Unwombing the Mind: A Review of Kala Ramesh’s ‘the forest i know’

“I want to be a river with the luxury of being myself, minus regret.”

– Kala Ramesh, ‘Baggage’

How does a woman attempt to find herself? Her life having been made over to relationships, duties, responsibilities and obligations that she cannot turn away from, how does she respond to the gnawing hunger of her own heart for self-companionship, self-understanding and self-emancipation? 

Were women to court binaries of thought, a mode of choice and action would be easy. It might be possible then to select liberation over bondage, joy over suffering, and the self over the other. One could, in such circumstances, choose to travel by roads marked, known, and well-mapped; be unburdened by choices made; and find fellowship throughout the journey.

the forest i know: a gathering of tanka verses
Kala Ramesh
Harper Collins, 2021

As things stand, however, the process of women finding themselves, even when they know where to search, is seldom to be learned from a readymade manual or handbook. The experiences of other women who have lived similar lives can and does serve as a powerful searchlight in the expedition but even then, the dialectics of the search, its rationale, and the evaluation of the measure of its success or failure have to be worked out by the individual journeywoman alone. 

Kala Ramesh’s the forest i know: a gathering of tanka verses is a record of one such courageous journey. The metaphor of the forest has often been used by used by women to symbolise the life of the mind. With its associations of density, darkness, creativity and mystery, the forest constitutes a fertile and unmapped space of desire, discovery, negotiation and epiphany. 

Ramesh’s exploration, as her dedication establishes, is a journey towards “inward flowering”. This flowering of the mind, soul or the spirit, however, cannot be accomplished without negotiating with the terrain of her outer world. The poet must relive every significant interaction and episode of her life in order to gather the pieces of herself lost or shred during such encounters. The moments of jubilation, too, must be recapitulated in order to establish the domain of the self in positive terms of empowerment. 

Thus, begins a series of poignant ruminations and reflections with the sole object of mapping the journeywoman’s distinct and unknown path through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, marriage, motherhood and old age in the six sections of the book evocatively titled ‘maya’, ‘backyard well’, ‘pellets of desire’, ‘within and without’, ‘tanka doha’ and ‘oneness’. These material and socio-cultural transitions of the body and life-cycle are, each, accompanied by their own sets of migrations – physical and psychological, role-expectations, and the yearnings of selfhood. There is, also, the perpetual disconnect, the inability to fully insert the self into the situation, and an aching aftertaste of unfulfillment and loss:

having to wear
several masks in life –
if only I could
drift away between scenes
like a dragonfly

Memory rules the psyche of the collection, becoming the scaffold for most of these poems to register their presence in the world. And yet, this memory, far from the naïve recalling of the past, offers a superior and critical insight into the events that it narrates, opening doors for greater connection, clarity and peace:

the red dot
on my forehead
binds me
to a man
who’s in his own orbit

the so-called equality
with iron bars concealed…
this urban woman lives
in her dreams

Side by side with memory there operates in this collection an insistent awareness of life’s cyclical motion – the daughter as mother, the young as old, the receiver as giver and the victor as victim. In ‘Vratham’, she outlines the legacy of the Ekadashi fast that her grandmother had devoutly observed all her life and whose observance by older women, she as a young girl, had taken for granted. Becoming an adult, however, had led to a judicious questioning of rituals and the hold of tradition on her has declined:

I’ve been a mother now for decades… habits and belief systems change with each generation. The ekadashi fast, now relegated to the past, is one of those stories I’ll tell my grandchildren.

Such cyclical consciousness is also fed into these poems by their espousal of and alert responsiveness to the subtle and varied rhythms of the natural world. For Ramesh, the vital world of nature becomes a crucial index for understanding individual experiences and a valuable yardstick for measuring the worth of human values. In ‘Azadi’, for instance, she writes:

a million
daydreams get buried
at sundown
both pariah and non-pariah
walk the fallen leaf path

Pivotal to these poems is a strong and nourishing womanist spirit expressing itself in the pregnant style of the tanka, a form that allows both precision and freedom in its brevity and its capacity to project a thematically sustained narrative with leaps of space, thought, temporality and image. The distilled and aphoristic content of the tanka sans break or punctuation bespeaks a tradition of seamless and potent blending of the personal with the public and Ramesh powerfully establishes her kinship with this tradition by bringing her individual life as a woman in close communion with the socialscape and the omnipresent landscape of nature through memorably sharp images. Note how in ‘On Slippery Ground’, she etches the experiences of connection in motherhood through wide-ranging ecological metaphors:

learning to swim
I’m told you’ll know it for life
once you learn…
was it a different me then
in my mother’s womb

deep roots
ground the sacred fig tree –
my third trimester
I caress my stomach
… this navel connection

the forest i know begins with ‘garbha’ – the womb and in giving birth to the essential “storylines” that chart the poet’s lived experience and identity, the womb becomes a companion metaphor of the forest – a space of protection, liberation and unmapped redefinition for not just the poet-creator but for every reader who allows herself to enter the book’s forest, fragrant with its promise of regeneration.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated with Kolhan University, Chaibasa. She is the author of three collections of poems, the latest being Inhabiting (2022). Her recent work can be read in 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: Evgeni Tcherkasski / Unsplash