Word Among Poets by R. K. Biswas

I could have moved instantly had I wanted to. I’m a verb after all. But I preferred to wait for the right moment. Having been inert for so long, I wanted to savour it. I mean really savour it.


Someone had dropped me during a meeting. Thereafter, unnoticed, I slipped and slid around the table in the centre of the grey conference room, until I finally found a crack in the wood. I remained there, half buried by a sticky blanket of grey-black erased words, each wrapped tightly in its casing of rubber. I was comfortable and relaxed; for once watching things unfold around me instead of being in the thick of it. The room was housed in a squat grey building full of books, magazines, and soft piped music. Bulletins about cultural activities and cultural happenings in the city were tacked on felt covered notice boards. Everything about the room was grey; the walls were grey, the table was grey, the chairs were tubular steel with grey foam seats; even the floor was a greasy grey colour. A glossy calendar with a blood red arty print on it was the only bright thing in the room. But it was so arty that it failed to make things cheery.


It is a funny thing. I must have been in that room dozens of times before my involuntary and sudden imprisonment within the table, but I had never bothered to look around properly. I had never truly seen the room and its inhabitants. I had never inhaled its atmosphere. Now that I was bundled up in the crack, I began to observe the people for the first time, closely. Perhaps that is why I was able to understand her better from that day onwards, and feel the kind of empathy for her that the others in the grey room would never have.


The woman I am referring to is She-poetShe was one among the two-dozen odd poets that gathered in the grey room every fortnight to read the poetry they had written according to a theme chosen the previous meeting. They assembled here on the dot of six in the evening, which was close to dinner time for some of them; I watched them squirm when their stomachs grumbled, and cough to make up for the sound. Everyone else ignored these un-poetic sounds, and continued with the reading, discussing the merits and demerits of the poems, in soft cultured voices, careful not to irk one another; at least not too much. They reminded me of student ballet dancers doing pirouettes in front of a distinguished surprise-visitor at school.

Each poet brought a sheaf of papers bearing poems. These were distributed to the members present, and extras put away on one side of the table for latecomers. Some were habitually late; like She-poet. She was late not because she was tardy by nature, but because she hated the city. The language was strange to her, even though they were all from the same country. The locals treated her as if she were an unwanted foreigner. You could tell by the way she blundered in that she had not come out of her house until it was nearly time for the poetry reading to begin. She was relatively, but only relatively, new to the city. She had lived in a cleaner, quieter place before, another country. She was used to wide expanses of greenery between her and other people. Some water had flowed under the bridge since, so now the ‘being used to’ bit was more of a mind thing than what being used to really meant. Nevertheless, She-poet remained faithfully wistful about the long walks she used to take in bowery gardens running parallel to the sea. She missed the soft-boiled eggs and warm Kaya toast that she used to eat for breakfast at the café in the park in her clean city state by the sea. She had spent many years there and after her return, felt overwhelmed by the blatant consumerism that had mushroomed all over her homeland. The country was now dirtier and more chaotic. She could not bear the sloppiness, the lack of civic sense in her fellow countrymen. It seemed to her that while they were fast losing their ancient culture, the newfound wealth had taught them nothing good; if anything, the sudden money was making them all behave worse than ever. She-poet found it difficult to come to terms with people who were less impressed by foreign things, and had travelled to more places on earth than she without ever having been an expatriate. She was dismayed too, by the poverty on the pavements outside glittering hotels and malls, festering like the weeping sores of lepers. She-poet had many complaints. And, though she took care not to voice them openly, her secret privations remained unresolved.


‘I remember a land that was poor but genteel,’ she once told the poets, after they had reacted blandly to one of her sugary patriotic poems.


A Professor of English, sporting a French cut beard and a thick provincial accent, held up the paper, which contained her poem. ‘So according to you that is the patrimony we deserve after being colonized?’ he said coldly.


