Mahmud Mazil at Daryabad: Reshma Aquil’s family home, all photos courtesy Zaheer Baber
Reshma Aquil Of Daryabad
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
There are, in India, two kinds of criticism. The first kind is criticism as unconsidered praise, in which the writer, having done little more than give documentary confirmation of what the reading public already knows, is someone so exalted that no criticism except the sound of clapping and a bouquet of roses seems necessary. At the other end of the spectrum from the critic as cheerleader is the critic as resident of an old people’s home, the critic who has lost not just his teeth but also the memory that he once had bite. For this critic the past has been wiped out, the world reduced to the images that he, along with other residents of the home, manages to see on the TV screen. For such critics literature exists in a historical vacuum, and the vacuum also extends to large areas of the present. The writer who does not constantly manage to put in an appearance at the catwalks of literary festivals, where he can rub shoulders with sundry filmstars and their husbands or wives, ceases to be a serious writer. This is why some writers become so much better known in their lifetime than others less socially ambitious. It’s just that many writers would rather, as Sara Rai put it to me once, live in the twilight zone of writing than in its limelight. Though secure in their belief of who they are, the shadows they inhabit are not those that grab the world’s attention. Neglected by reviewers, and almost invisible when alive – especially if they’re poets – they’re quickly forgotten when dead, escaping even the dragnet of an Oxford or a Routledge Companion. If they are to be found anywhere it is in the deepest trench of the literary Pacific, where among other harmless creatures live those who are published by vanity presses.
One still presumes that these poets had been read and their work evaluated before being consigned to the oblivion that is not the canon, and not even the fringe canon – if there be such a thing; that there were critics who had done the job of separating writers who have been unjustly forgotten from those whose reputations were like soap bubbles, requiring them to be constantly blowing on the soap bubble gun to keep themselves in the public eye. One of the functions of a critic, Auden remarked in The Dyer’s Hand, is ‘To convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I have not read them carefully enough.’ Since the literary critic, the kind Auden is referring to, is thin on the ground in India, it is entirely possible that the slim precious-looking books of these poets were seldom opened except by their family members and close friends, and that their work passed swiftly from publication to oblivion.
One such poet was Reshma Aquil. Her isolation from the literary world can only in part be put down to her location; it was more an aspect of her temperament. The price of isolation was neglect, which was perhaps small compared to what she would have paid had she moved in what passses for literary circles in India, for that would have affected the very timbre of her guarded voice. Her biography, or as much of it as can be gleaned from her three published books – Sleeping Wind, Shadows of Fire, and The Unblending – is as spare as her poems. According to the note that appears on the back cover of Sleeping Wind, she ‘was born in 1955 in Allahabad, India. Educated at St Mary’s Convent and later University of Allahabad, where she received her M.A. and Ph.D., she now teaches in the Department of English, University of Allahabad. Her poems have appeared in Poetry India: Voices of Many Worlds.’ The biographical notes in her two subsequent books, both published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta, say essentially the same thing, adding only a excerpt from a review in The Straits Times of Sleeping Wind, which was published by Ethos Books, Singapore. Reshma Aquil died of cancer in 2012, in the city of her birth.
With her quick shifts of music and tone – the play of light and shade giving the reader no time to pause – if there is one poet Aquil reminds you of it is Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, she rushes you along, she hides, she’s abrupt, she pares down language till there’s almost no language left, till it is as austere as she herself was, as though she wanted to erase all trace of it. A poem of hers can therefore look like a jotting, something dashed off, but that’s because there is, behind her writing, a sense of urgency. If a line or phrase is ambiguous, she lets the ambiguity alone, as in ‘Encounter’:
The soft consonants of the first tercet, the alliteration in its second line, and the internal rhyme on o, give the poem a quiet greeny opening. The consonants, the alliteration, and the internal rhyme are continued in the second stanza’s first line (‘But as I bend to close the window pane’) before the poem jerks forward with the crash of a trochee followed by a spondee – ‘sudden swift winds’ – and we realise that something else is afoot here, the verbal muscle that earlier had appeared relaxed has tensed. The feeling is reinforced by the opening words of lines three and four that repeat the trochees: ‘Bouncing’, ‘Frosting’. Only then are we told, the ‘lie’/’life’ slant rhyme suggestive of the slanting rain, that the storm has broken a reverie. Comparing it to an accoster who has accosted her earlier too, she lashes out at this thing, ‘Whatever it is that’s springing to life’, and slays it.
