CONFLUENCE - NOVEMBER 2016 7
Bashabi Fraser Poetry
Bashabi Frazer’s recent book Letters to my Mother and Other Mothers is a heart-warming collection of poems on the art of bridging many cultures and imbibing human values from each. The poem ‘A Confluence’ carries an apt title and metaphor for transgenerational and intercontinental journeys brought on by a visit to London’s Nehru Centre. Here, India and UK intermingle, Fraser’s memory of her mother in Kolkata and her own daughter in Britain merge, and the eternal image of rivers, the Ganga and the Tay in this instance, binds the personal with the global.
I was back at the Nehru Centre This time with my dialogue between rivers That started their philosophical reverie Six years ago, when you were sentient…. The dialogue has continued like two timeless streams As your grand-daughter picked up the tone Of her Scottish comfort zone, and gave voice To Tay’s meditative volubility Reaching out to my impression Of Ganga’s impetuosity In a confluence you would be endorsed By the vision that you have passed on.
This is more than a book of memories: it’s a rich tribute to mothers as a transcendent category for their quiet wisdom and practical action that assures the wellbeing of the next generation. In today’s world of blatant individualism with its cynicism about marriage and motherhood, Bashabi Fraser’s poems come as a refreshing reinforcement of the maternal role. Her outlook is contemporary, her tribute meaningful, and her language tightly passionate. Here is a book that deserves close reading. The tribute to Mothers is shaped into three neat sections. The first is based on remembrances such as aesthetic creativity at home, travels in India, UK and other places abroad, and emerging family relationships. Added to these are political readings of occupancies in Bhopal, Palestine, Japan, Chile, recounted with vivid articulation. The idea of letters is conveyed in the dialogic style adopted as two trusting people enter each other’s varied world. Edinburgh, that becomes Bashabi’s home, and Kolkata which shaped her younger years are compared with a cultural understanding that captures food, artefacts, political views, street experiences and a lot more. The crowded familiarity of one is offset with the calm order of the other-- each bearing its own harmony. In all of this, there are contrasts and confluences, a transformative mode that Indians living abroad negotiate at every turn. While remembering her mother, Bashabi Fraser reflects on the cross cultural expressions of her own daughter, bringing a new acuteness to the parenting role which constitutes both action and mediation. An example:
You will catch her on an early morning tube Reading Purple Hibiscus, her ghungrus In her jute bag, resting on her lap, still For now… …she will bring her bird flight agility Of her ballet training to the grounded Spins of a fusion of gharanas.
The second section of the book, “Interlude”, comprises of a marvellous single poem “She was my mother” which I am tempted to quote in full because it evokes mythology and modernity, the
east and the west, dreaming and wakefulness, a single flower as well as the firmament. That’s what a Mother connotes, from ages immemorial in the cultural memory of all civilisations; a primal bond that defies the vagaries of history.
She was the Sheuli in my wonderl and Discreetly tender, fragrantly appealing She was my Swedish summer sun, hospitably warm – My emblem of constancy and undying light, She was my Zephyr, my refreshing energy My liberating libretto, my compelling harmony She was my Zodiac, my lucky songster My winning universe, my orbiting dream She was my Zenith, my sonic destination My rainbow nation, my own Milky Way She was my Rubicon, my intrepid defender My splendid torchbearer, my true faith healer She shone when all the stars left the stage She stood, her head high, when the applause died.
The final section devoted to “other mothers” presents vignettes in different moods, a few occasional pieces written for weddings, some written for aunts and friends, one to Kadambari who is a character linked to Tagore, and thoughts on the sacrifices of motherhood. At the end of such an honour roll there’s a curiosity about the real mother who inspired Bashabi’s sheaf of poems. Interestingly she is not named though vivid details of the Bengal partition and the families who had to reconstruct broken trajectories are poignantly brought out in the Introduction. Better unnamed, because this mother encapsulates a generation of women in Calcutta and beyond who learned to cope with adversity resulting from political upheavals and worked hard to educate their daughters. They were often teachers and social workers pioneering women’s empowerment. Bashabi’s mother was among the early feminists in Bengal who did not use that term but practised its principles. “She was the only female lecturer in her department at her college where she taught in Calcutta before we went to London. She won a scholarship to the London School of Economics where she did a Research Masters. For Bashabi, the grief of losing such a mother, first, to the twilight zone of dementia and then to mortality, silenced the poetic tribute for many years. When the spell broke through a prescient dream that Fraser recounts in a poem, the mother is transformed into a generic figure, “Mothers All”, those patient folks who “forego promotions and pay packets/... Night watchers who feed and rock and calm to sleep.”
Diasporic transitions have sharpened the poet’s cultural empathy. Awarded high recognition for Literary Services in Scotland (2009) and known as a Bengali intellectual, an expert on Tagore and a prolific translator, Bashabi Fraser’s writing in the creative realm points to the gains of cosmopolitan identities. This slim book has a deep resonance calling out for restoring human contact in rapidly fragmenting families.
Malashri Lal is a retd. Professor of English and the Dean of Academic Activities at the University of Delhi.