“How come your hair is so silky?”
the black musician asked, and she,
half-asleep, said Hong Kong was full of gloss
and sometimes the place got into your hair.
He was a professional, and they were playing
games with each other, fine-tuned notes
on silken skin. “The trouble,” he said,
“is you’re too sensitive,” and drew
music from the guitar strings on her head.
It was when he got to the bass
that something changed.
Later, he asked, anxious: “Did you,
Baby, did you?” for, at a crucial moment,
there were silences he didn’t expect.
“I always come quietly,” she told him
not adding: “I always go quietly too.”
The Clinging Vine
Put her in cold storage:
let the grey metallic doors
shut upon her. She will
taste good when the time is right.
Toss her into boiling water,
so red and soft, till the skin
splits and the juices ooze.
De-seed her; gently
roast the flesh.
A bit of garlic
is always good, roughly
in hot oil. For perfect partners,
try some ginger shreds.
Lastly, put her into the shiny processor.
Choose the blade with care
to ensure the texture’s right.
Chunky bits are perfect for the salads,
but pureeing makes her smoother
Down the throat.
Appetiser, main course,
take your pick.
Let dessert wait.
According to the dictionary, ‘frazil’ is the soft, needle-like ice on top of lakes and rivers that are too turbulent to freeze. Living in Lancashire, near the lakes, I often see this. Thanks to Menka Shivdasani’s new collection, Frazil, I now have a word for them. The poems in Frazil are a lot like the needle-like ice, glittering and beautiful on the surface but hiding angst within. Her unusual imagery allows you to see the world forever altered while her humour lurks, teasing.
Shivdasani’s wry look at women, their worth as defined by breasts and ovaries, in the poem, ‘The Whole Deal’, states, “It takes much to know the burning coal / that lay inside of you / is now a charred and empty space / and the river is no longer red.” Much of this collection, spanning 37 years from 1980 to 2017, speaks of love, desire, sex, and issues that concern many women, but her keen mind also writes, with sarcasm, on religion, eating fish, bees, the ethics of killing animals for our own pleasure, and of course, as with many poets, death – there are a lot of death poems in Frazil.
‘Bees’, for instance, mulls over the beehive adjoining her own home, sharing the same wall, and ends with, “Now I carry their sweetness squeezed into a jar, / alone again, except for that one queen bee / who keeps flapping about / wondering where her home disappeared.” Poetry is often political and Menka Shivdasani’s politics is displayed clearly and openly in her work, be it talking of how a bee’s home is as important as ours, or in ‘What We Do To Our Gods’: “… we serve death on our dining tables / and the taste on our tongues is great.”
Menka Shivdasani’s first book of poems, the critically acclaimed Nirvana at Ten Rupees, was published by Adil Jussawalla for XAL-Praxis in 1990. Her second collection Stet first appeared in 2001, and her third collection, Safe House, was published recently by Paperwall Media & Publishing Pvt Ltd. Menka is also co-translator of Freedom and Fissures, an anthology of Sindhi Partition poetry, published by Sahitya Akademi in 1998 and editor of If the Roof Leaks, Let it Leak, an anthology of women’s writing that forms part of a series being brought out by Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW). She has edited two online anthologies of contemporary Indian poetry for http://www.bigbridge.org, an 18-year-old American e-zine.
Menka’s poems have appeared in several publications, both in India and elsewhere. These include Poetry Review (London), Poetry Wales, Fulcrum (USA), Seminary Ridge Review (Gettysburg), the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, 60 Indian Poets (Penguin Books India), and the Harper Collins Book of English Poetry. She is also represented in Indian Literature in English: An Anthology, a textbook of the University of Mumbai.
Menka is joint coordinator of the Culture Beat initiative at the Press Club in Mumbai and has been a member of Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Association since its inception. As Mumbai coordinator for the global movement, 100 Thousand Poets for Change, she organises an annual poetry festival at the Kitab Khana book store. Menka’s career as a journalist includes a stint with South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and the publication of nine books as co-author/ editor, three of which were released by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In 1986, she played a key role in setting up the Poetry Circle in Mumbai.
RK Biswas: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you to it? Why not fiction or other forms of prose?
Menka Shivdasani: The earliest verses that I can recall – though they were definitely not poetry! — were when I was seven or eight years old. I wrote something about a puppy named Terry though I had never owned a dog; this was published in a newspaper thanks to the efforts of a freelance journalist called Rajika Kirpalani, who believed children should be encouraged. There was also something about a strange man, who was “beautiful as a bullfrog/ pompous as a pig” – I have no idea where that came from. And as a schoolgirl, I filled many notebooks with verse.
I did write some fiction in the early days, and my first published piece, soon after I left school, was a short story that the Free Press Journal newspaper titled ‘First Love’. Around the same time, I also had a short story published in Femina, the women’s magazine of the Times of India group. During my teens, I wrote several “middles” which were published in The Times of India; these were 400-word creative pieces that appeared on the edit page. The editor told me that nine out of ten middles he received went straight into the bin, so I was delighted that he published most of the articles I sent him.
Later, as a journalist, I did a great deal of prose writing, of the kind that was never meant to last. Somewhere along the way, as I realised how different the two disciplines were even though both had to do with writing, I decided to focus on poetry. Prose was something I did for a living since financial independence was important, but it did not necessarily come from the heart.
My second collection, Stet, did have one short story at the end and I recently wrote a prose piece for the upcoming issue of Muse India, at the editor’s request.