‘Corona and Gulmohars’ Weaves Gentle Expressions With Serious Emotions

Seeme Qasim’s third book, like the previous ones, ‘Beyond October’ and ‘After Gujarat and Other Poems’, touches on serious contemporary topics. She says in her introduction, that she jots the thoughts and words as they come to her, wherever, whenever, like in “the waiting rooms of doctors and functionaries. Some were keyed into (her) mobile, others were developed from outline fragments…. About love, memory, health issues, fear, pain and nostalgia.”
Qasim has lived a childhood or young adulthood in Goa when the state was still innocent and charming and presently lives in Delhi, the queen of cities polluted.
During the ‘midst of death and disease’, she was suddenly overwhelmed by the beauty of an old Gulmohar, which led to the title of the book. In her description of the Corona-Lockdown experience,
“seconds marked
by rising infection”
is precisely what many of us felt watching the news when the pandemic was at its worst.
Tears are: ‘the lava
Suddenly
in your eyes.’
In ‘Unsaid’, she clubs together ‘dementia, Alzheimer’s,
Corona…’
This is how her city gets back to normal, in ‘Survival’:
‘in Khan Market
a young one-legged
amputee hops
jaggedly,
clutching polythene
packets and
shouting, ‘Socks’
for sale.’
Ill health is a unifier. Hospital experiences make interesting stories. In ‘Poetry’, Qasim notes hers whilst undergoing a diagnostic test:
‘Like prisons,
things begin early
in hospitals. Doctors
and nurses
walk the corridors
checking groggy patients.’ Apt. But I wished there were longer sentences, some rhyme, some rhythm, to suit old tastes like mine. Yet, in other poems, words linger, as in describing probably a torrid romance one young afternoon,
‘… and that careless touch
we both know
is not innocent
in intent.’
Her Delhi, like old memories of mine of nearby Ghaziabad are like these:
‘A man on a cycle remarks,
There’ll be another
dust storm tonight.
If it doesn’t get hot,
what’ll the fate
of mangoes be?’’
‘Games in the Park’ is a poem about predators in lovely, lonely parks where scents of beautiful flowers and joyful people, and stealthy, unhealthy sex exist side by side, sometimes unnoticed:
‘… as he watched
children in this place,
or perhaps
he’d done terrible things
and wanted to forget…’
This is one of the several poems on her tenure in Goa, like ‘Your Brother’s Mercedes’ where imagined and real experiences mingle with memories and descriptions of nature.
A thread of melancholy runs through the text. She tells us what happens in a ‘Parlour’:
‘Male personnel
with gelled hair
and silver earrings
give the American look
a go. Their waist bags
crammed with scissors
and combs.
To their clients
they proudly say,
‘Everything’s imported
in this place, the chairs here, they vibrate.’
Qasim ends the poem like this:
‘From a sofa
near the Bollywood
magazines,
I sift through
the newspaper
with the headline
of yet another
bankrupt farmer’s
suicide.’
There are 36 small poems, haiku-like short three or four line verses, at the end of the book. Some of these bring home Qasim’s frame of mind clearly:
‘The news
of his suicide
hangs over me.’ Or ‘They wait for the bus
near the comatose
man – oblivious.’
And then again sneaks in the romantic bit of Qasim’s persona: ‘Passion turns surreal
in the
siesta hours.’
In a quick tele-conversation, Qasim assures me that she wasn’t in a particularly sad or low mood when she wrote most of the poems, although the Lockdown phase, and that of her own health condition at the time, might have contributed to the dejection in some of the words. On re-reading, I find I had missed out some steamy moments: in ‘The First Hot Day’, she says in one verse:
‘I want to talk
about fierce desires,
about fallen petals
near flower pots,
of ants rushing about.’ Perhaps I read more into these lines than Qasim meant, for this isn’t a poem about a lover at all.
I stop at another title, ‘It’s That Time’, which begins like this:
‘It’s that time
when cockroaches scurry
from their crevices
suddenly,
when izards weave
invisible patterns on walls
when insects buzz
around tubelights
and rats, toads
hiss and croak sporadically
in the background
at night.’
Then the poem goes ahead to say,
‘It’s that time
when the hours become
marble statues
waiting for things
to happen.’
And it ends with these verses:
‘It’s that time
for street stories
in congested gullies
with trash and stray dogs
growling at a dishevelled
old man on a bicycle.
It’s that time
on stained pavements
where shopkeepers remark, ‘Even dogs here grow
more class-conscious
by the day’.
Some illustrations would have helped bring alive the words, like to accompany ‘Roshandans’.
Like in her previous collections, ‘Beyond October’ and ‘After Gujerat and Other Poems’, Qasim uses gentle language to bring out serious emotions. No sarcasm, no malice, just observations and to the point, brief descriptions. That brevity, preciseness and insight has no doubt come from years of journalism, of covering difficult areas like Gujerat, as a Muslim woman. However, none of the experiences or writings of the past are reflected in any of these newest poems. These are, as the title suggests, about a pandemic and the changes it brought about in her, or what she saw, felt, heard, thought of it, and about Nature, its glory, her memories of it in Goa, and in Delhi. One easily relates to her experiences of the ordinary, even if one has not visited either of these places.
On visiting the Har-Anand Publications site and skipping down the menu to ‘poetry’, an error came on screen. On visiting ‘literature’ on the same menu, there were other books listed, not this one. Considering ‘Corona and Gulmohar’ is only a few months old, there is a possibility that the site is not regularly updated. A pity, because a link to the book on the publisher’s site is nearly mandatory these days.
A little more about Qasim: an essay by her is part of ‘The Penguin Book of Indian Journeys’ (2001) and ‘City Improbable’ (2001), edited by Khushwant Singh. She is one of the ‘Women Poets of India An Anthology’ edited by Vijaya Goel (2000). Her work is also part of ‘We Speak in Changing Languages Indian Women Poets 1990 –2007’, Sahitya Akademi.
She is able to cover, in very simple language, a variety of topics: flowers, seasons, a virus’ impact, health, rain, empty rooms, pilgrimages, ship travel… and she explores emotions and thoughts as she does it.
A good read for velvet summer afternoons, for rumination over beverages hot or cold.

‘Corona and Gulmohars’ by Seeme Qasim.
Har-Anand Publications Private Ltd., 2023, 104 pages, price: Rs 250.

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