Painting the House by Bibhu Padhi. Hyderabad: Orient Longman. 1999. 79 pp.
In Indian English poetry Bibhu Padhi belongs to the second generation of post-Independence poets. Some of his active contemporaries are Meena Alexander, Agha Shahid Ali and Vikram Seth. Writing for the last twenty five years, Padhi has carved a niche for himself in Indian English poetry. He is one of the few Indian poets who lives in India yet publishes heavily in journals abroad. Painting the House is his fourth collection of poems, the earlier three being Going to the Temple, A Line from a Legend and A Wound Elsewhere.
Bibhu Padhi’s poetry comes “more from the heart” and in it lies his distinction among the Indian English poets—”the cry that wakes from sleep” is “different.” And this is how that “cry” which is “louder, less precise” is worked out:
Our voices soften at these times,
as if they had learnt something
from the night—
its slow meditative course over
houses and streets, its pure spontaneity.
This self-reflective, self-introspective poem, “Midnight Consolings” in Painting the House, sums up the quintessential Bibhu Padhi. His voice is soft, his art is meditative, and he is never crafty. It is “pure spontaneity.” But that said, a meticulous treatment of delicate themes is carried out all through Painting the House, and every clause, phrase, and pause diligently dovetail.[private]
Padhi is deft in handling themes which are delicate, abstract, amorphous. He draws heavily on the inner recesses of the mind, where all the uncertainties, conflict, and probable articulations take place. Padhi’s musings on one such theme, absence, almost touch the stretched borders of the imagination, yet they are not without feelings. In answer to his own question, “What slavish belief has kept the nearer things together” another question follows it immediately in a web-like weaving:
The truth of things beyond things
In spite of things, because of things?
Padhi’s way with a poem, mostly, is to start with an indeterminate clause, an incomplete sentence whose intensity is heightened through refrains, which end the poem where it began, thus closing the circle. The poems belonging to this category are “Today”, “The Green Light”, and “Yet Another Year”. In these, and other poems which primarily seek the exploration of the inner workings of the self, the conflict and quiet of the mind is evident, as is the confidence of an artist who knows his art well:
Time has thrown a long, patient wait for things
all about the floor, now irrevocably full
with your children’s mute toys, once-useful
building blocks of hope, minutes interlocked.
And this interlocking of minutes is evinced in the arrangement of poems which almost succeed in right order, as if one has led to the other. The opening of “Crossing Over” is: “There’re quite a few things to be crossed over/so that you may reach the farther shore” and the poem that follows it has the title “The Farther Shore”. In the previous poem, the poet was thinking of crossing over to his dream island and now he has reached that land in “The Farther Shore”: “It takes a long time before/the eye reaches there.”
Further, this interlocking of minutes helps him to relate his own personal world to the world out there, which finds an apt place in “Home”. Padhi’s home is where all strange “voices”, and “hands” are at work. Those “strangers”, and that “someone else” is none other but the doppelganger of the poet himself, whom the poet has not taken much notice of, or rather has chosen to ignore. But the other self keeps coming back to him:
There’re times when we welcome strangers
as relations, as if the blood which flowed
in their veins gently spoke to our
matching blood in whispers.
Yet the town where the poet was born, Cuttack, occupies a large chunk of place in his poetic world. In this collection, those poems which deal at length with Cuttack are “In This City of Merchants”, “Paper Town”, and, of course, the title poem “Painting the House”. In painting his house, the poet tries to paint a world of his own, a private world, sealed off from the outer one, where the “ancient dream is shy to arrive,” yet “hopes of a lifetime” are “buried deep.” This is a world on the threshold, grey, holding the only promise in “the child, now grown into a boy.”
This child figure in Padhi’s poetry is a ploy, a defence mechanism, a viewfinder, and the presence of the child is all-pervasive in this collection. Poems like “Watching on a Summer Afternoon Children Playing”, “Poem for My Son”, and “The Green Light” deal with the world of children, or the children’s view of the world, a world of co-existing opposites, of hopes and miseries: “This green light, which has been/so near our over-protected shadows and sickness/childlike hopes, adult miseries.”
The Cuttack town depicted in this poem is no different from any other town. The poet brings in physical details like “the new Municipal Market, Govind Sahoo’s grocery store” and then a surreal landscape: “The town is filled with wounds/ from burns that a fire of the past/inflicted on it years ago.” This symbolic crumbling of town and house in fact occurs in “Portrait of a Family”, a poem that begins with “The handsome woman who is lying straight on her bed/looking half-dazed half amazed/ at things that once were hers”, and ends with accusation, grievance, self-pity “after you, (the house) broke and crumbled–/in spite of me, in spite of me.”
The poet’s world (whether real or imagined) is so depressing that it only leaves him numb. Inevitably, the poems in Painting the House lead the reader into a somber, brooding world where even much hoped-for rest is denied, and sleep is a “trap”. Yet the poet cannot resist making his best effort, still, to celebrate life:
The small things remain to be touched
in spite of the nightly games
of the mind’s devising;
the celebrations of life aren’t over yet.
One hopes that Bibhu Padhi emerges, with his wedding to the muse over the last twenty-five years of sustained writing, triumphant–like William Golding, whom Padhi has called, “A man of our time, our place.”[/private]