Misfits matter

Topics Weekend Reads | Book

In the third poem of the volume under review, The Centaur Goes Beyond Binaries, the protagonist — half-horse, half-man — recalls being defeated in a wrestling bout. Even as he nurses his wounds and his ego, the Centaur has a realisation: “It was then that I knew / I would never fit in / and that this was alright.” To not fit in, to stand out, to be offensive, is not only an inalienable characteristic of individualism, but also an aesthetic and political standard. It is, as the poem claims, a rejection of the binaries in which an increasingly polarised world wants us to cast our visions. The Centaur, like the artist, is an odd ball, a misfit.

In his debut collection, Mumbai-based journalist and poet Suhit Kelkar has channelled Greek myths to indulge in a sort of personal mythopoeia. This is at once a testimony to the cosmopolitan aspirations of the poet as well as the robust health of Indian poetry in English, which seems to find so few publishers these days. (Kolkata-based Hawakal is, in fact, one of the independent presses that has been performing a yeoman’s task in bringing out debut collections of poets.) In a different time, one might have accused Kelkar of not exploring his own culture and instead adopting Western myths for his purposes, but now, that would be a surrender to the binaries that the poet and the protagonist of this book reject.

Right in the middle of the book are two love poems, but like everything else in this book, it is like throwing down a gauntlet. In the first one, “The Centaur Threatens the God of Love”, the protagonist tells the god: “I’ve seen through your PR. / To humans you bequeath / the choicest of love, / disappointment and misery / for us centaurs.” Disappointment is only too often the handmaiden of love; to make oneself vulnerable is to invite pain. But disappointment in love often whets the appetite instead of killing it. Kelkar uses humour to address the situation: “Help me now / I implore, cajole, curse you / My centauress has been skittish / for many weeks now, / and my breath is flagging.”

The second poem, “The Centaur Speaks of Lost Love”, uses torrential rain as a metaphor for the coldness experienced when love withdraws. “Stung by sharp drops, drenched / to the bone and shivering, I laughed, / scampering in search of shelter / as truth revealed itself to me.” The landscape of the poem is a beautiful valley, but the natural beauty is a contrast to the mood of the character: “Whatever else may be illusion / the world is real. Proof: we suffer.” Suffering, especially the kind induced by loss of love, is undeniable proof of one’s existence.

The Centaur Chronicles
Author: Suhit Kelkar
Publisher: Hawakal Publishers
Pages: 40
Price: Rs 165

All the 22 poems in the book are written in unrhymed tercets, favoured by Dante and Petrarch in their longer works. In Kelkar’s book, they are unrhymed. This is clearly a part of the artistic stance of the poet, aligning himself to Western epic writers. To a careful reader, it is also a signal of the epic aspirations of the poet. Kelkar uses the apparatus of myth and mythology in a bid to conceal and also reveal. This technique comprises elaborate aesthetic callisthenics, which Kelkar performs with grace, leaving no doubt in the minds of his readers about why he was the winner of the 2018 US National Poetry Contest of the RaedLeaf Foundation.

Towards the end of the book, the Centaur is overcome by morbid thoughts, struggling with the dichotomy of his existence: “My thwarted wildness scorns me, / my borrowed humanity shames me.” He is aware that he cannot surrender to his wilder impulses nor reconcile with the domesticity of a human existence. It is an Orpheus-like situation, of being torn from limb to limb. One might have expected a resolution at the end of the book; Kelkar denies it to his readers. But this is not a betrayal. It is a promise, hopefully, of another book and more of the Centaur’s adventures.
The writer’s novel, Ritual, will be out early next year

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