Before She-poet could think of a suitable retort, another member giggled and said that perhaps she was disappointed because they had progressed so much during the years she had lived abroad. There was a smirking silence as She-poet struggled to reply; the words were half formed inside her head, but her tongue was too slow to lob them. A silver-haired lady with spectacles so thick that they looked like glass blinkers, and who was the convener of these meetings, looked owlish for two or three seconds before reciting an absentee member’s poem loudly. She-poet had lost her chance. She fumed inwardly for the rest of the session. Another time, a different professor-poet who, despite being a doctorate in English and the principal of a suburban college could barely write grammatically correct English, annoyed her so much that she stayed away for many sessions afterwards. He called himself a poet, wrote poetry and got it published. It was another matter that the books were shabbily printed by an obscure vanity press; some gossiped that it was his own publishing house, set up to make money from desperate poets. Barely-literate-professor-poet enjoyed bashing the erstwhile colonizers in his poetry and lectures. Nothing the ex-rulers did was good. But he had taken pains to get his degrees in English literature, albeit from questionable institutes, and had got his first job as a lecturer of English through much palm greasing and bum kissing. He was ingratiatingly nice to the other academics in the group. He seemed desperate to cling to a group of poets writing in English. The others knew that he had succeeded over the years because of his ability to hobnob with people with political clout, those who could fund and sanction arts grants and awards.


I watched Barely-literate-professor-poet glancing at She-poet every now and then. He took note of her smart western clothes and brisk English. The glazed look in his eyes, which he took care to keep down, hidden from all except me, told me that he found her glamorous. Perhaps he even had secret fantasies about her.  Once he invited She-poet to his college function, but she politely declined. Barely-literate-professor-poet avenged himself by writing a poem where he called members of her community sex-maniacs and sycophants of the British. He read the poem out at a meeting. She-poet could not follow the words of his poem properly because of his thin sleety voice and poor English diction. By the time the poem and its meaning sank in, it was too late; everybody had hurriedly moved on to other poems. The poets of the grey room considered confrontations to be singularly un-poetic, so they took advantage of her lack of comprehension. It angered She-poet that they’d rather keep quiet when she had been insulted, instead of rising to her defence. She assumed, not incorrectly, that because she was different from them, they would not stand up for her. She-poet stayed away for a long time. Finally Owl-poet succeeded in cajoling her to return. Numbers though un-poetic, were needed at poetry meets.


There were some students among the poets as well, mostly young men who considered themselves to be erudite. They attended the poetry sessions haphazardly. They forgot to bring the right poems, and sometimes they ignored the theme completely. They insisted on reading out their poems twice. They demanded feedback and argued fiercely. Everybody else tolerated them because nothing in art is lively or lovely without the exuberance of young blood. Their most vociferous supporter was an old man with a head like a polished mahogany doorknob. His doorknob head sat loosely on his neck and nodded all the time like a wooden doll with a spring neck. Doorknob-head-poet wrote long tapering poems with sprigs of elegant words buttonholed between lines. But perhaps due to his hushed confidential voice, everybody nodded off when he read. Afterwards, they all took care to praise the elegance of his poems whether they remembered them or not.


Every now and then a young woman with dirty teeth and sweat-stained armpits, working as an executive somewhere, walked in to attend. Executive-poet, despite her tackiness and lack of hygiene, had a management degree, was self-assured and knew exactly what she wanted in life, and how to go about getting it. And, when she made a catty remark no one heard her except the person it was meant for.


She-poet, who used to wear cycling shorts to the park and formal flat front trousers with collared shirts during client meetings for her freelance writing assignments when she lived in her hip city state by the sea, once sashayed in wearing a long slit skirt. Here, she usually wore longish tops over full-length trousers. That day however, she had tried to be her ‘old’ self. Executive-poet saw her and murmured in a silvery voice that she would never have worn such an outfit. She-poet pretended not to hear her at first, in keeping with her sophisticated expatriate image. A little later it occurred to her that she could have easily said, ‘Oh, but you shouldn’t. You wouldn’t be able to carry it off at all,’ in response. But this cutting rejoinder sprouted in her head a few seconds too late. So she avenged herself by observing on the side to Owl-poet that Executive-poet stank and lacked class, and that her English had a provincial accent, however faint. Owl-poet continued with the poetry meeting as if she had heard nothing un-poetic.


Later on Owl-poet observed to She-poet that the younger generation nowadays was ‘successful but uncouth and self serving’. After that she confided to Executive-poet that She-poet took things too personally. ‘Don’t bother her too much, she is like that only!’ said Owl-poet.


Executive-poet believed that she resembled the women in a famous artist’s paintings. She had once mentioned it to She-poet who smirked before turning away. Executive-poet told the gathered poets that she could not attend the meetings regularly, because being higher up in the corporate ladder meant that she had very little time. In truth, she did not think much of the group. I often caught her looking disdainful for exactly half a second, when a poem was read out. She wrote richly flavoured poems herself, and had been published in two or three prestigious publications. Nevertheless Executive-poet liked to keep at least a tip of one of her fingers in all things related to literature, as she was an aspiring novelist, and you never knew when a person could turn out to be useful, even She-poet. Besides, it provided a good excuse to get away early from work, every once in a while.

