Review of Mihir Vatsa’s WINGMAN – by Medha Singh

by TBLM

Recently, a combined bundle of chapbooks by Mihir Vatsa, Nandini Dhar, Usha Akella, Manjiri Indurkar and Arjun Rajendran were released through Vayavya and Aainanagar at an event ‘Reading Five: An Evening of Poetry’ at Moti Lal Nehru college. It was a refreshing visit, that took me back to my college days when we, as English students, sat wide eyed, aware of the privilege of having an author read their work to us. In this article, I review Wingman by Mihir Vatsa

Often, the poem is swimming in the subconscious, or in ​the ​grand narratives and myth ​that ​resonate quietly​ in​ our​ quotidian lives​. ​This tendency is not uncommon among poets the world over, from Seamus Heaney to John Ashberry to Carolyn Kizer to Anna Akhmatova, all have alluded to myths, dead people and paranormal entities. For Vatsa, however, the poem is setting upon us​,​ as we observe ordinary life.

I’d like to recall the time I stood next to the Eiffel Tower in queue next to a Pakistani family. The fatigued child, muttering ‘Papa yeh kya hai? Hum kyun hain yahaan?’ to which the father replied ‘Yeh Eiffel tower hai!’. Unable to grasp the intended enormity of that answer, the child responded with genuine curiosity and exasperation ‘Toh?!’.

The speaker of the poem ‘The Difficulty of Turning You Into a Human’, attempts to characterize an innocent impulse​,​ much like that of the child’s, refusing to accept the symbolic, discarding it for a quixotic construction of meaning instead, in trying to imbue the statue of the goddess with only what’s apparent to him, one who does not care for grand histories. Happiness, truth, belonging, all lie in the here and now, in a domestic comfort/discomfort, an outcome of lived experience alone.

We see in the text a tendency to mock the vain impulse that compels writers (even non-writers) to allude to pre-established poetic/mythic structures in ‘The Difficulty With Turning You Into a Human’. Religiosity is the first convict, for the strongest poem among the seventeen. It limns a commonplace experience of family visits to the temple, with an almost childlike, innocent clarity.

The temple is ‘built upon the fortunes of a merchant’, that the goddess ‘could not resurrect’, in worship of whom the excursion has been made, for she’s ‘archaic’, in the lines ‘she likes flowers more than gift cards’ and ‘dusted scriptures more than PDFs’. Given the incumbent social reality in the country, unit by unit, we see its parts, minutely flawed (amid other things) among devout individuals who have been kept from the larger political narrative and its vicissitudes, as what may be seen as ​the larger political conspiracy since time immemorial, regardless of the power regime we ​find ourselves subservient to. The speaker allays the goddess’ divinity, describing her ‘sculpted features’ and ‘curves’ only to be reprimanded (by what force? it’s left intentionally unclear), he exclaims in response ‘Ouch!/Forgive me my humor, miss.’

What is the nature of that gap in the Indian majoritarian pathology​,​ that a routine visit to a temple represents? It’s the first question that arrives, and renders the exercise and endeavour of this chapbook an important one. It announces the crux of what is between these poems, before and after.

There are heart warming poems in the chapbook such as ‘Alumni Night’, where the speaker, truant at first, on a visit to his former college, meets his juniors and suchlike, all joyous, festive and well clad, laced with familiar, glittering smiles. Yet at the end, the old ache of a home that was temporary to begin with: the speaker spots his former hostel room, enters it as though to enter a past self, the room in the exact order as he had left it, no longer his own. He is, at the end, forced to ‘resolve not to cry’.

The last poem among the seventeen is ‘A Poem for a Future Breakup’. For all its insistence on the fact that it is never the right time to separate, especially ‘not when the fruits are falling in torrents’, the text concludes with a whisper, ‘oh no oh no oh no’, crestfallen. Heart-rending.

This is a book I look forward to perusing on tired nights at the end of a day’s work, poems I’d revisit time and again, to find solace in the telling experiences of love and separation, our parents’ clumsy encounters with modernity, confusion and panic as an inadvertent consequence of youth, leaving what was never ours, and travel that will remind the reader of who they once were— not very different from others around in their most private, despondent moments, no matter how alone they felt.

My Mother Reads a Poem I Once Wrote About Her in English (from Wingman)

It’s beyond comprehension, but she desires a meaning.
I sit beside her, irritated, unwilling to hear the noise
of those line breaks I had put months ago. Outside,
the leaves adopt patience for her recitation. She begins,
aware of a different language in her mouth, while every
mispronounced word nudges my urge to shield
the wholeness of what is mine. Not to put it between
her lips which have gone destructive, but–
I am trying to understand no, wait. It’s mere consolation.
She continues with it because she knows the shame
of a half-read poem. I want her to realise
it’s about her without me telling. Its delicate nuances, its
abrupt ending. Not everything is literal, mom, I say
derisively, don’t you know it already?
Of course she does.
Also recognizes the ache now reddening
my otherwise placid face. One-two-three-four–
and I scroll the damn thing down at once. Done now?
In sharp silence, I watch desperation hurt her eyes.
Without another word, she turns the TV on. Someone has
spilled milk over the floor. Cute little cubs in a reserve. Varanasi.
I walk back to my room, read the poem again, and think
about guilt.

(TBLM note: indentations here may not exactly be the same as the poet intended)

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Mihir Vatsa is the author of the poetry collection Painting That Red Circle White (Authors Press 2014) and a poetry chapbook Wingman (Aainanagar & Vayavya 2017). He is a former Charles Wallace Fellow at University of Stirling, and winner of the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize and a Toto Funds the Arts award in Writing. Mihir lives in Hazaribagh where he studies the town’s landscape, history and heritage.