Educationist and writer Basudhara Roy shares the pleasure of reviewing Indian-American diasporic poet Anita Nahal’s third collection of poems based on an intimate account of a female, first-generation, Indian immigrant single mother, traversing between cultures and continents. Nahal’s resolution and grit in inviting all women to represent Goddess Kali in strength and ambition are illustrated in this review fittingly. Furthermore, Basudhara aptly analyses the images of four female figures on the book’s cover page that reflect women empowerment instantly.
What’s Wrong With Us Kali Women?
Prose Poems by Anita Nahal
Imprint: Kelsay Books, Utah, USA, 2021
Pages: 94; Published: 2021
MRP: INR 1,439/-
To begin with, the title nudges you. Here you are, struggling to keep the show going, attempting laboriously to conceal all ripples upon life’s surface, trying hard to pretend everything is just the way you have always wished it to be, and then comes along this book that begins its narrative with the presumption of ‘something wrong’ at the heart of your existence. You feel both understood and betrayed. The book, you have easily surmised, is about you. Aren’t you a woman living in and through Kaliyug? You closely inspect the four women on the inky blue cover.One of them is looking at a child in her arms, two of them have their gazes fixed elsewhere while the fourth has taken off her sunglasses to stare you straight in the eye – confident and provocative. The first three women, you concede, bear some kinship with you. Like them, you are caught up in roles that have often led you away from yourself. The fourth woman’s scrutiny, however, disturbs you a little, amplifying the sense of ‘wrong’ that the title bespeaks. Feeling both attracted and a trifle insecure, you decide to take the plunge and squarely confront whatever the ensuing pages will reveal.
The journey into the seventy prose poems that the book holds, is unstoppable once it begins. The thoughtful analysis, critical self-evaluation, searing honesty and indomitable optimism of these poems immediately disarm the reader. In the face of such unswerving self-revelation, the most stubborn pretences melt away. One returns, time and again, to the title poem with which the book begins:
There’s nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. That’s your fear labelling us. We are the Kali women. And all other female, male, androgynous gods. We don’t distinguish. We seek. We learn. Comprehend. Embrace. We are the Kali women. In the forefront, striding and yes, strutting our stuff too.
The adjective ‘Kali’ in the title begins to take on new meanings now. These are poems not merely about the new women of the Kaliyug who are leaving orthodox traditions behind to explore new spaces and potentialities but also, about women who are honest and bold enough to take on the spirit of the goddess Kali. Kali women, as the book emphasizes, must nurture strength not merely as ambition but for survival and existence in an abusive, discriminating world. Above all, these are poems about taking heart and pride in the intrinsic flamboyance and sheer possibilities of womanhood. In ‘Maryada and modern Draupadi’ Nahal writes:
I want to feel special when I lay down, unforgettable
So, I chose to be me. A woman. Earthy and sensual.
Located within the Indian American diaspora space, Nahal’s third collection of poems is, among other things, an intimate account of a female, first-generation, Indian immigrant’s challenging home-making in and between cultures and continents.Choosing to settle in America following a traumatic marital relationship in India, many of the poems are poignant snapshots of the poet’s own experiences in life – the attempt to negotiate a stressful conjugal relationship, boarding the plane to America with her little son, battling ethnic and gender stereotypes in the new land, raising her son as a single parent, finding meaning in her incessant struggles, anchoring her being and those of others around her in hope, dissent and faith, and finally, acquiring the maturity, confidence and emotional distance to talk matter-of-factly about each of these difficult episodes in poetry. None of these experiences, the reader will realize, has been easy. In ‘Sleepless Nights’, for instance, the poet says:
I try to reassure the pawns and the elephants that the mounts are being tended to, but one game of chess gives me away. I don my royal clothes and try to appear majestic as I stride out to allay fears of my ailing armies, but sleepless nights don’t let go. Don’t let go and hold on to the reigns like lonely seaweeds in a forgotten marsh. And the brittle leaves of the now overlooked storm have pressed dried as book marks in my prenatal novel.
