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Book Review: Nabanita Kanungo’s ‘A Map of Ruins’

By Rashida Murphy

Title: A Map of Ruins
Author: Nabanita Kanungo
Publisher: Sahitya Akademi, 2014

Nabanita Kanungo is a Shillong based poet, currently pursuing a PhD in Geography. Her entanglement with geography, both in the landscapes she describes and the interiority of ancestral memory, is evident in her first collection of poetry.

In her dedication at the start of the book, Kanungo writes, “to my grandparents, for the memory they survived.” This leads seamlessly to the stark first poem:

“I was inscribed in the maps that
went to the North East Frontier Agency with my grandfather,
stashed in his brief-case skull.”

This poem is interspersed with images of dying men, stones, and untamed sanctuaries that do not offer respite from “history’s lost tongue.” Images of burrowing and sinking into earth are situated against “the refuge of delusion” which comes at the expense of, and against “geography’s leathery skin.”

The theme suggested by the dedication to grandparents continues in the second poem, where “grandmothers/who battled the summers of their tamarind youth” give the winds a clue of a landscape that punishes those who are clueless.

These poems burrow deep into the heart of landscape and memory. Some of the best ones are laments – as in “the sound of something cracking” and when the “dealers of grief” cannot contain the loss of a homeland. “Citizenship” encodes  “a terrible fear” and tells us that protest marches, nostalgia, and the stars can all be pressed into the renunciation of belonging to a place. Ink, says the poet, “does not turn a space into a place.” “Cyril’s Award” asks if it was “a Hindu or a Muslim night” that made refugees of old and young alike, when all that can be taken are “the names of their homelands” and “Lalan fakir songs”, along with “sun-baked feelings.” The geography of remote places plays with memory and the pull of a lost homeland.

“Nongjri” is a beautiful poem with unexpected and non-linear images that remind us first that “the ant finds the ripe pineapple before we do” and that “happiness is a darkness,” before cautioning us that someone else’s children may “arise, simply vanish” or be forgotten. The burden of wordlessness is not hers. Kanungo has an eloquence of spirit, especially when she speaks of desolation.

In the “City of Beels” there is a line that affected me deeply and haunted me on repeat reads. That line is, “I mustn’t remember so much.” Kanungo appears to caution the reader against the burden of memory while quietly, and devastatingly, laying bare the “blue sound of death” along with the bird that “cannot tell a bomb from its heart.” With her, we walk along alleys “robbed of gulmohars” under a ripped sky and over across to that last green hill. “I mustn’t remember so much.” Maybe we can, for her, and for all of us. We must.

In “Gangtok”, the poet sees with the tourist’s eye, signalling distance rather than immersion. In another poem, her grandfather is a cloudburst of “fierce temper,” with his “lost piece of land” or soul – it is hard to tell. Walking with him teaches her to “stitch silences into poems.” The “Refugee Colony” is “that odd square kilometre of memory” that echoes with guilt and shame like the “mad woman’s song.” These are poems populated with the ghosts of ancestors and fugitive dreams and bitter tears.

The poems about the Himalayan cities, Gangtok, Shillong, Guwahati are dense, rich, beautiful, and also menacing as we walk “under assassin fly-overs.” When I got to the last poem, titled, “What I’ll take with me when I leave Shillong,” I already knew I wanted to walk those streets. There is a power in dangerous places, a beauty in devastation, and it is this poet’s privilege to lay bare those contradictions. The last words, in the last poem, should also belong to Nabanita Kanungo:

“I don’t know how to bottle the meaning of autumn
how to take what charcoal signifies in winter’s languid night
and somewhere I must stash the morning walls, some mist
and the yellow light of evenings thoughtful after rain.”

A Map of Ruins is available here.

Rashida Murphy lives in Perth. Her novel The Historian’s Daughter is available from UWA Publishing. She is Books Editor at Cafe Dissensus.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Masculinities in Urban India’, edited by Madhura Lohokare, Shiv Nadar University, India.

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