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“Poetry is not for people like me”: my mother-daughter lockdown reading

By: Payal Bhavsar

As the UK winds down its third lockdown, I find myself, like many, bored of it all. After a year of reduced social circles; the loss of my ever-present grandfather; a shrinking of friendships; major career changes, and endless news-cycles, mundanity is everywhere.

My mother, on the other hand, has settled into her own, highly compulsive ways of dealing with the pandemic. She’s learnt to negotiate her grief and newfound unemployment with frenzied activity. With her get-up and go attitude (perfected, I think, in the years she’s spent carving a life for herself in England as the first of her family to move abroad), she’s invested in renovating our shared spaces, and exacted from me, as her only daughter and eldest child, a sudden precision in domestic duties. When the world has been baking banana bread, it’s been iterations of dum aloo, paneer saag and nashto for us. 

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But in the face of this increased busyness and my own heightened sensitivity, she’s stopped talking about what’s been bothering her. Where I’ve craved more varied conversations with those around me in a desperate attempt to fill my inertia and disconnect, she’s looked for escape and turned to watching reruns of Indian Idol and Sa Re Ga Ma Pa on Desi TV. Music has always provided her with a balm for weary days. I recognise the youthful exuberance it gives her. But now, as I crave her attention more than ever, the avoidance of conversation frustrates me to no end. Like two waves nearing the shoreline, our inner lives - so tender in lockdown - have collided again and again. This force of uneasy, untapped conversation sits accusatorily, uncomfortably between us.

So, one evening, to bridge this growing frisson, and to find a new way to connect, I suggest she help me with some work I’m doing with the Poetry Translation Centre. I make sure to emphasise that I want her expertise so she feels needed, and ask if she’ll join me in reading a Hindi poetry collection, This Water by Gagan Gill, recently published by the PTC. 

My hopes are manifold: a part of me is excited to practise my Hindi, sure. The dual-language format of the chapbook will help me push my understanding beyond the everyday filmy Hinglish I’m used to. But the approval-seeker in me also wants her to take an interest in the things I’m working on; to see the spaces I occupy outside of my role as her daughter. To be proud of me, as cliché as it is. For this reason, I’m resolute Gagan Gill’s poetry will be potent. 

Gill, born in Delhi in 1959, is known for exploring the figure of the ladki (girl) in South Asian culture, and the various straitjackets that come with girlhood and marriage. Her collection, This Water, is soft and elegiac, many of its poems capturing the spaces that both liberate and constrain love, desire, ambition and expression in women. Somewhat smugly and self-righteously, I’m certain this exercise will give us a chance to reflect on our own recently strained relationship and the boundaries we’ve drawn around each other.

We begin, then, with a short prose-poem called ‘Every Love’. The poem takes the shape of a desperate voice posing a series of questions to gauge from its lover the extremes of sacrifice needed: 

When it arrives on your doorstep, the first thing every love asks is: can you jump from the window for me? Can you stab / your heart for me? / Every love asks this: can you fly with me / with only the stumps of your arms?

My mother reads this aloud in Hindi first. I can see she’s curious about the poem but tentative to open up about her first impressions. I read in English, then ask her what she gets from it. With prompting, she suggests it’s a poem full of disappointment, an uneven example of love. We discuss the imagery of stumps in Hindi (ठूँठ ): the word sounds blunt and harsh in English whilst in Hindi it almost piques the verse: you have to spit it out the mouth. I ask her if this is the kind of poetry she’s familiar with (it isn’t) and why (she’s used to rhyme, and thinks poetry should be something memorable and didactic - she comes from a long line of school teachers after all). I press her to expand. But, irritated with my questioning, she balks:

“I don’t know what to say – poetry is not for people like me. I’ll get it wrong. Reva de ne. Maro time waste na kar, maru mathu na kha”, she replies sharply in Gujarati.

Leave it. Don’t waste my time. Don’t eat my head.

This, from someone who has formally trained a Hindi teacher and is, in my eyes, a natural polyglot. 

