An Aesthetic Imagined Otherwise

    Manhar Bansal's essay on Atreyee Majumdar's poignant book of poems

    Title: The Book of Blue
    Author: Atreyee Majumder

    Genre: Poetry
    Language: English
    Publisher: Red River
    Year: 2024
    Pages: 74
    Price: INR 299.00
    ISBN: 978-93-92494-69-7

    I read this collection as an epic that describes a decade of living in the world, negotiating its ruthlessness, and finding beauty in its quiet. The three sections of the book – time, restless, still – follow one another as if to recount the story of the author’s grappling with the brutal passage of time, the restlessness and extreme anxiety born out of her severe alienation of the years of graduate school in America, and the still and quiet that followed. The collection is at once a deeply personal account of the author’s internal life, a careful excavation of the self, and an academic and political argument on a ‘decolonial’ aesthetic without once using the word.. In this essay, I read poems across the three parts of the book through these themes.

    Time


    The collection’s first poem Aeon is about a travel at scale and across time and continents. It forefronts the theme of migration and voluntary exile – something that recurs throughout the book – when one travels from the “third world” to the “first world” in search of better opportunities. A “coffee-sip” takes the poet to Ethiopia where she was once a “beggar-girl”. The poet now sits in a café in America, reading the New York Times that proclaims a war being fought for “peace, freedom, dignity”, but she can see through its lies. She’s a “refugee here, sovereign there”. Here, she is a political person, an extreme woman, she is condemned but she sees through it all. She prays not to the powers that be but “to the little girl who picked flowers from my garden” which is but her younger self, the girl she once was.

    It is a matter of time. Time appears in this poem as a force par excellence that budges not even to the force of history and political power. In the poem called History, the poet writes:

    If tomorrow comes
    I will be the dry leaf
    teardrop crystal
    right by the stairwell
    thick broken glass pane,
    sobbing faintly to brother History.

    If tomorrow comes
    I will be the ash-heap of today.

    I read the “I” in this poem as time. Time, which is brother to History with a capital H. The march of History is grand, sweeping, monumental. Time, on the other hand, appears as a quiet force which is at once ordinary and quotidian, but also larger than History. The dry leaf, the broken glass pane, the ash-heap – all stand as testament to the passage of time. They carry within themselves remnants of a bygone past – not covered in History’s narratives. The poet writes in Found:

    These webs of time,
    found in the folds of scarves and hairs.
    Your dead toenail
    shaved out
    in inches, is
    now a monument.

    Time makes a monument of the ordinary. Indeed, attention to the ordinary and the everyday is the book’s aesthetic accomplishment . The dead toenail, chipped away, found in an envelope is juxtaposed with Time. There is a meeting of the small and the grand. This is where the book’s subtle but powerful argument on a decolonial aesthetic starts taking shape. The poems imagine grandeur and scale – aeon and monument – through channels of the everyday – the coffee-sip, the toenail, the ash-heap. The main character is time, not history. Time is the universal that reverberates throughout the book – through restless and still. In the last poem of this section, the poet speaks of a letter written during the throes of the pandemic:

    If you die, I will write a letter.
    I will write this letter bearing witness
    to all the letters I’ve written in vain
    all the years that have passed in vain
    all these diseases that have eaten into our souls.
    I prepare to write you now
    a final Pandemic letter.
    A letter of letters.

    The whole collection in a way is this “letter bearing witness”. To write is ultimately to bear witness to the world, to oneself in the world. The act of writing a “letter of letters” signifies an attempt to recall, to remember the years that have flown by. Writing is then also an act always-already “in vain”. Time cannot be captured in writing. I wonder who this letter is being written to. My provisional answer is that the letter is addressed to the poet’s former self – the self that is the past now, which has dissolved with the pandemic. She writes:

    You are dead
    and I am yet to die.
    This is the final number.
    One zero.
    You lose.
    I win.
    Survival is my defeat.
    I have lived through the Pandemic
    waiting for you.

    “Survival is my defeat.” To continue living on not because of, but despite the ruthless passing of time, is the curse of life. Life and death work in this poem as twins. “You are dead, and I am yet to die.” There is a constant and simultaneous passing away and living anew in this poem (and others). To write to one’s dead self is at once to mourn its passing, and to announce one’s survival – the one which is now changed, transformed. It is a love letter to the self and its persistence through the world.

