Book Review: The Keyhole is on ‘Her’ Side

I have shifted to the cooler floor as I think about the poems from Preeti Vangani’s book Mother Tongue Apologize.

Our bodies tend to figure out something is going to arrive much before we actually see the change is my take away from the book. From the sweltering heat of September to the cold of autumn, our bodies marvel at a leaf lifting away from trees long before we see sidewalks covered with brown, crunching, old veins under our foot.

In writing these poems, Vangani attempts to write several concentric presences of the female experience from a distinctively personal perspective. The subject of Mother Tongue Apologize is made by little nameless acts of violence, memory and love.

Divided into ‘Mother Tongue’ and ‘Apologise’, the two sections are headed by a poem, “Unremember”, seeking to bring the ‘wasness’ alive of the loss of a lover – Mother – that this body seeks to answer by cajoling all the 206 bones to ask:

“What do volumes of elegies contain that I don’t?…
Today you are not allowed to take the deceased’s name. Today you are
not to remember the way she smiled when she said yours…”

These 49 poems are brilliant pepper sprays, coming from a personal world, speaking with honesty and grace about loss, regret, disdain and violence of life. Her grief becomes my grief, her anger will become your anger. These poems, as stated in her ‘Introduction’, are for her mother, and I am glad to write just that. They will not become more than that in this review. I will show you why – because Mothers are everything.

With “Every Twenty Minutes”, “Autoposy Reports”, “Crime Scene Picture”, her poems represent more than a singular landscape for a writer. A landscape that is in invitation in how our body reads a poem as much as a poem becomes a vessel brimming with your feelings.

And her aim in mapping that landscape has been twofold. On the one hand, she has attempted a specifically personal history: giving voice to a collective grief, pointing to the culpability for it, of our society’s failure to apportion human rights equally, as seen in “Dalit Sisters Gang-Raped, Hanged from Mango Tree” while simultaneously celebrating her grief’s failure with “…what can one hold on to when one has lost half of all their blood” in “House Red”.

On the other, she maps out an achievement – a desire for exploration from the readjusted perspective, the angle of women’s experience. Driving questions about violence not just with words with but also usage of //\\ & >> along with footnotes.

Her poems see a lot. So how can the reader not?

Bollywood lyricist and screenwriter Kausar Munir, in one of her videos, responded to Bollywood’s iconic “Mai aur meri tanhayi aksar ye baatein kartin hai” with “Sunn ae tanhai, tu apne aap se koi nai baatein kiya kar. Javed Saab ki udhhari nahi, apni kamai kiya kar…” Here, she is trying to say that inspiration isn’t just about repeating pop culture to create a sense of time, it is also about reflection of your personal life.

Love songs in Bollywood don’t practise love in Vangani’s poems. In fact, they become impersonal inspite of their intimate tones. For example, in “saat samundar paar main tere peeche peeche aa gayi”, the speaker is ignored by her cousins who are choreographing the song, and the speaker reminds us of Divya Bharti. The reader then begins to see how voice of a woman drowns in that ocean which she is in fact trying to cross.

“Voiceover” mentions “this poem: part ruin part construction site, rumble on the other/side; I, my mouth open, encrypting the absent voice into a voice”.

These poems are an exercise in making readers work with the poet and in understanding what they want out of these poems. For me, it demanded an immediate action. In “Ma Sang Ghazals as She Oiled My Hair” there is an imminence when the speaker could actually see what she has been trying to avoid by perhaps her jokes or Jagjit Singh’s ghazal, as ‘hair’ brings us to the root of her loss – Mother:

“I want to lean on you like the curl resting on your shoulder,
your absence is a dark number equal to strands found in this hair.”

With vivid descriptions, well thought out images, and a form which makes it collective as well as personal, at a time when violence is a new statistic every day, these poems even makes the puddles of Bombay revise their own memory of mothers. They ask relevant questions – how is our identity rooted in loss, what does pop culture look like in our poems, ‘what about love’, how is life going to be? They ask these questions not just about loss of a loved one, but also while losing them every single day.

“My body is a collage made with all my little toes, swollen
and rough like ginger. I come from my mother’s mother:
last seen falling off the edge of our balcony, or did she jump?
How everything changes when a door is gone…”

“What of Love? No, What of It Really?” will question a memory of crisis—the way our parents’ relationships have shaped our projections on love. Philip Larkin will even come and hold your mind there.

“I learn up the words to the latest love song
This is what I know of love, mostly.”

But “Waterlogging” shows intimacy in spite of impersonal objects of hospital reports, statistic and one abandoned shoe. Love is a shoe maybe.

“Inside, a water cooler sweating itself in the waiting
room, the slow drip of glucose reaching mother’s veins, my hand
turning another blotted page, as Kundera says, love is the longing
for the half of ourselves we have lost. One abandoned shoe
floating in the slight rainbows of puddles.
news anchor lady asking the weatherman
for a statistic on the level of water harvested thus far.”

There is so much still that I have not covered like theme of feminist struggle or “Visiting Hours” being the title of four poems or for that matter prose poems. This is because while reading these poems, I was reading another book called The Years by Anne Ernaux, a memoir that converses with France from 1940–2006. She rescued ‘Time’ from time by capturing it in her memoir.

In this sense, Vangani through her poems in Mother Tongue Apologize has rescued a kind of grief from historical anonymity. By writing these poems, she is also trying to rescue someone from assimilation of grief and separation of grief.

These are difficult things to attempt and poetry, in all its difficult terrains and forms, allows such experience to be laid bare. It pivots around the central contradiction in our lives: living with impossible memories.

There is a need to remember and tell and the desire to forget; there are memories here with an inexhaustible, genuine urgency to erupt and overwhelm the mind that must somehow be commemorated yet acted upon, if ‘girls dancing fearless in night’ is to be realised.

Shreyasi Sharma is a postgraduate in literary art creative writing from Ambedkar University, Delhi. 

Featured image credit: Amazon/Illustration: LiveWire