Book Review: Sanskarnama by Nabina Das

Reviewed by Namrata Pathak


Title: Sanskarnama
Author: Nabina Das
Publisher: I write imprint (2017)


Of Dough, Clay and a Nation: Brewing up a Rebellion in Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama

If you have to fold
to fit in
it ain’t right

By Yrsa Daley-Ward

These words, minimal, adroitly sculpted and bare, tell us about women and shapes – how women are aligned to shapes and how these shapes strikingly constrain them. Like Yrsa Daley-Ward, if a woman has an affinity towards what is ‘shapeless’ or nebulous, Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama, Poetry for Our Times, tolls similar bells. The alliance is quite daring, even bursting at the seams, though Das’s is a loud clarion call that is difficult to miss, and more so she is not always looking at the imbroglio by installing a framework of gender to flatten everything. There are vivid convergences between Das and Daley-Ward that teased me in many ways. But Das’s Sanskarnama holds me captive as it seeks to answer the number of questions it raises, a charming peculiarity that leads to the installation of more than one worldview, the onset of intriguing possibilities. The text provides you an exposition, you trace a line of thought only to realise later that you are standing at crossroads, a mesh of thoughts, rather, coagulation. Das gives you the freedom to take any route you want, to chalk out your own road map. You are that traveller-flaneur who sucks in the cityscape wholeheartedly. You let your hair loose and dance in the streets, your heels digging deep, marking your share of fragile secrets as you slip in and out of your incarnate ‘shape’.  All the while the poet takes sideways glances at you, lest you stop dabbling in the dirt, slush, mud, clay, and earth, lest you undo the primordial instincts in you, lest you cease to ‘unmake’ yourself; overall, you emerge and dissolve, and how badly you pine for this dissolution.

The burning hope in Das to configure ‘free spaces’ in a country that has otherwise gone to the ‘gau rakshaks’, the saffron-clad yogis, the conserver of our rigid ‘sanskar’ makes her test her limits to such an extent that the poet raises her fangs, spits venom, and this she does even at the risk of being branded anti-national.

My pen is downright anti-national now
it follows the rebel ink and writes elegies
when angry it raises slogans and in times
of love, it becomes fresh ivy and sunshine
it does not take directions from government offices
the fingers twirl and snip
and reach out to the magic lamp of the mobile
phone to touch and write ‘revolution’

( “Hymn of the Anti-National”).
Akin to Daley-Ward, Das’s writing also conversely leads to the act of undoing constricting shapes. But at the same time a variegated landscape is unfolded and looked at, so is the desire to carry a miniscule nation in her head, an entity that she creates on her own terms. Das’s nation is a collective, plural entity that she imagines and carves out for herself. Ironically, the nation that she carries in her head is seldom laced with a sky that is ‘upturned in Gorakhpur’ with ‘some bit of lyrical anxiety in the air’ (“Prayer for Gorakhpur Babies”). Nor is it ‘stirring with all might. The cow-worshipping criminals gasp; / swear words forgotten, their emperor looking for cover’ (“She is the Light, For Gauri Lankesh”). Rather, Das wants to cut across the jagged lines, call them the hairline fractures of the land, the borders. A futuristic poet prophesizes – one day the anathema called borders would hoist flags of union. One day the sky would turn into a white dove, the flapping wings would close in on us. One day the knives would fell stars from the sky. One day ‘all barbed wires turn into homecoming, never a partition’ (“Imagine”). One day, ‘I imagine, our words yours, you are mine’ (“Imagine”) – this seems to be the core of Sanskarnama, the act of erasing the line of separation between you and I, the act of harbouring on luscious points of intersection. No doubt the poet resorts to political manifestoes, even speaks in the persona of a Toba Tek Singh in untying nasty political knots –

Can I tell you all this? No? There you go,
Scared to hear a woman out. The way she was grabbed, hurt, and
Let go to die?