    Restless


    The self emerges, in the second part of the book, as restless, anxious, in struggle. The pandemic poem announces, as it were, the internal struggle of the poet traversed in this part. The poems in this part also display a deep influence of the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali – perhaps serving as a literary companion in expressing the emotion of exile born out of the alienation of living in America, far from “home”. In the poem titled I See Her with Her Endless Arms, the poet speaks of the crossing of the shore. Reaching the other end, she says: “What is this country? I ask/of the boatman.” There are lizards on the shore – headless, floating, sprouting endless arms:

    She stretches an arm at me,
    stained in the blood
    of the fly we swatted last night.
    Was it a lord of them flies? I ask
    of the lizard.
    Sleep now, she says.
    For I have all this blood to wipe.

    And again, in the next poem America:

    America, you killed the sinner
    You washed your hands
    You kissed me tender
    You brushed
    You hushed
    Me to sleep.

    America, and the alienation and strangeness that accompanies it, appears as a drug – at once of the steroid and of the tranquilizer variety. There is a strange enchantment with America, despite its magnanimous violence.It entraps the poet, hides its bloody hands in vain, and hushes her to sleep – only to wake up again. The drug also makes the poet restless – ambitious, confused, hungry for more. In the poem I Have Plans, she writes:

    Hungry for music
    Hungry for love
    Love on the dance floor
    Tsk tsktsk
    Love in the time of Hungary.

    The word play in this poem – hungry, Hungary –not only adds to the strange musicality of the verse but exemplifies the internal life of the poet, marked by a certain restlessness and repetition that is deliberate. In the next few poems, the internal life of the poet unravels itself more, giving the reader a glimpse into the poet’s travel to unknown worlds, her personal demons and angels, her lostness in the world. In Loop, she writes:

    It looped
    And looped
    And looped
    I had come back from space

    I had flown I had flown I had flown I had flown
    I cried out into the hollow universe
    So what if I didn’t have a notebook to prove it.

    And again, in the poem My Fascist and I:

    This anthro life
    Mis-anthro life
    Ms Anthro life
    Piss anthrolife

    I want to see my black soul
    My soul in its hidden black corner
    I want see my Fascist
    Greet her
    Kiss her
    Kill her
    And live with the shrouded corpse
    In a cold castle
    My Fascist and I
    My manic and I
    Locked away in darkness.

    And finally, in Missing:

    I ran I ran
    Towards Iran
    The land of deserts and lemons and
    Zarathustra
    For it was the only true land
    The only
    The only
    And they called me mad

    Gimme a drag now…
    Gimme a poem that can contain my pain
    My only pain
    My enormous, grotesque pain.
    I ran I ran it was my only option
    My only escape from the prison of language

    And I ran I ran
    Towards Iran.

    The poet is having an argument with her life companions – anthropology, language, her own Fascist. The same thing on loop – “over and over and over again” – begins to haunt the poet, as if almost stifling her. The garbled articulation of pain and struggle is inadequate, it cannot possibly “contain the pain”. And yet, it does precisely that. The repetition of the words in these poems mirrors the poet’s internal life, it produces an affect of anxiety and constant struggle. In the repetition of these poems, there’s a certain madness. Madness of revolt,madness of persistence. The poet doesn’t want to let go. She persists through the madness. She is in love with this madness and this pain. “Yeh aeb ishq yeh bairishq/This bitter love, this hateful love” (Lovepoem). A strange and a dangerous form of love. A love that is violent, bereft of political correctness, without hesitation. In my favourite poem of the collection called Colony, the poet says:

    If tomorrow comes, I will grow you as bougainvillaea
    In my balcony, as my colony, mine own, mine only.
    Maybe colonies are a strange form of love.
    Territorial. Complete.
    You are my prisoner.
    Prisoner of desire.

    My territory, my rude obsession, my illiberal type of love.
    You will wilt eventually and I will build a mausoleum for you.
    I will dress you in my poems.
    Write you an epitaph:
    She, who screamed in silence.

    The poet is tired with the normalcy, the matter-of-factness of the world around her. As if nothing is happening. In fact, nothing is happening. The poet’s mad love is a desperate cry to live again, to not scream merely in silence but to scream into the world. In her tribute to Mahashweta Devi’s celebrated work Draupadi, the poet writes thus:

    For once we would like a bullet hole and laughter
    To burn through our morning keyboard clackety crack.
    If tomorrow comes, let thousands stand up and laugh through
    bullet-holes.
    Let flowers bloom in neon colours
    Let no one feel oxygen deficit in their guitar strings
    Come back, Draupadi.
    So we can breathe into our prosaic mornings.

