‘The Barging Buddhi’ Sunita Thind
This debut collection explores living between two cultures – the Sikh of her birth family and the Britishness of the family the poet married into – life-threatening illness and survival. It has a relentless energy. In the title poem where ‘Buddhi’ is an affectionate name given to the poet’s Punjabi-Indian Grandma,
‘This barging Buddhi cuts down a five-year-old cherub on a bike on her way to her daughter’s house.
‘Tu see history khidi’ she squawks at me. (‘You will do some ironing’)
She slathers greasy coconut hair in my inky black plait that swishes from side to side.
This barging Buddhi railroads a gawkish teenager off her skateboard while sweeping the front pavement,
languishing in a silky salwar kameez (Indian woman’s suit),
tattooed with vermillion forehead.
This barging Buddhi shoved a mishap pen shopper.
‘Meera panic peen’ she mouthed. (‘I want to drink water’)
This barging Buddhi places an embellished chuni (headscarf) on my head before we both proceed to the Tarawa (Sikh temple).’
Inevitably childhood memories surface. The girl who wants to ride a bike or skateboard is urged to do household chores and has her plait rubbed with coconut oil to help prevent long hair drying out. The hair is uncut and put in a protective plait according to Sikh tradition. The tension between tradition and contemporary life, particularly for women and girls, is picked up again in ‘Gawping at the Gods of the Gurdwara’ where her ‘chuni (headscarf) strangles me with customs’ and,
‘I hear the Kirtan (Sikh religious hymns) as my onyx black plait sloshes in my Dahl (lentil curry) and Aloo Gobi (potato and cauliflower curry).
I shovel three roti (chapattis) into my mouth
before being dragged to worship in my itchy lime green and
gold Salwar Kameez (Indian suit).
Jap aad sach jugaad sach.
True in the primal being. True through the ages.
The Granthi (Custodian) seated before The Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh bible).
Silver-tipped beard of the Granthi sermonising and praying.
Atop his head is a burnt orange turban with a steel Khanda ornament fastened (A circle with three weapons and a circle),
this is the Sikh military emblem.
I have numbed buttocks from sitting on the floor for hours of the ceremonial hall trying to decipher this exotic prayer. I am only partially bilingual.’
In some poems the explanatory notes in brackets would have been better as footnotes because they interrupt the flow of reading the poem. The details that give a sense of religious instruction being delivered in a way that is unchild-friendly, the plait falling in the curry, eating three roti, ‘dragged to worship’ in an ‘itchy’ suit and the ‘numbed buttocks’, are very well done and capture the mood of someone in a stiff school uniform fidgeting through boring lectures.
Several poems mark the transition from child to adult through a wedding. In ‘Indian Wedding Party’
‘A reservoir of bronze bodies, feasting, swivelling, and
frolicking in Hindu melodies,
the altitude of the Far East, this juxtaposition with her
salivating Auntieji’s cooing over cobalt blue eyes, oozing
over his creamy agelessness
and how his genes will prettify the Asian gene pool,
his luminous beauty against this dusky daughter.
Out of her doll shell this bride panting into her new western
Imperial white and Sanskrit dark,
chewing on her twinkling chuni (headscarf) now caught on
her scintillating nose ring.’
A Sikh bride has married an Englishman. The aunties who urged the young girl to stay out of the sun and lighten her skin clearly approve of the groom’s white skin, thinking any children of this marriage will have the desired lighter skin. Children were not to be, however, as several poems about developing cancer follow. In ‘Ovarium Inferum’,
‘Chemical warfare plays out in my body, like a rapture,
fattening and burgeoning veins of opalescent drugs
Succulent steel shredding at the obligatory ovary,
tumour bulging with meaty juices.
Ruptures exploding with rancid, rainbow tendrils.
Is his glorious reign at an end?’
Fortunately, the poet survived her cancer. The final poems focus on a return to life, the small details that make life bearable, here a robin in ‘Redcoat’,
‘Sunset cut his breast.
marauder on the bird feeder,
rubies on redcoats
throbbing with flame feather.
Christened with warm plumage,
a beaked kiss.’
The language has changed too. It’s been stripped back and focuses on its subject. The consonance and sound patterns give it a tighter structure, especially when compared with the looser frames in the earlier poems. It’s as if the poet is moving away from those subjects she thinks she ought to write about to subjects she needs to write about. Writers caught between two cultures, as Sunita Thind is, will always feel that pressure to explore their desire to bridge the two. The earlier poems tumble with energy and tensions between wanting to be dutiful and wanting to be an individual who challenges those duties by marrying outside her faith. The later poems feel more focused, more urgent and the contrast underlines some of the tensions explored in the earlier cross-culture poems.