It’s undeniable my mother is a proud lover of verse. Some of my earliest memories are of her singing Sanskrit mantras, Gujarati bhajans and Hindi song lyrics via Bollywood cinema (many of its classic hits deriving from the work of Urdu poetic legends like Mirza Ghalib). But here, reading together, her hesitation to engage in a language she is normally so confident in surprises me. She tells me this is “not the kind of poetry she’s used to” – unfamiliar because on paper and published. Although she values the musicality of language (as her return to TV singing contents and talent shows in lockdown testifies to), the print intimidates her.

But Gill is a key figure in the Nayi-Kavita (New Poetry) movement in Hindi poetry. This movement experiments with poetic vocabulary in Sanskrit, Urdu, and English, putting a heightened focus on contemporary speech and rhythms, and the everyday vignettes of life. If anything, I theorise to myself, Gill’s poetry should exemplify the multilingual and rich traditions from which my mother’s love of song and sentiment comes from.

I tell her this and she is appreciative. Given some permission to find poetry in her own life, she starts to remember the poems from her childhood which freely dipped into Urdu, Hindi and Gujarati. The nursery rhyme, Ek Billi Jadi, comes up, as well as the fact the esteemed Gujarati poet, Ashokpuri Goswami is from her home town, Borsad. Inspired, we try again, looking this time at Gill’s poem, ‘Fish’ – a poem replete with the frustrations that come with possessing dreams bigger than the reality you find yourself in. 

We are both are moved by the opening and how it relates to our lockdown lives:

“No water
But a longing to fly
is in this fish’s body.

Into the brimming ocean
She is emptying herself
Incessantly, over centuries”

The allegory of a small fish caught up in the tide, dreaming not of water but the sky is one my mum finds particularly resonate. It makes her think about being ‘trapped’ in England, coming over her after her marriage and wishing, for many years, how much she’d like to go back despite knowing this wasn’t on the cards unless an emergency. She uses this example to tell me in Gujarati: “The fish is driving itself mad imagining and wanting something beyond what this world gives her”. I wonder if she’s giving me an opportune lesson here in making the most of what you’ve been given, and adapting to the limitations facing us right now. I see that the dormant teacher in her rearing its head. At the same time, she learns things from me too: अनवरत – incessantly, is a word she has not come across before, but when we explore it through Gujarati as a synonym for continuously or relentlessly, she gets it.  

And the more we read, the more my mother wants to teach me, to show me what she thinks. So I let her. Our last reading is of ‘This Water’, the poem which lends itself to the title of Gill’s collection. It takes the form of a series of contrasts and dualities opening with:

“This water
I drink
air I breathe 
sunlight I bask in

is neither water
nor air
nor sunlight”

A softer mood has fallen onto us. We don’t discuss it much. I just want to listen to my mother read, and am drawn to how simple gestures - the motions of the body - are made ephemeral and transcendental, but still grounded in physicality:

“this heart 
In your hands
This heart at your feet
Sometimes it ends up 
In the dust, kicked 
Smashed…”

The poetic voice seeks to find a release, and the poem progresses towards finding moments of freedom from the crudities of life and the forces that brings it down. In each verse, Gill finds a space in between light and dark, pain and pleasure, solidity and fluidity, action and stasis. It is a liberating poem I feel, despite the knowledge of that the voice has to submit itself, and has felt crushed at time. My mum repeats a verse she likes, smiling:

“As I sit here
In this moment

A speck
Shining in the sun” 

Anita Anatharam, in a her study of Gill, mentions how she “often talked about moments in her life when she did not have a zuban (tongue, language) to speak her thoughts, and in these darkest and most “lonely moments” all she had was a “poem and a prayer”. It makes me wonder if my mum has felt that too: the disconnect, dislocation and silences. I know I have felt the ‘lost in translation’ feeling with her at times. But this evening, whilst the “lonely moments” have often risen to the fore in lockdown, we have found solace in reading and each other’s company. Our imaginative worlds have moved towards each other through these vignettes and other voices. Like Gill’s poetry-as-prayer, we’ve chanted across Hindi and English, meeting the other a little. And in doing so we’ve seen a lot clearer what we share, found a place to be.