By Payal Nagpal
the well-earned brings together 65 poets from different parts of India, including Tripura, Odisha, Assam, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi, Jalandhar, Mumbai, Tiruchirappalli, Hyderabad, and Pune. The editor, Kiriti Sengupta, has authored several volumes of poetry, and edited eight anthologies. In a recently edited collection, Shimmer Spring, he reminds the readers of how radiance liberates us from murkiness, “It is imperative to recognize the light that allows a respite from prevailing darkness”. In the well-earned he explores the light of freedom. The collection takes stock of our gains in post-independence India and contemplates on the nature of freedom we hold after 75 years.
The anthology presents poems written originally in English, and also English translations of poems in the bhashas. The poems have been written in different forms and pose searching questions on various aspects of life. The dominant theme is a consideration of freedom after seventy-five years of independence. Significant voices have been included in this collection—Sahitya Akademi Award winning Assamese poet, Sananta Tanty, Oriya poet Akhila Naik, Malayalam poet K. Satchidananadanand many established as well as emerging Indian English poets. Sananta Tanty’s call for freedom in “Give Us Some Freedom” is soulful as it locates freedom in the simple joys of life—“Give us some freedom/ to return home from another home/ to talk to children/ to laugh and to cry…Give us/ some freedom/ to draw from the heart/ the enormous poetry of life.” Akhila Naik’s “Kalahandi” is a biting indictment of the gaze that makes an aesthetic commodity of the marginalized. This is the look cast by the journalist, the scholar and the poet. The journalist “owns a two-storeyed mansion”, the research scholar “carrying his tummy/ swelled with the funds from a UGC fellowship.” Meanwhile, the woman on the margins remains where she was—”Ever since wearing my tattered drape, I keep standing/ in the middle of the marketplace—my head bent low,/ eyes wide-opened.” Bashabi Fraser’s “Freedom’s Call” shows us our gilded cage and the joy that has turned to rage—“My endless joy has turned to rage./ My urge to fly does not subside/ I feel a surging wave of fear.” The poem ends on a note of assertion, of singing to “freedom’s call”. C.P.Surendran’s draws attention to the painful reality of the Kashmir valley as the “Chinar draws blood through season’s chill.” He writes about hunger in South Sudan in another poem, “Here they come, lean, hungry, and all under twenty.” In a similar vein “My Freedom” by Gopal Lahiri, focuses on “empty eyes”, “hungry faces”, “grey shadows”. Jolted into reality the poet conveys the emotion, “Sometimes freedom just hits me this way,/ forcing me to leave my much-maligned body and fly away.” Teji Sethi’s haibun, “Naevus (Birthmark)” captures the killing of the Sikhs in 1984—Freedom is tainted, “…my juvenile mind pictures my brother in chopped hair. chaurasi/ even azadi comes/ with a caveat”.
Apart from poignant thoughts on freedom, the poems in this collection observe with a keen and sensitive eye the people on the margins. The recent protests by farmers on the borders of Delhi NCR form the core of Sanjukta Dasgupta’s poem “Farmers”. Their voices are “The choric crescendo/ Echoed in the air/ Echoed in the hearts”. Swati Pal examines an ordinary woman’s quest for freedom, “Her petticoat was torn, filthy—the colour was undecipherable. / Her blouse had holes—the hem/ was undone.”. She stands bearing the insults of all in the “madding crowd”. Pal asks pointedly, “What does it take to be free?” Gayatri Lakhiani Chawla draws attention to the labourer, “without a roof”, “his eyes have lost their gleam”. The question looms large on the horizon, “Where do we go from here?”. Hollow and stark pictures in the well-earned are accompanied with hope for better times. Sanjeev Sethi’s “Wishes For A Child I Never Had” seeks harmony for the young one—“May you choose a domain that sways/ in cadence to the music of your inscape”.
The many hues of nature provide a balm to troubled thoughts. Mamang Dai’s poems are a song of hope in times of strife. The pain and desolation experienced in the lockdown period, during the Covid 19 pandemic, is explored in its grimness but finally set aside, to make a case for optimism and life. In “Lockdown”, Mamang Dai looks for colour, “Green in the sun/ Time is the wind carrying a big brush/ mixing colours by ancient streams/ flowing in all directions”. The tone in another poem “Second Wave” is once again life affirming—“Born to return, life will lead us/ Rising from caves and cellars/ With open hands/ We will find summer again.” Vignettes from nature, mango bols, gulmohar leaves, dahlias, squirrels and the cool grass paint a verdurous picture in Malashri Lal’s “Summer Tricks”. Sanhita Sinha, poet from Tripura, uses words from Kokborok, the native language of the people, in the poem “Khamili Tripura”. It presents “Mamita”, the harvest festival of Tripura, through the septuagenarian woman, Khamili Tripura. In this fast-paced world, she, “does not know about/ globalization or demonetization”. But she understands the life of farmers, their pain and hopes for a bountiful harvest as she prays, “for wealth and warmth, for crops and cotton,/ for peace and freedom”. Sudeep Sen’s “Pankha Pattachitra”, written for Jatin Das, dwells on the aesthetic idea of the pattachitra and Das’s pankha or fan collection. The pankha is also a reminder of a time, “of fair weather—/ and the spare simplicity/ of pure clean air.” This subtle mention of “clean air” of the past stands in sharp contrast with the polluted air of the present. Sukrita Paul Kumar’s “Women on a Motorbike” strikes a liberatory note especially for women. The image of Lal Ded and Akka Mahadevi riding the motorbike, as the two “whizz past centuries”, provides strength to the collective idea of women and lends a sense of historicity as it connects the woman of today with strong voices from the past. the well-earned has a ruminatory tone and fulfills its role in making the reader re-examine the idea of freedom.
Payal Nagpal is Professor, Department of English, Janki Devi Memorial College (Delhi University).