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Paper Asylum

prose poems

Rochelle Potkar
First published in India in 2018 by
Copper Coin Publishing Pvt Ltd
L5/903 Gulmohur Garden
Raj Nagar Extension
Ghaziabad 201017
Delhi ncr

www.coppercoin.co.in

Paper Asylum
© Rochelle Potkar 2018
The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

Cover photograph: Sarabjeet Garcha


Cover design: Ritesh Kumar

isbn 978-93-84109-26-4

Typeset by jmd Publisher Services, Patna


Printed and bound in India by Thomsom Press India Ltd

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents


are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any
actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely
coincidental. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
transmitted, or stored in a retrieval system, in any form or by any
means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way
of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise
circulated, without the publisher’s prior consent, in any form of
binding or cover other that in which it is published.
For Shekar, keya, Mai, Aaee, Baba
Thank you for being my incredible atoms
Contents

Haibun in Me ix
Tanka 1
Palimpsest 3
Asylum 5
Selena 8
Summer Hills 10
The Behaviour of Rain 13
Lapping Oceans 15
Reflux 17
Thumbprints 19
Seed 20
Weight in Kilograms 22
Broken Shells 24
Plantation 26
Tattoos 28
Spice Garden 30

vii
Barley and Coffee Beans 32
Entombed 34
Thirst 36
Snakes and Ladders 38
Samsara 40
Routine 43
Stillborn 46
A Knot of Toads 48
Scabbard 50
Voltage 52
Ex-space 54
Typewriter 56
Lake Vostok 58
Mass 60
Gravity 62
Tides 64
September 66
A Fly Lands on the Meal 68
About-turn 70
Quiet Chaos 72
Outing 74
The Quivering of Purple Petals 76
Ekphrastic 78
Syllabus 80

viii
Knowledge 83
Garble 86
Retake 1 89
Retake 2 91
Uriel, Gabriel, Chamuel 93
Spoken Word: Absent, 2017 95
Chabad House 98
Molting 100

Acknowledgements 103

ix
Haibun in Me

I remember a day in Hyderabad when I was


introduced to my first book of haibun. I began
reading it to kill time before a literary event, but
couldn’t put the book down. I am not a reader who
can be enthralled easily. Anything can distract me:
a film, a phone call, a friend, a better plan, the
aroma of food . . . But here, within 250 pages were
120 haibun, sketching universes of revelations in
synopsized depth—summarized lifetimes, told with
lucidity, in a frame no longer than a page that set
tales adrift with a lingering aftertaste of haiku.
I read 120 haibun that day, traversing ages,
continents, and eras through confessions, memory, and
the anecdotes of pain and pleasure. I remember feeling
enriched, as though I had read 120 novels or watched
120 films, through slow-moving window frames of
worlds, going far into the multiplicity of slant, idiom
and thought-thread. By night I had haibun fever. This
has to be it! I told myself, where the storyteller and the
poet merge into a sangam on a page.

xi
We know the haiku: two images juxtaposed in a
fragment (one line) and a phrase (two lines) that link and
shift. The haibun, then, is prose poetry interspersed with
haiku. Written in a first-person narrative, in the present
tense, it can range from autobiography to diary writing,
essay to travel-journal writing. Like the haiku, the
haibun begins in the everyday events of life and can be
described as a narrative of an epiphany. The practitioner
of haibun is called a haibuneer. There can be 100 haiku
in a haibun, but we generally find one or two. The haiku
forms an integral part of the haibun and follows the
same link and shift inherent to all Japanese short poetry
forms, including haiga, tanka and senryu. While the
haiku links and shifts between its phrase and fragment,
the haibun does so between its title, prose, and haiku.
The link and shift apes the continuity of life’s wheel,
keeping in motion the navigation to new territories of
notion, imagery, and feeling.

