I am not a reader who can be enthralled easily. Anything can distract me: a film, a phone call, a friend, a better plan, the aroma of food. But here, within 250 pages were 120 Haibun, sketching universes of revelations in synopsized depth—summarized lifetimes, told with lucidity, in a frame no longer than a page that set tales adrift with a lingering aftertaste of haiku.
Words come easily to Rochelle Potkar. Words strung together to form patterns. Words masquerading as emotions. Words that can open old wounds and heal recent ones. Basking in the success of her fiction The Arithmetic of Breasts and Other Stories and her first book of poetry Four degrees of Separation she comes out with the third installment that is a heady cocktail of prose and poems. But hang on, this is just not one of those prose meets poetry and they get married. This is prose hanging on a cliff with three lines of verse swinging along. This is soft, melancholic and at times deeply introspecting and the magic Rochelle cooks with her words has a sushi touch to it.
Well if you are wondering what Sushi has got to do with writing then I beg your pardon, the flavor of the season and a bit of rage just like Sushi is Haibun.
In Paper Asylum the Haibun weave stories of everydayness in a dark satirical measured tone. One is first hit by the mundane, the hypocrisy and the inherent pathos of life. In the introductory passage, she makes a very apt observation. She begins by elucidating on her journey into this craft of writing. What began as a chance encounter, then completely engulfs her literaryuniverse. She goes on to state:
“I read 120 haibun that day, traversing ages, continents, and eras through confessions, memory, and the anecdotes of pain and pleasure. I remember feeling enriched, as though I had read 120 novels or watched 120 films, through slow-moving window frames of worlds, going far into the multiplicity of slant, idiom and thought-thread. By night I had haibun fever. This has to be it! I told myself, where the storyteller and the poet merge into a sangam on a page.”
Paper Asylum is Haibun Fever. It’s at times like a delirium. Of emotions searching for words, verses and sentences. She begins the first poem, but not before the obeisance to practitioners of this craft like Angelee Deodhar, Johannes Manjrekar, Kala Ramesh, Geetanjali Rajan, K. Ramesh, Gautam Nadkarni, Paresh Tiwari, Raamesh G. Raghavan, Akila Gopalakrishnanand the many others whose work has appeared in international journals and magazines. What follows in the next 100 pages is Rochelle’s disenchantment with the world. The world we have built for ourselves and the trappings it comes with. One thing that is omnipotent is her relationship with Bombay, her city. In the next piece ‘Asylum’ perhaps one from where the title of the book comes from, are shades which one feels might be autobiographical. The beginning is stark.
‘The walls of the apartment are so close it makes walking difficult. My in-laws speak on top of their voices. They believe hearing aids will turn them unnatural, so they argue in incongruity. I implore my in-laws to lower their voices that travel to me as noise. My daughter cries in disgust. My in-laws’ voices rise and wrap around me like walls. They have soured over my request for quiet.’
Domestic dreariness is then followed with sounds of nature. The Haiku is interspersed in between like a relief between these two contrasting worlds — One of adjustment and one of freedom.
to the bottom
coin of the moon
this sense of
In the piece ‘Selena’ she comes back to the sea again.
‘In the night, the road is long. The sea emulates the sky’s color, twinkling boat lights, and ships that glide on the inky rustle – palanquin of night.’
But there is pathos of domestic trappings here as well.
‘In Selena’s first marriage with him, they made love all through the days. He taught her to love roughly. But he didn’t want her to go anywhere without him. He dissuaded her from wearing t-shirts and jeans.’
The pain is evident here. Love can be obsessive and possessive. Relationships can be suffocating and Rochelle makes a hard-hitting point in the next few lines. This is Déjà vu. Like so many stories one hears of compulsions, contradictions and the appendage baggage of love. A story of so many Selenas one might know. Trying to break free yet trapped. Finally, they find a small little window for the light to stream in. ‘Selene’s ends with the haiku…
shells of snails remain
our holiday homes too . . .
‘In Lapping Oceans’ one can again say it is a Bombay poem andthe canvas is domestic.
Haibun after Haibun she exposes the hypocrisy. Again in ‘Seed’ she comes back to the trauma of adolescence of a young girl.
‘My 13 year old breasts are growing, budding nuisances that feel weighty and uncomfortable under my petticoat and school pinafore. It is too early, so my mother buys snug cotton vests meant for very young boys. I wear them for a year before graduating to a bra. It takes time getting used to a strap of bandage around my ribs and back that would always, always have to be worn from now on, like a norm.’
This is a repressed society’s morals washed ashore- naked, sexistand atypical. After every piece one has to pause and go back to read and feel again. One is sad yet ecstatic as times. And at times Rochelle makes us burst in laughter riots like in ‘Broken Shells’.
‘Our mother in law is responsible for your husband’s sperm velocity. It’s got to do with genetics,’ the doctor says.’
So, aptly titled Rochelle exposes the baby factory. The desperation for an offspring. As if life’s balance hangs on it. In every city we pass by these baby factories. The never ending cycle of human needs related to happiness is daunting. ‘Broken Shells’ ends in a despondent tone.
In ‘A fly lands on the meal’ she is serving a face of India that we ignore – the violent nature of our society. The comparison is chilling and the Haiku interspersed is Zen like
We need a piece of sky,
earth, the size of our body
when alive and free, and
to be buried later underneath.
lynching in India—
my lasagna becomes
a loaded statement
Reading Paper Asylum is not easy but if one has the nerve then it’s a bitter pill when swallowed can give a relief. Maybe not permanent but then nothing is permanent. Through the 100 pages Rochelle Potkar has been able to see the underbelly of human emotions, sentiments and hypocrisy that we try to carry forward effortlessly. It’s like a painted canvas not just rough on the edges but in its intermittent strokes as well.
By Poornima Laxmeshwar
Poornima Laxmeshwar from Bengaluru is an MBA (finance) and works as a content writer for a living.