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Atreya Sarma U: ‘Night Sky Between The Stars’







Book Review

Usha Kishore

Night Sky Between The Stars

Poetry Collection

Allahabad: Cyberwit.net. 2015

ISBN 978-81-8253-566-4

Pages 110 | Rs 200 | $ 12.99 | £ 7.99

 

A different feminism – drawing on ancient Sanskrit lore

 

Indian philosophy believes that the entire cosmos operates on the unity of the male and the female energy (Purusha & Prakriti) in what is known as the Ardha-Naareeswara concept. Whenever the balance goes awry; peace, harmony & order stand disturbed. It requires a keen insight and broader and profound wisdom to identify and honour the inherent and distinguishing features of the two opposite forces. Otherwise, it could lead to distortion in perception and perversion in conduct. And despite the ideal idolisation of woman in India through the ages, it cannot be gainsaid that she has been simultaneously a victim of male chauvinism, nay barbarity, as elsewhere. This lopsided scenario has, rightly, provoked the fair sex into raising their voices.

 

And one such voice is the well-known India-born British poet Usha Kishore, but her feminism is uniquely different –

 

My écriture feminine does not chain itself

to lamp posts or wander around, waving placards,

shouting in loud voices. It is more subtle;

dressed in Kanchipuram silks, it laughs

in tinkling bangles; its power lies on

its forehead – a red dot called sindoor

that can change your world.

(L’Écriture Feminine et Indienne, Page 75)

 

The feminism of Usha, who is well-versed in Sanskrit lore, is a product of the traditional Indian template and its concomitant spirit of modesty-cum-firmness. She proposes to inform it, in her own eclectic way –

 

Now, here I am, an Indian woman attempting

feminist writing in a borrowed tongue, in an alien land.

I colour it with the occasional French – I like its music.

(L’Écriture Feminine et Indienne, 75)

 

Conscious of her diasporic bipolarity, she speaks of her existential dilemma –

 

... In the East,

I am fairer than the fair;

in the West, I am darker than the dark.

I am a translated woman.

(Translated Woman, 71)

 

In sync with the Indian literary tradition, Usha begins with an invocation to Gayatri, the feminine half of the cosmos and ‘Mother of Vedas’ –

 

“Her body is earth,

Her breath is air,

Her womb, water,

Her skin, the sky;

Her soul is fire,

Her hair, rays”

(Twilight Prayer, 10-11)

 

This done, Usha “challenges patriarchal texts, renders new voices to female mythical characters and creates an alternative dimension for Indian womanhood,” by “drawing heavily from Sanskrit verse and Indian myth” (Blurb).

 

Why draw mainly on ancient Indian Sanskrit works for her purpose? It is obviously because of the inexhaustible fund of information, knowledge and wisdom cached in them. Even many Western scholars concur with this. Emily Parrish, a UK based storyteller, specialising in Indian epics, mythology and folklore, has stated in her recent visit to India: “Between the Mahabharata and the Ramayana… everything in the world is in these two stories.”

 

Going back to the origin of creation, Usha catechises how “the first seed of mind” emanated –

 

Where was the hidden womb that carried the germ,

the pulsating rhythm of warmth, the sacred chasm

wherein the flame of life was nurtured?

(Creation, 13)

 

When Shiva resorts to “seismic tandava” – ignited by Dakshayani’s self-immolation due to her father’s vengeful provocation, she tells Shiva – “Your dancing ghosts cannot retrieve me.” She wants to wreak the revenge herself on the bull-headed rashness of her father – “the patriarch of the heavens” – whom she had “challenged” –

 

... Let me flood

the earth with my primal blood, stain the skies

with the hues of my burning twilight dreams.

Let me disintegrate into thought, word, allegory,

ballad and parable.

(Dakshayani, 16)

 

And in a cataclysmic spirit, she vows to take birth again –

 

Let me born again and again to question pater ire

... ...

Let me rule the world with lolling tongue of flame

(Dakshayani, 17)

 

Such paternal humiliations not wanting in our society, Usha invests Dakshayani with a human touch –

 

...I am no goddess, I am a real woman

(Dakshayani, 16)

 

Referring to the legendary virginal quintet – Ahalya, Draupadi, Tara, Kunti & Mandodari – who have been elevated as the “pantheon of Pleiades” despite their marital status; Usha calls them “fiery stars defying their fates,” in the poem “Five Virgins.” Usha is set to “invoke them in verse, these feisty feminine archetypes, / destiny’s rivals who fan fires of revenge in unravelled hair.”

 

In the same poem, she projects certain types of women, who are apt to be seen in every age –

 

...anachronisms in a world of men,

bold women seducing Gods, unwed mothers, many

times husbanded sensuous sirens, manoeuvring wives,

Manipulating queens, well emboldened in statecraft,

tilting empires...

