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Dilli – A Review by RK Biswas

by RK Biswas

THE LOUNGE | TURN OF THE PAGE Dilli, an anthology of poetry on Delhi by under-30s is a collection that captures the love-hate-and-other emotions that the city evokes, says RK Biswas in her review.

Dilli : An Anthology of Women Poets of Delhi
Edited by Semeen Ali. Foreword by Susmit Bose
Published by Poets Printery

A quote from Rabbi Shergill’s Delhi Heights – “Main tha, tu thi, aur thi Dilli bass” (it was me, you and Dilli only). Thus begins Dilli An Anthology of Women Poets of Delhi, published by the South Africa based, Dr Amitabh Mitra’s publishing house Poets Printery, and edited by noted Indian poet Semeen Ali. There are seventeen poets in this anthology, held by the common threads of their gender, age group (all below 30) and their relationship, not always easy, but always intense, with the city of Delhi, referred to here by the Hindustani version of its name – Dilli.

Susmit Bose, the Delhi based singer and songwriter writes in his foreword: “My curiosity in reading this anthology is more because I understand that the poets are all below 30…I am excited about the relationship of these modern poets with this great city and how they perceive it through their poems…”

Perceive the city these 17 poets certainly do, but not through the rosy romantic eyes of someone who grew up in the ‘60s and 70’s. So much has happened since then.  And we can hardly expect those who came into a world with so many fissures to sing paeans. It is enough that the poets here have spoken from their hearts.

The first poem I Heart Her by Aanchal Jagnani is a quick itinerary through Delhi. The next three poems are by Aditi Angiras, and they create a compressed vignette of young life in Delhi, inviting one to “live in those corners of the city that still feel like a heartbeat.” However, right after, in Aiman Jahangir’s poem Existence, one is cautioned “… the city/ that stole his life,/but gave him/’food; identity.” This image carries over into Anidita Deo’s poems as well. Her sketches of Delhi’s underbelly whether in a Sufi shrine or a street scene – Rangreza – or in the several shades of blue in the poem of the same name, all evoke that “brilliant mockery of hope.” Nevertheless, “They all try hard to live in this city, New Delhi/ Where life is an endless challenge yet to be won…” as Antora Rahman says in her poem Time Won’t Stop.  But any Delhi lover will always want “the city to remain part of my life, my love.”

No anthology of poems on Delhi can be complete without a reference to JNU. So we have Anusha Chandrashekharan’s Of Love in JNU, a bitter-sweet depiction of the campus and its life, followed by her ironic love poem on Delhi – Delhi My Love. Irony aside, Delhi “isn’t that man/ you find charming at first sight/its magnetism trickles/ Till it is shining bold and bright” is what Ishnita Nayantara Keskar will have us believe in her poem.

In Kartika Budhwar’s long narrative poem Proud New-age Woman she explores the travails of a single woman coping with life in an unforgiving, horribly chauvinistic city, and when she finally returns to her hometown, into her old organism, “as if the city didn’t change you/ As if it didn’t teach you/ What you get for being a proud, new-age woman.”

The images of harsh physical beauty made sharp by the poet’s sense of otherness, of not belonging recur again and again in Kathryn Hummel’s contemplative poems, as she says in Words of Longing  “Fragile sounds of others swell/ and drop from the roof as (she) writes,” while she remains “searching and longing.” In Nayyara Rahman’s Looking for Newspapers we travel as aliens through Delhi’s streets “to Connaught Place/That delightfully urban concept/ Delhiwallahs have made their own,”and return empty handed with the poet.  Nishita Gautam also has a poem set in Connaught Place in her poem We Proudly Brew where you can see “bright serpent of human faces/ Slithering in the corridors of Connaught Place…Waiting for the Manna.”

Delhi is a city that evokes longing in not one but all three of Pallavi Narayan’s poems, as she says in Unnamed “If the city forget us/ And we our places in it/This space could be ours,/ As it otherwise is/ Momentarily, fleetingly/In the interstices.” Payal Wadhwa conjures up a lyrical passage across Delhi’s middle class Swell and through her images one truly sees the city’s colours “…pickled/ with stories, yours and mine/ handpicked/marinated/and sundried.” And then, for the first time in this anthology, the city of Delhi is addressed directly, as one would a living thing, and a conversation takes place openly between the city and the poet Prarthana Banikya, where she begins by almost accusing Delhi in her first poem Kaleidoscope – “At first I did not like you.” However by the second poem A Lot Like You, she has managed to build her personal bridge across Delhi’s heart. So when she leaves the physical city behind, Delhi still remains with her.

Delhi, you see, forges bonds with everyone, however thorny. Delhi means something to each. As Preetha Datta asks in her poem Whose is Delhi? And provides the answer as well – “It belongs to no one/ Yet it is part of everyone.” Which brings us to Priyam Goswami Chowdhury’s poem Why I Walk in Delhi where she explains that it is “…breaking words/ And forgetting verses while you are writing,” because “it is like a drug prescribed in mild doses/”and finally because Delhi’s “….trees and leaves drain me/ Of the life that I am creating under your starless skies.”

The last two poems in the book are by Semeen Ali. The first, Chandnichowk – how can we have a book of poems on Delhi and ignore Chandnichowk? – is a tightly woven vivid picture of morning in this quintessential part of an old Delhi locality. The last, Dilli – the titular poem in this collection – is again a picture, one that is painted with delicate brush strokes, of a city that evokes mixed emotions no doubt, but can never be tossed aside. For here “Remnants that speak/ Of time that left/ People have arrived/ Stories are being told…”

Love poems? Yes, but not like the syrupy coo of doves beneath the eaves. Because these poems are about a city that elicits strong reactions, which are not necessarily as simple as love and hate. Sometimes they are both and other times mixed with feelings of dread, fear, awe, benevolence or even condescension. Anyone who has lived in Delhi or even visited it for some days will certainly recognise and emote with the voices in this collection – which is what makes the book work. A few poems felt under done however, and would have benefited from greater interaction with the editor. I also thought that one or two poems had compromised on composition and even grammar for the sake of idea, when all these elements are equally important for the success of a poem. A keener editing eye, would have given this unique anthology more sheen.

RK Biswas’s novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was published by Lifi Publications, India in January 2014. A short story collection – Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women – is forthcoming in mid 2014 from Authorspress, India. Biswas’s short fiction and poetry have been published in journals and anthologies, both in print and online, all over the world. Notably in Per Contra (USA), Sybil’s Garage (USA), Markings (Scotland), Mascara Literary Review (Australia), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Asia Writes (Asia), Every Writer’s Resource (USA), Off The Coast (USA), Kritya (India), Bare Root Review (USA), South (UK), Words-Myth (UK), Pratilipi (India), Eclectica (USA), Nth Position (UK), The King’s English (USA), Poems Niederngasse (Switzerland), Dirtcakes (USA), Crannog (Ireland) The Little Magazine – India, Going Down Swinging (Australia) and Etchings (Australia), among others. Her poem “Cleavage” was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the  Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s  notable stories of the net. Her poem “Bones” was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com.

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