Reading Ms. Shabnam Bhaya’s Breathing with You (Poetry)

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Title : Breathing with You
Author : Ms. Shabnam Bhaya
Publisher : Author’s Press (2014)
Price : 195/- (INR)

I have known Ms. Bhaya for a major part of my life; 18 (of the 29) years to be precise. She had taught us Hindi in middle school, and happened to also be my class teacher in Standard Xth. My oldest memory of hers consists of her narrating one of her long, comic, narrative Hindi poems to us, wide-eyed, gleefully staring children of standard VIIIth, who were still finding their way around sanghya (Hindi for noun) and vilom shabd (Hindi for antonyms). We hadn’t yet started exploring the power, or limitations of the written word. But what was being recited to us seemed delectable. A lot of us, I believe, began writing poetry after that. We still didn’t know the difference between a sentence and a line. However that wasn’t necessary. The need of the hour, apart from inspiration, well provided-for by hormones, heartbreaks and the grand tragedies of nascent loves, was the introduction to ‘form’. And that is where she came in.

True, we had the Sarojini Naidus and the Ram Dhari Singh Dinkars in our syllabus. But as happens with other things in childhood, we needed to see things in flesh and blood to adequately be moved by them. All those poets in our syllabus, apart from being a source of unending dread, also seemed, ‘unreal’. They existed, literally, ‘only in name’. But here we had, in front of us, a ‘living, breathing, reciting-her-own-poetry’ poet. The thought only grew on us, on some of us, at the least, until the back ends of our notebooks was the stuff of Byron and Pushkin, if not Homer and Virgil.

Having said that, when I got to know, the same person who introduced us to poetry in a way no ‘great’ poet in the curriculum could, had published her own collection of verse, I was thrilled to pick up a copy.

It is said that good art is imitation, but great art is surrender. Surrender, the kind that Michaelangelo’s Pieta is, or may be Tagore’s Gitanjali stands for. Yet, I shall not hazard to put all these in the same sentence. Having said that, yes! The poems in Breathing with You struck me most for this one quality they had. They were a sort of surrender. But as I read one poem after the other, I realised it wasn’t the surrender of the helpless, or the one who gives up, it was surrender that often comes to some of us, only some of us, in the aftermath of a life lived faithfully and accepted wholeheartedly.

When she writes,

‘And whenever I failed
It was not my misdemeanour,
But your plan to make me acknowledge
The importance of an impediment
In the path of the purpose,
So that the next obstruction
Did not reduce my power to struggle!
I have come a long way, my lord!
And lost much to comprehend pain!’
(My Saviour, pp 37)

The poet draws light to the ‘comprehension of pain’ being the first step towards ‘fearing nothing’. There is wisdom in that, I suppose.

Some of the poems did get me raising my eyebrows. Not for any other reason but because of the honesty of reflection they embodied. In the post-modern world clogged by inhibition and pretention, it takes a lot to bare oneself, especially on paper, the way the poet does with ease, alacrity and deftness of purpose. As a sensible reader, I felt it was my moral responsibility to acknowledge this and express my appreciation. Say, the verse,

‘Yet I know not a moment of ignorance
When I did not converse with my soul
To seek answers to riddles
That would placate the torment of the curious
And make him distinguish me as His own.’
(I Let Go, pp 31)

shines with an honesty seldom seen in the hard pretentiousness of modern verse we have all become used to.

There is no conceitedness to ‘seem poetic’, as the poems have an inner musicality; the thoughts, slowly meander, juxtapose and flow into each other. One of my favourite poems, The Dancing Hope (pp 70), illustrates this. It goes like this:

‘I touched the flowers, gently
Vibrant and vivid
Multifarious in colours
Bound as a bouquet
Adorning the lifeless vase!
.
.
.
I allowed by being
To be held in the moment
And carefully gathering the feel
I placed the smiling hope, back
Into the lifeless vase!’

The lifeless vase becomes the body, while vivid, vibrant flowers are the soul. Of course, that is my reading of it, but the poem ‘works’ beautifully, even if one sees it as the speaker’s discovery of ‘love, veiled between the petal!’; a discovery that takes the form a very fundamental longing, I suppose.

Contrarily, there is also whiff of loneliness coursing through some of poems. But it is not the self-pitying, self-indulgent, sentimental clap-trap that most poets writing on the subject would have lapsed into. It seems to be the studied loneliness of the wise, or the one who has at any rate spent a sizeable amount of time understanding the mechanisations of the heart, of solitude, of love, of longing, of loss and of course, of being and becoming.

Hence, even loneliness is moulded into something life-affirming. In You Inspire Me! (pp. 48), she writes,

‘Life has given me years of substance
Moments many have been of glowing delight
I beseech some more time from my Gods
Will you partake to be with my prayer?’

Summing up, I was pleasantly taken by this very well composed amalgamation of surrender, honesty and poetic beauty all under the shade of eyes that have those quaint filigrees of Time beneath them, telling their story. In short, the collection, highly recommended, is ‘high on life’, or as the poet says, in While I Express (pp 30)

‘Where romance for life
Is a cascade of sanguine beats!’

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