(Five Virgins, 19)

 

And “Draupadi” is an intense poem of quaking emotion of a highly self-respecting polyandrous queen who was shamelessly and barbarously humiliated – right in front of her mighty husbands in the open royal court – for no fault of hers. In the lava of her inflamed mind, she appeals to Lord Krishna in heart-rending words –

 

I helpless Prakriti raise my hands

to you, Purusha, jewel among men.

Honour the piece of my torn sari

that once bound your bleeding hand.

Clothe me from eternity to eternity

and save womanhood from ruin,

for a tale to be told until the end of time.

(Draupadi, 25)

 

It is disconcerting to see that in our modern, scientifically advanced age, such offences against women have multiplied, far from abating.

 

The six-page poem “Ode to the Monsoons” is so exquisite and romantic, powered by poetic afflatus of an exalted order, that the entire poem is worthy of quoting. Usha carries the whiff of her native monsoon to the exotic lands, by immersing herself in their snows so as to “translate the cryptic code/ of monsoon song” – though “in a language/ not my own” – in “ardent whispers/ of verse,” in “a rhapsody of rain,” and “in jewelled/ ghazals,” for the people of the “distant land” where she has been living. This poem is richly cloyed in flight of fancy, in imagery, in the riotousness of sight & sound, colour & fragrance.  Usha prefaces the poem with the following Vedic hymn (Rig Veda, V.83.4) that inspired her –

 

Winds blow, lightning falls,

plants rise forth, heaven swells,

the world’s grain sprouts, when

Parjanya rouses the earth with rain

(Ode to the Monsoons, 30)

 

The title poem “Night Sky between the Stars” symbolises the Cosmic Female Force that occupies time & space from end to end, calling herself variously as “blue woman,” “illusion, Maya,” “mistress of time,” “vampire woman,” and “cosmic soul” that proclaims –

 

...My insides, bleeding red stars,

I am the woman, who launches a thousand verses.

The spasms of my womb, throbbing with

the pulse of centuries. I hold dark eternities

in placental delusion, birthing them in the depths

of oceans, that swirl around the earth.

(Night Sky between the Stars, 45)

 

Interestingly the caption of the title poem echoes in another poem –

 

Let me be the night sky between the stars.

(Dakshayani, 17)

 

The extent of her cosmic proportion can be gauged by the visualisation of her annunciation –

 

I spin eternal music in the infinity of stars.

(Night Sky between the Stars, 45)

 

The exploitation of the fair sex is rampant, in countless forms; to wit, in the shape of savage dowry killings, in the current times –

 

Kerosene stoves belch callous thoughts and sari tip ablaze, she is

now wedded to fire. Her shrieks of fear echo across an uncaring sky,

fringed by silent trees that weep for burning womanhood.

(Dowry Fires, 52)

 

The poet, at the end of the poem, adds a note: “2010 Statistics, released by the National Crime Records Bureau of India, show that an Indian bride is burned, every 90 minutes.”

 

Enraged by atrocities like this, the poet gives a thundering call –

 

Let every fire become a woman and every woman, a fire!           

(Dowry Fires, 52)

 

One of the most powerful poems is “Descent of Ganga”, where the poet explicates –

 

But she was not born to drown, she was born

to purge, to wash away sins, to save lost souls,

to revive fallen mantras with her deepest draughts

of soma, to marry the sky and the sea.

But who dares to bind her turbulent waters

and enrich the tribes of men?

(Descent of Ganga, 101)

 

This poem flows almost with the same onomatopoeic pace and swiftness – intermingled with alliterative euphony – as does Adi Sankara’s lyrical invocation of Ganga which has inspired this poem. Notice Usha’s mots justes

 

... Splashing the colours of autumn,

The scents of spring and the vestal whites of winter

In her flailing plumes, she gushes forth in glory,

Taming infinite space, wilder than the wind.

(Descent of Ganga, 101)

 

By the way, doesn’t the mighty and once pristinely pure Ganga, an aspect of Prakriti – panegyrised through millennia for being the major lifeline of India’s material, cultural and spiritual sustenance – behove us to clean it up and jealously protect it – in our own interest?

 

This collection of 55 poems has its share of those inspired by social customs & mores, festivals, local cultural vignettes, pilgrim centres, grandmothers, mothers and daughters, besides ekphrastic poems stimulated by Thangka, Warli & Madhubani art, and paintings by Raja Ravi Varma. The book concludes with the poem “Tired of Being Coy”! How pregnant!

 

Kudos to Usha Kishore for the refreshingly breezy rhapsody.

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