Sarbajaya: A part-time everything.
Mihir: An IT engineer, advertising professional, storyteller, conversation-hunter and a batshit crazy dreamer, Mihir, one day, found himself writing something he thought was poetry. That day was nine years ago. What he wrote then, thankfully, never got out of a folder on his computer; what he writes now sometimes turns into a Sahitya Akademi publication.
Baudelaire had Paris. Eliot had London. Constantine Cavafy had Alexandria. Closer to the place I call home, many poets who wrote in Bengali, beginning with the poets of the 1940s, had Kolkata or, as they called it then, Calcutta. This rather limited and insufficient list allows me to draw a conclusion, which, irrespective of the nature of the list it is derived from, is actually not quite flimsy in itself. The conclusion is quite apparent. Poets, at least since the period we call Modernism (which emerged at different times in different places), have expressed in their poetry the relationship they share with their cities. But it is not only this relationship that is expressed through this kind of poetry. It is not just the city that comes alive, endowed with human feelings. There is something more, something else. The city becomes a poem. Take Baudelaire and Cavafy, for instance. In their poetry, Paris and Alexandria transcend their definition as geographical locations. They haunt the imagination of Baudelaire and Cavafy, enter their poems, and then, in a sense, become poems themselves.
It is not possible to read Mihir Chitre’s Hyphenated1 without being reminded of this trans-continental history of the city-poem, or the city as poetry. Why? Because the first thing that strikes the reader of ‘Hyphenated’ is the fact that the city of Mumbai pervades the poems. If there is one element that is apparent to all readers, it is the fact that Chitre writes about Mumbai. His poems are for Mumbai. His poems are about Mumbai. Mumbai is his poem. But is that all?
‘Hyphenated’ is a collection of sixty-four poems, written between the years 2009 and 2014. It is the first printed collection of Mihir Chitre’s poetry. He is a prolific writer and has published in journals in India and U.S.A, and has an e-book to his name. Apart from poetry, he also writes prose fiction. Considering the fact that he is still quite young, and has already produced a substantial amount of work, and scaled great heights, as readers, we hope to read more of his works in the years to come.
Let us return, however, to Hyphenated. Chitre, in the preface to the collection, explains that because the poems were written over a long period of time, they may appear to be different and disparate. They were written during different phases of his life which were greatly different from one another. These poems, therefore, were born out of a range of emotions, at different stages in the life of the poet. Yet, Chitre insists, there is a thread that connects them all. It is this thread that justifies their presence in the same collection. It is this thread that gives the book its name. A hyphen is a like a bridge. It creates a connection between two words. This function of the punctuation has prompted Chitre to use it in the title of his collection of poems and calls it Hyphenated.
The poems in Hyphenated are divided into seven sections. For a collection that contains over fifty poems, written over a span of five years, this kind of a division is almost necessary. In Hyphenated, the division seems organic. As we move from one section to another, the transition is seamless. We realize that the content and tone of the poems demanded that such a division be made. And even then, there are no concrete walls between these sections, but little bridges that connect them to each other. Six little hyphens.
It is not often that we come across a collection in which the passage of time between the earliest poem and the newest is five years. It happens with collected works, of course. But reading such volumes is a different experience. Such volumes contain poems from some or all works of the poet concerned. They are the works of a lifetime condensed into what usually turns out to be a large volume or two. But with Hyphenated, we are encountering the first printed work of a poet. The collection, then, allows us, the readers, an unique glimpse into the poet’s mind and craft. This is the attraction of Hyphenated. In the journey from the first section to the last, the reader is offered the opportunity to look into not just the world that the poet inhabits, but the world that inhabits him.
Hyphenated opens with a section titled ‘Wall-less City’. This section, perhaps the one that engages with the city of Mumbai at the most apparent and explicit level, sets up the rest of the work. It is a perfect beginning to a journey. The characteristics of the poems in this section will recur through the rest of the book. What are these characteristics? One, the economy of expression. Chitre seems to have a good grasp over his craft and the language in which he has chosen to express himself. Therefore, he can afford to be economic with his words. His shorter poems are economic in appearance and content. But the longer poems too use fewer words to express the desired sentiment, to create an image, to put forth an idea. Chitre’s poetry, therefore, is infested with interesting and unusual metaphors. For instance, a boy is dropped off to school in a bus as long as the principal’s speech, objects in the school bus appear ‘louder’ than they really are. In most cases, these metaphors act as vehicles of transcendence. This transcendence might not always be to a philosophic or a spiritual state, but to something more mundane. It could be the memory of a journey by bus, the nostalgia for school days long gone, a shared experience (trivial, but treasured). At the same time, we take our first steps into the world that the poet inhabits, the world of Mumbai. And we see the city through the eyes of the poet, we hear it through his ears. Chitre pays incredible attention to details. Fragments of everyday life populate his poetry. In this first section, we stand beside or walk alongside the poet, playing the same role as he does, that of the passive observer, a figure somewhat like the Baudelairean flaneur, roaming the city streets, or sitting on a bench somewhere, watching the world go by. Like him, we become voyeurs looking into the private worlds of others, eavesdropping into snatches of conversations. If we can all agree that walking is the best way to experience a city, any city, anywhere in the world, then we can see how in writing about the city, the very act of writing and walking is conflated. How tripping on a word becomes analogous, synonymous almost to tripping on a stray pebble on the road. The movement from one line to another, from one poem to another, and from one section to another, then, becomes an act of travelling. That is why I call the act of reading Hyphenated a journey. The thirteenth poem of this section, titled ‘A Sonnet for the Causeway’, is quoted here in its entirety because it seems to me to embody all these characteristics that we have spoken of so far,
“What dazzles me is its mundanity: two pairs of legs,
hopeful and unruly, treading down the road as if –
so effortlessly – creating a Geometry of freewill,
stopping by hawkers, bulky burgers; their
selves shadowed occasionally under the roof
of an Irani cafe – enticing a middle-class hunger
through Keema Pav, Bun Maska and cheese omelets.