    This chapter of the book builds into a crescendo. Devi’s Draupadi must come to shatter the normalcy of the mundane world. The restless spirit must receive fulfilment in a catharsis of emotion. Blood, hunger, fascism, mad love – all demand an outlet. In return, however, the poet meets Krishna, who descends into her life with the sweet melody of the flute, telling her that suffering is the very condition of life. America’s alienation becomes the devotee’s Biraha:

    Biraha – the pang of separation
    Biraha – the ache that shapes Radha’s wanders
    along the alleyways of Mathura.
    In search of Krishna
    as we all are. She wanders all around.
    But he is here, he is here, he is here.
    Biraha – that I drown in
    sitting in this courtyard.
    Biraha – that is not only our preoccupation.
    The Lord himself suffers
    From separation from his beloved
    As the evening traffic thickens
    And monkeys shriek across the tall trees.

    Still


    Time then takes us to the final chapter of the book. The after of restless. There is a deep maturity in these poems – the poet reflects back, more than once, upon her previous life with a new-found understanding. She writes in Date-Knight:

    I walk these dunes across the clock.
    The clock of a millennium.
    This clock is my friend.
    My most hearty friend
    From the Republic of Madness.

    Need I say more? The clock of Time accompanies the poet through the period of alienation to the city of still. The permanence of Time remains the friend as also a remembrance of the period of suffering, spatialised here as the “Republic of Madness”. The poet continues:

    Thank you clocks, I say, in dried tears.
    I have stopped counting
    For counting was my first sin
    Never count my friends! Never ever!

    O clocks, I am sorry
    For I tried to use time for counting.
    Time is the veil of Radhika,
    The unveiling of which was my second sin.
    Hey radhika, you wanna get coffee time?
    Anytime, anywhere.

    I promise I won’t look at the waitress.

    The still is explained here, in this poem. The tears have now dried, and the poet asks forgiveness of Time. The apology is accompanied by a promise not to look at the waitress in anticipation of an end – both completion and finality – to the rendezvous with the self. I read Radhika as a metaphor for the self – the poet’s self in this case. In the restlessness of life and the counting of time, one scrambles to catch hold of, contain the self. Yet, it slips away. The unveiling of Radhika is also losing her at the same time.Time obscures the self, and that is how it must be. It is the work of Time to transform, shape, mutilate the self. One must learn to accept it. In the poem The Second Road, the poet writes:

    If you walk down a road a second time
    You are bound for sorrow
    Try not to do it
    I walk in search of yesterday’s road.
    I walk I walk I walk
    It is sundown
    Searching for those sinewy footballers
    They wrapped up their ground
    And went home to mama
    It is not their fault.

    I should not have walked a second time.

    There is no going back into the past. It is done, gone. The present is gone as we say its name. Even the memory of the past is not the same. It transmutes itself into something unrecognisable. The poems perhaps serve as some remembrance of the mad past, having been written during – by – the time of madness. Otherwise, one must flow, as the river does, to the still ocean. In the poem called If You Saw My Armour, the poet becomes the river, longing for the ocean, flowing towards it, inevitably. “I must rest,” she says, “I am tired of the mountainous home”:

    Rest in the ocean.
    My dear utter angry friend
    My murky sandbank loves
    My kings and foot soldiers
    And jealous lovers
    And chess boxes
    Bare thighs
    They die one by one
    It is an endless trudge into death
    I long for it.
    I long to die
    And unfold into your salty arms.

    The slow march toward the ocean is configured as an “endless trudge into death”. This does not, however, provoke any anxiety. Indeed, the poet longs for this death. Death becomes the ultimate end of suffering. Life is lived in the shadow of death.

    In this part of the book, the almost violent migration to America is replaced with a metaphor of return. The West ceases to be the sole terrain of potentiality. It becomes simply, to borrow a phrase sans context from the poet’s afterword, a “ventriloquism of another”. In Notes from a Ghostly Foreign City, the poet writes in a tone reminiscent of Shahid’s “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight”:

    I see Calcutta peeping outside my window.
    Snow heaped on the sides of the road,
    Vermillion blood.
    A bloody Bangalore.
    I walk up and down the snow-heaped sidewalks.
    This is Montreal,
    Where I walk as a ghost.

