Book Review: When the Wind Blows and Other Poems by Ashish Khetarpal
By Anurima Chanda
It is interesting how every culture’s literary history almost always begins in verse – for they say verse comes easier to mankind than prose. It is maybe for this inherent nature in all of us that makes us, at least at some point of time in our lives, try to dabble in the art of writing poetry. However, not all of us have the energy to sustain that spirit. Not all of us are able to give birth to the poet in us. But those that do, truly know the joy that it brings to be able to express oneself in rhyme and the pain that it takes to get that rhyme right. What is also pleasantly surprising is how similar these ideas generated in the early stages of writing are to that of the other poets at a similar juncture of creativity. Similar but how beautifully different – different in the way that they then go on to form roots of their own to branch out in their creator’s essence. This is what Ashish Khetarpal’s debut book of poetry When the Wind Blows and Other Poems (2016) offers you – the freshness of the early stages of birth, the resonances it bears to the poetic genetic makeup of mankind and the promise of branching out to create its own unique type.
As the wonderfully written blurb at the back of the book tells you, the poems in this collection are like leaves of the fall; painted in different colours of poetic thought, waiting to spiral away to glory on the winds of the reader’s sighs. In these multicoloured leaves, one will find carefully plucked memories from the poetic mind. Memories of how poetry entered his life, how it made his life colourful, how those colours brought him love, how love took on a life of its own, how love left him heartbroken at times and how it consumed him at other times – snippets from the poet’s everyday life told with an unabashed honesty to the point of baring his vulnerable naked soul to his readers without being afraid of its risky consequences. These poems remind you of what it felt like in those early stages of musing when everything seems like a tale that should be told, when it is important that every tale is dressed with precision and care, and when poetic inspirations are to be celebrated rather than surreptitiously hidden between the lines. It is this very raw spirit of his poems that will enchant and make one sigh – sigh in remembrance of a youth gone by.
Of those poems that take the reader to the poet’s first stirrings of creativity, “A Poet Who Paints” seems to be the finest example. It gives us a glimpse of the poetic vision, tracing out his methodology. It dedicates the poetic self on the altar of the gods and the mother – one who seems to have a strong presence in many of his other poems as well like “To Show What a Mother Is” and “The Mother That She Is”. This particular poem explains why raising a riot of colours with his poems is so important for the poet, given that he had always wanted to be “a poet who paints” his thoughts. The poem “Meerut” is another one from this group of poems which gives us a sneak peek into the early influences on the poet’s life. Having been born in this Indian city, it is but understandable how much of its essences he might have carried with him. He calls it the “dreamless”, “nature-less”, “thoughtless”, “heartless” and “empty” city, which had unknowingly encouraged him to become a little more of the kind of man that he wanted to be, each time it had forced on him to become the man it thought he “should be”. “To My Romantic Forefathers” seems to be another poem that shows the influences on the poet in his formative years, explaining the romantic streak that can be found in majority of his poems. It begins with the ardent worshipping of the golden pastoral world that the Romantics had so lauded, ending with the realisation that the world of the Romantic poets existed no more. But that does not deter his poetic pursuits, as he finds his own green bed with a blanket spread of “sublime happiness” where he finally finds his own nature to worship and write about. Bathed in colours of nostalgia and early influences, these poems remind us of a time when our young selves had just started figuring out the self. “The Water of The Mouth” seems to both remember that untainted poetic self as well as the determined individual that came out of it with the desire that “the water of my youth will one day alchemize into wine”. This poem does come across as more mature in spirit among the poems of this category, wonderfully conjuring up the images of the organic growth of the poetic self from his cauldron of mixed ideas to the conviction of having them brewed into a concoction of the finest order. The image that stands out in this poem is, however, that of the poet’s “banana bed” which beautifully weaves the idea of the poet’s mind as a fruit orchard, waiting to ripen at the hint of the slightest poetic outpour.
Many of his poems also mull over the questions of life and its meaning. It creates a montage of lived moments with remembered ones, trying to figure out these important questions of life. “Upon the Bridge of Charles” is definitely an integral part of this category. The poet has now moved out of the ambit of his childhood space into France, his lived city. Lovingly holding on to his copy of Gabito and unintentionally sharing that love with a Spanish woman for a flickering second – strangers never to meet again except for in memories, seems to give to the poem a quality only such moments can give. For a poet, who thrives on such moments, this particular one seems to have found the right tune on his poetic lyre at the right time. “We Live, We Dream” is one of those poems which try to make sense of the cycle of life, full of life and death, happiness and sadness, dreams and nightmares – questions that have plagued the minds of poets for centuries. “On Fears, Mistakes and Giving Up” takes us through the rollercoaster ride that mankind’s life is like. Another poem, “A Man is What He Dreams” takes this idea forward by foregrounding how finally it is the will of man that goes into his own making, because even though life is not a bed of roses, man chooses to live dreams of his own for “a man is what he dreams”. The poet further extends these observations about life to that of nature and its influences on man. The “Song of a Leaf” is one such poem which celebrates nature for its abundance and the love it generated in man’s heart. Stretching this idea further, the poet brings together the concept of nature, god and the lover on the same plate, looking for his divine muse in his poem “Where Are You?” Similarly, in “When the Wind Blows” – the titular poem, the persona of nature merges into the persona of his lover, opening up to the male poet the virgin territory he wishes “to enfold” taking him closest to nature than he has ever been.
