From a departed quietude, a voice

In life, she was a reticent figure barely known outside her immediate circle. But recently, poet Reshma Aquil’s resilient verses charmed a Calcutta audience. Chandrima S. Bhattacharya was there 

By Chandrima S. Bhattacharya
  • Published 9.04.17
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Pic: Thinkstock
Sylvan song: Aquil’s grandfather’s house where she spent a large part of 
her childhood 

The electric charge left behind by a brilliant paper at a recent literary conference in Calcutta changed into something else as poet and writer Arvind Krishna Mehrotra started to talk up Reshma Aquil's poetry.

Mehrotra read slowly, drawing out the music from every word of Aquil's poem "The Encounter": "Someone desperate for cover/ Has planted palm, gooseberry together/ It is warm under their shade/ But as I bend to close the window pane/ Sudden swift winds bring in rain/ Bouncing trees/ Frosting everything;/ Let it lie/ Whatever it is that's springing to life/ Accosting me always in stillness/ Rising victorious like smoke;/ With bated breath/ I give it body/ Give it death".

The audience reeled a little. Who was this poet, who spoke so lyrically of "springing to life" yet giving death to what she gives body? What is the thing that springs to life? Something so troubling that it cannot be described? What can nature lead to?

Mehrotra seemed to discover for his audience, as he had done for himself, an original and remarkable voice.

Aquil lived in Allahabad, where she was born, and taught English Literature at Allahabad University, where Mehrotra too taught. When she died in 2012, at age 57, she had three slim volumes of poetry to her name.

Aquil gave Mehrotra her work to read, but it turns out he did not really look at it while she was alive. It is tempting to see the compact form that Aquil uses - her epigrammatic sentences; short incisive words; imagery that borrows constantly but delicately from nature; and most of all, her reticence - as belonging to a long line of women who wrote poetry without revealing themselves. Emily Dickinson comes to mind readily.

But Aquil was really not like anyone else, say other readers of her poetry. "The strength of her poetry is its authenticity," said Manas Mukul Das, speaking to The Telegraph from Allahabad. Das too taught at the English department at Allahabad University and was a close friend of Aquil's. He said, "If her poetry reminded of any other poet, it was because she wrote that way naturally."

And nature - is it feminine? - springs surprises. In "Flare II", Aquil looked again at "something forming", troubling to touch: "Whatever wintered within us that summer/ Had the hush of leaves falling/ Had the hot vacuum of afternoons/ Had spidery veins/ Later, had something forming/ Hard as pellets/ That no gentleness can touch." Her gaze, intense and inward, revealed startling sights.

She began to write poetry late, borrowing her imagery from her environment and from a lyrical childhood, said Das.

Aquil, the eldest of four children, grew up in Daryabad, near the Jamuna. Her brother Zaheer Baber, who teaches Sociology at the University of Toronto, recalled their childhood. Their family lived in a house close to their grandfather's very large house, which had a huge backyard overgrown with trees. "We used to call it 'the jungle' and we spent much of our free time there. We grew up in a 'poor' neighbourhood whose inhabitants were mainly former small-time zamindars and their hangers-on," said Baber, on email. The jungle appears in Aquil's poetry.

A strikingly beautiful woman, as is apparent from her photographs, Aquil was apparently this "tomboyish" figure in a "traditional" neighbourhood. "She was cycling, occasionally playing cricket with the boys in the compound of our grandfather's house," Baber informed. She did not marry. "She thought marriage would impose limitations on her," added Das.

Aquil's father, Aquil Rizvi, is a renowned Urdu scholar who too taught at Allahabad University. Aquil, whose PhD thesis was on the 19th century novelist George Eliot, however, did not get to be known beyond a small circle. She was not "pushy".

"She was reclusive and had very few friends and this brought a certain quality to her poetry. Her reticence was almost hermit-like, masking emotions," said Das. But she did not want to hide her work.

She took the help of her brother to bring out one volume of poetry: Sleeping Wind, published by Ethos Books, Singapore, in 2001. "My only role was to connect her with a publisher and a couple of poets in Singapore. She was not at all shy about it and was certainly very happy when the collection came out," said Baber. Her other books are The Unblending and Shadows of Fire, both published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta, in 2003.

"She was very deep," said Manjulika Das, Manas Mukul's wife. Manjulika and Aquil were very close, and walking companions.

Could it be that Aquil just did not care enough about a bigger audience? She was not angry like the sea in "Played Out", a three-line poem by her. It goes: "Irate wave/ Sighs over sand/ Nothing to break."