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the forest i know | a review by Priti Aisola



the forest i know



HarperCollins Publishers India, 2021

166 pages;

P-ISBN: 978-93-5422-758-5

Price: Rs.299

Available on Amazon Reviewing Editor: Priti Aisola



Re-reading Kala Ramesh’s book, the forest I know, in order to review it, I was filled with both awe and trepidation. It is a daunting task to review a book that is the culmination of 15 years of published poems – tanka, tanka sutra, tanka doha, cherita, haibun and tanka prose. In each poem one discerns the sure touch of a masterly poet-craftsman, who combines sensitive observation with depth of thought expressed in simple language. And her tanka shows this better than I can:


in the hands

of a master craftsman

pumpkin shell

and strings become

a resonant sitar

(p.117)


In Kala’s hands, words, sense perceptions, reflections, images, metaphors and rhythm come together to become ‘a resonant’ tanka.


Her book covers a range of themes: a quest for meaning, stillness and its contrary, pain in a relationship, the parting of ways, expectations and disappointment, disillusionment and a re-gathering of hope, the predicament of an urban woman, village women and their life stories, childhood, motherhood, maternal love, old age and its accompanying loneliness and other challenges. And as one reads and re-reads her work, one finds that her poems conceal as much as they reveal, veil as much as they unveil, from the reader the mysterious workings of a poet’s sensibility.


At the heart of this ‘gathering of verses’ is the quest ‘Who Am I’ (the title of her tanka sutra in the book), and this gives spiritual depth, poignant beauty and a gently pensive mood to many of her poems. This book traces her journey from the feeling of being ‘nowhere’ to a quiet spectacle of ‘the cranes once again colour[ing] the sky’. She moves from the desolateness of ‘nowhere’ to an image that symbolizes positive change or the hope of making a fresh beginning.


Quite a few of Kala’s poems are firmly placed within the Indian cultural context. For example, there are references to aum, Lord Yama, sacred basil, yoga, raga, veena, ektara, rangpanchami, just to name a few. This enriches, extends, and deepens the scope of tanka, a poetic form that is 1300 years old. In her tanka, idea and image coalesce to create a ‘polished’ beauty like ‘a glistening raindrop’. (Using Kala’s words here.)


It is a pleasure to read several instances of tanka prose in Kala’s book. In a style that is lucid and spare, attentive to detail, yet restrained, the prose piece culminates in a tanka (occasionally tanka intersperse the prose) where idea and imagery both extend and crystallize the theme/s explored in it. The tanka complements the prose and, along with the title, makes the whole work a wondrous, organic whole.


Sensitive and complex themes are handled with fluid ease and a sure grasp on craft. Love, longing, loneliness, aloneness, past hurts, forsaken dreams, the courage to forge ahead to enjoy ‘greener pastures’, memories of kids’ childhood, physical and emotional pain, death of a loved family member – it is not easy to explore these themes within the limited and stylized space of a tanka, tanka doha or tanka sutra. Yet she has done so with exquisite success.


A very tenderly sad and unforgettable tanka on the theme of death of a loved one is:


a yellow leaf

settles on its own

reflection –

we ask the doctor to remove

grandma’s oxygen mask

(p. 39)


In her creation, tanka doha, Kala ‘pair[s] tanka together to tell a story effectively’ and develop a theme more completely. I will choose one, which illustrates this aspect of her craft very well.


trying to merge

with twilight’s oneness … but

those monkeys’

nonstop gossip

inside my chattering mind

on a forest trail

as leaves change colour

I bend to watch

the walking meditation

of insects

(p. 109


Here the narrator wishes to lose her separate identity and blend ‘with twilight’s oneness’ but a dual challenge awaits her: the monkey’s endless chatter plays inside her ‘chattering mind’, making it seemingly impossible for her to blend into the soothing softness of twilight. From a feeling of frustration in the upper verse there is a subtle shift to a note of hope in the lower verse: whether she can meditate or not in order to become one with the object of her attention, at least she can observe ‘the walking meditation/ of insects’ and immerse herself in it. And the entire theme unfolds through images, some of them timeless and universal – the ‘forest trail’ that provides the context for the lower tanka is the trail that could lead to awareness of the inner self if one is not led away by the alluring sights and sounds along the way.