My motley group of poets also included a few housewives and retired government servants. The Housewife-poets had more time to spare now that their children had grown up and husbands retired. The Retired-government-servant-poets had nothing but time on their hands. This group of people formed the backbone of the poetry meetings in the grey room. They wrote with care. Sometimes they wrote with too much care, scratching out each printed or photocopied word diligently before filling up the blank space above the scratched out word with another in neat handwriting. They heeded all the comments and made pencil marks on the margins. They offered carefully phrased opinions about poems.


Everybody loved them. But not all among the housewives and retiree poets were innocent. One of them, a housewife-poet who hardly said a word and always jotted down the comments, knew a retired judge who used his position to become the president of a cash-rich international poetry association, which held conferences all around the world. Once this association had held a conference in a posh hotel in the city, but Quiet-as-a mouse-housewife-poet, who was invited, kept the news to herself. The poets of the grey room learned about it when they saw the pictures in the newspapers, and talked about it behind her back.


Despite these hiccups and sly acts of dissonance, the meetings went on. Not everybody was poetic all the time, and not everybody was able to attend all the time, but Owl-poet remained committed. The meetings gave her poetry, which she genuinely loved, as well as the opportunity to gossip with poetic élan.


The poets were oblivious of my presence. Even when I made their lines ripple with energy. This should have annoyed me, I know. But verbs have no ego. We do not take revenge on our users by becoming suddenly passive unless of course we are made to, against our will, let me hasten to add. I am quite capable of turning into a wallflower when there is an adverb overload. Actually ‘wallflower’ is a mild word. In order to truly understand how I feel, you have to imagine being Gulliver, lying helpless and inert on the sand, but with his entire faculties alert, every strand of hair and every skin fold tied to the ground.


We verbs also have our staunch defenders among poets, contrary to popular belief. She-poet and Executive-poet were verb defenders. Door-knob-head-poet, Professor-French-cut-poet and some poets from the housewives and retirees group also looked after us, me, well. The worst offenders were the students. One of them even had a book of poems published, which did not sell a single copy. Some of the poets whispered that his father, who had paid for the poetry publication, also knew a number of big shots in the media. His poem books were neatly tucked into the shelves of a number of libraries in the city. He was also invited to book events and book celebrations. He was thoroughly disliked by many in the grey room. He knew it, and displayed his nonchalance by growing a beard like a spot no bigger than a thumbnail on his chin.


The spot of beard on his chin was a source of irritation to almost all the senior members. It looked like a big and hairy mole in the shape of a triangle; the grey room poets considered it a vulgar mole. The gentlemen were constantly distracted by it. The ladies ignored it as best as they could. She-poet secretly itched to run her razor over his ‘chinny-chin-chin’. She also wanted to slap Chinny-chin-chin-poet, holding his neck with one hand while her other hand went phlath phlath, phlath over his smooth cheeks. She had visualised it many times. In my opinion that would have been strong active action!  As a verb, I cannot but applaud even the thought of such an action.


One unprepossessing summer day, She-poet took her usual taxi, hating the city’s smoky air that constantly shoved itself into her cab. Like before, she started out at the very last minute. There was a political rally that day, so the traffic had coagulated at every road junction. She-poet cursed the city. She chipped a polished fingernail on the door of the cab when she got out in front out of the grey building. A bit of gravel came unstuck from the gravelled path to the grey room and attached itself to the underside of the toes in her left foot. She-poet cursed herself for wearing open-toed sandals instead of her usual clean-feet-preserving pumps. The receptionist at the lobby was new, and failed to recognise She-poet. So she had to wait while the other looked up her particulars in the registration book. By the time She-poet entered the grey room all the poems had been read and discussed. Everybody was in the relaxed mood that comes with knowing that soon they would be home again eating dinner and watching television with their families. They were discussing the theme for the next meeting, when She-poet burst in.


‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I had to wait at the…’


‘Oh. But we didn’t,’ said one of the students. Everybody tittered politely.


‘Sit down,’ said Owl-poet. ‘At least you came.’


‘We were discussing the theme for our next meeting,’ said Professor-French-cut-poet.


‘How about ‘tardiness’ or just ‘tardy’,’ said Chinny-chin-chin-poet?


