Reading Rohan Chhetri’s debut collection of poetry, titled Slow Startle, is like rubbing salt on one’s skin, and immediately wiping it off. The particles disappear; what remains is an abrasion, a reminder of something that once was there. Chhetri is a Nepali-Indian poet from Kalimpong, Darjeeling, born along the borders of Bhutan. The 29-year-old did his schooling from Darjeeling, higher studies in Mumbai, and is now completing his Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of Syracuse, New York. Slow Startle came out towards the end of June this year, and is steadily gaining reputation as, perhaps, the best literary title to hit the stores this year, across all categories. It was the winning manuscript of the inaugural Emerging Poets Prize, organised by the The Great Indian Poetry Collective. Comprising of 35 poems, this slim volume oscillates between the personal and the political, and everything else that hangs between these two poles.
Chhetri is a poet of the interiors, both geographic and phenomenological. His poems begin with a certain calmness, that reveals itself as a cloak draped over your eyes, one that sanitises and conceals the violence of the everyday from us. The first poem, titled The Winter, is the point of departure:
was almost entirely unremarkable.
Except one night in December
I opened the door to light a cigarette
and the fog caved in gingerely.
It ends with this little detail, almost as an afterthought:
One evening the landlord knocked on
When I opened, he smiled, shook my hand
And asked for the rent.
His hands were cold and wet,
From laying a dead nephew on an ice slab, he explained.
The death of the nephew becomes a banal detail, served as a matter of fact, the violence implicit, devoid of any colour, much like the colourless winter in which the poem is set. It’s little details like these that occur repeatedly in poem after poem, jabbing the reader with its banality, violence and pain of lives lived in the margins.
This violence in Chhetri’s work is rooted in the experience of the Nepali community in India, of coming from a disenfranchised region fighting for a homeland. But at the same time, he never felt tied to a particular place, becoming, in essence, a man without a post office. How much, then, is his poetry borne out of this struggle between roots and rootlessness? “There is a tendency to think that I, just like several other contemporary ‘Indian’ poets, are drawing from the very same national past, childhood and political milieu,” says Chhetri. At the same time, he argues, he is a poet and a writer, and literature cannot be confined to regions. “My struggle as a poet is that I feel discomfort in the idea of extending allegiance to any place or institution, or writing or thinking about my work with that kind of national feeling. I want to write outside of that, like, on one hand, Samuel Beckett’s fiction, which is devoid of a particular class or nationality and even language; to tap into larger concerns in terms of human existence and individual experience. On the other hand, I want to write from so far inside, from a place that assumes less homogeneity, perhaps a specific cultural site of experience and memory,” he adds.
Indeed, neatly juxtaposed between poems of pain and violence, are little nuggets of memory that Chhetri excavates. Phosphorescence, for instance, paints little pictures from his childhood:
One evening, after an earthquake, we
Holding hands for a long time, too scared to go back in.
Later, my brother and I went out to the backyard to piss
And we saw a lone fox grazing calmly,
The tip of its tail lambent in the moonlight.
The day I wrote my first poem
With words borrowed from a book of stories
I was studying at school. The obtuse ambition of it.
Memory and nostalgia are pervasive themes in his collection, yet both are unreliable entities. How does a poet grapple with this inherent tension of making the unreliability of memory and nostalgia reliable, to bring them into the arc of narrative? “In the etymological sense of the word, there is that pervasive idea of nostalgia that drives some of the poems. And then there is memory, weaving that cloud of pain, which is always a re-enactment when it enters language and must bend to the specific truth of the poem. Both are equally unreliable that way. Hence, the need to write a poem is also a tendency towards making that pain authentic, first to the self, and then to the reader,” Chhetri says, “Nostalgia is also a kind of congratulatory feeling of having lived and survived a time.”
This brings us back to one of the perennial questions that has dogged writers and critics alike: how do we document a trauma? Can poetry truly grapple with abstract issues such as grief, and would it be authentic? In A Brief History of Justice, these lines occur:
..the face of her young husband during
the time of the revolution when she went
to see him
in the lockup, where he was hung
down for three days, with mud shoved in his mouth
by the Bengali Inspector who kept saying,
Feed him the land, that’s what they are
“When I was writing about difficult things, like death or violence, I didn’t know how else to make them ‘palatable’. I mean look around, aren’t we all living in secondary traumas? How do you respond at all? The only way out is to document in its minute details,” he says. Chhetri uses a phrase that he says his professor in Syracuse loves to use: writing is an attempt to create machines of empathy. “Now I’ve become a bit reckless when writing about violence. If I do, I try to tone down its colour, use only resonance instead of the thing itself. I fail mostly, because negotiating real pain with anything, even art, is something that should always feel a little illicit,” he says.
Chhetri was nourished by the poetry scene in Mumbai in the late 2000s, as a young undergraduate in Mumbai Unive-rsity. It was here that he first came to know Jane Bhandari, the Scottish-born poet who has lived in India for more than 40 years, and who took over the famous poetry reading collective, Loquations, from Mumbai poet, Adil Jussawalla. It was in this closed poetry reading circuit that Chhetri first began to write in earnest. “Under Adil, Loquations was primarily about reading and discussing poets and their works. But Jane encouraged bringing in a poem or two of your own. I remember writing a response poem after reading Adam Zagajewski’s To Go to Lvov,” he says, “Around the same time, I started reading the Beats, especially Allen Ginsberg. My writing changed with reading him and some critical works on the Beats. It was an explosive encounter.”
In a few years, he, along with three friends, started a literary journal dedicated to experimental literature, called Nether. “We thought the Indian writing scene was stultifying. What we were writing then wouldn’t have found a place in any of the existing literary publications,” says Chhetri. Slow Startle, then, appears to follow suit, with its desire to forsake oft trodden paths, and discover newer avenues and languages.
Chhetri tells me he is working on a novella, but like all works of art, with a lot of false starts, it is a story waiting to be told.
Arnav Das Sharma is a Doctoral Fellow in Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, and an independent journalist.