The movement from something seen to something felt, from something out there in the world to something experienced, like pain or fear or joy, recurs throughout Aquil’s work. What Sartre wrote in his essay on Baudelaire could also be said of many of Aquil’’s poems: ‘Baudelaire was a man who never forgot himself. He watched himself see; he watched in order to see himself watch; it was his own consciousness of the tree and the house that he contemplated.’ What Aquil is watching in the first two stanzas is a storm, the ‘Bouncing trees’. What she is experiencing in the next two is stormy thoughts. There is a sense of finality in the ‘breath’/ ‘death’ full rhyme with which the poem ends, the alliteration on b (‘bated breath’) slowing down the iambic line before the cretic blow of ‘Give it death’, but the question of what the thoughts are to which she has given ‘body’ and now wants to kill is never answered. ‘Whatever it is’, she says ambiguously. The metaphorical storm bears the brunt of her inner strength, as she quells it and regains the ‘stillness’ it had sought to destroy. It is the mind protecting itself from itself. Aquil was frail, but only of body.
Though in many ways identical to ‘Encounter’, there is little ambiguity about what is springing to life in ‘Late September’. A poem of five stanzas of five lines each, it comes with its own abstract, which, to quote the first and fifth lines of the first stanza, is ‘It has stopped raining’ ‘And I have got back my mind’. The poem is an elaboration of this declaration. It is as much about the changing late-September weather outside (the rainy season is about to end, bringing the promise of clear days ahead) as about her no-less-changing inner weather. Aquil faithfully records both and presents her findings as though at a conference of meteorologists. Her tone, as befits the occasion, is measured:
Wallace Stevens spoke of ‘the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind’ and in Aquil we can hear her thoughts hum and buzz as they swarm round her. Instead of evading them she deals with them one by one, if it is at all possible to deal with a swarm in this fashion. The thoughts have to do with what she observes in the garden, ‘something is wrong’ there. Her own disturbance, though, disturbs her more: ‘I will not guilt my pleasure with her desperation’. The end we know already, but the compressed last line still surprises, the pressure of the moment felt in the compression ‘Stark, rejecting.’ Only then, after the troubling thoughts that the desperately screeching bird has given rise to have been silenced, can the mind return to stillness.
There’s always in Aquil plenty to reject. In ‘A Birthday, February, the Second’ it is morning sounds: the ringing of the milkman’s bell, the clanging of vessels in kitchens, the shouts of hawkers. ‘A window breaks upon a crackling world.’ To her, even the sight of distant birds is indicative of noise: ‘The sun comes crashing through glass/ Birds streak across, beaks wide but inaudible.’ By suppressing ‘open’ after ‘beaks’, leaving the reader to supply the word, Aquil gives the line a spontaneous, scribbled quality. On the other hand, the play on ‘beaks’ is finely judged. It is not the beaks that are inaudible but the sound of the birds. Though it is the morning of her birthday, the awareness of being fully alive comes when ‘stillness’ is restored. The poem ends, as does ‘Encounter’, in a dramatic unexpected hush: ‘You are born/ When nature, expectant, awaits your touch.’
The quiet that comes with the stark rejection of outside sights and sounds can itself be full of disquiet. In ‘Marking Time’ she hears ‘a bird’s irritating urging’ and says
And she ends ‘Shadows of Fire’ with:
In the tightly strung last line, ‘wide’ describes both ‘spaces’ and ‘smiles’. Neither the presence of nature, nor human company, nor being alone with oneself can put an end to the largely unspecified terrors that ‘arise from nowhere’ and seem never to leave Aquil. As Helen Vendler in yet one more over-written review of yet one more major American poet might have put it, their recurrence in her poems points to some unresolved ‘psychic material’.
Aquil’s great subject is the unnerving effect on her of things that most others would not give a second thought to: a storm, a bird’s nest, a hawker’s cry. Perhaps nowhere in her poems is this experience more searingly felt than in ‘Border Crossing’:
Initially willing to try out another culture and its ‘strange stimuli’, Aquil puts her ‘flexibility’ to the test. Pulled in opposite directions, she both both ‘laughs’ and ‘Cries’, the latter word picked up by ‘Lacerates’ in the next stanza. The stupid body is half willing to play along, but the mind has a masochistic need to deny itself the freedom it craves. Having lamented the loss of her equilibrium, she is impatient to recross the border and return to familiar territory. The last word, ‘kind’, despite the comma that precedes it, collides with the rest of the line, bringing the poem to a juddering halt. She has already said enough about what the fear is – ‘Fears freedom’ – and to say more would be to spoil the poem that is poised between a sluggish opening line and a fast-moving last one.
In the context, ‘Lacerates’ is not without socio-religious connotations. Aquil, who was single, lived with her parents in the Daryabad area of Allahabad. Situated along the Yamuna, it is still predominantly a Shia enclave of maze-like narrow streets, inhabited primarily by small and middle-level zamindars, their dependants and hangers on, some of the zamindar families going back to Mughal times. The area is dotted with imambaras, from where processions are taken out during Moharrum. Aquil had seen young men flaying themselves with whips or chains, making a display of their lacerated backs, and through her teenage years had participated in the ritual of beating her chest. According to her brother Zaheer Baber, ‘it was more of a rhythm generator of sorts to accompany the ‘melody’ of the marsiya/lamentation rather than anything else!’
