July 4, 2022

KITAAB

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Book Review: Knotted Grief by Naveen Kishore

7 min read

Shyamasri Maji reviews Naveen Kishore’s Knotted Grief (Speaking Tiger, 2022) stating how this debut collection is replete with such ingenuity and acumen.

Naveen Kishore’s Knotted Grief is a debut collection of poems that deals with the themes of death, sorrow, pain, longing and irrevocable loss. Kishore, the founder of Seagull Books, is the recipient of international awards such as Goethe Medal, a Chevalier de l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and Ottway Award for his significant contribution to the fields of publishing and promotion of international literature. In the volume under review, he makes an innovative dissection of ‘grief,’ which is an emotion associated with bereavement.

‘Grief’ is usually described as a conglomeration of emotional responses that often begins with a temporary denial of the brutal reality and is followed by anger, reproach, depression, and acceptance of the loss. As observed in the Greek Tragedy, grief is a method of communicating with the dead and then coming back to oneself with stoic enlightenment. In this context, it is a ritual reconstruction of the absent through mourning and melancholia. While mourning is a temporary phase, often contained by the ‘last rites,’ melancholia can be a lifelong experience recurring through reminiscences of the time and space shared with the deceased.

In Kishore’s book, grief is a long-term involvement that includes in its protocol of bereavement deep-seated melancholia not only for the deceased person but also for the devastating place to which one’s personal and collective memories are rooted. Here, the place consisting of both animate and inanimate objects is a canvas for sketching life both ‘before’ and ‘after’ the catastrophe causing grief. 

The classification of grief as ‘knotted’ in the title of the book represents a complex structure, which the reader needs to explore in the sections captioned as “Kashmiriyat,” “Street Full of Widows,” “Selected Griefs,” “Tilted Sky,” “Under the Skin” and “Birdcall.” A two-line announcement titled “CODA” precedes the sections: “Wearing a transparent shadow, the young widow waits/and waits.” The “CODA” is significant because ‘shadow,’ ‘widow’ and ‘waiting’ recur as motifs and images in all the sections. Although ‘coda’ refers to a finale, an epilogue, and the concluding segment of a musical performance, here it serves as a fitting prologue to the verses of grief.

This merging of the introduction and the conclusion in a way is unique as it shows that grief is an unending process and it has a circular pattern. It is also suggestive of the changes that grief can bring in one’s perception of the cruelties of life. By representing a violence-stricken picture of the green valley in the first section, Kishore produces an ironic version of ‘Kashmiriyat’ which contradicts the traditional idea of Kashmir being a place of cultural and religious syncretism.  In one hundred and five stanzas, he describes the horror of living in a land stormed by communal riots and terrorist attacks. References to “metal boots,” missiles, “smell of burnt flesh,” blood, burial, bullets,, and shadows reiterate the omnipresence of fear and death in the land hailed as ‘paradise on Earth.’ The shock of encountering violence every now and then is conveyed through the juxtaposition of contradictory images: 

49

cold wet streets

stones

strewn across

flickering lamplight

like freshly plucked flowers

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on both sides of the scream 

a forced silence

The trauma of living under the shadow of death and its visceral underpinnings on community life is represented in the second section “Street Full of Widows.”  Although the word ‘widow’ specifically refers to a woman whose husband is dead, here it is a symbol of mourning. In Indian society, widowhood is articulated through the absence of colours in the sartorial representation of women. Kishore’s description of them as “stand three women/their bodies covered/in black” at locations such as across the “barbed wire” and the “graveyard” explain their plight.

The phrase ‘street full of widows’ (emphasis added) draws the reader’s attention to a large number of untimely deaths and at the same time, it highlights the intensity of bereavement in the community. It is not only the wives, who are the passive victims of the armed atrocities but also the children. The kids learn to wear the black melancholia of grief in their daily activities, even in their play: 

                                  The deserted street

                                   allows the child

to play hopscotch 

                  she hops on one leg                               then

                                    the other

muttering names

                              of missing friends    

The layout of the above lines is modeled upon the to and fro movement of the child across the hopscotch court. It provides a realistic touch to the sensitive issue represented in the poem. Kishore’s creative use of the page layout, proofreading tools, and graphology (tilde sign ‘~’) is compatible with the theme of mourning and the mood of melancholia. Ample use of blank pages, blank space, short, brief lines, and small letters instead of capital letters convey that grief is characterized by emptiness, bleakness, and inexpressible anguish. In “Selected Griefs” the poignancy touches upon one’s ardent efforts to reconcile with the loss: 

Braided silence

learning to live

with knotted grief

you do your own thing

The adjectives ‘braided’ and ‘knotted’ exude similarity in terms of meaning and imagery. Parallelism is drawn between silence and grief through the interchange of the adjectives: “knotted braids,” “grieving silence” and “braided grief.” It is through this overlapping of the intricate feelings that the poet points out the helplessness of both humans and gods while combatting grief. The futility of all conscious efforts to overcome the melancholia is emphasized by the act of striking out particular words (“Death”) and phrases (“Not one single person”). 

“Tilted Sky” and “Under the Skin” are two long poems mapping the expanse of grief in the territory of nature and in the realm of dreams. The sense of gloom evoked in the lines such as “this air/foul like yesterday’s breath,” “the tree stripped to its bone/covers itself with snow” and “the earth wears white for the funeral” in “Tilted Sky” is similar to the sense of despair conveyed in S.T. Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode.” The title of the last section “Birdcall” is ironic as the poems in it deal with the raven, a species of large black bird with a hoarse voice. The raven acts as a messenger of darkness, an ill omen that brings more sorrow to the devastated city (“the ravens/circle the night/ their cries drowning the dirges”). Although grief is an inevitable experience of life, very few collections of modern poetry are dedicated exclusively to it. In this regard, Kishore’s Knotted Grief is an interesting volume that presents a multifaceted discourse on grief. The corpus of the discourse is wide-ranging as the poems relate to the experiences of grief in both personal and public life. The stylistic nuances remain focused to the main theme from the beginning to the end. Although this is a debut collection, it is replete with such ingenuity and acumen that it clearly reveals Kishore’s versatility as a poet, theater practitioner, literary publisher, and connoisseur of art.      


Reviewer’s bio-note

Shyamasri Maji is an Assistant Professor in English at Durgapur Women’s College in West Bengal, India. Her book reviews and articles have been published in international journals such as Antipodes, Situations, Third World Thematics (Routledge), International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies, Asiatic and New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies. Her email address is shyamasri.2010@gmail.com.


About the Book

In his first book of poems, renowned publisher Naveen Kishore shows us—without holding back, and yet with compassion—grief, deep and bewildering; cruelties, public and private. He lays bare the nature of our outer and inner realities, using striking symbolism to reveal what humans are capable of doing to each other. The early part of the collection, ‘Kashmiriyat’, is a visceral monument to shadows, widows and unlived lives, constructed with one hundred and five stanzas. In the ‘selected griefs’ that follow, the wounds are intimate, everyday, but the images remind us of the world’s brutalities—and what, then, is innocent? By depicting large-scale human tragedies and familiar habits and hurts within the same covers, the poet tests himself, and us.


About the Author

Born in Calcutta in 1953, Naveen Kishore received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature in 1973, and began working as a theatre lighting designer. He established Seagull Books in 1982, a publishing programme focusing on drama, film, art and culture studies. Today, it also publishes literature, including poetry, fiction and non-fiction.

Kishore is the recipient of the Goethe Medal, a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and was awarded the 2021 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature. He lives and works in Calcutta.

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