    Again, in Taxi:

    At midnight, I will leave Paris
    This wretched, beloved city.
    – a cliché in Woody Allen’s films.
    All of the city awash tonight
    With a soft, blue light
    – a cliché in a Kieslowski film.

    This is the light for cinema.
    Cinema, that made me breathe once,
    Cinema, for whom I walked the mad streets of Beirut and Delhi,
    And found Paris, Paris everywhere.
    All the world turned into Paris.

    The metaphor of return in these poems is not a nativist return to “home” in protest against the West. The return is psychological. Walking on the sidewalks of Montreal, the poet cannot help but see her “burning homeland”, in the streets of Beirut and Delhi, she sees the magic of Paris everywhere. The world is rendered, in these poems, cosmopolitan – not, however, in the universal sense of everywhere everything being the same. The invocation of Beirut, Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore, Montreal, Paris evoke very specific reactions, recollections. However, the streets of Old Delhi present the capacity to contain the light of Paris. The world opens up as a space of limitless possibilities even as seen not from the powerful West.

    The last few poems of the book speak to a theme in-work, under the surface, yet to unfold fully – maybe in future poems. This theme is one of presence, experience, intuition. There is an answer bubbling in these poems to the endless longing – biraha– of the self. The quiet and the still, wrought after years of struggle, are necessary conditions for this presence to unfold itself. In Song of the Sweet Lord, the poet asks through the scholar:

    What is spirit? The scholar asks the mystic.
    The mystic sighs.
    If I answer, it will kill the spirit.
    He says, a moment passes in silence.
    The silence contains the spirit of Krishna.

    In Witness, she writes:

    Miracles abound in this world.
    One that put my hand into yours
    the other that made the smell of jasmine
    linger a moment longer after the death of the flower.
    Miracles are the stuff of night and day.

    In Pause:

    At the doors of the temple
    a beggar woman sleeps
    unfed, undone.
    Engulfed by the night.
    Akhtari tunes waft past the almost-dead.
    Night speaks the unspoken.

    The silence which contains the spirit, the smell of jasmine that lingers after the death of the flower, the unspoken cover of the night – all intuit a certain presence, of something-being-there in the ‘Here and Now’, but imperceptible to our senses. Senses trained only to perceive light and sound. This other presence emerges in silence and night. To experience this presence is to turn inwardly, to embrace solitude, to unlearn the way we know to know the world. This presence cannot be captured or contained in currencies of private ownership. The poet tries to do so in vain. In Lilac, she writes:

    I square and square your lavender
    but it spills out of my frame.
    IG stories be damned!
    Damn you, lilac piece of sky, I say,
    you belong in my smartphone
    you belong in my pink cocktail
    you belong in my colourless heart –
    I need to grab you like sand-granules in my five fingers.
    This ugly city shields you from private ownership.
    The cowherd sky refuses my phone,
    my wallet, my finger, my heart.

    The sharp irony of grabbing sand-granules in the five fingers tells us all we need to know about this amorphous, messianic presence. The harder you clutch your fist, the emptier your hand becomes. The lilac of the sky spills out of the frame, the night covers the whole city like a blanket, the spirit of Krishna spreads like wild-fire. The jasmine, the spirit, the lilac, and the night – all stand in silent and calm protest to the loudness of the West. They form, together, what I call an aesthetic imagined otherwise – decolonial aesthetic if you will. They emerge from the deepest interstices of the poet’s suffering and alienation, and yet, are always-already there, waiting to be felt, heard, experienced by somebody not wanting to count time. This still presence is available to anyone who is ready to say,with the poet in Solstice:

    Come into the crevices of my soul.
    heal my winter-weary body,
    sing me a winter’s tale tonight.
    Like Shahid,
    in hiding behind my window,
    call me Ishmael tonight.

    ■■

    Manhar Bansal is an undergraduate student at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru with an active interest in social theory and literature. He is the recipient of the SHA President’s Award for Student Scholarship 2022 and the Hugh Owen Prize for the Best Undergraduate Essay on South Asia 2021. In the past, his work has appeared in the Columbia Journal of Asia, Café Dissensus Magazine, and the Society and Space Magazine.

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