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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Figure in the carpet: A poet on her dead mother

met the poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria's mother in a poem in the summer of 2014. Until then, she had only flitted in and out of our email correspondence, Chabria's and mine. I was struck by the energy the absent woman brought to Chabria's emails to me, the kind that only a long sadness can bring. Saroja Kamakshi had left this world in the spring of 2013, an event that had left her daughter desolate and distraught, but also in ellipsis. My correspondence with Chabria was new, and it had come from our shared interest in poetry and translation. Even in those early emails, when our words had still not managed to overcome the encumbrance of formality, I could sense a kind of tremulousness, of the kind that attends the vigil of a caregiver. The object of her attention and care had left, but she had not been able to stop herself from attending to the depression in the pillow, the crumpled sheets on the bed that had only lately covered the woman who had brought her into this world.

And then I began to read Chabria's poems dedicated to her mother. In them, too, I had the same feeling of watching someone on vigil. Yes, these poems are ways of keeping vigil on the memory of her mother. In an unpublished poem titled Monsoon Nocturn I, for instance, we find the poet looking for the mother in tropes of light, acutely aware of the impossibility of finding her in the eye:


rows of pearled

windows set in wet twilight


a nimbus of ruby

roses crowns the pewter jar


ma's face silvers

behind rain-hung spider webs

erhaps because the most powerful things are invisible, we hide them: and so the subterranean life of grief. Chabria structures this poem into three layers of visibility: "outside", "inside", "within". There is a lot of water in this poem, but it doesn't swim: "wet" twilight, "nimbus" of ruby, "rain-hung" spider webs. Perhaps that is where tears collect — in light, in stone, in webs, in places where no one besides us can see them or notice them. That is the worst thing about death — this loved person becoming invisible, for the love never changes, not its site, not its intensity, but just the fact of this person becoming lost to the eye.

This thought, of death being punishment for the eye, and later the other senses of course, had marked my reading of a book by one of my favourite writers. That book is Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, his inquiry into the nature of photography, but also his memorable eulogy to his mother, whom he had famously called his "inner law". Reading Chabria's poems about her mother, I was struck again by how Barthes brings together the "presence" of the photographic image with the absent figure of his dead mother. And so the "punctums" in Chabria's poems about her.

In another poem titled Clearing, Chabria writes about "cleaning" a space, clearing memory-laden objects out of the eye's range:

papers this morning I chanced upon

notes made in Lahore  on the Buddha's sculpted

footprints: two feet long, cracked

and wrapped in hushed museum

glow. (The right's in Pakistan, the

left in India, a cross-legged gift

of the Partition.) Sandstone

circa 2 BCE found near the mountains

where the Bamiyan Buddhas blew.

Beholding it I had stilled.

This evening's determined cleaning

spell — done seated in padmasan — bared

my mother's walking shoes:

beige canvas sprinkled

with plastic flowers of gold,

small and dusty in my hands.

Beholden to the pair I stalled.

This cleaning, this clearing, is all a lie to the self — the poem reads like one where the speaker is groping in the dark, for a slipper, for anything that would take the weight of the body and its burden of loss. These memories, these everyday things now turned into precious, even sacred, objects, reminded me immediately of my aunts smearing the feet of my dead grandmother with alta, and then taking her red footprints on paper. Those footprints now hang on the walls of their homes, the last evidence that their mother walked through their lives.

The "Buddha's sculpted footprints" and the "mother's walking shoes" are evidence of the journeys of bodies. But the footprint, that is an abetment to the eye's memory? "Their bodiless footprints stamp my 'vain form of matter'." That one word says it all: "imprinted". The death of a mother is erasure — we, who are alive, their blood, remain as disheartened and discontented trace.

Poems, artwork and philosophy have, for centuries, looked at the significance of the mother's death on the life of an artiste. In Chabria's poems, one becomes aware of that tradition of discourse, but also something else on the nature of death: What if we were to die but not become invisible? Would there be some consolation in that? In a brilliant poem titled Figure, Chabria tweaks Henry James's "figure in the carpet" with this — "What's the figure in the carpet?". And after a catalogue of things that owe their life to light, the sky and the stars, blue and green and the "cast of heaven", Chabria releases the memory of her mother from the prison of the eye. "Is this the figure I tread/towards as ma drifts in the music of dead stars?" Should our loved dead live inside our ears alone?

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