In a new column recently, author and critic Sumana Roy raises a very pertinent issue: Why are women not allowed to go in exile? Reading Tanya Mendonsa’s excellent new book of poetry — The Fisher of Perch, a long fable of a poem that constitutes the entire work — one begins to wonder the same. For clearly, there is something about exile that can really sharpen a writer’s skills. For perspective, there are marginalised communities that have forever been in exile, like the gypsies or the Jews whose peripatetic status made them known as the Wandering Jews on whom French Philosopher Jacques Darrida wrote a moving essay once, noting the inability of the diaspora to return to a homeland in the true sense.
Poetry is a longing for something which is nobler, both in our being and in the world. However, since the possibility of perfection exists only in our imaginations, our attempts to reach that which lies beyond our tangible selves remains a doomed effort which makes a poet’s life a long exile. (In my debut collection of poems, Milan and The Sea, I called poetry a “letter to the homeland from the country of exile” precisely for that reason.)
So, what happens when a poet, already in an ontological exile, goes into an actual, physical one? Many have done so in the past, be it poets or artists. Generally to escape persecution. Or to find one’s own niche or perch in the world where one can sit obscured from the hustle-bustle of the world and watch it pass by — as John Lennon sang in one of his later albums before he met his maker — “I am just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round” in the song, Watching the wheels. Spanish poet Blas De Otero, for example, wrote about the issue of the poet being in exile in his work quite prominently though he felt it more in the sense of the absence of God in whose benevolent kingdom or the state of grace so sought for by mystics, one’s actual homeland lies, so to say.
When I discussed the issue with her, Roy pointed out that she has been in exile too, in Siliguri, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, far from any major urban centres in the country. The city, however, is a very important nodal place in the region where it is situated. Hers is an exile “in one's head”, she says. Having followed Roy’s work over a long period of time and then reading Mendonsa, it becomes clear that one thing exile does is that it helps you “drop your disguises”, a phrase from Kamala Das that I use in a different context here. By allowing you to become whomever you want, when you are in exile, it helps you become yourself at the end of it through the method of eliminating all the pseudo-selves that are not you.
The Fisher of Perch is a work of art that is entirely transparent; the author displays complete freedom from the compulsion, something that others portray as profound. It is transparent like the river which forms an important part of the narrative, symbolising the inner and eternal self with which the poet sought a meeting, through her deliberate displacement, and succeeded, by removing from her being and its peripheries all that is unnecessary, even family and friends. (Gradually, I leave my old life behind, like clothes I no longer need.) This makes her (feel the river washing all over me, as if I were a stone, cleansing me of my old life.)
In an interview she says that her friends do not get to visit her much because the way to her house in the Nilgiris is very arduous but is that not a conscious choice by the author? To not make it easy for friends to “bother us”? About family, which will, of course, neither forget you nor let you forget your ties of blood, this is what she says: I have learned from the animals: they live apart, at their own pace. But ultimately, why go in exile? Well, among other things, maybe for the simple pleasure of not having to do anything. As it is, women bear the weight of both home and outside on their bodies and souls. As Roy writes, “Women, unlike men, are called at their workplace for example, over the missing sock of a child. And women have pointed out that to expect them to multitask all the time is exploitative,” As Mendonsa tells us the reason behind her move to the Nilgiris: Fishing for the courage to continue not doing anything/ far from the shark's teeth of the world. Other than the sublime beauty of the poetry — the metaphors are both stunning and sophisticated — one must commend the strikingly attractive quality of the cover art and the illustrations. The design completes the book.
Abhimanyu Kumar is a journalist based in Delhi. His first book of poems, Milan and the Sea, was released last year.