What is poetry? Is it as Wordsworth says a spontaneous overflow of emotions recollected in tranquil¬ity? If so, is it possible for language to reflect these emotions? Which leads us to the more troubling question as to what language is. Is it an adequate vehicle to carry our thoughts? Nay, even a necessary vehicle? If it is, what about animals—which apparently do not have a language? Does that mean they are mute spectators in this world? Or do they have a role in this universe?
Alok Bhalla poses these and other ques¬tions in his Wild Verses of Wit and Whimsy, which masquerading as children’s literature, pointedly questions our very understanding of society, its rules and regulations, and the place and role of literature in it.
On its surface, the book is a reminder of the joy of learning.
‘A…B…C…D…’…These are the alpha¬bets recited by toddlers just learning to speak, their newly-found skill proudly displayed by parents to guests. The moment the child discovers that he/she can recite the alpha¬bet, the child is filled with joy at having learnt a new art. But gradually, as alphabets be¬come words, and words become sentences, which in turn become paragraphs, the magic of learning the sounds of the alphabet is for¬gotten. The need then is of recreation, which signifies new ways of finding joy. This is nec-essary in a world where logic and reason are given precedence over imagination.
Bhalla recreates this joy by unearthing the magic behind the humble alphabet cre¬ating complex words. The poet believes that the arbitrariness of language, as signified by deconstructionists, need not imply a loss of meaning, but posit infinite meanings; and using one’s imagination need not be re¬stricted to literature, but can also be at the level of alphabets. This gives him an oppor¬tunity to dissect not just words, but even alphabets.
As the sub-title of the work says, ‘Alpha to Zeta in 26 movements’, the book con¬tains twenty-six poems, one for each of the English alphabets. A few poems, keeping with the spirit of learning, educate the read¬ers innocuously on aspects of grammar and improve their power of imagination. For in¬stance, ‘E’, while weaving an absurd tale about ear-ringed elephants and eel-eating egrets, also warns the reader about the con¬fusion due to similar-sounding words. Simi¬larly, ‘K’ is full of fast-moving images of ‘Kinkajous in kinky kurtas’ and ‘kiwis on kettle-drums’, intended to make the child imagine these verbal images. The seemingly demonic quality of language and figures of speech is the focus of ‘M’. Metonymy and Metaphor are depicted as two monkeys who mix and match remedies for salvation. In other words, figures of speech are like monkeys who can have their way, unless one uses them well for salvation, or perfect exression.
Like all good books for children, this book has layers of meaning that are relevant even to adults. Beneath the facade of absurdity, Bhalla has a quiet laugh at the expense of various aspects of society and culture. As he says in his Introduction to the collection, the intention behind writing the poems is to see beyond the serious masks we wear, and to view with humour the things we take for granted.
The very first poem, ‘A’, is a take on vari¬ous advertisements and statutory warnings issued by means of press releases. ‘I’ speaks of the outdatedness of ‘izzat’, or honour, as the relationship between two people cannot be codified. The image of indelible ink high¬lights the problem of rigid laws, and has rel¬evance in the context of ‘honour killings’. “L” puts forward the idea that love is not just mad but also narcissistic as ‘Lady Loon’ keeps looking into the mirror constantly in search of love. ‘P’ is about the indestructible quality of beauty, here represented by pea¬cocks, that can present itself even in unex¬pected places, such as the halls of power. ‘Q’ poses an important question of the predica¬ment of the questor if he feels disillusioned about the nature of his quest. ‘V’ is a com¬ment on the waning importance of tradi¬tional theories of art and literature. ‘W’ is about self-reflexivity, that is the right of ev¬eryone. ‘Y’ is a significant comment on the manner in which the world looks up to America for approbation.
The illustrations by Manjula Padmana¬bhan are not just an added attraction, but add significantly to our understanding of the work. While the various typographical ar¬rangements for the poems make each an art-piece, the manner in which each alphabet is represented according to the contents of the poem shows the coordination that went into the creation of this labour of love. The ever-present image of the Alok Bhalla caricature brings out the joy of learning and at the same time provides a clue to understand the poem: It may be in ‘A’, where he is dancing with the asuras; or in ‘E’, where he is having cof¬fee with an elephant; or in ‘P’, where he is a pot-bellied politician. The hats of various cultures that he wears in ‘H’ signifies the universality of these poems.
It may be argued that the language of the poems is complex, and cannot be under¬stood by children. But learning from Bhalla is always a challenge, the completion of which improves the student’s knowledge immensely. In this collection too, reading the poems becomes a challenge for the readers, who are put on the path of explora¬tion.
But, how does Bhalla want the readers to view the poems? Are we to just enjoy them, or are we required to dissect them? The poet answers it in the last line of the last poem in the collection:
Its a zinger!
Its a zeugma!
In other words, the poet says it depends on the reader’s perspective: read it as signi¬fying nothing, or as pointed remarks, or as allegories.
While it is tempting to read them as simple poems that should be enjoyed, the book with its repeated use of animal imag¬ery, from huge elephants to little worms, subtly forces one to relook one’s presence in a universe in which man has a miniscule role. Some poems are, in fact, a celebration of na¬ture, with naughty animals playing with each other: Be it ‘B’, with the birds of imaginary Buzdil Bahadurstan bullying baboons and banshees; ‘J’, with Jack Janedaw and Janus Jackrabbit playing the pranksters.
The poet asks: If language only succeeds in making man create a hegemony over other creatures and disrupt harmony in this world, is it desirable? Probably not. As Bhalla points out in ‘N’, nawabs hardly ever write novels, suggesting thereby that literature can only be produced when we believe in equality— not just of humans, but all creatures great and small.
K.B.S. Krishna is Assistant Professor in English in the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.