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Ranjit Hoskote in The Hindu

THE 34 poems that form Jerry Pinto's first book of poems, Asylum, mark the emergence of a distinctive voice in Indian poetry. While Pinto has been represented in journals since the early 1990s, and in a Viking anthology of new-generation poetry edited by the present reviewer in 2002, his poems have been largely confined to reading circles and photocopy circulation. Such recourse to an informal, word-of-mouth tradition has been the norm among Indian poets in English during the last decade, as mainstream publishers have clamped the spigot on their poetry lists and small presses have proved to be dazzling but short-lived. This orality of transmission holds a curious appropriateness in Pinto's case. Word-of-mouth, in a significant and exact sense, describes the locus that his poems inhabit: he writes in a cadenced yet speaking voice, that carrier of irony and pain, self-irony and melancholia, which revisits the fields of inherited memory even as it probes the half-blocked channels of desire.
From the memoirist's impulse spring some of the most moving poems in this collection: as narratives, they retell family lore, tales of escape and resettlement, loss and growing up; as reflections, they define an archive of hereditary attitudes and patterns of image, in relation to which he may define his own position as individual and poet. The book's emotional energies are held in parentheses between its eponymous poem, "Asylum", and its closing one, "Bedside". The first an oblique portrait, the second a direct address, both are dedicated to the poet's mother, now no more; they speak to her long-term condition of mental and physical indisposition, and to the intertwined nature of their lives, determined for many years by a "litany fresh off the shelf:/ Tegretol, Anxol, Espazine, Hexidol/ Neurobion, Arrovit, Shelcal, Diazepam." The reader who feels a current of unease as he begins Asylum is shocked and changed by the self-searing candour of the poem that closes the book: "I have no beliefs here, only a watchfulness./ My world condenses into an ink-stain/ As your voice trails after me from room to room./ I made promises to you, standing in the toilet./ By the skull of the Cyclops that drank my piss/ I broke those promises, one by one? And know that is why I cannot love."
In "Exiled Home from Burma", the poet draws on his grandmother's memories of travelling back to the safety of India during World War II, as the Japanese armies swept through Burma. The poet's great-grandmother is an astute strategist of the micro-level: "Bombs have no eyes./ They will not see it is my Johnny,/ A good boy who took his mother dancing./ But God has ears that we can storm." As the Axis troops march through teak forests and the captain of the evacuation ship throws a piano overboard to lighten the vessel, cherished objects sink and family lore takes their place.
If Pinto shows himself willing to address near-destabilising emotion in these acts of homage to survival, he is even more transparently vulnerable in his poems of desire and self-confession. "At Thirty" demonstrates an ability to look unsparingly at the self: its worldly choices, carnal desires, and failures to connect. Following the succession of avatars he assumes, as old cells are sloughed off and replaced by new, as the limbs register changes unmeditated by the mind, the poet concedes defeat to an entity that is "My body in name only/ My body that refuses to settle down/ My body that will not acknowledge me."
Pinto has the makings of a dedicated jeweller of intimisme, with his unerring grasp of the occasions when the deepest feelings, of identity and hurt, can be betrayed into language. In "Cetacean Song", he crafts an antiphony between the song of human need and the singing of whales, contrasting the words through which humans make themselves and their relationships against the instinctive music that animals weave together. "Bound by the need for breath/ We lie on beds of foaming rubber": opening with this startling image of mattress as tide, the poem dwells on the distances that always haunt intimacy, to end with the words of the wandering soldier's longing from Xenophon's Anabasis: "Outside the window/ The sea, the sea."
In such poems, Pinto reveals his alignment with the poetry of Nissim Ezekiel, especially the middle-period Ezekiel of the 1960s and 1970s. While many poets in the last quarter of the 20th Century grew up to emulate the master, they achieved little that was not epigonic, that did not reduce Ezekiel's experiments with self-exposure and everyday language to the merest mannerism. Pinto, coming as he does after this great wash of imitatio, learns from the guru's preoccupations rather than his style. He follows Ezekiel in balancing precariously between reason and passion and having the nerve to admit as much; in articulating the predicament of the intellectual who may make common cause with the subaltern, but who must return to his writing table to make sense of himself.
Pinto's poems return often to the gestures of caring and spurning, of nurturing and poisoning; his poetry turns on the subtle recognition of the twinned nature of these gestures in life, and of the alacrity with which one may turn into the other. In "Dadiba's Matka", he uncovers the intertwined roots of love and hatred, death and fertility. The utensil memorialised in the poem's title is a sort of present-day Indic urn from which Pinto draws conclusions for life and art: "As Dadiba shrivelled and died/ His matka began to bloom/ Until the roaches walked from it/ Coated with pollen./ Moss festooned it without and inside/ It was alluvial with silt so rich/ It grew orchids."
Pinto is a poet of place and season, alive to detail. He records the organic life of vegetation in the concrete jungle, creeper fighting cement; he traces a fungoid patch of wall and accounts for leaf mould and moss as they smear across architecture sagging from the blows of successive monsoons and the plans of developers. There is always a suggestion that the buildings on which Pinto's eye rests could just as easily be bodies; and the sensuousness of his detail can pass seamlessly from nectared elegance to poisoned alarm.
In "Dreaming at Mukesh Mills", one of the most accomplished poems in this volume, Pinto guides us into a textile mill rendered derelict by a strike, now used as a location by film-makers. A man who once worked there, and his son, a film technician, intersect as participants in different realities staged in the same space. The dream ends in a moment of setback delivered as a delirious anti-epiphany: "The hoarse voices around him become tug-boat cries./ The sun is a floodlight, he is reeled up flat,/ The mill will go. The sun will lose./ He can taste defeat and it is strangely like his own spit."
The six brief, resonant poems gathered to form a sequence titled "Tree" are a portrait gallery. Each arboreal sitter is chosen from the urbanscape of Mumbai, from the neighbourhoods that Pinto has known in his various roles as resident, writer and flaneur. Each tree represents both its own specific reality of pollination, blight, prickliness or rooted heaviness, as well as a corresponding human predicament. Each permits us a moment of recognition. We are captivated by the visuality of "Tree 6", which reads, in its entirety: "Not so much a tree-trunk/ As a gush of melting wood:/ The mane of Medusa after an oiling,/ Dripping cannon-balls of seed-rich sweat." The sequence draws unselfconsciously on Greek and Sanskrit epigram, "Tree 5" opening with the Bhartrihari-style "Like that assassin, love,/ The streetlight waited quiescent/ Within your leaves."
Poetry, to Pinto, is a refuge, a place of calm reassessment of self and others; and yet he is aware of its fragility, and to the poet's vulnerability to pressure. When he meditates on a communication, on its writing and stamping, its passage through the hands of postal clerks and postmen, in the subdued but haunting "Letter", we know that he is thinking of poetry, of the risk of committing self-revelation to the inflections of poetry. We take his questions away with us as we close the book: "What chance does a letter have?/ Overwhelmed by a semi-circular sky and a diametric sea,/ Weighing at so many grammes and so many rupees/ Against millions of tonnes of air and parody/ ... What chance? Against its own words?"

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