by Kiran Bhat
Vishvarupa, by Michelle Cahill (UWA, 2019)
In Hindu theology, the concept of vishvarupa implies the cosmic stance of Vishnu as he encompasses the vastness of the universe and all of its shapes and beings. “Vishva” means the universe, and “rupa” means form. In the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas of The Mahabharata, Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu, takes on this form of innumerable eyes, faces, mouths, and arms to show that he encompasses everything, and that he is able to witness, perceive, and understand all. The goal of taking this universal form is to humble Arjuna, who is a mortal, and inspire him to remember his smallness, and despite that, to fight on.
Vishvarupa, Indian-Australian Michelle Cahill’s third book of poetry (first published by Five Islands Press in 2011, but reprinted by UWA Publishing in 2019), is an attempt to look out at the complete universe at once. Cahill’s universe is the globe, and the multiple faces she aspires to understand involve bridging herself to all of the nations she has formed a relationship with. She takes on herself the task to look out into the universe. Her words wander back and forth between landscapes, heritages, and cultural concepts to create poetry sublimated from the nation, belonging to neither here nor there, but rather the karmic, the cosmic, and the global.
The very first poem of the collection, “Something like a Reverie,” roots the reader in its rootlessness.
It happens that you wake before dawn,
dreaming you walk the empty streets
as unfinished threads of rain stitch their
needlepoints. Your bare feet stumble
over fruit, half-eaten, clipped from trees
where sulphur-crested cockatoos hang,
conspicuous as bleached handkerchiefs.
Their strange cry bids you to wander
after dogs tire of barking or your lover
stirs closer with his inordinate devotion.
The reader knows that an un-named narrator is waking, but is unsure of the setting of the narrative. The unique image of “rain [stitching] their needlepoints” gives the sense of an unrelenting downpour. There is also mention of fruit to be stepped on, and dogs barking. At first, because of Cahill’s origins in Goa, one assumes it is the monsoon-soaked Western Ghats, but then, the mention of cockatoos renders an image of Australia, as well as the later mention of Federation homes and cut lunches. No any particular land or nation is ultimately given, but the subjectivity of the poem wonders whether it is even necessary. The narrator is simply in a trance, recalling images that are born not from one particular landscape, but from an assortment of nations, coalescing into the mind of a person who has traversed multiple lands.
As Cahill travels, not only with her feet but through her words, her poems wander through the Gadigal lands of Australia, Girona in Catalonia, Beirut in Lebanon, parts of Tibet, and of course, Aamchi Mumbai. Cahill’s most affecting poems come from her description of this marvelous city. In “Ode to Mumbai,” Cahill challenges herself to take the city on:
Piece by piece I’ll remove your unwieldy syntax. I’ll taste your jaggery, as the street’s kaleidoscope
triggers a new explosion.
Cahill is referring to the “unwieldly syntax” of Bombay in many forms. Mumbai is as much a chaos to itself as it is a “philologer’s conundrum.” In the same way Mumbai’s colonial name Bombay is meshed from the Portuguese words of ‘“bom” and “bahia,” Cahill mashes Indian concepts with English and Portuguese ones. She makes references to beggars and bailadeiras in traffic, she interweaves “devas, slumdogs, spivs and impresarios.” Mumbai is also the space at which Western culture and Indian culture topple over themselves, reorient at every word, and reimagine themselves on every side corner, angle, and street. Cahill channels this in-between-ness by using Mumbai as a metaphor for herself. She defines herself as a “colonial slip,” an existence “between the sound and meaning of words,” an inter-marriage between a “temple and a brothel.” She sees herself as, in other words, a personification of this city, because she is a paradox between these two cultures, and Mumbai personifies that hybridity, and takes it to colossal proportions:
Your poem has a history, in which my pages are missing.
I rise from the poem on a burning ladder of language.
The vastness of not only Mumbai overwhelms Cahill’s poetic senses and strips her English down to the bones. To make sense of a lot of concepts that exist only inside India, Cahill has to introduce loan words into her poems, creating a poetics of their own. In “City of Another Home,” for example, she describes Mumbai streets as smelling “of pomfret, kolambi, dried dog faeces and Bombay duck.” Pomfret is a Portuguese-derived local delicacy, whereas kolambi is a variation of prawn rice; the words have a very specific meaning that do not exist in English, and so in order to make sure the right concoction of smells is present, she has to add them to the English lexicon so that her sensibilities can have a home.
Conversely, in a poem like “Ganesa Resurrected,” the mix of loan words into English reveals a certain sort of playfulness in Cahill’s repertoire. Cahill reappropriates the Ganesha origin myth to ask unique questions like,
What was it like to be dead? Not crucified or entombed,
whichever way you turned, your head sliced from your body
by Shiva’s sword while Parvati detoxed in a scented spa?
The image of Parvata “detoxing” summons the sense of a woman relaxing in a 21st century sauna, while violent acts are happening in the background. It creates a somewhat comic scene out of something normally rendered as puranic. Cahill continues this sort of paradox of the occult with the post-modern. In one set of stanzas, she refers to Ganesha as “lord of the ganas,” but in another, she dreams of him “riding past [her] house on a skateboard.” She once sees Ganesha “on a bright red pandal adorned with vermilion, kumkum and modakas,” but then in the background “bhangra and hip-hop” play. The poem is a constant interruption of a reverent tone with an inane one. The mix of tones has the touch of an outsider, but subversively so. Anyone who has walked around modern India would see this unique conglomeration of the deeply spiritual with the strangely surreal, and so Cahill’s fusions of tone and concepts, probably imperceptible to someone born and brought up in India, create a representation of something very real.
A poetry collection as deep or as vast as Vishvarupa represents too much to be captured in one measly review. Whether Cahill is imagining “clouds of black smoke” over Beirut, the broken English of a French hostel keeper in Spain, or the woes of a child beggar in Kamathipura, she embodies all of the perspectives she has chosen to write from, ironically by not embodying a perspective at all. The sentences of Vishvarupa come off as written only by an observer, dangling in as many corners of the world as possible. There is also something about the project which makes it clear that the writing could have only been penned by someone who belongs to the Indian diaspora, but is outside of the nation of India itself. There is an interrogation of the richness of Hindu culture, but a projection of it outwards, onto a truly borderless topography. Cahill’s rendition of Vishvarupa not only looks out into the world, but ambits, and from that sojourn creates something unlimited, international, and restless.
Kiran Bhat is an Indian-American author, traveler, and polyglot. He is known as the author of we of the forsaken world…, has published books in five different languages, and has his writing published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Southern Humanities Review, 3:AM Magazine, The Chakkar, and many other places. You can follow him @WeltgeistKiran.
Copy editors: Nancy He, Nina Zhang