While memories of her childhood in India, surface from time to time in Nahal’s poetry and she acknowledges her “debt to two lands” (‘Paying my debt to two lands’), there is no hyphenation in her emotional identity. Her native country having betrayed her, she can never belong to it again, except in name. “To the place where I was born but felt no allegiance. Its people, my people, gave me no refuge,” she states in ‘Claustrophobia’. Home, for her, lies essentially and undoubtedly in America, the land she voluntarily claimed for a new beginning. She puts it succinctly in ‘Tequila and spice memories’:
From New Delhi to America holding my son’s little hand, I mapped, and I trekked. Reels and reels of happenings, instances, episodes, moments that I rolled on my fingertips, even pleated, and clutched and embraced. Owned. Professed. Conceded. Some, I disputed. And laid the admitted neatly, one on top of another like my Indian shawls and saris in cedarwood drawers I bought at flea markets in Virginia suburbs. Mustiness of spices and Fall leaves mingled to create original, unmarked fragrances, new retentions. Every now and then, I recline observing life as I have a couple of tequila shots and hold my tongue on the stories I tell.
The new land is no utopia, of course, and the poet is candid about the injustices and tests that America puts its non-white migrants through. ‘How easy it is for a Black life to be taken’, for instance, documents the violation and easy expendability of black lives in the US:
How easy it is for a Black life to be taken. Castile, Floyd, Garner, Blake, Brown, Rice, Bland, Gray, Martin, Arbery, Taylor, Till. Not just any names. They were living. Someone’s loved ones. Living. Alive. Stolen. Purloined. How easy it is for a Black life to be taken.
In ‘You are an immigrant too’, the poet offers a confident and balanced self-assessment of her legitimate identity as an American in the multicultural American space:
So, please don’t ask where I am from unless your lineage is clear gel, as chained, shackled, sardined, non-resident alien are not words just stamped on my forehead. Unless amnesia is a non-existent word in your heritage dictionary. And then, there was once upon a time, a time engineered for the flow of forced horse-shoe blue bloods, and pedigrees who turned amnesiac soon after. I left the blue blood of my pedigree sitting lonely at erstwhile airport terminal when I arrived disapproved and stamped, fresh off the boat.
These lines, to me, are strongly reminiscent of Bharati Mukherjee’s oft-quoted line from her essay ‘Two Ways to Belong in America’ – “America spoke to me—I married it—I embraced the demotion from expatriate aristocrat to immigrant nobody, surrendering those thousands of years of ‘pure culture’, the saris, the delightfully accented English.” For Nahal too, America is her chosen home where she struggles to make space for her multiple identities – immigrant, ethnic, gender, professional, non/marital, maternal, cultural, sexual, gerontological and creative. There is no one way of being anythingin the world and her American space offers her the liberty to explore possibilities and choices that allow her to lead life on her own terms. ‘Babylon, my sinful dance muse’, for instance, describes a club that becomes a valuable space of self-expression for the poet:
My sinful love, Babylon with low lights, hookahs and cigars, Go-Go bands, DJ and club music, food and spirits plenty. And the dance floor was like my bed that I could make love on with the man of my fantasies without any desi pointing a finger. “Hey, you…have you gone mad! A woman with a grown-up son, dancing in mini dresses late at night, drinking booze in those cheesy American clubs instead of prostrating before Hindu Gods praying for peaceful old age!” Babylon, thank you, for being my sinful dance muse.
However, prejudices and prescriptions from her native culture are not entirely absent in the new world. They resurface from time to time in the form of public opinion, custom or ritualistic proscription, leading the poet to question her epistemological anchoring anew on each of these occasions. The poignant poem ‘And then the pundit asked for my son’s father’s family name’, deftly articulates the pain of a single mother whose brave and tumultuous voyage to raise a child in America is belittled in one single moment when the pundit asks for the name of the non-parenting father:
I thought I’d planned it to a T, all the intricate details. Ceremonies like a mapper chalked out. But for silly validation, forgot the paternal family name is still sought after. As a couple walks seven times around the sacred wedding fire, the pundit asks the boy for his father’s name. Patriarchal societies still perpetuated.
