The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 9, 2003

Delicate thoughts from an unstamped mind
Darshan Singh Maini

Two Black Cinders
by Sheila Gujral. Allied Publishers, New Delhi; first published in 1985, enlarged, new edition 2002. Pages 58 (paperback). Rs 100.

by Sheila Gujral. Allied Publishers, New Delhi. Page 56 (illustrated). Price not stated.

SHEILA Gujral is by now an established poet with a distinctive oeuvre, form and style. And the signatures, widely recognised, define her sui generis verse. Since I’ve known her as a friend, and exchanged notes with her during a memorable visit to 7 Race Course during her husband I. K. Gujral’s Prime Ministership, I find this assignment pleasurable, but also problematic. However, I hope the "aesthetic distance," necessary for any critical scrutiny, would underscore my endeavour to close with her muses.

One reason why I have taken this line of discourse is that Sheila Gujral’s poetry gives hardly any clue to the influences on her work. In his celebrated critique, The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom defines all great poetry in terms of conscious and unconscious "influences" which, grounded in Freudian pressures, inevitably get structured into one’s verse. The effort, then, to "slay" the "pater" poets becomes a compulsive drive. Seen thus, Sheila Gujral’s poetry seems to have few such traces. And I find hardly any "masters" guiding her in any significant manner.

Nor do we see distinctive Indian myths, icons, symbols or lexical expressions such as we find in typical Indian poets writing in English. There are no oddities, no such frills, no stereotyped marks. To be sure, she is a well-read person, and the haiku form that she adopts in much of her verse is clearly indicative of her desire to use the Japanese style best suited to the type of delicate, filigree poems, little stems carrying blossoms, as it were. And her philosophical concerns as in haiku verse, seek gnomic, ambivalent co-relatives. This could hardly be interpreted in terms of Bloom’s thesis, or, for that matter, in terms of native "peer pressures".


The volume entitled Two Black Cinders that initiates her poetic journey carries some 60 poems or so — all in one defined vein and tenor. And the themes too remain within the parameters determined by the needs of the imagination in labour. What’s more, these features continue to adhere in her passage to the latest volume, Sparks. In that sense we do not see any conscious sense of progression, and it’s not necessary, therefore, to divide her poetry into periods. The first and the last markers are virtually the same. In a way, her poetry is circular, and she returns to her tracks like birds "homing" to their nests.

Let me take up a few typical poems from Two Black Cinders to show how Sheila Gujral hones her lines into shape through an aesthetic of asceticism. Few poems go any length; they are short bursts of a restive imagination and there’s abruptness, half-bitterness about them. For instance, in Yogi’s Fall, she encapsules her thought to show how the infinity of the sea and waters serves as a sobering experience to mock human vanities. In Rejuvenation, the reviving power of sweet, nostalgic memories is celebrated to show how the past impinging upon the present becomes felicity if the spirit remains on course. The compactness, concreteness and density of her verse may be noticed poem after poem. Here is an example from a poem, Fatality:

Dozing drunkard

sat in pub

drinking death

drop by drop

Wrinkled wife

lay in bed

eating silence

Sod by sod.

In another beautiful poem, there is a miniature portrait of a cold, frigid woman who remains in a case of her own making, and withers away into a ‘thing.’ In Gujarat Riots, a recent new poem of four lines, she anguishes over the travesty of ‘Gandhiland,’ and the brutalisation of today’s politics.

In the more lavishly, illustrated Sparks, the style, the form and the themes remain almost unchanged, though certain small deviations and departures only indicate a movement within the space of her ‘mindscape.’ Nature, seasons, time, significant moments, etc., wear new colours even as they remain the rooted realities of life. The two poems on autumn, one in each volume, again, exemplify the way she sees nature, not as a Wordsworthian haven, or as a ground for sermons, but as a presence and a felt experience on the pulse. When one recalls Keats’s great Ode to Autumn with its Shakespearean richness of imagery and idiom, Sheila Gujral’s two poems strike us as little cameos, light and feather-like. However, she does humanise her objects so concretely as in Mountain Stream II:

A love-lorn virgin

transcending barricades

leaps into the

lusty arms of the harem-lord.

I found the concluding section, which celebrates the sanctity and beauty of filial love, very fetching. The fondling of grandchildren is for her an experience which "passeth understanding." Indeed, in a large sense, she deifies human relationships. Like E. M. Forster, she holds such links as a milk of life, nurturing us in a world steeped in all manner of vanities and venalities.

No wonder, the great American poet, Katherine Raine, finds Sheila Gujral’s poems "bright, magical moments of life ...." where the vision harks back to "epics." I trust the reference to the epic genre implies a grounding in eternal varieties and values.