Urvashi Bahuguna’s debut poetry collection Terrarium is delicately crafted and rich in detail

Urvashi Bahuguna’s poetry collection Terrarium from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is a beautiful little book, with a deliciously delicate cover.

Krupa Ge April 01, 2019 14:41:05 IST
Urvashi Bahuguna’s debut poetry collection Terrarium is delicately crafted and rich in detail
  • There’s something life-affirming about Bahuguna’s poetry collection Terrarium, writes Ge.

  • 'The poet's work is full of wonder for the natural world and the ways in which we connect with it, while also being self-aware of humankind’s messy place in the midst of beauty.'

  • 'There’s a sense of rooted-ness to this book — you can ‘feel’ some of the poems.'

Editor's note: Writer's Room is a new books column, curated by Krupa Ge along with 15 writers across India. The column seeks to introduce new works as well as allow a peek into the writer's studio, accompanied by recordings of book readings.

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Urvashi Bahuguna’s poetry collection Terrarium from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is a beautiful little book, with a deliciously delicate cover (designed by Alisha Dutt Islam). There’s something life-affirming about this work, perhaps because of how it captures places, sights and the curves on our maps with a perspective fresh as lemon scented tea (so much so that I went out of home one day, to sit between my flowering guava and mango trees to just take the sights around me in, while reading some of the poems.)

Urvashi Bahugunas debut poetry collection Terrarium is delicately crafted and rich in detail

Terrarium, by Urvashi Bahuguna

In Last Ride Before the Monsoons, Mandovi backwaters, Goa, Urvashi writes:

Laterite bulwarks curl the boundaries like lace
on a mantilla veil. Someone has placed champas
on water-washed parapets—yellow yolks facing sky…

And in Queen of the Balcao,

…of paddy fields specked with cranes of sunburn & sea-sweat
Of red-eyed & round bellied snapper of spider feast on papaya splatter…
…of the green burst of a pepper
Plant of pork dried on porches of mosquito bites plumping up an arm
Of rain stains on earth car…

There’s a sense of rooted-ness to this book — you can ‘feel’ some of the poems. I asked Urvashi how important the place a work is set in, or where she is while writing something, is to her?

“I wrote a lot of the first section of the manuscript, set largely in Goa, in Goa. Those memories wouldn’t have come back to me elsewhere. When I’m in a place, the weather, the way the food is salted, the kind of trees I see – those sensory details reinforce for me where I am. I want the readers to know where we are as well. The same experience in two places can be profoundly different. There’s an essence, of course, that could be place-less or migrate to a fictional location but it’s only in Bandra that I expect to pass the church steps that flooded while I lived there. The setting is a marker, a form of record keeping almost – this happened here.”

Urvashi also does not shy away from observing the things that disappoint, that go wrong. Her work is full of wonder for the natural world and the ways in which we connect with it, while also being self-aware of humankind’s messy place in the midst of beauty. And even in these darker moments, there are a few lines that ring home the redeemable. Like in Simmer, that is really about a selfish companion all said and done, is this line cocooned in the middle of disappointment,

Sometimes being alone is so lovely,
I cannot imagine ever having halved all things
with you

To a question on writing the personal, Urvashi says, “Poetry is for me, to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, a place to “tell it slant.” It’s protecting me in that it isn’t a straight autobiography. I am not suggesting that that’s why I write personal poetry, but it is a benefit. When I’m worried, and I often am, I remember that possible negative or invasive responses to putting one’s intimate selves out there don’t have to be engaged with, don’t have to inform one’s decision to write those.”

Under Urvashi’s rich triumphant gaze in Terrarium, female headaches are given the place they deserve in literature.

In The First Summer After You, she writes,

I have headaches the size of Crete

And in a poem that is full of empathy and insight, M For, she writes,

Lying down in a dark room with a headache
Is a kind of female history.

In Search of Lice and Love is another poem that captures the elegant yet strange intimacy between sisters who search our scalps for lice.

… My head in the sheets
and my sister’s fingers extricating white flakes and tugging
at a stray silver hair like a horse galloping through a quiet
moor.

