Book review: Green is the Colour of Memory by Huzaifa Pandit
Reviewed by Nandini Varma
Title: Green is the Colour of Memory
Author: Huzaifa Pandit
Publisher: Hawakal Publishers (2018)
Pages: 64 (Paperback)
In a class on Mahmoud Darwish, we are reading aloud “Promises of a Storm” – a moment where the poet’s eyes search for flowers blooming beneath the ashes – ‘I will go on serenading happiness/ somewhere beyond the eyelids of frightened eyes.’
After class, I reach out for a borrowed copy of Huzaifa Pandit’s book of poems, looking for poetry as real as Darwish’s, and read the first poem, “A Kashmiri Fairytale”, pulled out as though from the same song of longing for happiness that Darwish sees in the future.
‘Green green grass will dance in the drowsy sun/ of warm, warm May/ we will quarrel and quibble night and day…’ writes Huzaifa in the poem which opens his debut collection, Green is the Colour of Memory. Consisting of 36 poems, this book stands out not just in the truth it aims to convey but in how it brings it to us through narratives that we don’t quite get to hear or read microscopically in newspapers or news channels that have promised a responsibility of recording history and have failed repeatedly. Little pieces of history are recorded in Huzaifa’s poems.
Huzaifa Pandit comes from Kashmir and writes poetry that deals with the everyday realities of those living in Kashmir, as well as what it is like to carry that identity into spaces like local train journeys, to having brief encounters with people outside Kashmir, to academic spaces, and it is themes such as these that appear most prominently in this collection as well.
Camus had once written, ‘Art cannot be a monologue,’ asserting that an artist cannot create in isolation and must speak of the ‘reality common to us all.’ Huzaifa’s work emerges as an excellent example then of this art, in the form of poetry that creates a tiny corner and opens its arms wide for a dialogue to begin; not only does he offer us a counter-narrative, he also engages with the reader through the sharpness of his language—sometimes you hear it from close quarters and sometimes it is a distant whisper making space for you to step in. Reciprocating then, it is in reading his poems slowly, that we’re in sync with their breathing, and it is in their breathing that we find our own lives momentarily paused. Yet there is transcendence, yet we are being transformed.
When the book opens, we find the poet addressing a denied harmony — a quarrel which is softened by love, a moment so far away, one may only see it in a fairytale. What does one do then? What does one do? It is perhaps in search of an answer to this question, that the poet begins many poems in the collection with dreams and returns to nightmarish encounters, or eventualities.
What strikes one immediately is his excellent use of imagery, for the poet does not just give us images so we could catch them in the blink of an eye. He paints the entire picture bringing them to life through tiny movements, so he could place us exactly where he caught these images in the blink of an eye. Therefore we become a part of the conflicts that have no resolution or breathe in the suffocating air where they exist. For instance, in the poem “A Train to Bombay”, the readers live the life of a co-passenger of the narrator, when he looks outside the train window:
Sun scorched skins of
scarred slums blurred past
while my dreams stuttered
into hazy nightmare ports
echoing shrill whistles and mock laments
of young men bred upon
regular exhibitions of pauper misery.
But that’s not all, we’re also summoned to join him and stand face to face with the dirtied tracks, ‘clothed in half grown grass/fed on human faeces,/shoving across slums/nailed to sprawling public lands…” until we’re prodded to return inside the train into a chaotic journey where the poet searches for truth in these heartbreakingly poignant lines:
My imported accent
smelt of foreign currency
yet I offered only a few stale
words of polite pity
I forgot all the memories
of high school geography
so forfeited my right
to feign nationality.
Would they slap betrayal if I confessed
my fair skin and brown hair were
painted by the icicles of Kashmir
rather than the European sun?
Huzaifa’s metaphors in the poems hang like surreal paintings, but they aren’t from a surreal world where dreams may barely exist as far from the real, something of removed possibilities. They’re nightmares that return through memories of lived experiences: ‘…an overheard babble/ of heartbroken sighs, dry blood and destitute tears’ or ‘bitter bile concocted from rotten dreams/ is stamped on our parched teeth/ and broken necks,’ and a warning stands at the end saying: ‘Every dreamer/ shall forthwith be considered a state enemy.’ The language in the poems can tear you up, when the poet concedes, ‘I wish for avant-garde metaphors stolen from surreal world,’ in his poem “At a Seminar on Agha Shahid Ali.”
Pain often gives way to helplessness so that when one reads poems like “Evenings of Despair”, where the poet piles up questions that are unanswerable, they hit us in our guts, they crack open our hearts:
What does one do when dead flowers sprinkle
expired adhesives over faded dreams?
What does one do when portraits of ancestors
spew expired invectives at you?
Whether the poet holds a speaker to our ears or shows us the quietness of the clouds passing by, undisturbed in the sky, the intensity does not drop; it is sustained in the humour of “The Cat and Shakespeare” as well as in the meditativeness of “Autobiography”.
Grief comes and goes, making forceful entrances and hesitant exits. There is never a sense of closure to its crawling out. It returns through nostalgia for what was once a city of lights as in “Curfewed Friday”:
In this city of lights
who would have imagined
gassed darkness would reign?
This nightmare had never hit me
Had the suspicion ever struck you?
or through the violence it left behind in a now wounded city: ‘Will someone light a candle in the sovereign’s defeated/ memory on a modest grave in a foreign-land?’ in “Imaginary Homelands”. So when the world does not give the poet even that moment with grief, there is immense desolation in its ‘exile’. And so, in “The Manual of Occupation”, the poet writes contemptuously:
We are ordered to forget, forgive
wrap concertina wire around bored necks.
We are ordered to forget, forgive
bulldoze shrines of memory.
In “Buhu Sings an Elegy for Kashmir”, the poet asserts again, ‘The radio announced elegies are banned now/ I heard them,’ but how, he asks, how can we stop singing them?
His conflict and indignation doesn’t begin and end with the power that destroys Kashmir, but power of any kind that is abusive, and therefore it is in fact quite interesting to see a part of his negotiations with certain processes and ideas of academic institutions as well.
His aesthetics lie so deeply in the tension between the surreal and the real that they’re also in the sounds that reflect them. He shoots with sharp plosives, and softens with the sibilants:
Is the prison not guarded by foul empty tracts
and the horned ghosts fed
on briars and brambles in our blasted houses.
I carry the words of Shyam Selvadurai, the author of Funny Boy, in my pocket often, when in speaking about the art of fiction he wrote, ‘the more specific you are, the more universal you end up becoming,’ and I think that so much of this can be said of the magic of poetry as well. I don’t mean a single poem, a page in a ream, a brick without mortar. I mean a collection of poems that come together to create a book, I mean poems found quietly conversing with each other. How the details in one poem complete the gaps in another. And I think then of this in relation to Huzaifa Pandit’s book, Green is the Colour of Memory, which to me transcends the self, the locale—place and body—and reaches out to everyone who has held grief in their palms, experienced the trauma carried by unbearable violence, and felt the opening of wounds in an unalarmed return of nostalgia.
Nandini Varma is the Cofounder of Airplane Poetry Movement. She’s a poet and her writings have been published in various journals such as The Caravan Magazine, Muse India, The Bombay Review Anthology, The Book Review Literary Trust, The Ellipsis Magazine, and A Map Called Home (published by Kitaab). She is currently pursuing her Masters in English at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune.