By Namrata Pathak
Title: Hills of Slow Time
Author: Ananya S. Guha
Publisher: Dhauli Books, Bhubaneswar, 2017
Price: ₹ 250
“The hills I have known, paraded with / my destiny, the hills that moulded clay into my mythic doll. Yes these were the hills I knew. Molten clay, shrapnel hirsute legs the hills were/ not man made” (“Hills of Slow Time”).
What strikes you first when you take up Ananya S. Guha’s latest collection of poetry is the incongruity of time – time is a snail-paced, animating, pulsating organism that crawls backwards and eats its own trails. As the title tells you, all the poems are steeped in the “hills of eternity”, a place that does not boast of the usual synchronicity of time – it seems the poet has hijacked time and stolen it away. Time is a keep. Here are Guha’s “hills of slow time”, mostly the pine-shrouded, icy, and pinkish Shillong, a city that dances bare foot on the poet’s dreams, lifts his spirits, rigorously kneads his thoughts – a place that is born again and again in Guha’s verse with a new skin, a new throbbing propensity. The poet contends, “There must be a story in these”, but the hills also reflect a grim vehemence, especially at times when they “lie comatose/in disappointment”, in total abandonment. Guha is more than aware of the Janus-faced hills; this is a facet that is dualistic – he has pinned the hills down as both utopic and dystopic; partly the charm of the poet lies there.
There is “a story” in the hills that Guha excavates, digs deep, to unbare for you. Mark that the “bluish strokes of the sun’s haze” matches with the agility of a “quiet bird” plummeting to pluck at “an oceanic vastness” – mind the movements of escalation, the act of zeroing in to the ground, giving in to the gravitational pulls, also defying it, flying high in the sky – mind the game of physics here. As evident in most of Guha’s poems (that are published elsewhere), Shillong, for him, is nostalgia. It is that viscous desire that drips from the pine spikes in wintery nights, those one, two, three droplets of incandescent light. Shillong’s sky is an empty vessel. You fill it up with whatever colour you choose. Sometimes it is leaden; at times it is tangerine; also a dash of florescent green of the hills that it mirrors; and it can also be the colour of the onlooker poet’s eyes – dreamy, probing, and deep. Guha’s representation, the imbrications here, transports us to a realm that is an admixture of contrary traits or opposites – we have the meeting point between the living and the non-living, the biotic and the abiotic, the mass and the matter, the universal and the specific, not to mention the subjective and the objective.
Guha not only paints the cityscape for you, but like Ramanujan, he also deftly creates “an interior landscape”. He shows how your world within changes with your world without; how the sombre, shadowy Shillong on a rainy day conjures gloomy memories in you, how the peach-tinted cheeks of kongs give in to gurgles of laughter or a riot of merry moments, how a familiar smell wafting in your neighbourhood initiates a spiralling, heady longing for a long lost dear one. In total, the city adorned by the dotted hills, the smoky sight that tease your lines of vision at times, tosses its head sideways in a dismissive languor, becomes a regularity, something that is proportional to your ordinary existence. The ordinariness of everyday life finds an expression in the symbolic overtones of certain places, like the “hospital” or the “school”. These crowded spaces have a centripetal force, they draw you to the heart of the matter and ironically, there is also the onset of a magnetic frailty at the centre. The “hospital” or the “school” harbours the zeal of a collective reformation in them and Guha laughs at the fragility of such a raft of thought, leave aside the societal mutation it aims for. In the poem, “Childhood”, we float about in a world of “traumatized teachers/ writing on blackboards, wearing white”, a perfect oxymoronic reconstitution of the black and the white, and the inevitability of falling prey to the rhythmic pattern of life, through the “rattle of snakes of blood-bones”, through an “endless tunnel/breaking bounds”. Guha also talks about a novel transformation, a rebirth, in the world of the sick and the senile in the hospital; there is a wish for recovery and regeneration from the “bliss of ignorance”. Guha strikes a balance between the dark and the bright side of life and this he does with a unique sensitivity and sobriety.
The semiotic rendering of the entire collection is condensed in the scavenger bird, the crow on the cover page. With a prominent protruding beak, the crow is decked up in formal attire. But the peculiar claws give you the impression of an automaton, the gait and posture (the crow is clutching a suitcase) make it impossible to tell whether we are taking a jab at a machine or a man. In fact it is both and a bit more too (“Decision” and “Suddenly”).
Time is an antagonistic force in this collection. The hills have their own self-regulating, inner time. In Guha each poem is a rich tapestry; there is a creation of a new dimension in the coiled, knotted-up strands of time. Also there are strands that run parallel. They are in perfect sync, but there are clashes and intersections too. In this collection of poems, Guha creates a new dimension, rather a new facet of life that remains hidden from your totalizing gaze. This life, soft like the larvae, gelatinous, insidious, has a new configuration of time. Guha says that here are blocks of stubborn past that refuse to budge; its weight, an overbearing presence, cannot be put “under erasure”, you have to encounter it head on. Also there are some scraps, bits and parts of time, that do not march ahead in a linear fashion. They resemble a dog biting its own tail. Sometimes the zigzag movement of time makes you cringe. You dig our nails on the couch, stay put, and seldom move an inch. This stasis terrifies you. This is a chunk of immobility. This is a decadence that sneers at you. Here, the temporal frameworks of the past freezes for a millisecond as you are given a reflexive angle to visualize his craft. All you see is a wordsmith dabbling in his “molten clay”, shaping up, chiselling, contouring, texturing, hammering, flattening; all you see are words, singular, in clusters, surrendering to the poet (“Words, Heard Unheard”). You see the beginning and the ending, the points of entry and exit, the genesis and apocalypse; you see the whole world in a word (“ontologies;/ time, space,/ myth, history”). For Guha, one word can entail a dense web work of signification. This crisscrossed network of signifiers makes us toy with different semantic possibilities. Guha’s rich baritone – sharp and edgy – is difficult to miss and so are the messages deftly condensed in his mostly short, crisp poetic evocations.
Dr. Namrata Pathak teaches in North-Eastern Hill University, Tura, Meghalaya. She has published two books, Trends in Contemporary Assamese Theatre (2015) and Women’s Writing from North-East India (2017). Her writings are published in North-East Review, Coldnoon, Cafe Dissensus, Setu, Indiana Voice Journal, Muse India, Raiot, Vayavya, The Tribe, to name a few. Her first collection of poems, That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate, is forthcoming in February.