Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh
Publisher: Leaky Book (2017)
Tikuli knows her mountains well. Not only their physical scale and magnitude, but also the silence and solitude they subsume. Like mountains, she knows how to stand tall amid loneliness and rocky treacherousness. And like them, she has harnessed this solitude to distill it into something beauteous.
If solitude is nature’s essential condition, loneliness, its second cousin, is a function of being human. As Wayfaring shows, we don’t always choose loneliness; sometimes it chooses us. When it does, it’s seldom romantic and more like one’s own shadow, impossible to disown. This is Tikuli’s relationship with the pain of loneliness. Her words bear scarring anguish, and yet instead of exhausting the spirit, they nourish it. Such is the luminescence of her expressions; they betray a heart that’s gone through fire to turn into gold.
I listen to the silence of the trees
as the leaves spiral down and dance
to imaginary music along the pathway,
they cling to my worn sneakers,
my gaze follows two pairs of wings
chasing each other in the clear, blue sky [Trail]
Where she diverges from the mountains is in her movement, voluntary or not. She and her poems drift through different terrains as the section names evince: Trains, Exile poems, Remembrance, Travel, Mosaic, Acrostics, Delhi poems. The “Train” poems set the tone of this roving spirit with quickening grace. Between the span of two poems, Mist and City Metro, the scene changes from rhododendron-flanked valleys to a shopping bag laden cityscape. Even in the movement, there is a steadiness that comes with a contemplative eye, one that pauses long enough at the view out of a train window before letting it escape. The poet’s attention is equally unwavering inside the train. The Local Train is a photographic example of this and places the reader inside the packed coach of a train in motion. In Rain, a short poem, train and rain magically become one.
the wind snores, shifts, snarls,
rain-filled clouds clamber upwards
towards the mountain peaks,
in the valley, whistling its old song
a train crawls through the dappled grey [Rain]
As intimate as she is with loss at a personal level, Tikuli also knows the trauma of a people displaced from their ancestral places because of political or social conditions. Her exile poems convey the haunting pain of a commoner’s forced dislocation. In her case, this also happens to be a place of paradisiacal beauty — Kashmir. Memories of home, then, are intertwined with the textures of the landscape — fields of saffron, the fiery chinar, silhouettes of walnut trees — left behind. Juxtaposed against these images of beauty is the violence of exile, its light-snuffing suffocation. The incongruity of beauty and violence next to each other takes the exile poems beyond the realm of sweet nostalgia and exposes the festering wounds of the displaced.
I watched our landscapes of pain,
between somewhere and nowhere,
the wail of an ambulance sounded
gunshots echoed through the air,
choked on dust and soot and pain
we waited, as the day became ash
then we passed quietly into the night,
towards a cold, unfamiliar sky [Exile]
All through her wanderings across love and loss, Tikuli remains an exquisite word painter. Her facility with imagery and metaphor is sheer delight for the reader. As a student of silence and nature, she folds layer upon layer of imagery in her poems with a mystic’s clear-sightedness. Especially in her mountain poems, there’s such a strong impressionistic streak, one feels transplanted, almost bodily, smack in the middle of the Himalayas. To achieve this by simply stringing words together is special.
my eyes linger on silhouettes
of Dhauladhars rising beyond the valley,
a breeze tugs at murmuring leaves,
forgetting to set, the sun filters
through swaying branches
and meanders along forgotten paths, [Echo]
Similar to her intimacy with the mountains, their contours and shifting winds, Tikuli also bears witness to the rhythms and resistances of the body with an acuteness that results in lush landscapes of desire. Consider these lines from Topography:
pressed together our bodies are a terra incognita where
heat lines radiate like the contours of the earth
your mole a primeval star leading me homewards
Wayfaring testifies the poet’s heightened sensitivity to emotions, which, when converted to words, manifests in intense expressions. Poetry becomes an outlet and a refuge at once, sheltering as much as it obviates. There are poems that eschew abstraction for emotional plain speak and do so with grace and candor.
My mouth is filled with the
warm metallic taste of loss,
I bleed in letters of a language
I no longer understand [Poetry This Month is Hexed]
The concluding section in this collection — Delhi Poems — is evidently where the book’s migrant arc makes its final curve. For this reviewer, the section held a special interest as they brought to focus a place of both love and exasperation. As someone negotiating the city, Tikuli is aware of this contradiction and her poems reflect as much. The city of overflowing history and riches is also a place of astonishing poverty and depravity. Lodi Garden, which begins with and continues for the most part as a beatific ode to a historical monument, ends on a starkly contrasting note.
Leaving the comfort of shadow play
I took the familiar path back to reality
harsh headlights, noise, groping hands,
streets filled with catcalls and swearing,
dust and fumes choking the city’s lungs [Lodi Garden]
As in Kashmir or the Himalayas, the Delhi poems of Wayfaring carry impressions that come from a lover, not a mere onlooker or passerby. The imagery and themes seem repetitive in places and some poems fall short of living up to their initial promise. However, the willingness to breathe in the mist and fume of places and to live with love despite the heartbreak of loss makes the poems in this collection songs of celebration and hope.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Her website is bhaswatighosh.com.