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MOFUSSIL NOTEBOOK: Poems of Small-town India
Like the epigraph couplet of the eighteenth century Urdu poet, Zauq, Smita Agarwal’s second book of poems casts a wry and amused glance at the world around her. While poems like “Catechesis”, “Undergraduate Indian English” and “Mofussil Mummies” explore the colonial hangover, others like “I Love You” reveal, with tolerant irony, the curious blend of tradition and modernity which is contemporary India.
Agarwal’s landscapes shift from Allahabad to Ladakh to Times Square and her emotions from playful (“My Bindi”) to stark (“Moving On”). She also experiments with form as in “Ghazal: Civil Lines”, “These Days” (the Hindi kavi sammelan) and the folk in “Binsar Barahmasa”.
Smita Agarwal’s treatment of “life’s disenchantment’s … with rare sensitivity and without a trace of self-pity prove that she is a first-rate poet from whom we can expect great writing.” Khushwant Singh in Hindustan Times.
Smita Agarwal’s poems “veer from the exotic to the defamiliarized” yet she “offers glimpses of optimism” in her “painfully grown-up pieces.” Devon Campbell-Hall in Wasafiri.
Smita Agarwal’s poems “have the fine tenor of a practiced musician.” Outlook.
This summer, the mango tree bore aubergines;
These days, you can’t trust in anything.
A young man, dying, made off with his nurse:
These days you can’t trust anyone …
My spouse cooed, “I love you deary …”
The next minute he was smooching his secretary.
The Ganges burst its banks …
The Ganges burst its banks and flooded the streets;
Lalu Yadav placated us by saying the goddess
Wished to kiss the common man’s feet …
Ramlila, the story of an ideal prince, has changed its format.
Bar girls gyrate to film tunes,
While Suparnakha, in her act of seduction,
Jumps into Laxman’s lap.
And we, the public, hiss and clap …
God’s life story acquires a celluloid tinge …
How shall we place our trust in anything?
In the land of Buddha, man and beast co-exist in peace.
In overcrowded railway stations, don’t be taken aback
If you witness this scene. A defeated Indian in dhoti and kurta,
Casually sipping his tea. A cow walks up to him
When his back is turned; it dips its head and pushes
Its wet muzzle into the cleft of his bottom
And gives him a tender nuzzle.
Never touched like this, he shamelessly allows
Himself to like it … for, ever since the mango sprouted aubergines,
We Indians don’t allow anything to surprise us,
Since we never put our trust in anything.
Santhara is the Jain ritual of embracing death by giving up food.
Vimla Devi, all of sixty, suffering from an incurable brain tumour
Decides to practise it and liberate herself.
Her community supports her, the police stand by and watch her,
And when she dies, there’s a hue and cry, for in our country
Self-killing is suicide and therefore a crime …
Tradition and modern laws clash and ring.
How should we die … how should we live …
By not being amazed at anything …
In summer, my mango tree sprouts aubergines,
These days, I fail to put my trust in anything.
SMITA AGARWAL has been publishing poetry in India and abroad for over twenty years. In 1999, she has been a writer-in-residence at the universities of Stirling (Scotland) and Kent, U.K. Her critical articles on Indian Poetry in English have been published in magazines and journals like Poetry Review, (London) and the Journal of Commonwealth Literature (UK). Smita Agarwal worked for her Ph D on Sylvia Plath and is currently an editor and translator for Plath Profiles the Sylvia Plath online journal, Indiana University, USA. Her day job is that of a Professor of English at the University of Allahabad, India. Her hobby is Indian music and her songs are available on www.beatofindia.com and You Tube.