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Book Review: Gopal Lahiri’s ‘Return to Solitude: haiku and other short poems’

By Nishi Pulugurtha

Gopal Lahiri’s Return to Solitude: haiku and other short poems, published by Hawakal Publishers, is a slim volume of poetry written in genres not very often used in India. A bilingual poet who has authored seven collections of poems in English and Bengali, editor, critic and translator, Lahiri has also written short stories.

It is not very often that one finds a collection of haikus by poets writing in India and this collection is surely an interesting one. In the Introduction to the volume, Lahiri writes of what poetry means to him and why he chooses to write poems that are in the short form. The haiku is one of the best known Japanese forms of poetry; it is a three line poem that has seventeen syllables. The syllables are distributed into 5-7-5 over the three lines. However, modern haikus often deviate from this format as can be seen from the haikus in this volume. Haikus have a variety of themes, from love to nature and cover the whole gamut of human emotions and feelings. Traditionally haikus involve a juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kind of verbal punctuation that signals a difference in thought, image or idea. Every word is important in a haiku which often reflects a special moment or idea.

Apart from the haiku, there are two other Japanese short poem forms that Lahiri delploys: the senryu and the tanka. Much like the haiku in style and structure, what distinguishes the senryu from the haiku is that they usually tend to be about human quirks. The tanka is a 31 syllable poem that is possibly the oldest and a popular form of poetry in Japan. Return to Solitude, a collection of haikus and other short poems, presents poems that reveal a close understanding of and bond with nature and natural phenomena. The volume under review reveals the way a few words can open up a large space and disclose the way the human imagination works.

Lahiri is an earth-scientist by training, and it is but natural for him to present nature in its myriad forms and evolution. The first haiku in the volume brings out a sense of colour and also a reference to violence:

rainbow birds
dipping their long legs
skinned alive

Nature is an important subject in many of the haikus in the volume:

the silence of rain
fills my hands with darkness
records secret songs

Nature and natural phenomena are also used to talk of violence, of darkness, of the bad in human nature:

shadows are all there
summer in your swollen eyes
nights thin to a veil.

It is interesting to see the poet use images that are typically Indian in the haikus:

gone the Simul tree
the fragrance, the medieval sound
missing your verses.

There is a reference to shiuli flowers in another one,

wet shiuli flowers
on your tiny petri dish
sharing my puja

The juxtaposition of the flowers and the petri dish is an interesting one. There is an intensity in the poetic expression, in the use of words that works at creating a wonderful poetic idiom.

outside, the world
floats like sunlit feathers of birds
leaning against the iron grill.

A tanka in the volume evocatively creates a beautiful natural scene and speaks of “two tender souls” who are “walking side by side” and are completely lost in the beauty of “the night” that is bathed in “silver light”. Another one presents the sun shining brightly and its light spreading out over all with an urgency that nevertheless evokes the scene beautifully.

red ball
spreading out
now fades and then
a nice glissade over the rift valleys.

The use of the word “rift” recalls the earth scientist using words and metaphors from geology. Another poem in the volume also uses words and images from geology to speak in a nuanced way about history and refers to questions asked:

crevice and the gap
questions buried, eyebrows raised
glide into history.

This is the first time that the reviewer has come across a volume of haikus, a form not often used, but a form that goes back years and can be put to use to evoke expressions and feelings succinctly. The brevity of the form allows for a nuanced expression of ideas that remain for a long time. As in the traditional haiku, the haikus in this volume speak of ideas that seem to be apparently diverse, but are intertwined with words in just the right form. In order to understand and absorb the poetic nuances, the reader is often forced to read the poems again and again. As Lahiri says in the Introduction to the volume, “I want to take my readers on a wonderful walk where a little rain is a downpour, where silence is a part of our essence, where a solitary mind is a chorus.” Mounted in a form that is smaller than most other books, almost as if in keeping with the poetic forms in the volume, the volume is definitely a valuable addition to Indian English poetry.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café DissensusColdnoonQueen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).


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4 Responses to “Book Review: Gopal Lahiri’s ‘Return to Solitude: haiku and other short poems’”

  1. L S Rathore

    The penetrating review by Nishi Mam brings out all the beauties of Lahiri’s poetry succintly . She also acquaints us with hiaku , senryu & tanka with a critical acumen .The way she treats of these genre in an intriguing way demonstrates that she is not approaching these for the first time but her modesty is commendable .

  2. anawadhboyspanorama

    Haikus truly require discipline and a predisposition to minute details. Thank you for sharing another kindred writer’s works for we are all part of a community.


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