Once a guru said that to practice Japanese poetry,


one must celebrate and curate nature, becoming
ornithologist, zoologist, biologist, spiritualist, psycho
logist, and painter—all at once. If poetry is a niche
genre in the world of literature, the Japanese forms
are more so. The haibuneers and haijins the world
over are a subculture practising in quietude, with
limited printed-book possibilities. In India, a couple
of hundred members constitute an online Facebook
group, INhaiku, and converge every day to weigh

xii
words like goldsmiths, for brevity between lines 1,
2, and 3 of the haiku.
Every time I enter a new college classroom for
a workshop and tell students that to write haibun
they can be a bit of a storyteller, personal diarist,
traveller, chronicler, and poet, there is a sigh of
relief that runs through. No one feels excluded.
I think the time for haibun has come, given the
small reading screens and attention deficits. Or the
fact that this is an accessible form allowing its
practitioner to intersect story and poetry, besides
acquiring edible-sounding titles like haibuneers and
haijins, while practising the art of word zen.
Since I write in other forms, I think it’s
interesting to mention that in relation to free verse
poetry, I have found the haibun to have sentences
stacked horizontally. While comparing it to flash
fiction, the ‘Act 3’ is a haiku.
St. Xavier’s College was the first in Mumbai to
include the haibun in its syllabus under Emerging
Poetry Forms, whereas Wilson and V.G. Vaze colleges
welcomed the haibun through workshops by me.
But I am probably a late-comer to this bandwagon
of haiku and haibun practitioners, probably an even later
champion. The stalwarts in India who have affected me,
and to whom I pay my obeisance, are Angelee Deodhar,
Johannes Manjrekar, Kala Ramesh, Geetanjali Rajan, K.
Ramesh, Gautam Nadkarni, Paresh Tiwari, Raamesh G.
Raghavan, Akila

xiii
Gopalakrishnan, and the many whose works I come
across in international journals and magazines.
A special note of thanks to Kim Richardson for
going through an earlier version of this book and
saying, ‘Your haibun are good, and I don’t say that
lightly. You “get” the form.’ I have never forgotten
those words. My deepest gratitude to Michael
Rehling, Christopher Merrill, and Gabriel
Rosenstock for writing a quote for this book.
A must-read book is the Journeys series, edited by
Angelee Deodhar, while online archives of Contemporary
Haibun Online, Haibun Today, and Cattails are the other
sources to deepen one’s morning zen.

Rochelle Potkar

xiv
Tanka

(1)
on a diet
she kills her cravings,
painting her nails
a luscious, viscous
chocolate brown

(2)
within
a hand-me-down shirt
I wonder
at a thrift shop,
all what I must be inheriting

(3)
he aligned his fork
on his finished plate
before the ship sank—
his manners more ingrained
than survival instincts

1
(4)
the nouveau city
opens like a 3D fairytale book
and by night
folds into two-line axes
of an infinite dream

(5)
the blue sun
passes through the
distended womb of sea
like the refracted memory
of our once-summer love

2
Palimpsest

A paranta comes alive in the way the sculptor


chooses square sand grains over round, surf-
kissed ones.
Square grains stick better. He pounds them into
place with water, like hope, block upon block, and
removes the molds with fine knives, when it turns
hard like belief.
He chisels her into desire, lust, love, prosperity.
The strands of her hair, the poise over shoulder, nose
curves, eyelashes. Freckles, frown, the heaviness of
lips. Her gaze is set to a dream, bosom made heavy
with sand brought in from the riverbed.
All come to see her now for the one flash that
can set them free. Their eyes rove, searching her, as
if staring into a mirror to become another person.
So they can go back to their clockwork cities and
say, ‘You know what happened to me once in
Aparanta?’
They have to be quick. The sea breeze breaks

3
thick, carving out new expressions over her face
each minute.

captive—
the sun shaping trees
on her dungeon pane

4
Asylum

T he walls of the apartment are so close it


makes walking difficult. My in-laws speak on
top of their voices. They believe hearing aids will
turn them unnatural, so they argue in incongruity.
A pump ball in the toilet flush tank doesn’t
buoy when the water refills. Because it stays down,
the water leaks and leaks. The low grumble of this
commode reminds me of how time seeps through
the hours and daylight.
My daughter vomits on the carpet and the mattress.
She had eel sushi for yesterday’s dinner, and I realize
now that sushi might not be good for children.
I implore my in-laws to lower their voices that
travel to me as noise. I scrub my daughter’s spill
with a damp cloth, then blot out the sogginess with
lengths of tissue paper.
My daughter cries in disgust. My in-laws’
voices rise and wrap around me like walls. They
have soured over my request for quiet.

