Myth and masculinity
The author uses legend as a platform for the construction of gender
Confluences II: Indian Men, Indian Gods; Nishi Chawla Indialog, Rs.195.
It has been done before - diving into the vast sea of Hindu mythology and resurfacing with a brand new narrative. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as writers from Ambai to Shashi Tharoor have discovered to their advantage, offer limitless possibilities to those who are looking to tell a good story, a story that will resonate with today’s readers. Nishi Chawla makes the same smart move in her anthology of poems Confluences II: Indian Men, Indian Gods.
A sequel to the collection Confluences: Indian Women, Indian Goddesses, the book’s raison d’etre is its exploration of masculinities and the social construction of gender through the lens of myth and legend. Chawla’s strength lies in the boldness of her opening lines, in her willingness to experiment with forms and in the charming ease with which she speaks to and of gods and seers. She begins her poem “The Supremacy of Rama” with the lines: “Heard so many different versions of/your life story, known you only by one…”. “Hanuman’s Generosity” comes to us in the voice of the monkey god himself: “I bare my head to the high sun above me,/and take it for a ripened fruit…” “The Vision of Shiva’s Linga”, a shape poem, is elegantly crafted and has a long snake of a single sentence followed by one terse last sentence. The titles of some of the poems - “The Supremacy of Rama”, “Vishnu the Preserver”, “Arjuna the Marksman”, “Lakshman’s Brotherly Devotion”, “Dushyant’s Forgetfulness” – are a trifle staid and don’t inspire initial interest. A slight awkwardness creeps into some of the poems and the music is lost. Beginning with “A New Rakhi Tradition of Brotherly Love” the poems in the latter half of the book deal with the not-so-nice facets of the Indian male: from mamma’s boy to the pampered-silly son-in-law to the wife-beating alcoholic. These are the “masculinities” that Chawla wants to dissect, take a dig at. But the finesse that marks the poems in the first half of the book seems to abandon her at this point. The poems in this section – “A Whiskey-stricken Alcoholic”, “I am my Mommy’s son”, “The Power of Being an Indian Son-in-law”, “Gharjamai” and others - take away from the anthology’s strength, negatively impacting the book’s thematic which is the exploration of masculinities across the spectrum from the human to the divine.
That Chawla has potential as a poet is beyond question though. One of the most memorable poems in this collection is “Ardhanarishvara”. Chawla deftly locates this half-man, half-woman icon at the centre of her forays into the construction of gender. She writes: “The iconographers kept changing the form./from right to left and left to right, making sacred/guesses with their imagination… An iron moustache invades,/flattens the bite of her nose ring./Their legs lace together in quiet scrutiny”. Despite its occasional awkwardness, the poem “As Gautama Buddha’s wife laments” offers an interesting feminist perspective on the politics of being an abandoned wife. Yashodara asks: “Did you reckon with an abandoned wife’s pain, sink into deeper levels of meditation,…/The unopened letters, my female relatives and my false sakhiyan/ whisper, thicket of questioning, a man has his reasons for leaving.”
Heartening is a trite word. But yes, it is heartening to see a publisher willing to publish poetry. Indialog has done a fine job of the production.
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