I ask Urvashi, what led her to write in the first place and she says, “It was the essays we were assigned in school, I think. We would be asked from third grade or so to write short essays and short stories on specific topics. I enjoyed that process – and that was especially obvious to me in relation to how little many other subjects appealed to me at the time. I read a lot as a kid, and some of it was children’s literature but because there wasn’t that much in the house, I also read whatever was on my parents’ shelves. So, when writing exercises were set – in English class to prepare us for the essay writing component in the exams – I’d always have fun making things up, and those early storytelling instincts were honed largely by the reading I was doing rather than experiences around me.”

So what is her writing process? “It’s not a consistent process – sometimes I’ll be writing often, such as during National Poetry Writing Month which I participate in sometimes. Other times, I’ll write after reading a particularly informative collection of poems or when something that has been simmering inside me for a while finds a clearer voice – I’ll open the laptop and try to piece a few lines together. I have to be at a certain frequency to write – by that I mean things in my mind need to be in relative order. The oldest poem in the manuscript is from 2013 or 2014, the second oldest from 2015, and the rest were written 2016 onwards. It took a long time for the frequency to be right — the intermittent times I was just working at my job and trying to be (mentally) well. I had the first real draft compiled in 2017, and it took till end 2018 to thoroughly edit. A key part of my process is reading — occupying different positions, living inside a mind outside of my own for a while until I’m able to return with a fresher perspective to the page. I’ll edit the poem on MS Word for months, send it to writer-friends for feedback, print out a copy when it’s close to finished to make edits by hand — I find that useful.”

In Song she writes,

…In my mother’s tongue, which
despite everything is not my tongue, it is
called haldi basant: a spoon of turmeric
swirled in a glass of spring.

Which brought me to ask her about the language she thinks in while writing and the ways in which we borrow aesthetics from other languages (like our mother tongue) while writing in English… “I don’t know if I’m multilingual in the sense that I have a significant grasp on more than one language (I hope to change this over time), but the language I think and write in is a hybrid of the languages I absorb or have absorbed in the past in the course of my daily life. I have the language of my grandparents and maternal side (Odia) that I can listen to and follow, the conversational Hindi I engage in in Delhi and the Hindi poetry I listen to from time to time, a smattering of words from different languages that have become part of one’s vocabulary as a result of the multilingualism of the country – these are part of the fabric of how I think and write. I like the word you used – “aesthetic.” I am always learning from the aesthetic of the other languages in my vicinity.”

Urvashi Bahugunas debut poetry collection Terrarium is delicately crafted and rich in detail

Urvashi Bahuguna. Image courtesy: Aarti Krupa Kumar

Because I am from Chennai I was especially interested in the poems set here, one called Spilt (about the Ennore oil spill) and the other called Urur Olcott Kuppam, which is an old fishing neighbourhood that is now also part of the city’s cultural landscape, where a street art festival takes place each year. Urvashi says, “I came across the news coverage of the oil spill in Ennore (2017) and the washing up of dead fish twice (2015 and 2017) in the estuary at Urur Olcott Kuppam when they happened. I grew up in a coastal state – damage to water bodies and their inhabitants, to the populations that depend on them, to locals for whom it is their home: all of those elements drew me in. I was saddened, moved by citizen efforts, moved by the journalists who cover these stories – I wanted to make additional room for those disasters. The coast is in peril, it is changing – I couldn’t not tell those stories.” Urvashi’s urgent compelling voice in these poems draws attention to our vulnerable coastline.

In Spilt, she writes,

One thousand people in Enoore know the smell of spilt oil

One thousand people in Ennore scoop the oil out with their
bare hands…

When is a poem done? I ask. “I wait," Urvashi says, “Akhil Katyal said in a workshop a long time ago: don’t post it or send it out immediately, let the poem be overnight at least. I used to send poems to my friends right away after finishing the first draft because it can “feel” finished when I’m riding the high of completion. Now, I wait – knowing that I’ll have edits appear in a few weeks or a few months. When I read it with fresh eyes after at least a few rounds of editing and then putting it away for a while, and it “feels” finished at that point – I send it out or file it away. Though I still stay open to edits that may occur to me later.”

Urvashi who’s currently reading Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden, Aditi Rao’s A Kind of Freedom Song, Soren Sveistrup’s The Chestnut Man, and recently finished Devi S Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues and Revati Laul’s The Anatomy of Hate (both of which she highly recommends), is writing a collection of essays on mental illness and health. “It’s an expansion of some of what I’ve explored in the poems in Terrarium, but the circles ripple further. It’s more personal, more fraught...”

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