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Thursday, July 19, 2018

When home is a battlefield: When home is a battlefield: Nandini Dhar’s politically charged book is filled with mini revolutions

The narrators of this novel, twin sisters, who have, much like Dhar, grown up in the Kolkata of the ’80s and the ’90s, and, are exploring spaces within the domestic household for us — spaces that primarily belong to women and women alone.

Written by Manjiri Indurkar | Updated: August 26, 2017 3:07:42 pm
Historians of Redundant Moments, Nandini Dhar, Sundress Publications, book review, indian express book review, indian express news The polka dots on the frock record time, eras, political movements, pop-cultural fads, and stillborn histories.

Book: Historians of Redundant Moments
Author: Nandini Dhar
Publication: Sundress Publications
PAges: 116
Price: Rs 1,077

On the cover of Nandini’s Dhar poetry collection, Historians of Redundant Moments, is a doll (or, perhaps, a woman?) wearing a polka-dotted frock, with a house for a head. She is also holding a miniature version of the head-house in her hands. The polka dots on the frock record time, eras, political movements, pop-cultural fads, and stillborn histories. And, the house on her head, and her hand is the space Dhar is most interested in. As she says in her poem, ‘Historying this Syllabic Landscape’, a “doll’s head is an uncharted city.” For Dhar, home is a city, and city is a home.

Dhar’s is a novel told through poetry. The narrators of this novel, twin sisters, who have, much like Dhar, grown up in the Kolkata of the ’80s and the ’90s, and, are exploring spaces within the domestic household for us — spaces that primarily belong to women and women alone. A game of hide-and-seek played by the twins becomes the “children’s way of gauging, mapping, discovering — the uncharted corners that are not nooks, not corridors, not cellars, not living-rooms.”

So, how does one archive that which is redundant? The mother of the twins goes around boxing things. The junk that clutters in the attic, that the children aren’t allowed to touch, like the suitcases wrapped in white sheets that bear markings of important political movements. “Mother moves around the house on tiptoe, brooms and rags in hand, picking up all things that can be corralled.” And, once she is done with categorising “old fish bones, newspaper clippings, torn pages from moth-eaten manifestos, shredded slogans, seams from old poem-quilts,” she settles for a sweaty afternoon nap — mouth open, snoring.

Dhar juxtaposes “relevant” political slogans—Naxalbari lal selam, Ye azadi jhuta hain—and dates—1943, 1948, and 1977— with whatever now remains of these events; the slogans, now, are shredded and only seams of old poems remain. And, of course, there is the mother, who will clean up the post-revolution mess, like mothers are supposed to.

So, I wonder, are the mother’s sweat marks political? Is the attic that stores the junk, the suitcases that contain all the remains of the once-relevant political movements, a transformative space? As Dhar puts it, the house is where the clutter is. So is the attic, the house? And is the house a Jantar Mantar — a space representing protest?

The clutter in Dhar’s poetry isn’t just physical. The clutter isn’t just objects crowding rooms; it is loaded with discarded political movements. Dhar talks about dust that often gathers on such cluttered spaces. She talks about the cracks formed on the cement floors, where women come to turn into alphabets on paper and men deceive themselves into feeling safe. Books get written when women turn into alphabets. This is how women turn rooms into historical sites.

Dhar’s poems are stinky — they smell of unwashed baby butts, of the grease that lives between the palm lines. The smell of domesticity, the air that is being breathed by too many noses. Dhar’s poetry is also very noisy, her poetic rhythm chaotic. On her kitchen tables are teacups with stains on the rims, “rattling with the wreckage of memory: food riots, rally chants, police-shootings.” Such is the claustrophobia of the space she depicts that you can hear the noises of yawning rabbits and the rattling bones of the house snake.

Dhar uses tropes of magic realism in her poetry. Things are constantly transforming here. New bodies can be acquired just by wishing, rooms become silence that devour children. Skins are peeled off to make table cloths, steel almirahs grow hands and pull a woman by her hair, and, when she is spat out, we get a perfect chocolate cake, replete with icing and birthday wishes. But Dhar is no magic realist. Dhar, I like to believe, is a domestic fabulist. She is writing about women, and their histories. She is distorting the carefully constructed decorum of the domestic space, and in this distortion, she is revealing its true nature.

Dhar’s politically charged book is filled with mini revolutions that brew inside houses and die. She has managed to stitch the past and the present together and given us the annals of everything men forgot to record. The slaps, the broken china, the cracks on our floors that grow wider every time mothers clean them. Between magic and mundane, lies Dhar’s poetry. These poems aren’t anything like the poems we know and love. These poems are crimson, like the blood that is shed inside our houses, that no one knows about.

Delhi-based Manjiri Indurkar is one of the founder-editors of the web magazine Antiserious

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