Book Review: Monk on a Hill by Guru T. Ladakhi
By Nilesh Mondal
Books about mountains usually evoke the same sense of wanderlust and serenity in readers that they expect from an impromptu trip to a hill station over a weekend. It is the feeling of glossing over the calm surface of a land, visiting spots endorsed for their natural beauty and renowned as tourist attractions. The audience here expects to look at these lands through the eyes of a chance traveller, the voyeuristic gaze that finds only beauty, but not the struggle underlying this snowy exterior. Guru T. Ladakhi however, isn’t one of those poets, and his poems bring out the skeletons in the cold closets of places he belongs to, and has travelled to.
In his debut collection of poetry Monk on a Hill, he divides his poems into sections: people, places, seasons, haikus and postscripts, meticulously fleshing out a narrative that is unafraid, loud and clear. He doesn’t take the easy way out with his poems, instead choosing to delve deeper into the heart of the mountains and bring out for us pieces steeped in the fragrance of melting snow as much as it carries the stench of spilled blood. The very first poem, “For Robin the Poet”, makes it abundantly clear that he’s not one to shy away from harsh truths, choosing instead to ask questions that have echoed in the repressed corners of every poet’s mind:
“Shit, grime, murder, mediocrity.
How much more must a poet endure
and still keep faith aglow
in the dark lust-paved streets of his brain?”
In the first section, aptly titled “People”, he talks about the strife between pursuing dreams and falling into despair, trading a voyeur’s usual tone of judgement for an endearing voice that is pain stricken and honest about the despair and pain around him. His poems traverse a multitude of emotions, stemming from his ability to both feel and sympathise with the pathos of the people he talks about; from the ache of loss to the jubilance of victory. When talking about death, his voice remains sombre, but resolved, that of a poet who has accepted death as an inevitability but isn’t afraid to shed tears when it does occur. “Departure”, a poem that has been described as a sister’s lament at the loss of her brother, portrays this best:
“In the wake of departure you have left
a mother battered by insomnia
clinging to the sheets you slept on,
and a father unhealed, grasping at shadows,
hoping to make amends.
I reject your relentless absence.”
In the next section, titled “Places”, he delves into the intricacies of the land. His voice remains the same, honest and not scared to reveal truths about these places, but it also contains an aching depiction of nostalgia. These are places he has had a deep connection with, and has watched them change and weather trying times, as all lands must do. This duality becomes apparent in his poem “Shillong, 1992”, where he is both drawn towards, as well as repulsed by the city’s changing landscape:
“Farewell, Shillong, I came because you beckoned
but I must leave now,
for the songs on your lips have died
and you live clinging to the ghost of yesterday”
In the short section titled “Seasons”, the poet shows us the changing pictures of the year through his eyes. The poems here are rich in imagery, describing key aspects of the various seasons that hold special relevance to the poet, with a surprising playfulness. The poem about “Monsoon”, for example:
“Two clouds walk with moist feet
over the shoulder of the opposite hill,
picking sunshine from the undergrowth”
However, amidst these honest confessions of the problems that plague those lands, he also finds the opportunity to romanticize. His poems in the final section, “Postscript”, are thus about love and longing, and are just as honest and open. He doesn’t flinch from letting his words depict the yearning of a lover, or the warmth of a friendship that has aged well with years of togetherness and alcohol. An example of this is “Finetime”, in which he says:
“heard the sound of a rainbow
tingle inside my ears
felt the coat of its colours
brush under my fingertips
tasted the spectrum of light
dissolve upon my tongue
blinded by ten thousand rainbows
arched in the sky
you can say
I’m high on you”
In its entirety, Monk on the Hill is a collection that holds in its chest many precious moments and memories. It is more than just another poetry book; it is the presentation of a life lived, secrets shared; and pain, some healed and some that refuse to. To paint a picture so honest and grounded in reality, of places that have long been considered mere tourist attractions, is something Guru T. Ladakhi does, and does well. And that is what makes this book a welcome read in today’s times.
The reviewer is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Power Engineering. When he’s not overwhelmed by the intricacies of engineering, he lets himself sink in a quagmire of unfinished stories and unwritten poetry.