The topography of Aquil’s childhood was dominated by Mahmud Manzil, a sprawling single-storey house from whose high-ceilinged rooms hung Belgian glass chandeliers. The main drawing room, inaccessible to the children except on special occasions, had a floor made from pieces of glass and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The walls were covered with paintings in heavy gold frames. There were gardens and a full-size tennis court. The house belonged to her maternal grandfather, Agha Ali Khan, who was a zamindar of sorts and honorary magistrate.
Though the two houses were internally connected, Reshma Aquil’s parents’ house was more modest. However, it was in Mahmud Manzil that she spent a lot of her time. In the early 1960s, when she was growing up, its many rooms were still largely intact, not yet stripped of their chandeliers. But the main attraction for Aquil and her siblings was not so much the house as the extensive backyard they called the ‘forest’:
According to Zaheer Baber, the place had a profound effect upon them. It was dense with vines and creepers and home not only to massive trees (peepul, mango) but also snakes, porcupines and, occasionally, wolves. It was where spirits and devils lived, some in the ruins of an old monument that had probably been a mosque.
She races all the way back to her childhood, past Mahmud Manzil, to join in the hunt, though this time it’s not to bring down a bird with a catapult:
The last two lines appear to have been written to fill out the stanza. Stepping out of the box of time into the present, Aquil sees plastic and concrete, the obvious signs of urban blight. As her eyes regain focus, she sees other things too, like the ‘Idlers’ in her Daryabad lane,
While she is still absorbed in this little scene of provincial life, the young men steal past her door, enter her room, and make themselves comfortable:
Largely unnoticed though they may be, the idlers will continue to reside in her lines – what else is literature for? – long after the rain has stopped.
“Twilight Muse” is short even by Aquil’s standards, her poems seldom go over a page. The poem’s title appears to be a trifle dainty but that’s misleading:
The three lines of five syllables each are stitched together with internal and slant rhymes. The description is spare and the ‘white crisp sands’ could belong to a tourist poster, except that the third line changes the landscape entirely, so much so that the poem does not seem to be about a landscape at all. It could be as much about being turned into a dangerous creature of the deep, half submerged in the water, the dark fin startling the birds. The amphibian poet is on the prowl. Her grip can choke, and that moving fin, which may well be her evening shadow falling unexpectedly on the birds, is not something you want to come face to face with. The fledglings are, rightly, startled. They ‘flap’ their wings, their survival instinct telling them to step out of the way. Death, or at least fear, stalks abundant birth.
What nourishes Aquil is not border crossings and travel but fear and isolation.
This short poem, entitled ‘Hawk’, makes a pointed reference to Ted Hughes’ ‘Hawk Roosting’. The first word, ‘Aloof’, echoes its first line, ‘I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed’, just as the phrase ‘armed with his vision’ is a glance in the direction of ‘My eye has permitted no change’, which appears towards the end of Hughes’ poem.
Few Indian poets in English have been as ‘Aloof’ as Aquil, and fewer still have been ‘armed with [her] vision’, taking in its sweep, often in the same poem, the distant view of inaudible birds as much as the interior world she kept returning to. As a poet of doorways and thresholds, she is able to look out as much as look in, mapping the journey from the seen to the felt, the observed to the experienced (‘The nerves/ In my head/ Are grinding/ Their molars’), in language that is as exact as a unit of measurement.
There are times when Aquil lingers over a moment without interiorising it. These are moments for the moment’s sake, and they are not as infrequent in her work as may at first appear. The moment described in ‘Horses’ is a good twenty or thirty paces long, and comes with its own bend and curve.
However much she may have identified herself with the mountain scene and the five horses, the question she asks in ‘Leave Taking’ is the one that she keeps returning to, ‘Why did I leave?’ She asks this as much of the spare monastic room in which she wrote as of herself and her rest-seeking mind, the room being a metaphor for it. But then again, contrary to what she says in ‘Hawk’, she is not so suspicous of men as to banish them entirely from her life. She crosses the threshold, as though to go to a foreign country, then crosses right back:
As one world recedes into the distance, another comes into view. The external world vanishes, while everything in the other appears as though enlarged: wooden bed, table, tablecloth, tea stain, books, window panes, and a chair that is old and worn, comfortable, upright, and wearily welcoming. It bears the impress of Aquil’s mind, just as it does of her body.
This was first delivered as a talk at the 2017 ‘literary activism’ symposium held on Reassessments and later reprinted in Translating the Indian Past and Other Literary Histories (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2019).
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is the author most recently of Selected Poems and Translations (NYRB Poets) and, as editor, The Book of Indian Essays: Two Hundred Years of English Prose (Black Kite).