Musical Notes from a Courtyard Corner
Reviewed by Shikhandin
Title: To My Violin
Author: Geeta Varma
There are some women who wear their accomplishments like jasmine strings looped into their hair. When they pass by, you get a waft of mild perfume, that’s all. It seems to matter little whether you noticed or not. At day’s end, they will take off the flowers without a thought; self-effacing, no doubt, but what they create – their offerings of the day – linger, though not in a demanding kind of way. If you stop to observe, watch, hear or read, you would know how the quietest of voices can move in the smallest, and most immeasurable of ways.
Reading To My Violin, a slim offering of poems, in the light of a night lamp, in a room where we shut the summer out by artificial means, and that means also the sounds and scents of a summer night, I feel her gentle chiding in the very first poem. It’s an untitled poem of ten short lines that remind me of the hypocrisies sitting skin to skin in our society.
In “1961 The Refugee Colony”, Varma sketches exactly that, seven stanzas in swift strokes. What spreads out in the double page is not a pattern of words but complete scenes from a panel of miniature paintings. When you lift your eyes to the top of the page you see a solitary line, a caption of sorts, floating in white space: ‘Some pictures remain…’ The next poem is also dated – “1965 Back in Kerala”. It’s as if Varma had travelled to the place where she had been a tourist watching the refugees in their colony and now is back again in her home state. Here too are pictures that remain. Specifically, of two women characters, one ‘a small figure, small face, small eyes behind thick/ glasses’, and the other who ‘was huge/ and filled the doorway! /she had a loud voice too’. Both loved to feed sweets and other things cooked lovingly. But while the first, the one in the refugee colony had a secret, Varma’s Ammooma in Kerala was confidently visible, just like the ‘huge bindi/ on her forehead’. One can’t help but ponder – is there a link between the two poems. The unsaid is unsettling.
An untitled poem, and in this collection this is more the norm than exception, takes us to ‘that afternoon!’ Rain drenched and soporific, except for the ‘pounding in the backyard’, a mango’s fall and a squirrel’s scurry. One of the most dramatic poems is about Muthassan’s pet elephant. It’s a short poem, recalling (to quote Dr Srilata Krishnan) ‘a world in which a man can keep an elephant for a pet’. One short poem in particular offers a burst of images, making one inhale sharply:
Did not see
On silent rocks of water
A grand spell of orange dusk!
A day’s story over
They disappear in flight
There is no one here
But this untied horse in wilderness.
Many of the poems in the collection appear to be snapshots from her life. Like the previous dated poems, there is another – “1969 Entry to Goa Old.” This is on a family trip, which is fun, and hinting at happy times to come: ‘A new chapter, a new beginning, to cherish’. An untitled poem creates a still life picture of her Grandma’s house while another is about the holy city of Kashi, where ‘The rich, the poor and the sick /All battling their way into nowhere’. There is wry humour in some of the snapshot poems too. Like the one aptly titled “Writer’s Wife!” where she describes her role as seen by members of the audience, and then by the agent himself. Another untitled on family gathering, describes the unrevealed turmoil beneath fraternal ties, and is in fact a critical observation of relationships.
Even in the poems where she apparently offers plain descriptions of everyday happenings, Varma finds quiet corners for reflection. A short phrase here, a line break there, a word either by its absence or presence makes the reader pause. At times, like a modern day Meerabai, Varma veers straight towards the spiritual, where Krishna is the only one her verse will invoke, and she speaks directly to her God – ‘Krishna / though blue / is no stone…and behaves like a doll!’ The titular poem “To My Violin” is a love poem on the surface, but its deeper spirituality shines through. Another poem, alluding to Sita’s fire test also refers to the violin, but in a world that is beyond repair.
In other poems, Varma speaks of quiet domestic hours, when she waits upon or simply waits for, when longings for self-expression and even desire for complete freedom, spill forth – ‘Someday / I will have to fly away too…I lived here / Once / And dreamt unceasingly…’ And in yet another untitled poem, ‘Next birth, / (I hope there isn’t one) / if I have a choice, / I’ll be music, / Or at least a song…’
In these poems, Varma never forgets herself, her persona outside of a poet and artist. She remains wife, mother, daughter, worshiper, and a woman who understands full well the implications of straddling so many spheres. As she states in this short untitled and eerily effective poem:
This tightrope walking
Ever step in balance
A mighty fall
A deep dungeon
Where do I stop
I have to continue
Owning your sense of self, holding your place in your world, even as you let yourself go into your art is not an easy feat. Varma’s reflections in verse show no self-pity, no regret, in spite of the longings and the wistfulness steaming up in places. It is as if she herself is at peace and is content to share her thoughts, and vignettes from her life, and express her ideas. This is what makes her poetry every woman’s story. There are places where images and at times even a phrase or two overlap, but not enough to jar. Clouds, rain, mangoes, leaves, the act of flying or flight are recurring motifs. All together one gets the sense of a poet padding about her house and garden, nurturing, nursing, nourishing. Poetry happens. I can almost hear the jasmine blossoms whisper, ‘our fragrance happens, it’s yours now, we don’t have to dwell upon it.’ And the reader is urged to move on, look forward, in Varma’s words, ‘Every morning opens a new page.’
Shikhandin is an Indian writer whose story collection ‘Immoderate Men’, was published by Speaking Tiger (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/). A children’s book is forthcoming from Duckbill in 2018. Shikhandin’s prose and poetry have won awards and accolades in India and abroad, and been widely published worldwide.