A debut collection blessed with unusual wisdom

A debut collection blessed with unusual wisdom

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 30 May, 2015
Aditi Rao.
Aditi Rao’s poems are fiercely intelligent and betray the sagacity of their creator, a champion observer who builds things with her hands and sits ghodaa taang on a bike, writes Aditya Mani Jha.
The Fingers Remember
Aditi Rao
Yoda Press
Pages: 118
Price: Rs 195

Is the poet (a) Somebody that you have known for years without having known them at all? (b) A figment of an imagination captured by seductively intelligent verses or (c) An expert at conveying the illusion of familiarity and kinship? Discuss.

When it comes to Aditi Rao, I feel like all three options have pretty strong cases. Prior to the publication of the volume under review, she was probably one of the best Indian writers to not have a full-length published work. I have been following her poems on journals like Vayavya, Cha and Muse India for at least a couple of years (works like Dear Mr Yadav, I too am an Indian Woman, a stunning prose poem first published in 2013 by The Feminist Wire). Last year, when we shared space in a journal guest-curated by Annie Zaidi, I patted myself on the back. One day, I was browsing at Delhi's May Day Bookstore with a friend when she grabbed me by the collar, pointed towards a bespectacled woman in a corner and whispered, "That's Aditi." Over the next 12 months, I saw Rao speak at smallish literary events. Not once did I feel the need to go up to her and say "Hi, I really like your work," mostly because I know writers who confess that this is the single worst thing that can happen to them.

All of which is to say that while reading The Fingers Remember, I had very high expectations indeed. I read these poems at home, at work, on the metro, even on various DTC buses in the relentless May heat (the subject of a very short poem in this collection, incidentally). Not once did the poet allow my concentration to wander. It feels a little weird to call this a debut book. One reason is that it includes poems that I read for the first time years ago. But the other, more important reason is this: rarely do you come across a debut that is so assured in its style that you think you're reading someone with 20-odd books under their belt.

The very first poem, Athazagoraphobia, is a strikingly astute meditation on memory and one of the most persistent fears anybody can have: the fear of being forgotten, which is also, of course, the fear of being irrelevant. Rao, by her own admission, thinks "in at least three languages" and maintains diaries for all three, so it's not surprising that she has built a Babel for memory in this poem. "Somewhere, a language has no word / for remember. Yesterday is always / happening, never more / than today, or last year."

Rao possesses a quality that’s easier to identify than emulate: wisdom. Her blue moods are not angst-ridden rants; they are serene even in their despondence. Her mischief seems studied, thought-over, planned to a T. She knows how to wield formal perfection (the ghazal in Steps to recovery, the sestina in No Name Cafe) but for the most part, she chooses a rhythm of her own. 

The Fear of Streetlights and Six years after they broke five bones in his face are haunting poems written as part of a cycle on hate crimes. In the latter, Rao writes about the everyday struggles that hate crime survivors face: "When I was a girl, learning to play house, / I dressed my dreams in little brown coats, / sent them scuttling out the door. They are back / now, and knocking. They are afraid of the dark, / blinded by the lights, like I am. I do not know / how I will feed these extra mouths, and they smell / like iodine. (...)"

Rao possesses a quality that's easier to identify than emulate: wisdom. Her blue moods are not angst-ridden rants; they are serene even in their despondence. Her mischief seems studied, thought-over, planned to a T. She knows how to wield formal perfection (the ghazal in Steps to recovery, the sestina in No Name Cafe) but for the most part, she chooses a rhythm of her own.

Rao's engagement with politics is neither shrill nor negligible. In the prose poem Dear Mr Yadav, I too am an Indian woman, Rao says: "I have a sister with four tattoos and a Facebook photo showing her braless back (she is not an Indian woman, but not because of the tattoos or bare back). I hold young women through their tears and young men through their tears, and I ask friends for hugs when I need to be held (sometimes, these friends are men. I do not then sleep with them. But if ever we both want to, I may). I am still an Indian woman." This poem was written in response to something Lalu Prasad Yadav had said in parliament on 12 August 2011 (he was criticising the Delhi Slut Walk) and remains an urgent and necessary work.

On her website, in the "About Me" section, Rao has two versions: the straight-laced "Professional Version" and the more idiosyncratic "Twenty-five random facts". Consider number 19: "When I was three or four, my brother and I ran home from school very excited about an unexpected holiday. When our parents asked us why, we happily told them that our teacher had been murdered (she was found in the school's water tank). If that makes me sound like a horrible person, consider that the teachers at this school rubbed bichhu-buti (poison ivy) on our legs as punishment for not doing HW and forced us four-year- olds to use the forest as a toilet even though there were toilets in the school."

Is the poet (a) Someone for whom everything sounds like a poem or (b) Someone who creates a poem out of nothing? Discuss.

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