The major bulk of his poems, however, deal with the notions of love and beauty – albeit very heteronormative in nature. Love in his poems can be found in all forms – celibate love, platonic love, passionate love, unrequited love, conquered love, faithful love, infidel love, fantastical love, or mere plain love. Some of the poems celebrate the ideas of ideal innocent love that man begins his life lessons with. “When Love Happens” is a poem of this kind where love just strikes with only itself on offer. “Three Days They Lived on Love” is a poem which shows how the universe can conspire to bring sleep/death to lovers – the cruellest way to bring an end to a love-filled companionship. However, any session of intense lovemaking can never be fulfilling without “the little deaths” that need to be ideally followed with deep sleep. So is it the gods who have the last laugh or the couple — that is a question that is kept hanging in the air.
Love, however, seems to be problematically tied to most of his poems to the notion of beauty. It is the lover’s “beauty bestowed”, “grand beauty”, “beautiful stature”, “tiring beauty”, “maiden beauty”, “passionate beauty” that seems to be the prime coveted characteristics. This beauty – mostly that of the feminine, seems to be painted in the colours of conventionality with its “birdlike slender neck”, “lovely frame”, “her skin of a temple statue’s gold”, “a mistress fair”, “face the blossoming flower”, “endowed”, “river-like locks”, “scent of lavender tree”, “long black hair”, “lovely creation”, “reflecting back his laudable potter skills”, “apple orchard/That is your chest”, the “roundness of her apples” or “the scent of jasmine”. Even when the poet comforts his “Less Beautiful Beloved”, he marks her on this very metre of beauty, finally to comfort her that it is she that he wants over the “more” beautiful ones. Similarly, in “My One-Breasted Lover” the poet has to teach “pity” to the painters and claim her from them for his own “penly strokes” alone. The worshipper of this beauty is mostly a strong male presence, more dominant than his shy female companion who is often described as a passive object being “gaped” at by her lover for “with her in . . . sight”, “her sight is the eternal revelry”. She is endearing in the way she runs “merrily” into his arms, smiles at him with “a fearful, tearful eye” burdened with her “worldly fears”, and gets lost in “reverie, of fascination”, but is never forceful with inspiration which is a “boy’s sole object” and not that of the girl. If she has not returned the love of the man, she has to bear the sarcastic rants of his anger as in “Turn Away O Lover!”. If she has been infidel, she is warned not to “come . . . near”. But if he is an infidel, he is hurt at her insensitivity for not having seen how much his “heart has cried” from the accusations. If she shuns passion for a “higher duty” she is berated for her “prude bosom”. She is expected to be a passive homemaker while the man is the bread earner and the owner of her body, burdened with his inability to provide for his family – “With nothing to give/Such a man should/Die in his sleep/Before he touches her skin” (“The Cuckoo Bird Sings”). But at the same time, when it is she who realises that her man is not fulfilling this patriarchy-dictated role and leaves him to come back to him only when he has struck gold, then she is merely a gold digger whom the man should “hate” like in the poem “All You can Sleep”, spend “a day/Of amorous plays” with, and leave her while she is asleep.
The other problem with the collection is the poet’s use of rhyme, which sometimes appears forced, sometimes inconsistent and at other times not rhyming at all. These shortcomings are sometimes found in individual poems separately and sometimes all together in the same poem. The obvious rhyming of “love” with “dove” seems childish, while that of “sate” with “fate” sounds unimaginatively archaic. There also seems to be certain grammatical errors and some proofreading blunders too. Sometimes a preposition seemed to have strayed – inexcusable even if it has been done to fit into the rhyme scheme of the poem. Same goes for the use of tenses, which reads jarringly wrong at places. At other times, there are visible irregularities in font sizes and paragraph gaps.
However, despite all this, this collection is special because of the way it successfully evokes the freshness of a budding poet untainted by the boastful lingo of poets who have seen more seasons. The special treats are his shorter poems – deliciously short but surprisingly full. The way the book begins with “The Places Inside Us” and ends with “The Worlds Inside Us” pointing out how we have both the good and the bad within us deftly capturing it in its end refrain “Both these places/worlds are inside us” is a work of utter literary brilliance giving the book a certain circularity that it demands. “Love Imagined” is a delight to read in the way it links each imagery to the next and finally leaves us waiting for more in a hanging pause. “The Direction of the Wind” shines through with its unique take on life, playing with circularity within the body of the poem and finally ending in a wonderful imagery “The scattering of a flame may be painful/but it tells us the direction of the wind/And who doesn’t want to the know the direction of the wind!” The poem “Deaf Love” skilfully captures how obsessive love can become. The beauty of the poem is in how little it actually spells out – because nothing is more useless than showering wise words on deaf ears. Altogether, When the Wind Blows and Other Poems comes across as a very brave and honest first attempt. It shows plenty of promise and warrants looking out for more in the future from the poet.
The reviewer is a PhD scholar working on Indian English Children’s Literature in the Centre for English Studies, SLL&CS, JNU. Her MPhil was on Indian English Literary Nonsense. Recently one of her papers: “Postcolonial Responses to the Western Superhero: A Study through Indian Nonsense Literature” has been chosen as course curriculum at the Berklee College of Music.