Matthew da Silva reviews Invisible Eye by Gayatri Chawla
by Gayatri Chawla
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
Themes surrounding politics emerge organically in some of the poems in this book especially as it relates to the 1947 partition of British India into two (and, later, three) countries. To start with there are some place names: one of these is Sind (part of which is in today’s Pakistan) and another is West Bengal (in today’s India; part of what was originally called “Bengal” now comprises the country of Bangladesh). It turns out that an individual’s feelings with respect to this event can be complex, particularly so if you are a woman.
The ways that these things are communicated often rely on the everyday. Names of mundane things appear that are particular to the subcontinent. “Papad” is a kind of savoury baked item that is made from seasoned dough made out of a pulse. It is commonly called “papadum” and is served as a side dish with meals or as an appetiser. “Kulfiwala” is a seller of a frozen dessert called “kulfi” that is indigenous to South Asia (not just the subcontinent; “wala” is a Hindi word that can mean a vendor of goods or of a service), “kokis” is a deep-fried, crispy Sri Lankan food made from rice flour and coconut milk, “gram dal” are whole pulses, “sandesh” is a Bengali sweet made with milk and sugar.
To understand the cover images I asked a friend of mine who is from India. She said that the man carrying the woman on his back probably refers to the partition; the woman is tired and cannot walk anymore. About the other woman whose image appears on the book’s cover and the scarf she is using to cover part of her face, my friend said: “If it’s part of the saree you’re wearing it’s called ‘pallu’. If you’re wearing a ‘kameez’ it’s called ‘dupatta’. If you’re poor, it’s just a piece of cloth.” These words, she went on, are used right across the country and veiling of the face, the way the woman on the cover is shown doing, is a sign of modesty. There is one poem in the collection named ‘Purdah’ which talks about other feelings that can stem from this emotion. Google defines “purdah” as, “The practice in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of screening women from men or strangers, especially by means of a curtain.” The word can also refer to the curtain itself.
Like the many listed above, there are other markers of identity used in the book but the author does not labour her points. Feelings stemming from the displacement that is mentioned in the Amazon blurb relate to her father’s forced removal from that part of Sind that is now located in Pakistan, a place where he had lived. This theme emerges in some of the poems with a sometimes-subtle force.
Time spent with the poems reveals a rich patrimony. These are genuine poems that reach out in order to grasp truths that could not be revealed any other way. Chawla’s voice, furthermore, comes across as authentic. Many of her insights are original though some of the poems are more successful than others.
‘Hyperopia’ (it means “short-sightedness”) is, fittingly, a short poem: it runs to only six lines. What it lacks in volume it makes up for with expressive power and the richness of detail it offers the reader. It is like a haiku in that it captures a moment in time, an instant of personal observation: a woman is sitting at her desk looking at her PC’s screen. She normally wears glasses to see the computer programs she uses but at this moment she does not have them on. She looks out the window and sees things clearly there: the washing on the clothesline. Inside the room she can see a figure of the baby Krishna in a painting on the wall. On the kitchen windowsill is a pottery vessel. But what is on the PC’s screen is just a blur.
Given the context that I have already discussed, such a poem is eloquent. It speaks about the inability of people to clearly see the things that are closest to them. What does she see on the computer display? It looks like “bluish purple bruises”. People might easily identify faults that are apparent in other countries, but at home they might not be able to discern them. As a poem, this small addition to the volume is very strong. How did the bruises get there? What made them? Who made them? Nothing is crystal clear but much is implied.
‘Sweet Bengal II’ also contains echoes of events in the distant past (a past that, still, from reading what this author writes, are relevant today). On its surface the poem is about the confection “sandesh” mentioned at the top of this article. The person through whose perceptions the poem is focalised is talking about her love of this type of food but there are subtexts available if you spend a bit of time with the poem. These lines, for example, contain larger themes:
Self-centred pistachios sit uptight
pristine islands in butter paper
heady mix of cottage cheese and saffron
Sandesh dear, I love you.
Something good can come from the mixing of many different kinds of ingredients. In the case of this food, chenna (cottage cheese) is used as the base but it can be mixed with saffron for colour and flavour. On top you can put pistachio nuts to give it extra piquancy. Given this piece of encomium, Chawla’s other views about her country (she was born in Mumbai, an entrepot drawing people from different parts of the country) seem contextualised intelligently and with nuance. Here is the type of thing that only poetry can deliver: a complex insight into a large issue that affects many people that is given through the lens of the individual. One person’s feelings about a favourite food can be made to stand in for the feelings of the multitude.
‘Cocoon’ (the title itself is redolent with meaning in the context of things already spoken about in this review) gives you another personal view of the world. In this case, the idea of the twin is linked with another idea: the mother. On a mantlepiece is a matryoshka doll (a Russian children’s toy that comes in a form where smaller dolls, of different sizes, are contained within larger ones). Layers can be revealed by removing the outer casing, but there are two dolls sitting on the mantle side by side.
they look related
cousins distant over a family feud.
Another toy, a snow globe, appears near the end of the poem. It contains an empty bench (perhaps a bench where a famous dollmaker put together his creations?) Suddenly, in the final two lines, the eyes of the person who focalises the poem return to the task she is performing in the kitchen: possibly preparing for dinner some potatoes, which have their own eyes. In this revelatory series of images, as in the case of the even shorter ‘Hyperopia’, a hundred different feelings converge in a poem of 17 lines. One thing leads to another as the eyes of the person focalising the action flit around the room and as her mind restlessly wanders, finding thoughts emerge unbidden.
‘Concealer’ is also complex, and centres on a woman seen in the street by the person focalising the action. The person seen appears to be superficial: the clothes she wears and her accessories point to conspicuous consumption. But suddenly the poet shifts perspective and you are transferred to a place within the life of the woman seen. Here, a darker truth appears suddenly, at the end of the poem, like an accusation. Why the “scars”? Who is superficial? And then: what can we really know of the lives of others? This theme had already been alluded to in ‘Cocoon’ in the word “sondering”, which I had to look up. Google defines “sonder” as, “The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.”
In ‘Fidelity’ the author turns to look at her parents. In this poem, feelings associated with parents – common to people everywhere in the world, it would appear, and commonly full of conflict – rise to the fore. Once again, you have eloquent details from observations made in the domestic sphere. The eye might be invisible, but still it sees everything.
One of the most wonderful things about reading fiction is being exposed to the ideas of people who write books available in translation. But even – as in the case with the present collection of poetry – where the language used is English, a book written by someone from a foreign country can be full of insights into other cultures and societies. But no matter how different they might be, it always turns out that people, wherever they are born and brought up, are broadly comparable in terms of their motivations, desires, and dreams. The context might differ but humans are always humans.
MATTHEW da SILVA is a journalist and writer who lives in Sydney.