A Review of Jhilam Chattaraj's Collection of Poems "Noise Cancellation"
by Laldin Puii
Noise Cancellation, by Jhilam Chattaraj (Hawakal Publishers, New Delhi, 2021)
Noise Cancellation by Jhilam Chattaraj knits together poems on everyday cultures, places, emotions through a range of synesthetic perceptions. The book is a packaged experience and not just a solitary, literary poetic exercise. For instance, the first section, “Active Noise Control” begins with a delectable description of a housewife, preferably a mother making “Aloo Posto” in her kitchen. Jhilam portrays the glaze on the sautéed potatoes, yet she is aware of the complexities of British Imperialism that led farmers of Bengal to come up with the recipe. The uniqueness of the collection lies in its broad reference to cultural histories of details we miss in the busy race of life: popular TV shows, like “Stranger Things,” referred to to describe the academia; allusions to classical texts like Kalidasa’s Meghadutam, which illustrate the separation of lovers during the pandemic; festivals like Holi, Diwali, and Eid becoming the context to emote personal loss and pain; the triumph of indigenous knowledge over “modern” man’s obsession with technology in the Andaman tribes; and the inevitable possibility of the extinction of the Great Indian Bustard (a species of bird in India) due to, ironically, the rise of sustainable energy sources. The poems evoke questions and ambiguities that are bound to unsettle the reader. However, Jhilam’s clever and aesthetic use of language ushers clarity and a soothing consolation.
Jhilam has a way of taking a familiar object and bestowing on it a life of its own. For instance, the poem, titled as “Sari,” not only refers to a piece of clothing, primarily associated with Indian women, but also reveals the intricate layers of a woman’s identity and strength:
My mother’s sari is a scripture,
a flag carrying countries of household truths:
she, in bed with children,
she, scrubbing the mossy bathroom walls,
she, in kitchen, smashing
a cockroach to its end.
There’s love and violence
that only the pleats of the sari can tell. (p. 11)
The poet has a refreshing way of writing about ordinary things. For someone who is terrified of lizards, the lines, “they purify things / we dread,” in the poem “Lizards,” shed a whole new light on the existence of insects in the world. “My Hair Won’t Cry” is a poignant take on how hair and cultural practices are tied together. In the midst of grief and loss, the absence of hair and the lingering memories of a departed loved one in a world of separation are beautifully portrayed. Such creative associations between the tangible and the intangible are sure to strike a chord with the readers.
Noise Cancellation is relevant in a world where everyone has been unsettled by the pandemic. Poems like “Noise Cancellation” and “Poets of the Pandemic” offer a sense of relief and release from the anxiety that surrounds us. In a time when the future seems bleak and hopeless, there is comfort and hope in the poems. In the poem, “Untouchables,” the poet presents optimism for a post-Covid world:
Clouds rewrite fallen promises,
in swarms, sail onwards.
We may collapse under this ailing swill
but one day our bones will sing sunward. (p.46)
In present times, where “the new normal” is changing drastically, the poems are a welcoming read. Poems like “Block Prints” and “Toil of the Toddy” capture the replacement of human labour and handlooms by machines. All of us are aware and are witness to the changes around us, but seeing it being presented in the form of a poem makes one nostalgic for an art form which was once appreciated and admired.
Jhilam also delves in feminist thoughts. In the poem “Lipstick,” the colour pink which is so often associated with girls/femininity is rejected and the advices of others are set aside in order for a woman to discover herself. The poem “Edible Stain” unapologetically celebrates the concept of a woman who makes a living and has a salary of her own. The poet also presents ideas on Colonialism from a very personal perspective. She portrays how it affected her grandfather who worked for the British and failed to participate in the freedom movement. The feeling of guilt and the repercussions of this part of our history is beautifully depicted in the poem “The Boy Who Loved the British”:
was salted with guilt.
He could not hold the ink of rebellion. (p. 69)
The second section, titled as “Portraits in Pods,” has an interesting collection of Cinquain Variants. The short poems will immediately pique the interest of the reader with its witty and brief lines. The brief and quick paced presentation of the lines are appropriate for today’s fast paced world. There is a mixture of cities, pandemic, alternative energies, emotions in poems like “Hyderabad,” “Lockdown,” “Luciferins,” and “Father.”
kebabs, Irani chai —
city of tongues and seven tombs,
twin songs. (p.79)
Noise Cancellation is a blend of varied ideas with a central sense of harmony. At times certain themes seem repetitive though each poem is different. The book is recommended to readers who wish to look at familiar, everyday things anew and alive.
Laldin Puii's areas of interest include poetry, folklore, and oral traditions. She was awarded Doctor of Philosophy by University of Hyderabad and is currently working in the Department of English, Pachhunga University College, Mizoram, India. She has presented papers in national as well as international seminars and conferences and has contributed articles to journals. She is one of the authors of Modern Mizoram: History, Culture, Poetics.
Copy editors: Nancy He, Nina Zhang