A little more than halfway through this book is a poem titled, “Googling Soni Sori”, referring to the 44-year-old tribal activist from Chhattisgarh, accused of being a Naxalite activist. If you do search for her online, you are likely to find videos of Sori describing how she was tortured in prison and the appalling conditions inside Indian jails. “Who is responsible for my condition?” the third line of the poem demands. This line is repeated like a refrain towards the end of the poem. “I found you”, writes Bolger, “a two-minute clip / wild haired moaning / cuffed to a hospital bed”. For Bolger — and many of her readers — this might as well have been a discovery of India.
A little later, there are three ghazals — one dedicated to Parveena Ahangar, the Kashmiri activist who has become a face of the movement to find people made to disappear in the conflict-ridden region since the disappearance of her Javaid in 1991; the second to a Kashmiri teenage girl; and the third to Asifa, the eight-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in Kathua in January last year. Kashmir has been the focus of international media since February this year when a terror attack in Indian paramilitary forces led to skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani forces, and later the sudden removal of the semi-autonomy the region enjoyed.
As Kashmir remained under lockdown, Ahangar wrote in The Guardian: “Between 8,000 and 10,000 Kashmiris have been victims of enforced disappearance. I was never a political person but the fire of my own suffering and anguish of other parents prompted me to start the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.” In the poem, Bolger adopts Ahangar’s voice: “When he disappeared my fear went away / I approached the armed men under sun and moon. / I searched camps, hospitals and jails / where is he? Can my child see the moon?” These poems open up Bolger — and her audience — to an India changing swiftly.
A COMPOUND OF WORDS; Author: Fiona Bolger; Publisher: Yoda Press; Price: Rs 195; Pages: 92
Bolger’s critics would have found it easy to describe her as a sceptical European who can only see problems in India. (Bolger is Irish and has lived in India for years; this is her first collection.) But they will find it difficult to prove such an accusation because of the empathy with which she describes so many things about the country which played generous host to her. Her brief biography claims that she “is interested in the poems found in the cracks between borders”. This book is ample proof of this desire to excavate.
This is nowhere more evident than in the “Allahabad Sonnets” — a sequence of 10 sonnets in the middle of the book. These poems have a protagonist (perhaps a stand-in for the poet herself, who can tell?) exploring Allahabad. “She maps that city with her feet / her tongue tastes each corner / Katra market potato fry in leaf kattori / cows patiently waiting their turn”. It is the description of a summer evening that she can almost taste on her tongue: “creamy dahi and gulab jamun in hot syrup, ladled / from pan to clay pot, oozing through the pores / She holds the touch of leaf and clay and skin / in her hand as the loo blows through her.” A reader willing to partake of the poet’s imagination can taste the gulab jamun, can feel the hot air.
One of the final poems of the book is “A foreigner is someone who makes us feel we belong”, dedicated to novelist Amitava Kumar who has most recently written a book called Immigrant, Montana about an academic who goes from an Indian village to a US campus. In the poem, the poet self-consciously describes herself as: “Firangi, but a friendly firangi / a lal didi, a pumpkin head / …Difference noted, acknowledged / appreciated, mostly ignored.” For anyone who has travelled even a little, differences among cultures are often a reminder of greater links between them.
This book, with its mixture of words and conflicts and cuisines, does a great job of it.