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Volume 4, No. 4 - October 2004

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Prof. Triloki Nath Raina

A Review of  “A Thousand Petalled Garland and Other poems” By Dr. K. L. Chowdhury

Dr. Kundan Lal Chowdhury, the first doctor-poet who chose English as his medium made his debut in Indo-Anglican poetry with his ‘Of Gods, Men and Militants’, a highly acclaimed anthology. Incidentally, he is the second member of the medical profession in Kashmir to enter the field of letters, the first being Dr. Shanker Raina, who made a mark as a short story writer in Kashmiri. While Shanker’s theme remained “the medical stories” throughout, Dr.Chowdhury’s canvas was larger to include a diversity of experience. In fact his first publication, ‘Of Gods, Men and Militants’, is not about his patients, but about the traumatic experience he and his whole community passed through for no reason at all. This and the consequent Diaspora and the agony of exile form only the third section of his second publication, ‘A thousand-Petalled Garland and other poems’.

The first thing that hits the eye as you open the book is the dedication. The first section, Adoration, is dedicated to Leela (his wife), the “source and inspiration”. The second section, Testament, the most touching section, is dedicated to those of his closet relatives who were mowed down by the relentless scythe of death, the eternal harvester, while they were under his treatment - father, father-in-law, grandmother, uncle, aunt, cousin and all those others whom cancer devoured. The third section, Exile, is dedicated to victims like him, of a systematized pogrom which, like a whirlwind, flung them out of the lovely valley, their home for ages, to waste away in tents and tenements in alien lands, were the memory of where they belonged was more a state than a solace.

These poems, a faithful recording, like a meticulously maintained diary, of what was seen, heard or felt are different from a just superficial enumeration, because the whole ensemble is presented with a poet’s sensitivity and emotional involvement. Talking of the emotional bond, he says:

Unlike the gravitational pull / that dims with distance
she draws me closer / the further she moves from me

What makes for a lasting unity is

An acceptance- groves, ridges and all- / an adjustment, but not a compromise,
to fit the groves and ridges into each other, / like a hormone to its receptor.

Describing the feeling of emptiness in separation, he says:

I am a downy feather / floating without purpose in sultry weather,
a marble in the river’s bed  / where water has ceased to flow,
a wingless bird in airless space / neither able to sing or fly.

And it is only a doctor who could describe the agony of a cancer patient thus:

With its invisible armoury /it pierces and bores, / crushes and grinds,
saws and hammers, / cuts and tears, / burns and sears,
delivers  lightning bolts / any place of its choosing,
now forewarning,  / now catching me unawares.

And the last twist of the knife:

And the pain has the last laugh, / as it itself prove
the only anodyne, / to usher in that twilight state …..

He calls the body the battleground of Kurukshetra. The patient prays for his final deliverance, which eventually comes:

The seven chakras froze, / the Kundalini sapped,
the shasradalkamal faded away, / and all consciousness snapped
as the clock stopped / and Mahakala took over.

A patient’s son comes from abroad, not in time to light the pyre but to carry and immerse the ashes, the mortal remains:

What a unique reunion this, / we both eagerly looked forward to,
on the cremation ground!
Carefully he secured me in the urn, / like a treasure,
and with what resignation he surrendered me / to the swirling bosom
of the holy confluence / of the
Ganga, the Jumuna  and the invisible Saraswati

In the first poem of the third section, he talks of the symbolic significance of the bunch of keys, the only belonging he could carry with him:

Even after a decade in exile / I hang, from my girdle, this bunch of keys,
keys that I carried with me when I was forced to flee- / keys to my home,
keys to my relics, my diary, my library, / keys that opened the sanctum
where my gods reside. / I keep wandering in exile
carrying these keys / like an albatross

He greeted Y2K thus

Are there candles in the house /to light up the millennium night,
is there enough kerosene in the stove /to cook the millennium meal,
is a trailer somewhere handy  /to tow water to my house
that I buy weekly / for five hundred and fifty ?

The valley is not the same after this accursed migration:

The call of the muezzin / drowns in the din
of the grenade and the gun,
religion sells a penny, / curse sounds the sermon.
They also say / that they hear strange moans
from the deserted pandit homes…

Some poems in this section (Exile) do not belong to this category, but are remarkable outpourings of a poet’s imagination. They are ‘The Old Man and the Tree’, 'Old Professor Shambhu (a remarkable portrait), 'Creator’ (in which he accuses God for creating the aberration called the human being), ‘Release’, ‘Who is my Enemy?’,   ‘Stranger’, ‘Even Shiva had a bath’ and ‘Golden Silence’.

This is just an attempt to present Dr. Kundanlal Chowdhury as essentially a poet and not just a narrator or recorder. A unique characteristic of his poetry is a rare combination of emotional involvement and clinical detachment. Though he is professionally extremely busy, the Muse calls on him, whenever he can spare a moment. His life fluctuates between the stethoscope and the computer. I am sure by now another set of his poems would be awaiting publication. 

Finally, it must be said that the theme of the second and the third section - helplessness while smitten by an inexorable foe, death or savage barbarism - has been handled with remarkable artistic restraint, which prevents the poignant portrait of intense agony from being buried in the raucous noise of brow beating and lamentation.

(The author of this review is a former professor of English, National Defense Academy Kharakvasla, Pune. He is author, translator, critic and reviewer and lives in Pune, India.)

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