Lady Jesus and Other Poems Arathy Asok
ISBN 978-93-88332-19-4, 70pp, 175 Rupees/$14)
"Lady Jesus and other poems" is a collection of contemporary, unflinching poems that don't back away from politics or patriarchy. In "They Ask me Questions I will not Answer",
"They looked to see
What crowds were being formed,
That thought of the little raped girl,
The boy who wrote poems
(And was jailed),
Of the pregnant woman
With the stillborn child in her lap.
And when they put back the pieces together
They looked to see
If I was one of them.
That was what they wanted
To know if I was one of them."
Initially the narrator seems full of anxiety and paranoid as if she's on trial - it's not specified in the poem who "they" are or the context of the questions - and her answers could have serious, negative consequences. The "if I was one of them" sounds more benign, as if the probing was to see if the narrator was a suitable applicant. But to someone who has encountered discrimination or prejudice, such questions are never benign and interviewee never feels a sense of belonging and will never been "one of them." The notes of reassurance, "put back the pieces together", "after all", are deliberately false, as if the narrator is playing down the experience to reduce her ordeal. This theme of pushing away negatives to focus on positives is continued in "Women, Mine,"
"Because all they want you to see
Is the soul in a complete circle.
You let your eyes slide past
The bullet holes, the bleeding wounds,
For you only see
The lifted hands gloried,
In the sun."
"See" is repeated; it's an instruction to look where directed, to the warmth and nurture of the sun and away from man's warfare.
In the title poem, the narrator walks around a closed house,
"The home has become a house.
She has died, rotting on the cot,
She who smiled at me like a wild gypsy,
And told me to hide love letters under the green leaves.
Without her the jackfruit tree is bald.
The fisherman does not look in.
I wait for the wind
Under a sky
To carry some smell
That I missed
Which would pour
Water down my spine
Closing the hole they drilled,
On my hand My feet My breast."
It's not clear whether the house is locked shut or whether it is open but narrator feels going in would be trespassing. There's a double sense of abandonment: the woman who died alone and the narrator's martyrdom, the last line a reference to stigmata, and a feeling that others, such as the fisherman, have moved on but the narrator can't yet. The linking of narrator and victim is repeated in "Muslim, Rohingya, Three Years" where the narrator feels part of her is rotting after witnessing a drowned Rohingya girl,
"Her face is bloated. Her eyes closed.
On her red dress, the butterflies are still alive, flitting on the half opened flowers.
She does not seem surprised.
Where are the others who walked with her?
The mother whose hand she left the moment the water took her in?
The sister she laughed with a moment ago?
The father she looked from afar?
The brother who carried her around?
The friends under the tree with whom she played before they came to kill?
I cannot see them. The water is cold where she floated bit by bit into my eyes.
Was she a Muslim? Was she Buddha’s enemy?
I do not know. The moment I saw her face I felt the rot spreading,
And now I am almost dead."
The poem ends with the dismissal of the idea the girl's death had anything to do with water or religion; a man-made death. The questions are rhetorical. The questioner knows the girl is alone, her family and friends forced to leave the country they thought was home.
"Lady Jesus and other poems" are poems that witness and record, in direct, clear vocabulary. There's no room for ambiguity and it's apparent the poems take sides with the repressed and unrepresented, those who find themselves victims of prejudice and discrimination. However, they shy away from preaching and don't harangue the reader into agreeing with the narrator's viewpoint.