Polonious: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words….
– Hamlet, Shakespeare
Shakespeare famously asks in Romeo and Juliet, "What is in a name?" Literary theorists and philosophers will spend entire lives answering this question, but as a commoner I have long suspected that there are instances in which the choice of name appears prophetic. Words About To Fall by Dr Sanjay Parva is one such instance. The title adequately conveys the chief malady of the book: it frequently raises expectations, only to dash them immediately. It is a roller coaster of pleasure and frustration that confronts the reader at every juncture.
The book, divided into three sections: Love, Loss, and Home; each lording over a motley collection of poems. Although the connection between poems appears tenuous, yet each poem appears a performative manifestation of the premise inherent in the predecessor.
The title poem, Words About To Fall, to take an example, expresses the crises which is the hallmark of the postmodern world – a yearning for stabilization, an unending wait for a signifier to make sense of the surfeit of words. The poem relies on a network of binaries located in paradoxical unity to illustrate the absurdity of existence while the show of life goes on. The poem reflects an acute awareness of the textual construction of the subject, and thus vulnerable to dissipation of the 'authentic experience' best symbolized by 'love' which we are conditioned to accept exists in an euphoric realm untouched by mundane realities.
This erosion of subjectivity is traced in Memories where the ritualistic treatment of love is concluded with a paradoxical declaration of life sanctioned by death. The poem therein seems to sanction the demise of the authentic subject located in space and time, by determining him within the axes of memory that is irremediably located in the past. In other words reality is an interpretative reconstruction of the demise of time, and as such subject to no definitive center that would order it.
'The second follows when one hasn't yet gone' indicates the surreal juxtaposition of experience that sends the self into an introspective chaos. The poetic subject is forced to dwell: 'is that a reality or perception of my mind?' The silence that ensues from this tumult is the silence of realization that reality of love is after all determined by the same discursive movement as any other facet of experience.
While the tone of the poems in love is characterized by a quiet optimism, the existential despair is clearly realized in loss. Nightmare, for example, deals with a frightening paralysis induced by sheer terror at the loss of individuality. The blockade of the 'road' treated with a resigned air: 'road is anyway blocked' suggests an emotional and psychical exhaustion – the threat of annihilation of the authentic self is about to be realized and thus semantics are taken for a toss – 'stammering, staggering, helpless'. 'Squeezed to stillness' the subject turns to induce an amnesia in a vain attempt to be transported back to the prelapsarian world of domesticity and security manifest in the image of home.
The Lost Shadow is adequately symptomatic of this phenomenon. The speaker attempts to 'catch from behind' his shadow, turns himself 'inside-out/and outside in'. The speaker 'gallops', 'bounces' and 'walks tall', all in an endeavor to catch the shadow, all in vain.
The failure inherent in such a Don Quoxitean adventure is sufficiently representative of the failure of the act of stitching the words undertaken in the title poem. The structuring of reality by language makes it impossible for the subject to claim any suzerainty in assigning or producing meanings. The diasporic self-revealed in the nostalgic offerings of Home understands this situation better than any other forced to exist in spaces that exclude him from the comforting domesticity of shared meanings and conventions – 'a million seconds are lessened/and life goes on', a succinct commentary on the frustrations of marginality – 'my ultimate periphery'.
It can hardly be doubted that these poems would have been much better for proper editing. The preface does issue a disclaimer:
Not sure what I must say
But at an early age and all these
Poems were written when other
Boys thought ducks were geese.
However, it still doesn't justify, in my opinion, the cavalier disregard for contemporary cadences of modernity that strike a reader forcefully at almost every juncture. The use of old English: 'A season changeth they, how cleverly', and manipulation of verse to achieve regular rhyme sacrifices the effectiveness of the verses. A noticeable lack of experimentation can also be noticed in the anthology. No attempt has been made to move away from the comforting presence of the four line stanza, the occasional couplet like the alliterative 'A baby-boy as if being lulled/ In the cradle of silver anklets' makes the reluctance to use it more surprising.
The poems in Home sound too idyllic and tinted by nostalgia. As a member of a displaced minority group – the Kashmiri Pandits, the poems are marked by an absence of any political position. The prelapsarian view of Kashmir has been reduced to a cliché, and a deviation from that into the traumatic legions of displaced identity, exile and a search for roots would lend these poems a greater power and greater readability.
The surprise is all the greater because we have been accustomed to reading the author's meditative write-ups in this daily and his efforts in chronicling the pain of his community through a series of heart wrenching photo exhibitions. Perhaps Dr Parva would be best placed to answer why the pain doesn't seep into his poetic corpus.
Overall, the book gives the impression of an uneven compendium. Some images and verses are indeed striking and original, but they are overshadowed far often by lines of lesser quality. One hopes that a second edition will be a more compact and taut version. Here is the latest addition to the rapidly increasing Kashmiri English literary polysystem!