Despite the fact non-smokers may grind their absence from quotable poetry or literature to some consequence, a fair number of deaths happen in the ash-tray. And in poetry a fair number of last breaths are left behind in that tray, mingling with smoke for co-reason and co-existence for a fleeting moment filled with just the right amount of guilt and regret. So when a poet manages to pierce that glob of moist breath and smoke, and from within the bubble write of impending departures and the comatose space we inherit with verse textured to help you resign yourself to poetry over fiction for once, it is a thing to marvel at. Slow Startle is Rohan Chhetri’s debut collection of poetry and the winning manuscript of the inaugural Emerging Poets Prize organised by the The Great Indian Poetry Collective.
As far as remarking on outsets go, they are pretty clear in the case of Chhetri’s verse. Narrative is his clearest strength and he writes from within a space where the knowledge of our past and the anticipation of our future, corrode each other’s sense of stay.
In Not the Exception he writes about death:
We think death is an aberration. A thousand
automobiles out to run you down every morning.
The precision of the machinery outside us.
The survival of the everyday is a constant
accident from which we will recover in death.
Here Chhetri inverts the polarity of the most basic of life-affirming fears that the city-dwelling men or women feel stretched by on the inside. This belittling of the value of human life by the grandiosity of the apparatus that we are now a part of, a bigger scheme that may have already cut us out thereby making our survival in it more of an exception rather than the norm. Chhetri also has in his repertoire the ability to assign to his senses the gravity of an event that unlike the passage mentioned above has to be written from a point that accounts for his political sight – the excesses of which make poems so powerful. For example in A Brief History of Justice he writes:
..the face of her young husband during
the time of the revolution when she went to see him
in the lockup, where he was hung naked upside
down for three days, with mud shoved in his mouth
by the Bengali Inspector who kept saying,
Feed him the land, that’s what they are fighting for.
There is shattering clarity unruffled by the minuscule use of the metaphor here. There is a directness, and Chhetri holds on to it for the moment, when pursuant of the impending evil in the poem we land in the heart of the oppressor, the tormentor throughout, who in a single, italicised line, expunges all that had humanised him over the other. The poet thus has a sense of contrasts, how stories or poems if angularly written can evoke in us the lopsided passions that we may never feel if these stories are written with reality that is middling and an imagination that only scrapes the periphery – sort of like most fiction. Of a dog who is trampled by a car he writes in Elegy Written on a Clock Face with No Hands (which, perhaps, also gives the book its name)
I think of that animal inside us, our double.
That invisible will guiding the dog across the street
that night, and how in the final moment when
it sensed the glare of the headlights, a tiny shiver
of warmth blew on the asphalt, and inside it the other
animal closed its weary eyes. In the slow startle
as the bumper smashed its ribs, it heard its own cry,
and heard the other voice inside it too – the brief
howl that sounded so strange, so unlike its own.
As mentioned earlier, Chhetri’s greatest strength is the narrative and there is little surprise that his entire collection of poems can be read as if one reads a collection of stories. He rarely attempts to astound us by the range of his vocabulary, which is to say that he is extremely confident in his weaving, to care too much about what he weaves with. That said, narrative poems come with their little baggage of revisionism. Most poems here seem like they have been written over a period of time, thereby backhanding the spontaneity a bit. Sometimes the best poems are written in a hurry, in a pre-aesthetic rush that is part of the reason why poetry is whatever you think poetry is – it is everything and it is nothing. But it is definitely not one thing. And in pacing and patterning his poems to a style – maybe unknowingly - Chhetri risks limiting his own strengths. The hesitance to experiment with word-forms, structure, other-world imagery and ejaculations of the eurhythmic kind may signal a one-dimensional approach. But then, not all poets have to be the same or the same at once. They are not.
In reading these poems one can’t help but feel that Chhetri has a novel in him. And perhaps, he is even working on it as of this moment. His is a poetic style that if allowed to fly in the form of a novel – editorial intrusions notwithstanding – could mark an era of young yet mature writers in India, who can hold a book together simply through their style. And this is best exemplified in two of the most beautiful passages in the book:
The say a lover is a forever shrinking
being. A man after love is a silhouette of a black horse
grazing at dawn, alone and proud, its back quivering
lightly in the breeze.
And in Cafard:
A black dog howls at its own echoes.
Not all sorrow can be sung. Think of the first
Time you screamed into a rustling bamboo grove
To you, fragile as the mirrors studded
On your mother’s wedding dress
It is rare that a book of poems holds you through till the end. It is even rarer when a collection of poems, and the calm around which they are anchored, continues to settle on you even after the end has arrived, as if even in the post-poetry world a Rohan Chhetri poem can make you want to turn that page in a book of blanks. Having read the book twice already I can say that Chhetri can connect with the reader, by the simple way that he might actually care for the reader. In that sense, this is a breakthrough book. You are unlikely to pick up a better debut book across literary categories this year, and if Poetry in India were accorded the same importance as most other categories, Chhetri would have already become a household name — the rising star. For that, though, he might have to write that novel he seems destined to. Apart from that in terms of the somewhat lower horizons of poetry, he is already twinkling, with a sense of belonging rarely seen in poets who have just stepped out of their cradle.