When the Rivers of the Vedas Flow
By Sudha Rai 
Review of Nadistuti by Lakshmi Kannan. Hardbound Authorspress, 2024. 
Rs 495/- ISBN 978-93-5529-939-0

Poet, novelist, short story writer, translator and critic, Dr. Lakshmi Kannan, stands out with distinction as a major Indian writer in English. Nadistuti, Poems (Authorspress, 2024) and Guilt Trip and Other Stories (Niyogi Books 2023) are her latest publications. Her other books include Sipping the Jasmine Moon, Poems (2019) and The Glass Bead Curtain (Vitasta 2020, 2016). 

In Nadistuti, her fifth volume of poems , developed intertextually, Kannan carries forward ‘Nadistuti,’ the 75th hymn of the 10th Mandala of the Rig Veda, a hymn from ‘Nadistuti Sukta,’ a set of verses recited in praise of the rivers considered important for the geographic construction of the Vedic civilization – Narmade, Sindhu, Kaveri, Godavari, Sarasvati, Gange , and Yamuna. The volume brings home in five sections – ‘Naman,’ ‘Nadistuti,’ ‘Chamundi,’ ‘Mandala’ and ‘Fireside,’ a rare and brilliant assemblage of Kannan’s recent poems, that articulate the symbiotic relationship between riverines and the feminine. 

Covid-19 swept away innumerable human lives. In the section ‘Naman,’ dramatizing “the big scourge,’ Kannan pays homage to departed fellow poets, and others. In “Meditative Mother” the persona comments: “Around her, / the nation screamed for ‘Oxygen!’/ Perhaps for the first time, people realized/they had taken it for granted,/ like a mother’s presence.” In the poignant “Vasundhara’s Last Journey,” the poet’s swivels effortlessly between points of view; the observing consciousness of Vasundhara, as she is taken out “on her last journey,” and simultaneously, third person perspectives recording the empathy of Vasundhara’s neighbourhood. 

The fifteen poems of ‘Nadistuti’, evoke roots of rituals and legends, rendering luminous Ganga’s banks in “Ganga, Her Many Faces, ” and in “ Golden-hued in Godavari,” Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s dance on the banks of the river Godavari.

The parable- like “Said the Ocean,” illustrates Kannan’s self-reflexive irony as the Ocean (representing the Infinite), provokes the River (the persona of the poet), “ But tell me, it seems you write more about rivers?” In the title poem ‘Nadistuti,’ Kannan deftly brings together a middle-class man’s anxiety regarding the stored water resources in buckets available for his bath, juxtaposed with his fervor to invoke the sacred rivers while bathing. His relief and pleasure when the blessed flow of tap water lasts the duration of his bath, illustrates the poet’s humanitarian concern for those less privileged. 

Kannan picks up one of her strongest themes in the third section ‘Chamundi,’, unraveling the intricacies of an existence bounded by patriarchal attitudes, myths and rituals for girls, wives, and mothers. The poet’s unapologetic denunciation of a blatantly privileging social system for the male comes through in “Hemavati”:” Infant girls, birthed by apologetic mothers/ received stoically, a half-hearted welcome. Baby boys ushered celebrations with a feast.” “ Anger Becomes Her,’ lays emphasis on “cathartic anger,” rather than tears. The poem “Snake Woman,” illustrates an elaborately worked out dream semiotics. Kannan narrated (in my public ‘Conversation’ with her on Nadistuti , at Rajasthan International Centre, Jaipur organized by Rajul Bhargava VOICES with UEM, Jaipur, 31/01/24), the impositions on her own mother to conceive a male child, through oppressive and painfully austere rituals of Nagapuje. Kalis and Chamundis subverting masculine control over their minds and bodies must continue to rise.

Ridiculing control over women’s body language, with in-built humour and message, Kannan sends rejoinders to patriarchy through metaphors of swinging and swiveling, in “Swivel Stool.” It is a delight to see the poet’s memorable character, Muniyakka, the rural household help from the village Kokkina Halli, resurfacing in “Muniyakka in Maximum City,” using native Kannada “Kettu pichachi” and “ Olle pichachi” and the exclamatory Hindi “Arre”! Rural India wins “hands-down” here over “bustling Bangaloreans ” with intentional satire directed at cosmopolitanism. 

The fourth section “Mandala” develops themes of time and timelessness, permanence and impermanence, through breathtaking beauty of imagery. “ Kolam” (Tamil for ‘rangoli’ ), focuses on women making street rangolis : “ …white dots of rice powder rain down/like bright stars on the dark earth.” In “Jiva and Isvara,” Kannan visits sensuously, the Upanishadic explanation of the mutuality of Jivatma and Paramatma. 

In ‘Fireside,’ bridging personas and her own self, distilling impressions, examining concepts of individuality and relationship, Kannan expresses deep-felt gratitude in intimate, meditative, autobiographical poems on her family. A special theme in this section, resonates real mothers and mother Kaveri. Three poems address the binding thread between mother and daughter. In “A Dialogue (Amma ) ,” the young Kannan poses questions to her mother Saradambal, a reputed painter in her times. Her mother’s answers demystify artistic creation, leading to the poet’s discovery of her own creativity in writing. In “Lost and Found,” the metallic box containing oddments and treasures (that young Kannan earlier lost), sincerely found and ‘saved’ by Kannan’s mother, addresses the importance of childhood, especially for the gendered girl child. For child brides, as in the case of Kannan’s mother, childhood is a distant dream. In “It Took a Lot of Growing Up,” Kannan posits through hindsight her admiration for her “sorted” mother.