The Day We Went Strawberry Picking in Scarborough by Ranu Uniyal essentially poeticizes a modern woman’s journey from
innocence to experience. The tumultuous journey from joyful aspirations of love and companionship to betrayal, anguish, tears and silences is full of flavours, rhythm, colours, and caresses. The bright lemon yellow cover of the poetic collection suitably anticipates the enchanting sensory sojourn the reader is to undertake.
A number of poems emerge like the music from a deep sad wound containing the “sullen hues of grief.” The poem “The taste of tongue” whispers the core of a woman’s experience. The persona explains the loss of sweetness of her tongue through a layered tale of invasion, dominion and destruction that transforms the land, culture, and language. The tale implies how seamless judgment, use and abuse are the “wicked troops” of patriarchy that rob women off their innocence turning the molasses into tart and pickle. It critically laments mythologies and histories that have nourished the hostile attitude to women:
pelted with stones circled in fire
unless we seek repentance
for our sins our lost souls will
wreath in cycles of despair
ovaries gone ruptured cervix
broken tongue lost scripts razed rituals
curses nailed as oblique breasts
our unwholesome seeds will never bloom
The bodily images evoke the inadequacy and incompetency that have been associated to womenfolk.
Some other poems offer a critical glance at marriage. Marriage does not seem to be a pleasant experience. Rather, it turns out to be a “catalogue of bickering”, “hitting and swearing”, where “yearning (is) held hostage” and “love is the first casualty”. For the persona here marriage seems to have cost her identity and aspiration offering in return the hurtful experiences of conditioning and compromise: “I will merge my sadness and watch you seduce me with your seasoned lust.”
The poem “Why She Won’t” underlines how differences in marriage reach a tipping point and there remains no way out but to end the relationship:
Defer the differences; but it is never so simple
To forget the menacing starch as it stiffened his words
And slowly sat on your lap making it impossible
To bury the sting, the overlapping hue of his empty hands
As he sat beside you and cursed you for being
So colourless and indifferent to dislike and hate.
This and a lot more, and a lot, lot, lot more
Is inked on her chest, unfinished, impatient contours…
There is no nagging, no complaining and playing a victim card despite these moments of bitterness and pain. This deserves a admiration. The poems hint that an assertion of self respect and a will to survive are the signs of a strong woman:
let me spank the sun for not giving me enough of its shine
I am the wind that blows like an orphan
Despite the desolation there is hope; hope of reassurance and warmth in the company of fellow travellers who unite not only by “slabs of silences” but also by “a healthy” camaraderie and “a calligraphy of the heart.”
Another set of poems read like “a young girl’s diary” tapping into the alcove of a perilous past marked by a longing for the youthful romance. The title poem captures budding love of the young ill - fated lovers:
The sky was clear and the clammy soil all wet and brown.
We picked up our hats and baskets and shovel and headed
for the strawberries, bent backwards, buried in mud, filed in
a row of fellows clicking lungs with laughter, churning tales.
I tripped on trash, but howsoever imperfect we clamoured
for more ripe and red and some so perfect.
Such poems represent a desire to explore love, companionship, joy, and life amid vulnerability and immaturity of young age. Here, search for “ripe and red and some so perfect” strawberries implies the desire to explore relationships and affection while “mud”, “tripping” and “trash” stand for obstacles and failures in the process:
…It was difficult that evening for me to be
kind and gentle and as I juggled with my lost recipes for
jams and pies baked in caramel sauce, dispensed with the
leftovers from the refrigerator
The narration seems effortless and crisp as each word contributes to build the contours of the heart undergoing the shattering experience of breakup and anticipation of a new and different life. “Jams and pies baked in caramel sauce” are not only food items but also represent essence of a culture the persona wants to bond with as she has “lost” her native “recipes”.
Ranu Uniyal creates her own poetic universe with distinct images and vocabulary where kitchen is a source not only of food but also of food for thought. Experiences come beautifully wrapped and folded in the metaphors of the culinary and the quotidian.
Another appeal of the volume is the poems capturing the physical charm of women. Woman’s beauty has been a favourite theme with male poets who have variously envisioned divinity, purity and desire in it. Uniyal, too, in a number of poems, draws on the beauty of woman but her women are not deities or angels, neither are they monstrous matrons. They are just everyday women.
The poem “Iffat –the pure one” recalls the pleasant countenance of a lost friend whose features might not have been perfect but her infectious smile spread positivity wherever she went:
Curly and brown, eyes liquid marmalade
is how we remember you.
