Reading Between the Lines: A Review of Nabina Das’s “Sanskarnama”

(New Delhi: i write imprint, Red River, 2017)
Review – Amit Shankar Saha

When you are not there I imagine reading Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama between us. I open a page and read out a couple of lines from the poem “apologies for our times” –

Where do I keep my apologies, if not on your lips, indeed –
for not loving enough that I do, yes I do

I point out how love and protest have mixed. You snatch the book from me and start reading the poem “hymn of the anti-national,” pausing with deliberation at the first line of every stanza to look at my expression –

My lovers are all anti-nationals

My pets too are anti-national these days

My pen is downright anti-national now

And suddenly next the text turns to ‘love’

I take the book from you and read the title of the poem “our wonderful brave patriots” and you scold me, “Don’t denigrate the patriots.” I stop and instead start reading lines from the poem “reasons for existing” –

Just because we have rains
our tears don’t stop

Just because there’s sunset
blood doesn’t get dusted

Just because there’s a door
doesn’t mean he left willingly

Just because there’s night
the darkness doesn’t go to day

Just because there’s oblivion
a memory cannot go to fallen leaves

and add then my own words, “Just because they are named patriots…” but do not complete the sentence. I tell you how literature is often a politically symbolic act and poetry of protest is actually poetry as protest. I give you the book and say, “See the poem ‘namami,’ which states how the taxpayers’ money was spent to appease the river Brahmaputra and prevent it from going into spate and ironically how the floods came…” You interrupt me and read out a very poignant line from “river-sorrow” –

the fish doesn’t toe-bite us anymore

I smile and our eyes meet in silence. You break it with the words “if you take away the right to say fuck” and show me the poem. I go through it quietly until I reach the line:

a right so pure and light that one must have

We read together Nabina Das’s poems about Gorakhpur babies, Junaid, Gauri Lankesh, Eunice de Souza, until we come to the poem “em-bordered” and you take the book from me to read aloud the line –

Grief and I are two lovers

You go on reading the poems and I listening to the exquisite cadences, searing beauty, and pithy satire of Nabina’s poems in your lilting voice. You are now reading “make it light” and I stop you at a line to repeat it,

I carry remembrances like continental shelves

The lines seem to be doing something to us as you continue reading “partition stories” with as much pathos in your voice as the words conveyed. You come to “ode to leaving” and once again we read together. Your voice becomes fainter and fainter as if coming from far away while mine maintains a steady tone of permanence,

Never love in a hurry –
it churns the mercury within us, so
give the nights their swooning shot
lull each day to curl in with the drift

Gradually you start to fade and vanish. My imagination can no longer sustain you. Alone, I go back to the title poem “sanskarnama” and read,

In this land dreams invite slaughter, I can see
how we want to meet in the city of hearts…

The words I recite begin to settle like dust and I suddenly remember what you had said, “Stay unsettled. Stay alive.”

Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Seacom Skills University. He is also an award-winning poet and short story writer. He has authored the poetry collection “Balconies of Time” and co-edited a collection of short stories titled “Dynami Zois: Life Force.”