“So when you eventually did decide to settle down, why did you pick a place so far away?” I asked Santokh.
“So far away from where?” she replied, “My work table is in the bedroom. My bedroom is right next to my kitchen. The bathroom is outside, in the apple orchard. It’s all I needed. I am right here.”
Last year, I met and stayed for a couple of days with Santokh Sarungbam – writer, thinker, storyteller, farmer, inveterate confabulator. The following passages are based on conversations I had with her, interspersed with some of her poems.
Distance brings things together
There’s poetry in everything
but most of all there’s poetry in the links between things
in the analogies that arise
between things distant, seemingly unrelated
I guess when you look at things from far enough away
they will inevitably seem to meet
like the tall buildings in the cities that seem
to lean together conspiratorially
when you look up at them from the street
like the mountain peaks
when seen from afar
like the parallel tracks of the railway lines
meeting at infinity
Distance brings things together
I stumbled upon a book of poems in a little bookshop in Lower Sohra (Cherrapunji) titled The Good Wife. Most of it was free verse, with misshapen sentences. What caught my eye was the name of the author – Corvus vagabunda. That’s Latin for ‘the vagabond crow’, as any enthusiastic birdwatcher would know.
“It wasn’t a heteronym, like Pessoa’s many heteronyms, no. It was just a pseudonym. I had to distance myself from the ideas that I was writing about. They were still very much my ideas; I was just forced to distance myself from them.
“I hadn’t written anything since my marriage. I just couldn’t write, because every time I sat down to write, I imagined my husband reading what I was writing, and more often than not, I knew that it would hurt him, or sadden him – or at the very least, affect him. I did not want that. But I couldn’t just keep all these thoughts and characters bottled up inside; it was maddening. I would’ve burst, PHURFFF!!; gone mad! And so, the vagabond crow – the brazen profligate given to blasphemy, who held nothing sacred, mocked everything, who revelled in the unspeakable.”
Dreams of Infidelity
Travelling back to her husband
after a month in the field she dreams
these aren’t the dreams of her youth
when she dreamt of places
of villages full of clean young men
courteous and well built
interested in her
Now she would stand back and politely ask
the newfound friend
do you wanna kiss?”
And some of the poems were pleasantly startling, to say the least. I claim to be a writer these days, and this looked like a story worth following up. So I contacted the publishers and got hold of an address in a small town in coastal Kerala only to be told that she had moved. That address got me a phone number however, which turned out be that of a niece living in London, who eventually gave me her email address.
“The Good Wife came much later. It was a collection of poems that I wrote over the next couple of years. To begin with I was writing short stories, putting strange names to people and places around me to write about incidents that took place in my own life. I was strictly writing ‘pure fiction’.”
“I wrote about death, depression, alcoholism – all morbid stuff, really – and how love can trap us. I did not want fame, or recognition. Those were youthful ideas that I’d long outgrown; now I just wanted to write, to put things into words and thus, into perspective. I wanted to be able to stand back and look at my own life and understand it.”
Maybe I Don’t Understand Love
the saddest part is that he knows
that he’s wasting his life
they gave birth to me
how can I just leave them to die?
who will take care of them
if not I ?
but it’s obvious in his smile
the martyr’s choice
after he’s consoled his mother
and put her to bed
or brought his father home from the wedding reception
I never forgot that she loved me
even when she did, said liz murray
he hates her
like when she’s been taking her medication
and is fine
and calls him names
and then he says the meanest things
I’ve learnt not to respond with anything
but the kindest words then
or the day after
or the day after that
he will forget these times
that he loves his mother
and also that I said mean things about her
It was a crisp winter day, with furrows of cirrus far away in a blue sky. No one answered, and so I went in, latching the little gate behind me. The courtyard was paved over with ancient looking flagstones, one of which had a depression, like a mortar. A little path led away from between the side of the house and the large shed stacked high with firewood, to a cowshed behind. There were some terraced fields to the side, hemmed in by tall trees and thick bamboo. The chickens shuffled away, raising dust in their wake that shone in the late afternoon winter sun.
“The very first piece that I wrote was actually an interview with this character, the pseudonym, who would from then on do all my inconvenient writing for me. It was about how I met Corvus vagabunda, the wandering crow.
“I used to travel a lot then, and I had this loud, awkward way of writing dark, morbid stuff; so I thought the name was quite apt. I remember I’d initially thought of making him a man, but then the mental gymnastics required to switch all the genders around him made me settle for a woman.
“It was liberating. I could finally write about my true feelings, about how I actually felt. I could discover how I truly felt. And then I realized that some ideas just sounded better coming from her.”
The Good Wife
so many poems
pledging undying love
lamenting unrequited love
mourning love lost forever
where are the poems
they lived happily ever after
sure. but how?
like jack gilbert’s poem about how
courage is not
the momentary madness but the steadfast evenness
day after day
year after year
an equal music even
even the books on child rearing
are almost poetic
when they say
you will feel like flinging the baby out the window
but the impulse will pass
you will still be the loving mother
same as ever
or even more so
where is the poetry of marriage?
you will feel like having a goddamned fling
but the impulse will pass
and you will still be the loving wife
same as ever
or some such thing
I found her working in the fields, her curly salt-and-pepper hair tied back hastily with a rag. She stood up, with a huge radish she’d just pulled out still in her hand, her eyes crinkling up as she squinted at me, the hints of a smile already at her lips. Then she saw the book I was holding out, more like a shield than a visiting card, and a smile of recognition broke through, sending deep furrows all the way down her cheeks.
“I got away with it for quite a while before my husband got suspicious. He saw all this correspondence with publishers and editors and nothing coming out of it. But we’d been together long enough by then and he knew me; so it wasn’t long before he came to terms with it. He even came up with a little doggerel:
“Poetry, a mistress most unforgiving
consuming hearts for a living
ruining writers and their lives
and those of their husbands/ wives
“A part of me knew that love was important, but another part – the more interesting part, perhaps – knew that poetry was, well, life. My pseudonym helped me bridge the gap. It helped me come back to my poetry; and through that, closer to myself.
never do I feel connected to me
on waking up in the morning however
sometimes I pause in the middle of my chores
and looking down upon my hands don’t
recognize them whose could they be?
thin wrists fingers brittle their motives unknown their master
anonymous can they be linked
justifiably to me?
somnambulatorily for days
on end I walk around my thoughts
meandering through the crowds’
eroding no bank upsetting no soul no one
occasionally rethinking morality and my being only to disavow it
neatly putting it away never to be
like I’m not myself but
Edit: Shriya Pant
Illustration: Sartaj Ghuman