5
sinking
to the bottom
coin of the moon
this sense of
losing you

The window frame of my bedroom holds ebbing


water, swirling cloud, hovering mist, arriving and
departing boats that cruise on the endlessly ebullient
grey. My eyes sweep over this rippling mirror as my
mind unfurls too. Every second a boat, like a thought,
cuts through, leaving white waves aping the cloud-
cleavaged sky. Ferries move freight and iron
containers like saga and story. Tiny boats carry
passengers like dreams of my beloved friends.
The mountains stay in fog, in the background
like memory. Waves of grey cloud form behind
them like cache memory. At exactly 6:44 p.m., a
drawbridge awakens with twinkling lights across
the swirling grey above, the rippling grey below.
The evening falls thick. The hills recede. The
black shows through the static of winking, fast-
moving lights from boats, travelling like wishes and
prayers at eye level. Now the stains on the carpet are
drying, the anger in my in-laws’ voices fading . . .
I can spend a lifetime by this window imprisoned,
exiled, or quarantined. Magnificent views keep the
spirit afloat in tiny entrapments of bodies or

6
apartments. Holding this vision long enough makes
the confines around melt.
The window frame is expanding too into Prussian
blue now, kissing starlight, as everything blends.

this globule
of desert
is rain-drenched
if ever dawn
reveals you

7
Selena

I n the night, the road is long. The sea emulates


the sky’s colour, twinkling boat lights, and ships
that glide on the inky rustle—palanquin of night.
In Selena’s first marriage with him, they made
love all through the days. He taught her to love
roughly. But he didn’t want her to go anywhere
without him. He dissuaded her from wearing t-shirts
and jeans. ‘Dress like a married woman. My woman,’
he said. He yelled at her if she did not cover her
breasts with a stole over her kurta. He berated her if
the side slits of her salwaar kameez were too wide, or
if her leggings were snug, showing off her thighs.
In the day, the road is shorter. The sea emulates
the sky’s colour, allowing boats to create cloud-like
surf and wave.
She divorced him and went back to her
mother’s house to fit into jeans and t-shirts from
her childhood cupboard.
He came after her. He apologized and begged.
One day, with water held in his mouth under a very

8
hot sun as a means of penance, he walked from his
home to hers—a good 20 kilometers. He nearly
fainted when he arrived.
They remarried—since they had filed for divorce
and the papers were in court. She now has two
children with him, and no house help. She cannot go
to the gym. She cannot wear clothes that reveal her
femininity. She doesn’t talk too much to friends.
As far as he is concerned, she cooks all day, drops
and picks Evan and Angel, feeds them, and waits for
him. For herself, she has a secret gym membership for
the late mornings when the children are at playgroup.
She packs figure-hugging jeans and cleavage-
clinging singlets into a bag when she sets out—
that’s why her bag is always full.
She has a part-time job in the early evenings,
where she glances at men hungrily and greedily as
she walks on the road, and is glanced at back
equally hungrily and greedily.
She also has a dream . . . that someday she will take
the kids to a foreign land and meet a suitable partner,
and maybe—who knows—even find true love.
That dream takes her a long way off. This,
before the doorbell rings.

shells of snails remain


the same
our holiday homes too . . .

