Book Review – Nishi Pulugurtha’s ‘The Real and the Unreal and Other Poems’: A Recherché Poetry Collection

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By Srirupa Dhar

Nishi Pulugurtha’s debut collection of poetry entitled The Real and the Unreal and Other Poems is predominantly a triptych on the themes of memory, individualism, and observation of people and places. The themes – both stand-alone and parts of an entire whole – speak to the soul with their simplicity of diction and free structural quality. Each word and line – just like each capitalized letter of the titles – in all the poems sound like an arpeggio with a distinctive presence of its own telling us how each living entity and every little incident in life matters. And with this sheer magic of simplicity and freedom in the sixty poems, Pulugurtha folds her readers as well as her own self into the layered stories her poems tell. Whether the poem relates a traveler’s observations of a place or voices the pent-up feelings of a woman or dives into the inner recesses of the mind of a dementia patient, we can’t miss the sensitivity that has gone into the exploration of any of the themes. As readers, our understanding of the complexities of life is enhanced: the blurry lines between the real and the unreal emerge as one of the most powerful truths informing human life.

In the first part of the collection, Pulugurtha pens fifty of her poems primarily either as a travel writer or a woman whose individual entity is attempted as being stifled by the conservatism of society. The observations of a Scottish landscape in “INBHIR NIS” is picturesque:

“The clouds create the grey, the clouds add to the cold
Tall spires stand out piercing the clouds
The screeching of the gulls does not disturb
A churchyard rears its head from behind a wall
Rows of tombstones peep out
A small speck of red, someone has just been remembered.”

The minute details in these lines interweave Nature and humanity bringing home the idea that the two are inseparable. There is no gainsaying that Pulugurtha uses visual and aural imagery to describe the place with an observant eye. The observation goes beyond the physical entity of the place. We, readers, are invited to hear the silence of the seagulls even as they make their screeching sounds and Nature stands unrivalled in the midst of someone being remembered. The place emerges before our eyes as a living entity where the oxymorons of life are being played out unobtrusively. And the poet engages us as we participate in and reflect over her observations. Another instance of transcending the physical presence of the place is manifest in “THE PIGEONS AT DAKSHINESWAR.” A little child and his mother become part of the cooing “black” and “grey” and “white” pigeons:

“Holding her hand, he walks towards them
They are used to humans around, a few just move away
The child walks in, this time alone
Laughing, making noises, he ventures forth, hands outstretched”

Here too, Pulugurtha surpasses the mundane and the physical; her eye watches the human child and the birds come together even as some pigeons “move away.” The world of animals and humans are beautifully coalesced, and the images here come through as the epitome of the sights and sounds of life. The poet says:

 “I was there too, amid the pigeons.”

The poet’s subtle sensibilities are betrayed even when she dwells upon as humble a subject as a bitter gourd “Pushing back so much of the unwanted” and “Carving a small place/Being seen/Uncared but there.” The poet observing mundane vegetables like bitter gourds embeds a whole lot of life in those often-ignored greens. They struggle – just as we humans do – to make a place for themselves in an unfeeling world.

The insensitivity of a male-dominated society is powerfully portrayed in those poems where the woman wants to speak up for herself and not be choked by the suppression of her will. It hurts a woman in “MY SON” who is “stifled” and “mistreated” by her in-laws until she gives birth to her son:

“It is only after my son was born that they began to behave well
towards me.
Am I just a womb?”

The poet reiterates the motif of the individual entity of a woman; a woman is not a mere extension of the rules or will of society. “INDEPENDENT WOMAN” resonates the inner suffering of a woman who has a mind of her own:

“He did not like a woman who had a mind and spoke it
Independent woman, he said, you need to listen to me
His way of life should be yours, some said.
I believed differently,…”

Such urges of an individual soul to be heard are also reflected in poems that Pulugurtha dedicates to migrant workers. Caught in dire poverty and helplessness in “THE CITY HAS NO ROOM FOR US”, the workers say:

“We do the work/build, climb high/risk lives,…”

They know that they have to toil hard “else they get nothing.” But they are helpless in a lockdown situation where everyone is instructed to stay home. But their home is “miles away.” The downtrodden are the ones who suffer most and their individual existence holds no meaning in a cruel world that always wears masks of some kind. The poet reflects how “We always wore masks” in “THE MASKS WE WEAR.”

