Title: When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays
Writer: Jhilam Chattaraj
Publishing Date: 2018
Reviewed by: Juveria Tabassum
The time has come for women to leave the woods andreclaim forbidden spaces. In our vast nation while there are millions of girls who disappear due to traditional cultural evils like dowry and female infanticide, there are also women who are able to ride over massive tides of black waters and establish their own identity.They are not heroes with capes but ordinary souls, their sarees smeared with spices and hands busy polishing dishes and dreams.
Jhilam Chattaraj’s first collection of poems, When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays, is a tribute to such women; women who have evolved and become who and what they wished to be, over the years. The collection has forty poems that represent her relationship with literature, lovers, parents, friends among others. Her voice is conscious and vocal about various societal and cultural constraints that tie women down to a small world of limited experiences. Her poetic vision is manifested among the details of domestic life:
Often on a starless night
I sit by the window and try to imagine.
No fox enters my head’s forest
or footsteps claim the page.
Words, like bubbles boil over my tea,
like worms they peep out of the cauliflower
I cut with a chef’s devotion.
Sometimes, they show up like money in the damp
pockets of a forgetful husband. (“The Way I Write”)
Interestingly, the poems are alphabetically arranged. In the first poem, “A Poem’s Life,” she imagines in a la Billy Collins fashion, words as wild horses, babies and even rats left at the mercy of the sharp claws of critics:
I can now see
mousy words jumping off
his naked curves
into the way of those
I meet at cafes, galleries and carnivals.
They are impossibly thrilled,
their feline fingers ready
to force a confession
out of my furry troubles (“A Poem’s Life”)
Poems like “Arrival” and “Antway” are charged with sexual messages. They highlight the silence around unrequited desires of women. In both of the poems, she balances her conviction with poetic tenderness:
scavenged this country
for love, food and flesh.
with my needle limbs
for saccharine pleasures (“Antway”)
You are pleased simply by your
while I lie
like the sinking
idol of a
Jhilam travels the lanes of Indian cities, in poems like, “Benares,” “Bidar” and “Hyderabad” wondering at the rise of “corporate leviathans” in the “bull-trafficked” alleys of our nation. However, she is at her best when she lays bare the chaos inside her own mind. There is a captivating vulnerability in the way she writes poems like “Chaos”:
like a punished child
sits alone facing the wall.
I do not know this emotion,
slippery like fish,
common like cold.
In this collection, grief becomes Jhilam’s constant companion; it is represented as a cathartic gateway to happiness. In “I made grief a cup of coffee,” she imagines grief as a homeless child who has come seeking shelter in her arms and she is afraid that one day the child would grow up and leave her creatively barren:
Grief tugs at everybody
like a lost child at a bus or railway station
Lately, it has come to me
But this time, I’ve been kind.
I let it sit and talk to me,
with a cup of coffee.
Much came out of our friendship-
nights of poetry, epiphanies and art
no more empty walls, notebooks or heart
Jhilam explores her personal history in poems like “Grandmother.” She draws comparisons between the image of her granny as a village girl, happy with her husband and children and herself as a woman writing poems in monkish isolation in a city. In “Mother,” she wishes to compensate for her mother’s reluctant participation in domestic duties over her bohemian dream to live a single life with books written by Rabindranath Tagore:
But I know,
the nights she sat through my fever,
the days hunger dogged
her door steps
or when father penniless
and her saree lost its silken shine,
longed to return
to the woman
smiling alone at a book.
Domesticity and the difficulties women face in balancing marriage and ambition recur in poems like “Open”:
I am divided
into unfamiliar, fantastic nations-
I am a Ulyssian feminist
but slowly, I transform
into matchless Telemachus
happiest house queen, ever!
The collection further provides us a glimpse into the spectrum of the complexities and simplicities of relationships. Some poems are as uncluttered and blissful as walking into the arms of a young love, an emotion captured best in “Learning Love.” Other poems like “I Met John” grapple with the many dissatisfactions that are left unspoken in long-term relationships. The poem “Parched” focuses on contemporary urban relationships between lovers where intimacy has been swallowed by technology:
It usually happens in the hottest of nights
when the air simply snacks on our skin
Firmness is lost to fuzzy arguments,
to unpaid bills, unhappy gods,
and a noisy belly.
return to their respective phones.
Finger don’t fondle,
they type away furiously.
Jhilam’s poems are replete with compound words like “bird-fountained-skies,” “olive-eyed- lake,” startling images and allusions to Modern poetry. She develops a perspective that captures the essence of unspoken conflicts of women from all walks of life. Her themes both fearless and vulnerable are best exemplified in “Poem in March,” and “Origins,” they make this collection stand out:
But I was happy,
when I peered
to see the woman I was.
The water whispered,
‘lost is little Jhelum who shuddered at a stranger’s touch
and crouched under beds when elephants came.’
In me a spirit arose, that one day,
would glide through the ultramarine Jhelum in Kashmir,
fearless, shadowless. (“Poem in March”)
I sat by your bed,
as if were your mother
and imagined you.
A handsome young man
marching through the rebellious streets of Bengal.
I whispered, ‘walk on, walk beyond winter papa, be brave
for I am afraid to wake up in a universe without you.’ (“Origins”)