The way the causeway emulates the unbridled walk
of life with its veiled climax, recurring bifurcations
And tempestuously planted surprises is as
fearlessly artistic as the two who have ventured
into the vastness of this luminous afternoon,
stamping a tiny yet indelible, almost perennial,
mark on the timeline with their faint footprints.”
Where does this journey lead us? And more importantly, what do we see along the way? Let me try and answer the second question first. What we see are fragmented images of everyday. But we also see the fragmented image of the poet. That is to say, we see both worlds- the internal and the external, and both worlds appear fragmentary. The poet takes us on a journey not only through the city, but through his own mind- revealing to us his anxieties, his isolation, and his loneliness. By the time we reach the fourth section, the passive observer in the first section, the figure of the flaneur, has given way to a damaged self. In Section IV, appropriately titled ‘Anger Head-Banger’, the rage is palpable. The reader, who had henceforth been a voyeur to the external world of the poet, is faced now with the world inside the poet, and suddenly, the poetry has become darker, more personal, and one doesn’t know where to shift the gaze. He writes, “I am split like a dissected earthworm,/ into two insignificant selves,/ at the wake of a private apocalypse.”
Although Chitre still uses the security of the vague pronoun that the English language offers, he has now begun to refer to himself in the first person, declaring his presence within poems that mourn the loss of love. The reader also encounters the second persona- the mysterious ‘She’ who is never named. What we know of her, we know only from the words of the poet. And who is the poet now? He is no longer the flaneur we met in the wall-less city, nor someone tentatively opening up his heart on a page, he is now a scorned lover, devastated, battling with grief. Therefore, in his words, the ‘She’ is reduced to one basic characteristic- she is someone who has left him. Everything else about her becomes secondary to this one overwhelming element. If Mihir Chitre’s first collection of poems have a drawback, it begins at this point. First, in the construction of the persona of the lover, Chitre falls into the trap of showing her in one light, and one light alone- as the one who has left him. Poems begin to resemble the pages of a diary. There is nothing wrong with that, of course.
Chitre, the poet, comes across as someone who has chosen poetry as the medium through which he expresses his emotions, as the medium through which he negotiates with them. The problem is, the moment Chitre takes on the persona of the scorned lover, he is aligning himself with a tradition that is as old as poetry itself. It is the trope that readers of poetry are most familiar with. And Chitre has nothing to offer that jolts us out of our comfort zone. After a while, the metaphors begin to lose their sheen and novelty and hang as dead weight on the line. The city of Mumbai, with which this collection had begun, begins to fade into the background before disappearing altogether.
Chitre writes in the preface that coherence and chronological order are not his concern. How you receive Hyphenated, in the end, then, depends on whether or not you share the poet’s views. If coherence is high on your list of expectations, Hyphenated may leave you feeling a little betrayed in the end. The lack of coherence also has to do with the fact that the poems are not arranged in accordance with the year of composition. Therefore, the knowledge that the poems in the collection were written over a period of five years is ultimately rendered meaningless. Perhaps we must trust the poet and accept that a chronological arrangement would not have added anything to our reading, but if chronology has no meaning at all, is there any need to know the gap in the time of composition?
Chitre’s maiden printed work begins on a most promising note. He has that special gift of paying attention to detail. He has the poet’s eye that can see something incredible in something banal. He has that poetic imagination which can turn the mundane into something of interest. His capability shines through in the shorter poems which appear almost as images, as photographs of the everyday. His longer poems, however, often lose their way, struggling under the weight of his metaphors and angst.
In the end, then, one question remains. What is that almost invisible link, the hyphen that holds everything together? Indeed, is there a thread at all? Has he managed to stitch together a collection or has it all fallen apart? To Chitre’s credit, Hyphenated is a work that is stitched just fine. It is the embroidery that often goes awry. As for the link, the hyphen(s), the connecting thread- I think the answer will always be subjective, as any act of reading usually is. Read Hyphenated to find that thread, read Hyphenated to see a city through the eyes of a poet, read ‘Hyphenated’ as a celebration of the everyday.
1 Hyphanted Amazon link: http://www.amazon.in/Hyphenated-Mihir-Chitre/dp/8126046228.”