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  Soumya's poetry  
  As gentle as her name  
  POETRY matters little to the modern world. That is, very little of contemporary intelligence concerns itself with poetry". This is how F.R. Leavis begins his book New Bearings in English Poetry published in 1932. Eight decades later, the situation is more or less the same, if not worse. A few weeks ago, when Mannodi Raveendran gave me a sheaf of English poems written by Soumya, a student of Delhi University, and asked me to speak on her poetry at the Kerala Club, I was hesitant.

When I read them and, later, heard them recited by the poetess, I could feel an earthy freshness in the free-flowing verses which were at once devoid of jargon and restrictive poetic constructs like quadratic metre. 

As Leavis, who literally "discovered" T.S. Eliot, easily the greatest English poet of the 20th century, says, "every age has its preconceptions and assumptions regarding poetry: these are the essentially poetical subjects, these the poetic materials, these the poetical modes".
Every single poem she presented seemed to defy the notions of poetry. Yet, they appeal to the finer sensibilities of the reader because they were conceived and composed in the soul. They live up to Milton's formula of "simple, sensuous, and passionate" and are expressions of simple emotions: "the tender, the exalted, the poignant and, in general, the sympathetic".

In short, her poems have a certain class, though wit, play of intellect and stress of cerebral muscle are not her strength. They are as fresh as the new blood vessels that bud out from the vascular bed, to use a zoological metaphor. That is why I decided to meet Soumya and know more about her and her poetry. That she is my friend Vijayan Punnathur's only daughter helped in no small measure.

She has no pretensions of scholarship or spontaneity and answers all questions with an air of confidence, rooted in directness and sincerity. It is said that every teenager is a poet. I too wrote poems in that phase of life when one tends to believe that one can change the world till I realised that I lacked the genius of poesy. Soumya is different: "I did not do any writing at all during my teenage. In fact, poetry never came to me". But, then, nothing sprouts in vacuum and this is true in her case too.

Soumya is blessed to have a father, who reads out to her the best of poems and articles that he comes across and arranges her papers, books and notes so much so that he knows more about them than her. They are bonded so much that she can ask him to look for something which she needs without prefacing it with a "Please Pappa".

After completing her MA in English Literature from Delhi University, she is now doing M. Phil at the Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies and is planning to do her Ph.D on the "women characters in Koodiyattam", the oldest surviving form of Sanskrit theatre, traditionally performed at the temples in Kerala. The art form is believed to be 2000 years old and is officially recognised as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO.

It was a revelation to me that in Koodiyattam, the roles of women were played by women themselves. Come to think of it, men played the role of female characters in Shakespeare theatre. Even in India, women began to come on stage only in the second half of the 20th century.

What prompted her to choose to study Sanskrit theatre? "I love Sanskrit, which I learnt as a second language in Delhi". I realised there was more to her love than met the eye when I heard about her grandfather Agnisharman Namboodiri, 87, who can recite the whole of the Rig Veda in both ascending and descending orders with appropriate mudras (hand gestures) or "riks" as they are called.

What a pity that I missed noticing his picture at the Kerala Club, where he spoke about "Vedangalile saahityamsam" (The literary contents of the Vedas) a few years ago! When I heard that he could recite 15,000 Vedic sooktas without batting his eyelid, I felt like Adi Shankara, who wanted to meet Mandan Mishra, when he first heard about the Sanskrit scholar from Mahishi in Bihar's Saharsa district
Soumya has no pretensions of any great love for theatre, though she once acted as Rosalind in Shakespeare's play As You Like It. Admired for her intelligence, quick wit, and beauty, Rosalind is also renowned for her fidelity to her exiled father, the Duke Senior, and her lover, Orlando. This experience, though limited, will stand her in good stead as she studies the women characters in Koodiyattam.

Her initiation into the real world of poetry occurred when she read T.P. Rajeevan's anthology of poems Pranayasatakam (Hundred Love Poems). It was the first time I heard his name, though I knew the film Paleri Manikkam, based on his novel by the same title. 

This is what a reviewer has exultingly written about the novel: "Rajeevan does a splendid job of stripping the man-woman relationship of the aesthetics, mores and moralistic trappings and treating the human body, especially the female body, in all its crudity, without for a moment sounding indecent". Is it any wonder that I want to read him?

Rajeevan's poems opened her eyes to the poetic possibilities. That the 100 poems were both in English and Malayalam helped her immensely. "I think in Malayalam but I can't write in Malayalam," says Soumya. Rajeevan, who quit his job in Calicut University to take up full-time writing, is a friend of her father.

One of the first poems she wrote was in the form of a tribute to Rajeevan: "To know a poet is a blessing in life/ A talk with a poet makes the mind fresh and light". I do not know how he felt when he received the poem. If I were in his position, I would simply have been floored by her "spontaneous outflow of emotions" which is what poetry is. I liked her poem In Memoriam which is a tribute to poet and social activist Mullanezhi Neelakandan: "An unknown poet, an unknown voice/ An unknown father, yet a known figure, departed.../ He spoke, he sang, he sobbed all in silence!

