Poet, novelist, short story writer and translator Lakshmi Kannan is bilingual, writing fiction in Tamil in the name of ‘Kaaveri’. Sipping the Jasmine Moon is her fifth book of poetry. Rivers, river myths, family relationships, friendship and spirituality are important topics, but the over-arching concern is with woman’s fate in India. Of the sixty-six poems here, thirty-eight are new.
The poems are in five thematic sections. The first section, ‘Braided Lives’, with twenty poems, is centred on women. ‘Don’t Wash’ is a tribute to Rassasundari Debi (1809-1899) who taught herself writing by scribbling secretly on the mud walls of her kitchen. The poem ‘Family Tree’ reveals how a woman’s work is never recognized. Many poems are about the iniquitous property laws. ‘Red Ants, Then As Now’ is a beautiful recreation of the poet’s happy childhood in her grandfather’s house in Mysore, ‘A luminous beauty in cream colour/ with walls warmed by love.’ The ‘brood of boisterous grandchildren’ play in Cheluvamba Park and finally sprawl on the grass till tiny red ants start biting them. Decades later, she returns ‘just to take a look at the house/ that had slipped through/ my mother’s fingers legally.’ The house has remained just the same, so has Cheluvamba Park, with ‘the same dragon flies/ buzzing around magnolia/ the same stately silver oak . . .’ Suddenly, the same red ants bite her ankles, ‘only this time they spoke’:
We warned you not to love the house too much,
For it won’t come to your mother, or you.
The poet skilfully uses alliteration (‘walls warmed’, ‘brood of boisterous’) and repetition ‘the same’.
Allegorical meanings are embedded in vividly represented quotidian events. ‘Braided Lives’ presents a word picture of three generations of women, each individualized. The old mother ‘with sparse silver hair’ offers to do her daughter’s ‘thick, dark tresses’; ‘Occasional threads of silver/ streaked across in stark contrast/ It was so disquieting.’ She pushes the ‘grey strands under the black ones’, and cannot resist advising her daughter, ‘You must massage your scalp with warm coconut oil,/ then wash your hair with the water of reetha seeds,/ not with your stupid bazaar shampoo.’ The advice is typical of the older generation of mothers all over India, where thick, dark hair is valued. The grand-daughter captures the impatience of all children, ‘Can’t you sit still even for a minute?’ the young mother chides, as she braids the little girl’s hair, ‘hair so black, it hurt the eyes.’