Uneven and white, your teeth glittered
Like jewels and the smiles splashed
across the walls as if there were no
enemies around. Just friends.
These poems have the flavour of the notorious girl talk. For example, the verse “For the prettiest girl on the campus” features the two distinct phases of a woman’s life- one, of youth, where the persona is an enviable beauty in the campus, decked up in perfect accessories and overflowing with feminine charm, and another, where she renounces the conventional gender role and dedicates herself to the greater cause of “giving love and life” to others:
the face that launched a hundred poems
the face hat has a promise and a curse
yes, it was yours.
Your starched cottons, kohl rimmed eyes,
and that walk of Monroe,
we saw SmitaPatil in you.
With such accomplished careless stroke
You held gin and him simultaneously.
On foothills you sang
The bowl and the geets.
Under the stones you hid
all the kisses from him.
The face with a promise
and then chilled with sorrow,
today has a matchless grin,
as she walks with pride
giving love and life.
Thematically, Uniyal does not seem to traverse much beyond her strong area -woman; her intimate experiences of love, desire, relationship and youth.It is the freshness of her style and perspective that weaves the magic.
Though the poet seems to be working on her “two inches of ivory” in some poems she startles us with a change. “In a city of riots”, for instance, explores the aspects of social harmony by means of a dialogue with the city that is personified. The city of birth and youth does not remain tangible formation of houses and streets but becomes a living and breathing entity. It is a friend, a beloved, a guide and a source of salvation all rolled into one. The persona shares a bond with the place that transcends the physical:
Will you gather in your arms
my dissolving flesh and
comfort me with a promise
of return even if I know it is our last together?
Will you bring me shards
of energy from the main
Several verses in the book also seem to build upon the self-doubt of an artist. The question of language and style is central to both the reader and the writer of poetry. Conscious of her skewed relationship with the mother tongue and its impact on her creativity, the artist seeks nourishment from her native root and asserts the need of “Pulling and prodding” the “mother tongue”. Good news is her expressions successfully lend a new lease of life to her poetic concerns:
I must bear the burden of script
stain it with the mother’s milk
and let her blood seep through my pen.
As of tears I must garnish them with
tiny drops of honey;
if my kitchen is empty
steal it from the neighbour’s garden
and let the bees hum with surprise.
(‘Mother’s instruction to a daughter who wishes to write…’Pp. 31-32)
The conviction expressed here find illustration everywhere. Uniyal is able mellow down the painful and bitter stories with her implicit and layered style. There is a note of anger, but no vengeance, vindictiveness, aggression or even protest. Nonetheless, the tone is neither docile nor submissive. The tone suits the purpose of recognition, remembering, and sharing:
They came again
And tore out alphabets
And beat us when we
Sang our mother’s lullaby
The poet is capable to startle the readers with her analogies and choice of imagery; “people and memories can be dangerous as Himalayan blizzards”, “Body is, tenuous, ready/ to betray, like a chopstick/poises between the two fingers.” , “Love” is “a season of vices”; “blunt and dry seashell” that “smells of discarded fish on the shore.”, Native believes, as “her offering to Hanuman, are “intact, entrenched, fastened like clip of her inner garment.” These analogies are radical, apt, and add intellectual heft to her oeuvre.
The 80 odd poems in the collection include a half a dozen few liners, several prose poems indicating the poets flair for formal variety. The poems may seem simple on the surface but are deeply metaphoric, and full of personal symbolism. Nonetheless, they are relatable, delectable, and wistful. They are reminisce both “flowers” and “knife” with varying moods of curiosity, expectation, hurtfulness, hopefulness and warmth. They track the beginning of the life’s journey in the manner of an alert and petite rivulet and mirror the depth, balance and vastness of the later life in the manner of a placid river past all the ripples and turbulence; showing both the riverbed and the reflection of the sky.
The collection pours out for the readers the best ingredients of poetry; experiences, emotion, original expressions and layered perception.
Every lover of poetry should try Uniyal’s distinct poetic recipe- a peek into the chiaroscuro of the resilient heart of a woman, which illuminates against the darkness of the world with a unique seasoning of the intimate and garnishing of the everyday imagery.
The Day We Went Strawberry Picking in Scarborough
Ranu Uniyal, Poetry,
Bhubaneshwar:Dhauli books, 2018