9
Summer Hills

E ach bungalow in the undulating Khandala hills


of the Western Ghats is different in roof, patio, porch,
terrace, balcony, servants’ quarters, garden,
lawn, swing, façade, and paint.
It is like an exhibition of drawings by
competitive schoolchildren. In the sine-wave dips
of one such hill, we assemble every holiday, be it
the long May vacations or the short ones of
Dussehra, Ganapati, Diwali, Eid, Christmas, New
Year, or someone’s weekend birthday party.
First the elders bring us, first and second
cousins, here. Then chaperones and maids. Still
later, we come on our own with special friends,
drugs, weed, and music that blares through the
night panes, shattering the hill’s echoes.

mango harvest—
the flush of dawn
through my skin

10
Manojji lives in the servants’ quarters with his
wife and two toddler daughters. He is the caretaker,
cook, cleaner, and gardener. He joined the
household when he was, maybe, twelve.
Over the years, many servants came and went
as Manojji earned a soft belly from leftover food, a
thick supervisor’s moustache to instill fear in the
new bunch of gardeners and cooks.
Manojji is a curious man. His eyes and ears are
always shifting. One day he quits his job. He takes
his family to a rented apartment near his daughters’
school. He exhausts his flab and the languor of his
earlier job. He hops into cars of property seekers
and drives them up and down the hills, savouring
and summarising the land.
Soon, sales happen and Manojji’s commissions
come in too. The cities around these hills swell, its
arteries choking with holidaymakers in a never-
ending trail seeking to melt their urban angst. More
and more clients come via a three-hour-quick
expressway. More properties sell. Manojji finally
affords a secondhand car.
Today a buyer wants to check a resale cottage
in Summer Hills, and Manojji drives him through.
In ten years, he has forgotten the white
bungalow and its lanes. Amidst polite talk, he gazes
at it blaring music. Young voices still screaming,
yelling, and hooting into the old quiet of the hill.
The same smell of aromatic food . . .

11
Nothing has changed about this bungalow in
twenty years. It is only far on the outside that
Manojji’s daughter is graduating through an
international MBA programme.

reunion party—
the taste of rum
on her lips

12
The Behaviour of Rain

S he has cat-wool-balled eyes, a dimple every


time she smiles, gleam of sunlit skin. She has
many suitors.
He pencil-sketches her nape, the side profile of
her delicate ear rather than kissing it.
She breaks a thousand hearts. She chooses him—
hairy, skinny, his eyes growing out like beetles—only
because he writes poetry. He doesn’t thieve it from
ghazal books or famous poets’ mouths. She doesn’t
care about her dimples, eyes, or skin.
She now grows, bulges around her buttocks,
thighs. Years go by. She doesn’t care about her
skin. Those cat-wool-balled eyes fight against her
rising cheeks. Her dimples don’t dig deep.
Now his flesh cocoons his bones. His cheeks
fill out like air inside a balloon. His features gain
life. He is the centre of every room. And he doesn’t
stop. He takes it all in: the fans, followers,
worshippers. He makes the most of the sun.
She is an onlooker now, one of the many without

13
the original poetry, or pencil sketches that can
justify the curve of his nape to him, more than his
fans with their selfies and erotic poetic lines stolen
from the Internet.

stations of the cross—


the ant
drops her grain

14
Lapping Oceans

S uman lost her husband and the space in twenty-


five years of a marriage she had nudged inside her to
fit in a universe of words, imprints, creases,
impressions, and crinkles.
Now she vomits him from the pit of her gut,
responding to sombre condolences.
‘Some nights I wake and see him in the dark,’
she says. ‘I can almost touch him.’
A vacuum swirls inside her. It resonates with
my hollowness. The same echo of pain, its stirring.
Mine was a nine-month-long affair. As much as it
takes to spin a human baby to full form. But its
intensity . . . that was a different matter.

morning sickness . . .
throwing up the Milky Way
to let in stars

We collate Sirish’s last month. ‘The cancer had


disappeared from his lungs, but was found in his head.

15
Cranial radiotherapy and injections through the
spinal canal . . . to try and kill it. That was most
painful,’ says Suman.
Whereas . . . my relationship was a cancer of
misunderstandings, spreading from one thought to the
next, one need to the next, one desire to the next.
No amount of discussions helped.

autumn whirlwind . . .
a child grabs at her
candy floss

Paper Asylum is available on Amazon India.


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