‘The dear belated but not departed?’ suggested Executive-poet softly. More titters followed this suggestion along with a slight tremor of nervousness. Some of the members smiled at She-poet kindly, and then watched her clench and unclench her jaw with growing alarm.


‘Actually,’ said a Retired-government-servant-poet, clearing his throat. ‘Actually, I was thinking about word itself as a theme. You know word, wordiness, wordish, even as a verb, worded, wording, see?’


‘That’s an interesting idea,’ said Door-knob-head-poet, smiling encouragingly.


They thought about the new theme, and the room relaxed in the pondering silence. But She-poet was still bristling with the taunt. She shuffled through her papers as if looking for something. She put the papers away and opened her handbag. She took out another paper from it and a smile grew on her face, plumping up her cheeks.


‘I think that’s a splendid idea,’ she said. ‘Word as a theme is perfect.’


‘Really?’ said Chinny-chin-chin-poet with an eye-brow cocked at her. ‘Why do you say that?’


‘You have a poem done on the theme, already. Right?’ said Executive-poet slyly.


‘Yes. I do!’ cried She-poet triumphantly. ‘Call it providence. And know what?’ she said turning first towards Barely-literate-professor-poet, and then towards Chinny-chin-chin-poet. ‘You two were my inspiration.’


Barely-literate-professor-poet immediately looked wary. He kept his head down to avoid any confrontation.


‘I’m flattered,’ said Chinny-chin-chin-poet.


‘Don’t be. Wait till you hear it.’


Owl-poet started to protest that she would have to wait for the next meeting, but She-poet ignored her. She began to read the poem aloud in her ringing elocution voice:
Sit still
For an instant.
Be quiet  
And hold
Your stomach in.
Imagine a fart
Like poetic wind.
Into an enduring
With such cutting-air clarity
That it rises sharply
And impales
The following
That explodes
In its turn
Now Imagine a poem
Like a fart.’


After what seemed to be an interminable moment, Owl-poet said that she thought the poem was humorous. The retired-government-servant-poets looked baffled. The housewife-poets giggled softly. Barely-literate-professor-poet shifted in his seat. Professor-French-cut-poet stroked his chin. A few poets snickered. Chinny-chin-chin-poet left his chair and walked up to She-poet. He slapped her on the back playfully.


‘Wowzie! You rock man!’


‘But you don’t! Buffoon!’


Right then and there She-poet slapped Chinny-chin-chin-poet back. Hard. On his cheek, close to the vulgar triangle. Her slap carried with it the weight of her anger, not just against Chinny-chin-chin-poet and Barely-literate-professor-poet, but also against the rest of them, the city, her chipped fingernail, the gravel beneath her toes and her diminished expatriate status.... The hurricane of her fury whirled around the room, ruffling Executive-poet’s carefully coiled hair among other things. Owl-poet's lips formed a perfect ‘O.’ The housewife-poets had their hands clasped to their mouths. Professor-French-cut-poet had already risen from his chair as if to barricade the storm with his broad body. But the retired-government-servant-poets remained sitting as if they were made of stone. Chinny-chin-chin-poet spluttered, looked shocked, and made an aggressive move towards She-poet. But Professor-French-cut-poet quickly caught him. Unspoken things whooped and whistled around the room. And then, there was deathly silence.


I thought the silence in the grey room would never end, but it did. Finally and calamitously, just after She-poet made her exit. And I had rightly sensed that this time her exit was for good. If people noticed how her cheeks flamed, red like a pair of tomatoes, and then turned pale again, they ignored it, preferring instead to surround Chinny-chin-chin-poet. I looked around and decided that right or wrong, She-poet was sure to be a more interesting host. So I jumped, straight on to her squared shoulders as soon as she opened the door. It closed behind her with the judder of stressed out glass. And that, I knew was the herald for a new season. Just for the two of us.



R. K. Biswas is the author of Culling Mynahs and Crows, Lifi Publications, New Delhi, 2014. Two of her short story collections will also be published in 2014/15. Her short fiction and poetry have been widely published. Notably in Per Contra, Eclectica, The Paumanok Review, Markings, Etchings, Mascara Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Nth Position, Crannog, Mobius, to name a few. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writers' Retreat Short Story Competition, Ireland. In 2006 her poem, Cleavage was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize and was also a finalist in the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Arts Contest. Her poem, Bones was nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as for the Best of the Net by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. Her story Ahalya's Valhalla was among Story South's Million Writer's Notable Stories of 2007. She blogs at Writers & Writerisms.