(“Another Toba Tek Singh”)

Das is blowing rebellion in the air in Another Toba Tek Singh. Obliquely, it is also a treatise on shapes – the poet knows, she can be ‘Sita, Gita, Anita, Rama, Maya, Anwara Begum, Mona Darling’ at once. She can be each and every woman living in this patch of land. Yet, she knows that a shape can be restrictive, delimiting, and overtly imposing. It puts a woman in a cage, shackles her.  It is a mechanism of boundary-making. With a much called for audacity she plays with it and splices it up. She tampers with the rough, pale edges. She cuts it up with a pair of scissor and wears it as her second skin. She breathes life into it. She discards it. She peels it off. That’s what Nabina Das does in Another Toba Tek Singh and largely in Sanskarnama; she detests shapes. She is many.

In Sanskarnama, Nabina Das not only remaps the political contours of India but also reshapes an entire nation reeking with the ‘cruel, absurd, and macabre drama’ of the ruling communal forces with a pen that has a ‘rebel ink trail’. In “A Few Words of Sanskar”, the poet retorts, ‘If obeisance is the norm, if slavery is the rule, if gender oppression is the tenet – Sanskarnama is my protest and faith both’. Indeed it is but apart from that, Sanskarnama has a propensity to repair. It stitches the tatters and rags. It mends the holes. It exchanges a gloomy, grief-stricken India for a polished, finely done India, a country whose cells are not rendered numb, a country that is not sedated by an overwhelming ruling party, a country that is not addicted to power. Das does not see India as a seat of callous, base subjects, the power-hungry; her agenda is to create a country that is designed on the lines of liberty and freedom, a country that boasts of mutual co-existence. She looks for this finality in the minute details of life. She probes further, ‘Is there a clock chime for a wake up time, for our beliefs– / The best one can do is to count the blessings of trees / And rise up to reclaim the morning’s calm’ (“Hills are Now Coming Down on Us”).

Sanskarnama echoes with interrogations. This is a poet who poses questions relentlessly, there is a breathless series of questions one after the other. In a similar vein, Das asks, what if a woman is expanding and growing, animating and gyrating, burning, ensnaring, in flames, feeding the fire, flowing, not bound, overarching as the sky; what if she takes an ‘erasure’, takes the darkest ink and blots the days? What if she takes a pinch of our existence and sees ‘how erasure becomes a norm’ (“Erasure”).  The idea is to laugh at the assignments of ‘normativity’, and that’s what the poet does with élan; she digs at the norms, moulds them like a rebel whose blood is boiling at the sight of animosity in the nook and corner of India – at Jantar Mantar where the farmers are protesting naked, at how a conscientious Gauri Lankesh is silenced, at the helplessness triggered by Junaid’s death, at the conniving death of newborns in a hospital in Gorakhpur, at the delusional acche din, and many more.

In “Thinking Tank”, the poet draws an unusual parallel between tanks and libraries –

Imagine a world where tanks
can be libraries. The hatch a perfect
bookaholic’s hole…
Think of books smelling
like gunpowder of the mortar
of a poet’s imagination.

(“Thinking Tank”).

In Das’s libraries, gunpowder is stacked, and it is more than enough to create that flicker of revolution, in words, in actions. This fire feeds on the poet; the flames of rebellion consume her. Unequivocally, Das also thinks of tanks as sabzi mandi with cucumbers, melons, spinach, and sugarcane in an array. Not to mention the baby cradle that the tanks can also become, hence ‘softly rocking on to move all anguish away’ (“Thinking Tank”). This urge to mutate is at the heart of Sanskarnama.

This collection is a healing apparatus that runs on a desire that is generative and therapeutic at once. Maybe that’s why more than a political severity, the webby design of the games that we play unknowingly, the rotten ideologies of the ruling party, what draws you close to Sanskarnama is a hopeful breeding of faith. Here is a voice that is thick in pitch and intensity, but more so, here is a voice of renewal, a voice of change.


Reviewer Bio:

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. 

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