We share a review of Basudhara Roy’s third collection of poetry, Inhabiting. Anita Nahal in this review has highlighted the poet’s sensitivity, depth and unconventional style and compares it to the work of Pablo Naruda, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Maya Angelou. The reviewer describes it as neo-romantic poems with a mix of realism, mystery and drama.
I was delighted and awe-inspired to read Basudhara Roy’s third collection of poetry, Inhabiting. Having witnessed her sensitivity, depth and unorthodox, unprocessed word juxtapositions in her second collection, Stitching a Home (Red River, 2021), Inhabiting came as no surprise displaying even more bravely Roy’s comprehension of intricate syntax and its cadenced delivery which, to me, is both morphological and avant-garde.
In Roy’s work, I find a Neo-romantic poet to the hilt whose poetry, while being hyper-realist, is replete with mystery and drama quite like Shakespearean romantic comedies abounding in plot twists, combining puns and metaphors, wit, and humor. There is a distinct element of tragedy here and yet, at the end, a little leaf of hope is always left fluttering in the remorseless winter wind. I also feel a constant enigmatic, cryptic yet vital movement in Roy’s poetry like the normal churning of the Earth and the moon. That kind of passage lingers in the reader long after one has strolled through the book. Pablo Naruda, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Maya Angelou – all come to mind.
In this book of fifty-five poems, a mere browsing through the titles of the poems instills eager food for thought. These provide a glimpse to the central themes of this enchanting book and unto Roy’s creative thought processes. Three strands run clearly throughout the book, all inter woven ever so mystifyingly and endearingly. These are inhabiting, love and water.
There is a hunger in Roy’s poetry akin to that of Kamala Das and yet it’s also different. Roy’s love poems are not seethed in distress, torment, guilt, or anger. Some, indeed, speak of loss, especially due to journeys (intellectual and real). However, Basudhara’s wispy, dreamy, misty poetry reminds one more of the heroines of Satyajit Ray’s films who will lay bare the truth while still pampering a lover or seeking coquettishly, a similar coddling. In poem upon poem, line upon line, we find Roy expressing love in all its vicissitudes. “Reflections”, “Waiting/s”, “Reckoning”, “Names”, “Years”, “To Love You”, “Questions I Go Without”, “Delete”, “Giving”, “Solitude”, “Bad Weather” are just a few examples of romantic poems sprawled like jasmines throughout the pages.
There is an emphatic, pounding, pulsating, never ending search in these poems that reminds me of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist or of Princess Leia Organa in Star Wars or Maria in the Sound of Music. Responding to this search, Roy’s poetry emerges forth as finely chiseled with the tools, however, left nearby so that nothing is final and Roy or the readers can fashion away creating and re-creating the quilt of life.
The title of the book comes from a poem by the same name which I found fascinating for its suggestive “endodermal facts” — the realization that we constantly inhabit so many spaces: homes, offices, marketplaces, socio-cultural institutions, memories, dreams, desires, and even inanimate objects. Consequently, the presence of endodermal elements in all Basudhara’s poems make us realize and accept the inner-most stratums of everything in living, surviving, dying, rebirthing, trying anew and thriving afresh. Quite like Whitman, Roy broaches a utopian desire to inhabit a safe, secure world within a very dystopian society. This safety is often found within the arms of a loved one even though the wait could be endless, as in “Waiting/s”: “You may not believe but I was in/ waiting too, scratching the moon’s surface/for nail scoops of silver to put in the parting/of my hair…” Imagery is a seductive power in these lines as in Roy’s poetry overall, holding us in mesmerized contemplation.
The imagistic, ocular, raw grasp of the book begins with the jacket itself which has ants on it going somewhere. Research has shown that ant colonies have an intricate social network which they build slowly and meticulously, and humans can learn a great deal from ants inhabiting their colonies. The use of ants on the jacket is, therefore, an adroit literary and artistic technique urging the readers from the onset to ponder graphically Roy’s poetic intent and content even before entering her astute, yet mellifluously built spaces in the book.
While the book has been informally divided into three sections, each distinguished with telling quotes by Indian women poets, the poems flow from one to the other seamlessly. A slight variance is noticed in the third section wherein the poems are a bitdarker, somber and in frustration with our world. Quoting Meena Kumari Naz at the beginning of this section gives us a hint of the sepulchral poems to follow. This, in addition to the resemblance of the poems with Satyajit Ray’s film heroines, displays the influence of popular culture on Roy. Many poems in this section are short as if the poet was in a rush to let the bonded love, water, emotions, and inhabiting splinter away like tired embankments long held despite spurting rivers. Unleashing is a natural odyssey that humans experience. The poems in the third section are about letting go and about life’s wisdoms—which too are akin to inhabiting—and still about love. ‘Falling’, ‘A Little Dying’, ‘Casuistry’, ‘Hoarding’, ‘The Premise of a Promise’, and ‘In Love’ are a few examples.
All the poems carry a special weaving, a unique tapestry of verses; and yet suddenly the reader comes upon lines that take one’s breath away: “That you were waiting for signs/for footfalls on moonlight nights/for my waves to fill your sand” (‘Waiting/s’) or, “Entire neighbourhoods come alive/in hushed origami afternoons…” (‘Bad Weather’). Or, in ‘Advice for Durga’: “You don’t overlook, perhaps, the way/ they have farmed your arms in geometric progression/two-four-sixteen – putting all to their own use…” Or “Remember/ honour doesn’t blossom between thighs;/ it cannot be nurtured or plucked overnight…” (‘Rules of a Rape Republic’) Or “In her soil smells become fossils/ Ammonia breath meets the sourness…” (‘Bathing an Old Woman’).
One also finds a multitude of global historical, cultural, and mythological artifacts seeped into the poems — Nero in ‘Some Days’, Krishna, Yashoda-Jesus-Mary (‘Letter to an Unborn Mother’), Durga (‘Advice for Durga’), Lyssa (‘Lyssa’), Krishna (‘To Krishna’), Sita (‘Woman-to-Woman’), Kali (‘For Kali’) and Radha (‘The Dance’) to name a few. Roy leans on a collective human past for loving, inhabiting and watering.
And this brings us to the third strand in the book, that of water. Inhabiting and loving come to us especially through that which leaves us “…gifts in you like salt, like semen, like rain.” (‘A Story of Water’). Or the saliva-filled scream of goddess Kali, “Let me calm your commitment/caress you into a sleep. You must be weary of being a scream,” (‘For Kali’) or through birthing in, ‘Letter to an Unborn Mother’ or by way of mensuration expressed uniquely through planet Venus’s characteristics, “In the karst of my abdomen, slumbering rivers pandiculate,” (‘Venusian’), or the primary and very revealing, ‘A Millennial Rain-Poem’.
With its several inter-textual echoes of love and life, this book will always be an inviting mystery to unravel — a timeless collection of remarkable poetry by a wise soul.
Review of: Inhabiting
Author: Basudhara Roy
Publisher: Authorspress, New Delhi
Price: Rs. 295/-
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Anita Nahal is a professor, author, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She teaches at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington DC.