Poetry Review | Writing Locality as Text: Abhay K’s ‘Monsoon’

Poet-diplomat Abhay K’s Monsoon is a lyrical interweaving of two passions – his love for landscape and his ardour for tracing connections across cultures and life-forms. The painting that features on the book’s cover – ‘Utka Nayika’ or ‘The Expectant Heroine’ is drawn from the folio of Keshavadasa’s well-known ritikavya Rasikapriya belonging to the mid-seventeenth century and encapsulates the many thematic symphonies that the book unfurls for the discerning reader.

The book cover offers to our gaze a lush, verdant grove at the centre of which is a woman looking up at the sky, her waiting exemplified by her posture and the flowers that lie scattered around her. Flora and fauna surround this ‘utka nayika’ on all sides, re-enacting her waiting through peacocks calling out to their mates. Desire is evocatively pictured here but so is a cosmos that, poised on harmony, is completely at home within itself. This sense of harmony, fine balance and peaceful co-existence of multifarious life-forms is very revelatory of Monsoon’s essence.

Monsoon: A Poem of Love and Longing
Abhay K.
Sahitya Akademi, 2022

A single poem of 150 quatrains, Monsoon describes the journey of the south-west Monsoon from the island of Madagascar across the Indian Ocean and the Indian subcontinent to the Himalayas. Its literary inspiration, quite obvious to most readers, is derived from Kalidasa’s

Meghadutam which, in Sanskrit, was the harbinger of the sandesa kavya or the ‘messenger poem’ whose plot involves two separated lovers and constitutes in the sending of a message by the one to the other. In Abhay K’s Monsoon, however, the idea of an amorous love-letter sent to the pining beloved through the cloud-messenger is only a thinly veiled contrivance for professing a love of another kind, one that is both profoundly ecological and staunchly territorial.

The ecological thrust of Abhay K’s work is not far to seek. Monsoon abounds in the fecundity and glory of all forms of plant and animal life – terrestrial, aquatic and aerial. There is, throughout the book, a rich sampling of the biota of the various geographical regions that the cloud traverses and lest these connections should be missed by readers, the poem is accompanied by elaborate footnotes that enhance our repertoire of geographical information in compound ways. Thus, Mantellas, we come to know, are golden or multicoloured poison frogs of the Madagascar and that the Sifaka, also known as the dancing lemur, is a critically endangered species of lemurs.

References such as these are densely embroidered in the fabric of the entire poem and are seldom, without poetic significance. The monsoon, beginning its journey from Madagascar will, for instance, see:

Traveller’s palms stretching their arms in prayer
Baobabs meditating like ascetics turned upside down
Giraffe-necked red weevils necking their mates
fragrant Champa flowers – galaxies on the earth.

Further ahead in Mauritius, it is awaited by:

Black River Gorges resembling an enchantress
and the seven coloured princess Chamarel
will captivate your heart, frolic with the pink pigeon
before they vanish forever from the earth

From here, it must proceed onwards “further northwest to the islands of Zanzibar / Red Colobus, Fischer’s Turaco, Blue Duiker”. The range of geographical references in Monsoon is stunning and encyclopaedic. Yet the urge that dominates the poem is not the catalogic or the documentary. What is, rather, at work here is a keen ecological activism that seeks to offer due space, value and representation to the intense drama of the non-human world that largely goes unseen and ignored.

Through the aerial and egalitarian vision of the monsoon, Abhay K notes the complex interpenetration of land, locality, nature, culture, community, biosphere and more. Accompanying his ecological concern in Monsoon is a focussed territorial concern. Every landscape, with its ecological and human wealth, is a distinct cultural script that articulates a heritage. A locality is an identifiable coordinate not only on the geographical map but on the cultural map of the globe as well. Localities are created by idiosyncratic and multilayered umbilical relationships between geography, nature and culture. As such, every locality constitutes a unique geographical and cultural fingerprint.

It is to Abhay K’s astuteness as a poet and diplomat that he realises the threat to the local in a global world and attempts to resurrect in Monsoon the vibrant localities of, as he puts it in his Introduction, “the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar, Réunion, Mauritius, Seychelles, Mayotte, Comoros, Zanzibar, Socotra, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Andaman & Nicobar and the Indian subcontinent into one poetic thread.”

Unlike the cloud-messenger in the homologous world of Kalidasa’s Meghadutam, the contemporary cloud-messenger traversing a passage from Madagascar to Srinagar must bear witness to the mini-narratives of postcolonial and postmodern diversity that characterise this terrain and must speak for the rich localities that it encounters en route. Hence, ecological descriptions in Monsoon fuse with sharp territorial signifiers of landmarks, monuments, cuisines, languages, fashion, rites and rituals. Thus, Kerala’s kettuvallam cruises, Karnataka’s Tulu language, the hot springs of Rajgir, Bihar’s laai, tilkut, anarsa, Kumbhalgarh’s Badal Mahal, Chandigarh’s Sukhna Lake and old Delhi’s Ghalib ki Haveli at Gali Ballimaran, to mention just a handful, come together in this poem to reinstate the anthropological value and charm of locality in public memory.

Idyllic as this mode of memory-making is, it is not naive of the region’s history of migration and loss. Thus, the whiffs of old Bhojpuri and Gujarati carried by the monsoon from the Indian Ocean islands will always remind the Indian speakers of these languages of a past that can, perhaps, be recovered only in the imagination. And that is why Abhay K’s Monsoon, despite its global and public consciousness of history, ecology, and climate change, can still successfully awaken nostalgia for the small, the personal and the minor – for a mother in Chhabilapur restless for her son to return home.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. She is the author of three collections of poems, the latest being Inhabiting (2022). Her recent work can be read at Economic and Political Weekly, Pine Cone Review, EKL Review, The Woman Inc., LiveWire, Madras Courier, Berfrois, Lucy Writer’s Platform and Yearbook of Indian English Poetry 2021, among others. Shortlisted for the Deepankar Khiwani Memorial Prize 2022, Basudhara loves, rebels, writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.

Featured image: Steve Harvey / Unsplash