Review: The Time to Raise a Battle Cry Is Now

Nabina Das’s third poetry collection, Sanskarnama, is a searing commentary of our times.

The books makes an urgent call for change. Credit: PTI

In Sanskarnama, the author makes an urgent call for change. Credit: PTI

“There’s a silence because women don’t scream.”
∼ Make it Light

Through the entire book, Nabina Das’s clear voice does not scream. In barely restrained anger, her elegies and anthems are a call to arms. Because this is indeed poetry for our times. In Sanskarnama, Das’s third poetry collection, she firmly states her political agenda and her anguish at ‘acche din‘, which never come. Das’s images, “money is a face that eats the dirt” and “heart shaped holes where the magic lamps lie” tell the fable of ‘good days’. Sanskarnama is a book that demands to be read, consumed, absorbed, breathed in, in one sitting, and then it asks you to be forever changed.

Sanskarnama is divided into three sections — the first, a searing commentary of our times, coloured in saffron, tinged with chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai‘, the second section is more personal remembrances including tributes to Gauri Lankesh but she continues her poetic gaze on the politics and events of these times – like her poem on deaths of children in Gorakhpur – and the third section is her thoughts on Partition, Kashmir, war and her cry for more love.

In the ghazal ‘Forever Rain’, she asks, “Tell me where trees go to rot, rivers migrate, farmers commit suicide for lack of forever rain?” These are the questions peppering this book – written like a manifesto – which should be essential reading for all.

In ‘My Neighbour is a Gau Rakshak,’ Das comments on lynchings, communal violence, yummy mummies and air kissing society people, the state of cities’ garbage and indeed, her words are about your neighbour and mine:

 “Everyone has a gau rakshak neighbour these days/ not everyone knows what they look like …. Our gau rakshak neighbour wears branded jeans/ he hates Chinese goods but flaunts a Swiss watch… Our gau rakshak neighbour asserts Hindu khatre main hai/ the sky is saffron, the cow mothers turn plastic bags to manna…”.

Women are celebrated and revered through this book. Violence against them is discussed in stark imagery but perhaps Das thinks that women hold the key, or perhaps she is inspiring women to rise. Furthermore, her women feel the alchemy of flesh and desire and life itself. In her title poem, ‘Sanskarnama’, “A woman’s body is not a scripture… No sidelining the defining rekha that poor boy Lakshman drew… Women being women for they don’t have to be rule-bred, nothing sacred, no ties at all.”

Nabina Das
i write imprint, 2017

Das is from the Northeast and from strongly matriarchal roots, and in this book, there are foremothers and witches, bodies of desire and lush green forests, “dark as love”; there are Sitas, Gitas, Mona Darlings all revered as another ‘Toba Tek Singh’; there is hurt and there is longing, but above all, there is love.

In her poem, ‘Imagine’, written in the Partition section, she imagines “our words yours, you are mine” just as she hopes for time to ricochet backwards as “the dust of feet fleets back to the dirt track/ the fire bombs dive like ducks in serene pools… the blood all back in the heart throbbing, sobbing, in love/ all barbed wire turns into homecoming, never a partition.” Sanskarnama thrills, comforts, creates sad music and paints images with its words.

“I carry remembrances like continental shelves
this body shifting, grating against the odds
then becoming ash, like all women”
— Make It Light

Death and what we leave behind is a refrain. The frail body to be scoffed sometimes, to be revered at other times, but always present, right from the second poem in the collection, ‘Body Perennial’, the body with “its neat folds, crisp desires and smooth/ geographies of softness” or in her tribute to poet Vijay Nambisan, who died last year, “death can reach out and so casually/ in its shallow cup, drink you up,” she tips her hat to his poem where he writes:

“I am pouring my sorrow into a little cup,
Just to drown the gods in — a libation, nothing more.
And when we are being happy and the roof is on the floor
Someone can reach out and casually drink me up.”

In Das’s poems, “even violence hides in shame” and Draupadis are seen “in every corner, her sari in their fists.” Her poem for journalist Lankesh, murdered last year, is Das’s way of expressing her disgust – but what else can a poet do but write her anger? “Poets will write furious obituaries in sighs and tears/ while TV anchors will smile through their lipstick.”

Nabina Das. Credit: Facebook

Nabina Das. Credit: Facebook

Ever hopeful, she asks, “Can you see the sleeping line moving? The cow worshipping criminals gasp; swear words forgotten, their emperor looking for cover.” Here is a woman not afraid to name the Jais and the Shris and the Rams, in her poem, ‘Hymn of the Anti National’, or even the Modis and the Yogis right in her first poem of this collection, ‘Apologies For Our Times’, setting the tone for this book.

Read this book if you want to resonate with gau rakshak hating, mothers lamenting losses of sons named Najeeb and Junaid, or historians worrying about history being erased and rewritten to brainwash our children. Read this book if you want to nod your head as she writes “My grandma called hens Muslim birds so pigeons/ became birds of sanskar, pure thoughts despite the shit/ they spluttered on our walls.” Read this book if you want to “become the river, (we) the verse.” Mostly read this book because you want to stop the killers, “machete in hand, death faces, with ropes to bind”.

Some poems are superfluous and could have done with better editing. Some endings don’t cut it. But through the book, love shines, her call for change is urgent and you will not leave unchanged. Sanskarnama is published, designed and edited by talented poet translator publisher, Dibyajyoti Sarma, himself longlisted for a prestigious poetry award last year, the Jayadev National Poetry Award, who runs an independent press, Red River, in New Delhi.

Das lives in Hyderabad and is the author of two poetry collections, Blue Vessel and Into the Migrant City as well as a novel, Footprints in the Bajra as well as a short story collection, The House of Twinning Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped. She has also co-edited 40 Under 40: an Anthology of Post Globalisation Poetry and has been a recipient of several national and international fellowships.

Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet, writer and activist and the founder of a charity in New Delhi, Bhor Foundation. She tweets at @jhilmilspirit.

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