At a deeper and more existential level, home, for Nahal is constituted by her son whose significant presence watermarks all her writing and of whom, wereceive touching snippets in the poems both in this volume andin her second collection, Hey, Spilt milk is spilt, nothing else (2018). A close reading of Nahal’spoetry reveals that her survival owes itself not only to Gods, destiny, lands, her own tenacity, and her indomitable, phoenix-like spirit, but also to the strength she derives from her son with whom she shares and wishes to share an unbreakable mother-son-soulmate bond from life to life. In her poem, ‘Why I usually cry in the shower,’ whose last lines are as touching and memorable as Ezekiel’s famed ‘Night of the Scorpion’, the poet pours her deepest tears to God in an unspoken prayer that always seems to be on her lips:
After my tears have been fully pulled out, drained, syphoned, and dried, then I become tranquil, and gratefulness fills my heart. Not everyone has everything. If I have to go through the same all over, in another life, I’ll accept it as long as in each time frame my child is born to me again.
In poem after poem, Nahal emphatically stands up for the strength of single motherhood through the intensity of feminist determination and humanist resolve, triumphantly articulated in, ‘Fallacy of a single immigrant mom,’
Folks only saw the tip above the waters for mom and son. We were like Maya Angelou’s oil wells were pumping in our living room despite first furniture being hand-me-downs. I am a single, immigrant, pleased, grateful mom. And that’s no fallacy.
Distinctly marking Nahal’s poems are also ruminations on the lives of women and all humans in general, the stereotypes and violence that are rampant in both the East and the West, the pandemic and the large-scale human losses that it has entailed, and the urgent need to rethink the relationship between the human and the non-human worlds. She urges her readers to ponder over a plethora of injustices such as poverty, skin colour, ageism, ills of democracy, even debunking human narcissism (‘Smooth operators’, ‘Hard: Us, animals and the aliens’, ‘Family blood’) among others and in doing so clearly establishes her humanist approach to life, animals and also alien life. She questions our very existence (‘Ancient creation’) and concludes that the mysteries of life will remain as these are and like alchemists we can only keep moving, creating, revising and revisiting these essentially unknowable phenomena.
What animates this collection, above all, is the sense of creating something new out of the experiences that life has brought one’sway. At the centre of these poems stands tall, a speaker who refuses to be at the receiving end of things and has the determination, ability, skill, creativity and courage to forge slowly from what is received, all that is desired. Each poem in the volume maps a steady journey into a self that grows, matures, and strengthens with every experience till it realizes, in itself, its greatest and worthiest asset. Such wisdom does not come from the repudiation or denial of any aspect of life or feeling and Nahal’s consistent reflective practice involves the bringing and interrogating of every experience on poetry’stable for exploration and illumination. The present, for Nahal, can only be built by acknowledging the past and the future shall be paved only through determined negotiation with the present. There will be demons, spilt milk and Judases. The journey into an enlightened and expanded subjectivity may, often, be solitary and loveless. But one’s true allegiance will always be to the self and to the treasures it holds deep within it.
Feminist, rational, confessional and empathetic, What’s Wrong With Us Kali Women? is a compelling creative act of cartographingan empowered selfhood in which every reader will be drawn to participate. Leading you to confront and accept your own fissures, it will leave you feeling saner and stronger. Having entered into a dialogue with these poems, the cover speaks to you now in distinct ways. Here are a host of stereotypes effectively demolished. The woman with the child in her arms stands, perhaps, for maternal feminism and also the strength and optimism of single motherhood.The professional-looking woman and the older woman on the right who have their gazes elsewhere, exude a calm confidence that bespeaks a Kintsugi-like approach to life’s travails. The details of facial expression, posture and clothing, seem to have all been carefully constructed to convey questions and meanings of the myriad stages and ages of a woman’s journey from a lover, wife, mother, a professional woman, a grandmother – all denoting the quintessential Kali woman who knows how to repair the fractures of life in the Japanese way, with gold. Havingrecognized these women for aspects of yourself and having bared your own soul to them, when you finally shut the book, you establish a deep bond with the fourth mysterious and alluring woman at the centre of the cover. Confidently confronting her gaze, you smile back, knowing a friend has been found in the self forever.
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Basudhara Roy is a poet, academic and faculty of English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Her latest work is featured in Madras Courier, Lucy Writers Platform, Berfrois, Gitanjali and Beyond, The Aleph Review and Yearbook of Indian English Poetry 2020-21, among others.