Each tanka prose piece leaves a deep impress, however I will select just one of them to show you how Kala brings together multiple aspects of a single theme to elicit a sensitive response from the reader. In Tangled Strands (p. 3) Kala (the narrator?) shows us her neighbour – a reticent, lonely old woman with expressive eyes. And then comes the revelation that she’s ‘been hearing soft sobbing every night’, which ‘made a lullaby of sorts’ as she would drift into sleep. This is followed by the final scene of ‘a crowd around her [neighbour’s] gate’ and the news that she ‘had died in her sleep.’ This builds up to the final unsettling disclosure: ‘It was whispered that her only daughter had not visited for twenty-five years.’ Only a masterly storyteller knows how to create the portrait and life-story of a person in such few words and allow the reader to experience the old woman’s poignant situation. The tanka that is linked intimately with the prose, and yet shifts to another level of awareness about life, mystified me and me sit up –


from a branch

silver threads stretch

into the unknown …

a search for keys to open

spaces that have no doors


I asked myself: what is this frantic or flustered ‘search for keys’ and what are these spaces that they seek to open? Is it the spaces of the heart where one can walk in if one knows how to love unconditionally?


Through this review I can offer a prospective reader only a very fleeting glimpse into Kala’s book.


As I walked quietly through the forest I know, I realized that each poem is a unique tree with its own unique trunk, branches, roots, leaves and flowers (if it is a flowering tree). Each has its own singular mood and aura. And a single reading is not enough to help one become familiar with the voice and beauty of each poem-tree.


Whether one walks into and through this forest ‘barefoot’ or with footwear, one must do so with an open sensibility in order to receive its varied offerings.




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8 Comments


tejisethi13
tejisethi13
Oct 21, 2021

Very sensitive review Priti! Kala’s book needs a reviewer who can take a walk along her into the forest, only she’s known and lived. You have offered the reader a peek into it. I agree when you say it requires/deserves more than one read to really get into the wilderness for it holds fifteen years of her becoming a poet and the woman she is!

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Kala Ramesh
Kala Ramesh
Oct 22, 2021
Replying to

Thanks a ton, Teji. Very sensitively written by Priti. The way she's written about the tanka prose and mentioned certain lines and then spoke about the tanka - left me speechless. THI has a wealth of talent and it's simply beautiful to be with you all.

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lakshmi iyer
lakshmi iyer
Oct 21, 2021

WoW!!

No words to describe about the book. It is as I say and will still be saying

'The Best Guide to Beginners'

It should be taken as a text form to study and practice the in depth nuances of writing a good tanka. It lays the foundation and implies a perfect formula of the layers needed to evolve a good tanka.

I am in awe of the title

'the forest i know'

Isn't it an open book of the poet? Her life, her soul, her journey!

The word 'forest' transports you to a different world of plant and animal kingdom. Here, Kala Ramesh has weaved and spun creepers of knowledge. You just walk through like any other gingko walk…


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Kala Ramesh
Kala Ramesh
Oct 22, 2021
Replying to

Thanks, Lakshmi. I feel the review is better than my book :)) Priti, like you say, has written this straight from her heart. I'm deeply touched.

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Wonderful review, Priti. Kudos to you and Kala.

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Kala Ramesh
Kala Ramesh
Oct 18, 2021
Replying to

Thanks a ton, Pravat. It's so lovely to have here with us. Your encouragement means a lot to me. _()_

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shobhana kumar
shobhana kumar
Oct 18, 2021

Such a sensitive review, Priti. Love the way you've read so deeply into the book.

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Kala Ramesh
Kala Ramesh
Oct 18, 2021
Replying to

Thanks, Shobhana, I completely agree with you. The second and third reading of her review made me aware of the subtle ways in which she has handled my book.

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