This motif of a pretentious world where people wear deceptions to camouflage their insensitive countenances is obliquely reinforced by the section called “DEMENTIA POEMS.” In this concluding section, the stories of struggling minds stand as sharp contrasts to the world of “masked” people. These ten poems dedicated to people suffering from dementia are touching expressions of the mysteries floating in a mind lost in time. They are searching for their lost selves in the way of looking for “something.” A poem like “LOST THINGS” takes us into the person’s groping mind where s/he tries to find meaning in her/his own search. Whether it is a “piece of paper” or a “towel” or a “spoon”, the mind looks for itself. The objects mentioned in the poem have entities beyond their physical definitions – each of them seem to bring broken parts of the mind together, a mind that is eluding itself and constantly trying to hold the moment with mental precision. A precision that the person had once enjoyed but lost now, as if the light of the past had never existed in her/his life. Pulugurtha brings out – with humane sensibility – that such a mind reminisces in “HOME-3” how “I supervised the building of this house/ Every morning I came and stayed till dusk/ I saw it rise brick by brick.” In “MALA” we hear the narrator saying how, once, she “rolled the sandalwood on the wooden surface” beside her mother in the room where the “sunbeams” played “on the floor.” The poignance of such words strike the deepest chords in the readers’ hearts as they enter the mind that was once vibrant with happy colors of life, but is now suffering to find that lost spark, that joy trapped in a different time. Memories become the loaded language in these poems as we internalise the slow and sad dwindling of a human life. In “MA”, rich with a personal touch, we hear the voice of the poet. She says that she knows the familiar smile and look:

“It has made her quiet, completely silent
The smile is still there, at times ebullient, at times muted
It still brightens up a dull mood, it tells of the unspoken
She nods her head, she makes motion with her head and hand
The responses are muted, I see them, I know them
They are there, in spite of the tangled nerves with the plagues
wrecking it all.”

The humanity that the last section of poems reveal is also present in the first fifty poems of Pulugurtha’s collection. It is this humanity that binds the three themes echoed throughout many of the poems. The individual wishes to assert her humanity, the mentally fragile person comes alive as someone breathing with the humanity underlying her condition, the buildings and landscape and flora and fauna manifest themselves as parts of the larger scheme of things that embrace humanity. And as we perceive and feel the humanity oozing through Nishi Pulugurtha’s poetic creations, we can’t resist thinking that the most ordinary or the most forgotten and ignored redefine the merging spaces between the real and the unreal. The poet, through her lucidity of language and poignant sensibilities, has echoed the truth that there is beauty even in what or who we often dismiss as inconsequential. For, we are all parts of Time and we keep searching for “A view, a colour, a little change” (“SPRING IN THE CITY”).

Bio:
Srirupa Dhar is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She has three Master’s degrees in English Literature. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. from the University of Kolkata, India. She has a third Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a young lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in many forms of art. Currently, she is a writer of fiction. Some of her short stories have been published in The Statesman and Café Dissensus. Recently, one of her short stories has been published in Muffled Moans Unleashed, an anthology on child abuse and sexual violence. Her nonfictional article, “Self-realization of Women through Binaries in Chokher Bali and Ghare Baire” was recently published in “Reading Rabindranath: The Myriad Shades of a Genius.” Occasionally, Srirupa acts in plays in Columbus. She is part of an amateur dramatic society.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Travel Writing: A mode of constructing knowledge”, edited by Raeesa Usmani, Surat, India.

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