How ‘Lost Tongues speak with Forceful New Accents’: Poetry of Ranu Uniyal
Book Review by Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha
Title: The Day We Went Strawberry Picking in Scarborough
Author: Ranu Uniyal
Publisher: Dhauli Book, 2018
Ranu Uniyal, an academic teaching at Lucknow University, is an important poetic and literary voice writing in India. Her poems speak of the human experience, of sufferings, love, pain, angst, unfulfilled desires and unsaid thoughts. Uniyal’s poems give voice to feelings and expressions that reach out. The Day We Went Strawberry Picking in Scarborough is Uniyal’s third volume of poems after December Poems (2012) and Across the Divide (2006).
Professor John Thieme, a postcolonial scholar and critic from University of East Anglia, describes the poems in the volume as “Circling around tart and tough memories” saying that the poems in the volume under consideration “reinvigorate the possibilities of elegiac verse”. He adds, “Lost tongues speak with forceful new accents, making Ranu Uniyal one of the most original voices writing in India today.”
The Day We Went Strawberry Picking in Scarborough is a volume that speaks of the varied colours of life. This volume gets its name from a poem of the same name, a poem that talks of love and loss — themes that recur in the poems in the volume. In fact the title of the collection could be named after any one of the more representative poems in the volume that better voice the concerns in the volume.
In a world of conflicting emotions, it becomes important to seek the irresistible joy that lies at the core of the human heart. Uniyal’s poetry reveals a wonderful way of negotiating love and nostalgia that steers clear of sentimentalism. ‘The taste of tongue’ voices angst, pain, suffering and violence with words that brilliantly evoke these emotions. The opening stanza of the poem brilliantly brings out the various tastes in lines that are brilliantly evocative.
This tongue of yours is tart and pickle
have you not an iota of molasses
that stick like a gum and erode
the sourish taste of tamarind forever.
As the lines go on the evocation of violence becomes pronounced in stanza after stanza –
they came and burnt their mud huts
took away their sacks full of paddy
emptied bowls of toddy and filled
them up with waste from their bladder
Except for the first introductory line, none of the lines in the poem begin with capital letter, which lends a sense of urgency to her rendition.
ovaries gone ruptured cervix
broken tongue lost scripts razed rituals
curses nailed as oblique breasts
our unwholesome seeds will never bloom.
‘In the company of women’ celebrates Uniyal’s feminist voice — “We lean on each other’s arms/ and often lend a tear or two”. The poem uses images of warts and boils that resonate with reality. The feminist fervour rings loud and clear.
. . . I become perky and young
forget my swollen thighs
and cauterized uterus.
Inspite of speaking in different languages, the poem speaks of the way women “share/ the calligraphy of the heart” and “learn to draw from dried up wells, / and hence we multiply our joys.”
There are prose poems in the volume that haunt and make one think, poems like ‘At Falaknuma’ and ‘Love and Shoes’. Many of the images used in ‘At Falaknama’ reveal a rawness that tears. In ‘For Moksha’ is heard a mother’s voice who is frightened at the mildness of her son.
Your heart is pure
But, I am unsure
Of what you would do next.
O son of mine!
It frightens me
To know that you are the best.
Inspite of all the fear and wonder that the poem voices, it ends with hope, with love and faith.
Hatred and violence are addressed ‘In a city of riots’. The poem transfixes the reader with its vibrancy. The use of the three line stanzas gives the verse an immediacy that lingers. The poem has many interrogative sentences added to the sense of urgency and concern created by the words and structure. ‘Her lost tongue’ beautifully speaks of the homes that a woman comes to inhabit: “Shifting homes by choice, you incurred losses,/ but the loss of tongue I fail to understand.” It speaks of an immigrant’s grappling with language and finds it difficult to accept that one can forget one’s mother tongue. “Just as it is impossible to forget one’s mother/ how is it possible to lose the mother tongue?”
How can I believe when she says
O mother! I have lost my tongue?
And whatever little she has in her
comes out with an accent.
Uniyal has a quite a few poems in the volume where the figure of the mother features, poems which reveal a mother’s love, her advice, cooking, the folds of her saree and so on. “My mother taught me to love the grass beneath my feet”, she says in ‘I Owe an Apology to Mom’.
She gave me the empty notebooks and the only way
I could fill them up was by writing poems.
‘Ma’s imperfect advice’ speaks of the need to let go of things, people and memories that are “like blunt razors, barbed mirrors and thistled saucers”. Written in prose, the poem uses images that are not very pleasant to speak about the reality of life. There are a few poems in the volume which are very short, poems like ‘In Love’, ‘The Couple’, and ‘A Plea’. The shortness of these poems evince an urgency that voice emotions and feelings wonderfully.
Ranu Uniyal’s poems are feminist as they voice concerns of women by speaking of and expanding the boundaries and borders created by patriarchy; “And in life she sees/ healing is not easy./ No saviour in love/ Walk-out and forget”. Many of her poems voice ideas of discrimination and gender stereotypes. The poems speak of the lived reality of women, their suffering, pain, angst, depression and unfulfilled voices of unsaid thoughts. There are poems that speak of female friendship, of reaching out to kindred souls.
The poems are written in a lucid style and syntax. They speak of self-discovery and identity with a frankness and sincerity that remain with the reader for a long time. Some poems like ‘In Confidence’, ‘For Persephone — She who destroys the light’ use mythology and mythological characters to speak of social structures, emotions and contemporary issues.
Wonderfully mounted, the slim volume is a sure addition to the oeuvre of Indian poetry in English.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is an Associate Professor in English at Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and Lady Brabourne College, Kolkata. She was a UGC Research Fellow, University of Calcutta and earned her Ph.D on Coleridge’s poetry. Having completed research projects on poetry written in English in Bengal in the nineteenth century and diaspora poetry, she is currently working on a project on Telugu cinema and the diaspora. A recipient of an Associateship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, her areas of interest are British Romanticism, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, the literature of the diaspora and film. Dr. Pulugurtha has presented papers and published extensively in these areas. She dabbles in creative writing and has published short stories, poems and writes on travel and Alzheimer’s Disease.
* The inconsistency in capitalisation in the titles of the poems is, according to the poet and reviewer, “a different way of emphasising” the content.
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