"A bond with his Creation's Half,/ The quest to know that 'Unknown' began.


"He returned...

"Knowing him, not in his past or present/ But his future.

"Now, indeed I recognise his voice, his songs, his sobs/ And of course his unbreakable silence!"

Soumya did not know the departed soul but she knows his son Pradeepan Mullanezhi, who is associated with films like Pulijanmam (Leopard's life) and Sufi Paranja Katha (The story told by Sufi), directed by Priyanandan. She finds the father's resurrection in his son!

When I spoke on her poems, I could not help saying that death was a recurring, if not constant, theme in her poetry. Incidentally, the reviewer I quoted singles out one sentence from the novel Paleri Manikkam to bring out its essence, "Death completes and complements a woman's beauty." Death is more real than cerebral for Soumya.

She saw life departing from her grandmother and it had a traumatic effect on her. "I was close to her and I consider myself lucky that I could nurse her during her last days". In a poem she describes her encounter with her hospitalised grandma, with these concluding lines: "As I travelled back home/ I remembered that wrinkled face of my grandma/ This would perhaps be the last time I saw her/ An image I would treasure till the end of my life".

I wondered how her parents, who doted on her, could reconcile to the idea of their daughter brooding over death as in these lines: "How I long to embrace you and be in your arms/ For all times to come/ You are my final destination/ The love of my life is 'Death'!" She has her own views on the phenomenon of death. "I see death as something positive. One does not have to be afraid of it".

I was not surprised to know that John Donne was her favourite a poet about whom Susan Varghese writes in The Shapers of Destiny: "He is the founder of the Metaphysical School of poetry, which specialised in using the most disparate images to convey ideas". It is a different matter that Dr Samuel Johnson disparaged his kind of poetry by remarking that "heterogeneous ideas were yoked together by violence".

One of Donne's poems has profoundly influenced me. It is all about death but it begins and ends on a positive note: "Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so... One short sleep past, we wake eternally,/ And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die." Soumya speaks on a similar vein when she talks about the "final destination" which is, "perhaps, the most pleasurable, tranquil and satisfying experience".

She is lucky to have her parents transcribe what she writes on her mobile. It is through them that she is familiar with the works of Malayalam poets like Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, Anwar Ali, Karippuzha Srikumar, Ayyappan, Kunjunni Mash and Madhusudhanan Nair. She is also a great admirer of T.S. Eliot and his poem The Waste Land, which ends with the Sanskrit lines, "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shanties, Shantih, Shantih" which I hesitate to translate for fear of offending my friends who are far more well-versed in Sanskrit than me.

Many people may not know that Eliot did a course in Sanskrit and also learnt Buddhist philosophy. Originally, the poem had over 1,000 lines which were reduced to 400 lines by Ezra Pound, to whom it was dedicated. Soumya has many to encourage her like her 'uncle' Varathra Sreekumar, who edits Pranavam, a publication of Gayatri, a socio-cultural organisation in Delhi, her English teacher at Delhi University, Ms Rita Sinha, who asks her to "play with words" and poet, editor and essayist A.J. Thomas, who encouraged her to send a few poems to the Indian Literature, a publication of the Kendriya Sahitya Akademi.

One of the poems was titled 'An Undergraduate Reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness'. Anybody who has attempted reading Joseph Conrad's short novel about Charles Marlow's life as an ivory transporter like this writer knows how difficult it is. She concludes her poem: "At last a streak of light!/ The journey from light through Heart of Darkness to Life/ Came to a mysterious halt!"

One of her poems which appeared in the Indian Literature has already been translated into Urdu and published. Soumya is proud of her grandfather's Vedic skills. "Though women were not traditionally encouraged to recite the Vedas, my grandfather encouraged me to learn them." On my request, she recited a shloka from the Rogaghna Upanishad, though a bit haltingly.

"My best critic is my mother. She can be indiscriminate with both her criticism and affection". She knows about her parents' romance that began during their teenage leading to their inter-caste marriage but she has no marriage plans, until she completes her M.Phil and possibly her Ph.D.

Poets of yore have all discussed the subject of "what is in a name?" Vijayan gave his daughter just one name with no prefix or suffix. This is how she describes her state: "All that I have is a name,/ To fall back on,/ The cluster of alphabets that become me./ Without a surname, Joy of knowing the self,/ Not by your past but by your present and future, I live".

As I take leave of her, I remembered my friend and poet Prof Chandrashekharan Nair's comment about Soumya's poetry, "There is a spark of originality in her poems. However, she needs to read more." She is yet to read Thunchathu Ezhuthachan's Ramayana but she has, as she says in a short, lyrical Malayalam poem, Orupaadundu, parayanum, kelkkanum, pinne orthirikkanum (I have a lot to say, hear and remember).

The writer can be reached at

Courtesy: Indian Currents
  By  A.J. Philip  
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