Book review: The Who-Am-I Bird by Anuradha Vijayakrishnan
Reviewed by Vineetha Mekkoth
Title: The Who-am-I Bird
Author: Anuradha Vijayakrishnan
Publisher: Bombaykala Books (2018)
As you read them, these poems by Anuradha Vijayakrishnan appear oddly familiar. Familiar like half-forgotten dreams, sometimes nightmares that tug at you from within as your eyelids flutter open. Lyrical and richly allegorical, Anuradha’s poems are diverse – they are poems of sisterhood, of coming of age, of warnings, of celebrating womanhood and freedom, of woman to woman sharing, of the vulnerability of being a woman/girl, of love and adventure, of temptation, passion, of family, of tender love, of death, of violence and more death, of life and minutely vivid observations on her journey as a poet. In Anuradha’s poems you will find the whole gamut of life as a woman.
A poem which first caught my attention was “Listen”. In this, the poet leaves unsaid the fears and warnings that rise unbidden when we see a girl unfettered, unaware of the dangers around her and of the choices she faces and her identity, as adolescence creeps upon her. Anuradha concludes the poem by freeing her own fear and repressions, thus giving and finding freedom.
Listen, listen. Or even better find your way, your unique gender,
your loosened tongue, your anger, your flawless game on the field,
streets, of the country you choose to be yours, not the other
way around. Forget we ever met
or that I tried to stop you. I did not.
There are the mother-daughter poems that resonate in you. Both, “The Woman Who Once Loved Me” and “What My Dark Mother Meant”, speak of the connect between the poet and her mother, of the love and of the prejudices faced. “Daughter” too belongs to this class of poems and is lyrical in its quality.
But remember, you were born of a woman.
Her love is the secret
“Notes On Visiting Your Mother’s Grave” is a poignant poem. Remembrances that
She liked good things, handmade soap,
cowhide bags gifted by admirers, expensive
footwear. Her last pair was simple cotton
her skin could bear, but before that
and so the poem goes, recounting a story, indirectly, of a woman who appreciated the good things in life and yet towards its end passed away in pain. In some ways, this poem brought to mind a story by Kamala Das, as it reminded me of the fact that women in general put away or sacrifice so many things they love sometimes because of circumstances, though not so the woman in this poem. In this poem is also hidden the story of a daughter different from her mother in many ways. While speaking of the sandals the mother possessed she says:
You had to
Give them away to strangers, you have large feet
And no desire for such beauty.
The line brings out the difference in a stark manner. The difference in the physical and mental temperaments of the mother, who was admired for her beauty, appreciated it in everyone and the good things in life and the daughter who by contrast appears plain physically and thinks unlike her mother, is evident. I wonder if there’s an element of harshness concealed in the lines. The thought makes me reread the second poem in the book, “My Buddhist Grandmother”, especially the lines:
In the furniture shop, we rehearse the act of gifting
her a chair. She who has relinquished many
things but especially the love she was born with.
That last line somehow seems so tragic, yet, around us there are so many who do just that. Sneering at comfort, at all things naturally beautiful, they continue their uncomfortable lives with the satisfaction that they have sacrificed in the name of something of the higher order – a religion or ideology or whatever. These are, in reality, efforts in search of peace – peace with oneself.
Her poems of temptations and of passion are remarkable in their suddenness and are sometimes laced with violence. For instance, “Flesheaters” (mark the word play in the title itself) conveys the idea of togetherness, a passion that is both physical and emotional, one that can end only when life ends, either together or apart. “Familiar” and “Tongues”, prose poems, speak of nostalgia and longings.
Another prose poem, “The Elephant Incident” is infinitely sad and you ponder at the callousness of human beings.
Death is a recurrent theme in Anuradha’s poems. In fact, the collection begins with the poem, “Suicide Note”
To the frog at my doorstep that sang all night…
To the cicadas that held unbroken vigil…
To the rain clouds that held back till they burst…
To gardens of wild jasmine that bloomed early this year…
To glow-worms that gave me fire as long
as it was needed…
“At the Burning Ghats” speaks of death again, this time a violent one, bringing out the vulnerability in us. The vivid picture of the violent end to a young woman haunts us as we read.
I am thinking of you, bony and long
fingered—face smashed in, they said —
head filled to the brim
with the next miraculous thought
stirred with a spoon of madness, a pinch
of butterfly lightness.
They said your skull did not cleave
easily and your young woman’s wrists
snapped impatiently — bangles lost.
In “Wishing’, “Mad Girl”, “Enough”, “Bones”, “Did You Feel?”, “Mrutyorma” death revisits in various forms. In “Bones”, the poet speaks of grief at the loss of a loved one and with its imagery of the bird it reminded me of the Parsi cremation ritual. “Unmade” sings of Alzheimer’s and death.
“Talking of Mangoes” is a coming-of-age poem while “Housewarmed”, “How Do You Wash A Newborn’s Hair”, “You”, “Even In My Dreams I Am A Mother”, “Babyskin” sing of family, nostalgia, pain and love.
The title poem “The Who-Am-I-Bird”, questioning and introspecting, has been beautifully illustrated on the cover by Murali Nagapuzha. It is eye catching, and I took up the book wondering what lay in store. The colourful forest background has the green silhouette of a hornbill with the words The Who-Am-I Bird inscribed on it, in white. The titular poem seeks to delve into the identities of the poet and the reader as one reads it. I wonder if the hornbill symbolises the native land of the poet. The call of the unseen bird resonates through the poem. Who are you, who am I, I ask.
This book by Bombaykala Books is a delight to the eye and a must read for any poetry lover. Anuradha Vijayakrishnan indeed makes her mark with this debut poetry collection.
Vineetha Mekkoth is a poet, writer, translator, editor, reviewer from Calicut, Kerala. She has published poems in various national and international anthologies and is also on the translators’ panel of the Kerala Sahitya Academy from 2014-15. Her debut poetry collection, ‘Ashtavakra and Other Poems’ was published in August, 2017 by Authorspress, New Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org