Reviewed by Rakhi Dalal
Title: Out of Syllabus
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2019
Sumana Roy is a poet, novelist and essayist. She has authored three books including How I Became a Tree (memoir/non-fiction), Missing (fiction) and Out of Syllabus (poetry). Recently, she has edited a story collection called Animalia Indica. Her work has appeared in various prestigious literary magazines, newspapers and journals. She teaches at Ashoka University as Associate Professor, Creative Writing.
Out of Syllabus has 35 poems. These are categorized under different sections in different fields of study like mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry and so on. At first glance, a reader might wonder about the ordering of sections but as Sumana says:
“..the essence of the poetic— the poet must hide, the reader must look for the hidden. And that a poem is often not about what one began meaning or imagining it to be.”
———– Life in Stanzas, Open Magazine.
The reader must find a meaning for herself.
We understand an idea because of its association with a discipline, under which the rationale behind the idea may seem to fall, especially in the realm of scientific studies. But when it comes to our feelings and emotions, our understanding doesn’t seem to be bound by any discipline or any societal norm or tradition. Even the lifelong conditioning for acceptable social behaviour and gender roles is but inadequate to prepare us for the experiences we may go through in this life. The happenings in our life, as well as its trials, may seem to be out of syllabus most of the times.
Perhaps this is what Sumana is trying to bring our attention to. By rationally ordering the sections, she is trying to bring to our attention the woodenness which shrouds our daily lives. With the poems under these sections, she reminds us of the scantiness of our notions in understanding the way of life.
The section titled ‘Mathematics’ begins with the quote:
The proper numbers march together
their uniforms button bright;
the rational numbers walk alone.
This section has two poems “The Third is a Betrayal” and “Singular-Plural” which pivot around marriage and its many afflictions and are poignant ruminations on the frailty of marriage and consequent helplessness, on the advent of a third — a child, a stranger or one’s ego and the inescapable banality that may bind it sometimes.
“Water is always a surprise- hot or cold. And so a third
in a marriage-child or the shadow on the fence.
Both are outsiders.
The third, the third, the third is a bird whose smell
appears before it does. Perhaps like wrinkles before old age.”
For a writer as sensitive as Sumana, it is no surprise that her work is imbued with an instinctive insightfulness which impresses upon the mind of reader an urge to seek the invisible sketches of life. Whether it is her prose or verse, her attentiveness to the veiled reality of everyday life is astonishing. Her writing displays a keenness to observe everything that is not apparent or is perhaps too apparent and which shapes the manner in which we act subconsciously. In this collection, her eagerness gives voice to even the most elusive of thoughts and her words dive deep into the mind of reader, resurfacing with a radiating clarity that illuminates the reading further.
Her poems reflect upon themes as varied as love, longing, loneliness, illness, education, anxiety, home, language and some more. In the section titled ‘Physics’ which has three poems, her words express the tumult of a lover’s heart as it longs for its distant love. Biraha ( parting between lovers) becomes death even as the lover laments
This is death
if there is death at all.
These tears, these long solstices,
are all love’s pension.
And you’ll still say that biraha
is only the fourth dimension?
Chair in the poem “Chair“ becomes a purveyor of memories, its presence giving subsistence to the remembrance of departed love.
Death is cruel
memory is crueller,
love’s nudity cruellest.
I search for my marriage
in this chair,
in its banyan-tree edges,
as if it were a photo-frame
that held a sense of you,
a casteless sense.
The most poignant poems in this collection, “Sunlight” and “Every Girl is Dinner” brings to the fore the onus of being a girl in a sexually oppressive society. Here the torment in Sumana’s voice is apparent, as if the pain has rendered a kind of numbness to her pen.
And I wait, a living carcass,
my life bullied into cold storage,
to surrender my meathood.
Sumana’s poems offer a brilliant imagery. The clairvoyance in her voice is stunning and captivating, her poetic intensity at once palpable and ethereal. A reader may find her own meaning in these poems, meanings which may manifest into perceptions unfathomed in imagination and meanings which might bring an ardent appreciation of the quotidian even.
Rakhi Dalal teaches Textile Design in a university to undergraduates. She is an avid reader and book reviewer. Her reviews can be found at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/
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