nature stands as a witness and teacher. Several poems dwell on plants and trees. Malashri Lal’s keen eye appreciates the “Amaltas in Summer” as their roots.

Thrust their tendrils into the earth’s sinews below.

Sucking moisture from the granular sand, desperately.

On another front, the Pilkhan tree outrightly admits to shedding its leaves and bearing inedible fruit. The poet admires flowers such as the Champa, the Impatience, and the Hibiscus; though she pointedly highlights the ubiquitous Bougainvillea as a travelling migrant tree that landed.

On our shores and conquered it with

Careless abundance

The poet finds the natural ambience of Rivers teaching her endlessly. The Ganga, she describes as:

Slowly, bruised, frothing with fatigue,

Finally, to emerge past the blockage,

Once again smilingly on her way.

The twin rivers Bhagirathi and the Alakananda despite flowing together and mingling at Devprayag, never really merge. The principles of logic are countered by the miracle of the two rivers which exemplify keeping separate identities while being partners.   

Mandalas of Time is steeped in life- wisdom. Much as Malashri Lal celebrates it, the realities gnaw at her consciousness. The truth about gender bias will not change easily but women must try to lead towards social equality- “Whether in parliament, palace or Jhopri”. Finally, the cycle of nature offers consolation and illustration. For instance, for the Easter Lily bulbs buried year round, “Life’s renewal is a beautiful certainty”.  Every April, they shall grow and bloom magnificently. Mandalas of Time undertakes a great deal of truth-telling that includes the promise of fulfilled lives within a spectrum of experiences.


The book is available at Amazon store.

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