I’m reading ‘Women by the door’ by my virtual friend and poet, Kashiana Singh. I bought this book sometime in March and I read a few poems as soon as I got the book. I loved the ones I read so much, that I decided I would read one a day so I could savour each poem, allow it to marinate in my heart and my head and see which ones remained with me long after I had read them and then accordingly write a review. Writing a review in a rush isn’t my thing- a lot goes into a book and it’s only fair to the author/poet that one does justice to the review process. By April, I was ready to pen down a review but NaPoWriMo (poetry month) happened and I was penning two poems a day. Then May, June and July happened and life got in the way- holidays, health issues, college admissions and an impending move on the horizon; all of which resulted in this review getting delayed. Finally, it’s here.
‘Woman by the door’ as Keki Daruwalla says ( mentioned on the cover of the book), ” Kashiana’s voice will linger and haunt readers for a long while.” The book couldn’t be described in a better way. To put it succinctly, her poems stick with you and leave you thinking.
About the book
The book is divided into 3 sections- Apertures, Portals, and Detours. ‘Apertures,’ sees Kashiana standing at the threshold, looking back at her childhood and looking forward at her grandson, Kabir. The book is dedicated to her grandson whom she describes as her ‘living poem’. ‘Portals’ sees Kashiana looking at herself: her relationships, her womanhood, her feelings and all that makes her into the person she is. The last section, ‘Detours’ is as the name reads. Though the book is published in the US where Kashiana has been residing for a long time, the poems are very ‘Indian’ – some of the phrases used and the experiences shared may be difficult for someone from another culture to appreciate unless they have some experience of India or are intrigued by the Indian culture.
When I began reading the book I thought I’d share two of my favourite poems in each section. But, along the way I found choosing a favourite increasingly difficult. So, I decided to choose stanzas or lines that spoke to me. And while I have tried my best to restrict myself to a few verses so that the review is not a lengthy ode, I may not have been successful. I hope, however, my review gives you an idea of what to expect from the book.
So, without further ado, here goes-
In the section: Apertures
My favorite scenes
My favourite scenes are
where childhood is drawn inside
cross-legged places, our oiled hair
floor length braided patiently into
a warp and weft of tight caution, ends
ribboned by mama into crescent bows
My favorite scenes are
where decades are packed in
boxes of unbridled tchotchke
gathered cobwebs from cities
we left behind, each woven
abode to corpses of my exiles
In my Nani’s houses, curds and whey were a religion
the milk in homage to perfect temperature
every drop just enough
dripping a muted prayer on nani’s wrist.
Stately it would reside on the dining table
in a glazed terracotta pot; its tenderness an immaculate gospel
I want to leave you the history lesson
your great grandpa wanted to write
the story of his father, Sardar Saheb
he was called “brave like a lion” and
had a voice that rumbled like oceans.
Kashiana experiments with different structures in her poems. There are shape poems, small poems with short lines, prose poems and poems with lengthy lines. Her poems are about everyday happenings in traditional Indian households: making of pickle, curd, removal of the evil eye, oiling the hair etc.Food plays a prominent part in her poems and the description is so vivid that you can almost feel the rough exterior of the bitter gourd, taste the tangy mangoes and smell the spicy peppercorns roasted on an iron skillet.
I could relate to her poems revolving around the kitchen- a lot of my happy memories are associated with the kitchen- watching my grandma as she cooked or sitting on the stone slab recounting the day’s happenings to my mom as she whipped up a meal. Its importance in Kashiana’s life is evident in her poem, ‘The Kitchen that is also a Monastery’ . She says-
‘I wish to immortalize the
kitchen in your home, one
where you meditate at the
stove, a nameless penance
each pancake a gospel
for which we
sugar from a red tin jar
that deliberated, monk like
alone on your kitchen shelf.‘
I loved her poem, ‘In the image of my mother’ and ‘Love poem for all my women’. Kashiana’s use of metaphors and analogies in her poems has a way of transforming the most mundane experience into something tender and unforgettable. There is a certain spirituality in the poem, ‘Assemblage’ where she talks of polishing her father’s medals and the medal bar on his army uniform.
I run my finger over every oval bronze
a silver too, a badge, some pins-atoms
I linger at their fraying ribbons of blue silk.
Fragments of a stippled past, his history in
Total number of years my father
has diligently pinned the badge
to his lapel.
The sum of collar pins divided
by the total number of cities.
I am not going to write as much on this section as I did on the previous because I think, I’ve given you a fairly good idea of Kashiana’s writing and divulging too much wouldn’t be fair to her as a writer. My favorites here were ‘Meditations on Egg’, ‘Becoming Planets’ (after Greta Thurnberg), ‘Green tea is only a Placebo’, ‘Happiness- refrigerator magnets’, ‘Aubade’, ‘Waiting’, ‘Dorman Rituals’ (after Amanda Gorman) and ‘Pagri’. The imagery in each of these poems is spectacular.
‘Aubade’ is a lovely poem that provides a list of things to do ‘when you are a father’. In ‘Pagri’, she talks about the ritual of tying a turban in a Sikh household. This poem was one of the first poems I read and it stayed with me long after. I’m not sure why, but, it still gives me goosebumps when I read it- maybe because I’ve always admired the pagri and all that it symbolizes. Kashiana has managed to weave poetry with each fold of the turban.
All my writing was born into
the folds of my father’s pagri
one in each fold of his khaki-
cotton, starched, smooth, sturdy
I attempted to shape stanzas with
my tongue, while my hands pulled,
stretched, unbound all the 6 yards
of cloth, unfurling beginnings.
Section : Detours
Of this section, Kashiana says, ‘alternate routes that deviate from the norm and help reshape our direction’. In this section, I liked, ‘My brother’s dog Laika’, ‘Just a process after all’ which is about funerals among others. This section reads like catharsis for the poet. She ends the section with a poem filled with hope and prayer. I’m not writing lines from this section only because the review has already too long (I even changed the font size so it doesn’t seem that long).
My review of it : Five stars
For who the book is: Anyone who loves good poetry or anyone who wants to specifically read poetry that gives a peek into Indian culture, a bird’s eye view of Sikh culture, for all those who want to read a woman’s point of view in poetic form. The poems are tender, the language, beautiful. It’s definitely a book I’m going to go back to from time to time.
What Kashiana says about the book
Woman by the Door is a collection of poems that crystallized over the last 9 years, starting to take shape when Kashiana moved from India to the US in 2013. These poems are born of necessity and travel in and out of that doorway into many spaces before and after that point in time. Serving as a problem-solving tool, poetry continually helps Kashiana focus and refocus towards a center of gravity.
Coming together in this knitted collage are poems rooted in lived experiences and saturated with the poet’s varied sensibilities and influences. The poems flow through three sections – Aperture explores poems of memory and family, Portal opens the door to transition and growth, Detours holds our hand through loss and ache. The woman herself is an intersection, always kneeling by the door – coming, going, waiting, leaning in. Witnessing. Relentlessly she receives and offers lifetimes. Woman by the Door is ultimately preoccupied with paying tribute to that woman.
About the poet
When Kashiana is not writing, she lives to embody her TEDx talk theme of Work as Worship into her every day. She currently serves as poetry editor for Poets Reading the News. Her chapbook Crushed Anthills by Yavanika Press is a journey through 10 cities.
The book is available on Amazon. You can buy it by clicking here.