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Up and down the hill

In her debut collection of poems, Anjum Hasan paints her hilly home town of Shillong in intricate detail and chronicles her journeys from there

how does one live in a house that has only windows and doors and no walls at all? CHADRASEKHARA KAMBAR


ALL EARS Chandrasekhara Kambar looks on as Anjum Hasan recites her poems

Can one reach out to the universal without an anchoring in the here and now? Writers and thinkers have time and again talked about the futility of such an exercise — somewhat like expecting a tree without roots to grow all the way to the sky. But does this state of rootlessness define the proud denizens of the so-called global village?

Releasing Anjum Hasan's debut collection of poems, Street on the Hill (Sahitya Akademi, Rs. 40) well-known Kannada poet and playwright Chandrasekhara Kambar spoke about this condition with a telling metaphor. "A house has walls. There are also windows and doors to allow the passage of things in and out. But how does one live in a house that has only windows and doors and no walls at all?"

Brought up in Godhigeri village in Belgaum district, Kambar's works are firmly rooted in his own milieu — with all the fecundity of its language and culture. The Shivapura of his works draws heavily from it. It's a world where, as he put it, the "subjective is not oppositional to the objective world" and there is a constant "interweaving of the personal and universal".

Kambar's Shivapura and the hilly small town of Shillong where Anjum was brought up are, perhaps, as unlike each other as any two worlds can be — starting from their physical contours, weather and culture to what they mean to the two authors and how they are represented by them.

But the "interweaving" that Kambar talks about is crucial to Anjum too. In Street on the Hill, which has an autobiographical progression, the physical and emotional worlds of the small town milieu of Shillong are fleshed out intricately and aren't separate from the poet's own inner world. The rarely noticed details of the lives of ordinary people and the middle-class location from which she participates in or watches them become central to the poems.

Revelation to the young eye

In "Neighbourhood", the Bihari pakoriwala's moment of passion with an anonymous woman on the steps leading to a stranger's house is a moment of revelation to the young eye watching it. She is struck by wonder for this "half-hour island of defiant passion" in the world of "brash freeloaders, the kick in the groin, the familiar words of abuse spoken in an unfamiliar language."

What's also interesting about Street on the Hill is the long journey from this home in the hills to a distant city of new joys, despairs, and perhaps, a heady sensation that comes with constant travel. In "Where I live", Anjum, who now lives in Bangalore, says she has lost the "beauty that filled my throat with its difficult sadness, its harrowing indifference". She talks of all things gone — bright doors, freshly minted dawns, "that whole rich yearning life". She now lives among "tight-faced houses coloured like matchsticks, 21-inch TV screens in badly-lit rooms, people endlessly polishing their bikes... the engineering student's alarm clock at five, after which I lie awake wondering who meagrely measures out days like these." But this is not syrupy nostalgia. She writes: "But none of this kills the habit of awareness I have that melts the world into a nectar for the senses more readily than love/ devours a face, or grief breathes in and out the air of absence. I am without a place. I want three seasons keeping time in the sky/ and valleys which the evening fills with its dark blue waters."

At the book launch event at Crossword, co-sponsored by Toto Funds the Arts dedicated to encouraging young talent, Anjum recited some of her poems that showed this progression. The young crowd that had gathered in good numbers — quite unusual for a book launch in Bangalore — seemed to thoroughly enjoy them. Interestingly, Anjum reeled them all out from memory, without a moment's hesitation, without having to look at the script even once.

Quite a coincidence that Kambar too is known for not reading his poems but singing them in his inimitable rustic style. Pity Kambar didn't burst into a song himself.

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