Books

Written on the Body

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree; Aleph; Rs 599; 244 pages
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A master of ‘wet poems’ places the body at the centre of political and social structures 


Architecture of Flesh | Ra Sh (N Ravi Shanker) | Poetrywala | Pages 79 | Rs 225

PERHAPS BECAUSE we are programmed to admire fluidity in everything around us, taking it as a working definition of life, flesh appeals to us more than the mind. The mind, traditionally posited as the antonym of flesh, is a more democratic performer, but it is the flesh in action that brings the claps, whether at the end of a dance recital or in a wrestling bout. It is the performativity of flesh that Ra Sh (N Ravi Shanker) sets out to map in Architecture of Flesh. As someone who ran into Ra Sh’s poems on Facebook from time to time—where his prolificity is on generous display—I had the sense that here’s someone who was trying to create a new idiom with which to break the prolix of discourse around the pleasures of the body. Academia, because of its generic fear of the senses, has a category with which to tame Ra Sh’s poems: it’s called ‘Theory of the Body’, and the presence of the word ‘theory’ is a good illustration of what Ra Sh wants his poems to escape. Architecture of Flesh is his working manifesto to place the body as the centre around which all kinds of living, politics and governance, loving and lusting, education and hospitality, ought to be structured. 

Not the elements, not the geographical directions, not materiality should dictate architecture, that potent category that comes from the title of the book. It is the flesh that should dictate Vastu Shastra, he declares in ‘Two Vaastu Poems’. ‘The lower NS branch where/Two girls were hanged to death/After a genocidal rape?’ This is one of many such violent epiphanies that one comes across while watching over a poet busy and desperate to create an architecture of something that refuses to be still or constant. To attempt an architecture of flesh is not very different from attempting to create or map an architecture of the southern winds for instance, but Ra Sh’s investment, both intellectual and political, is so great in this enterprise that one is, despite one’s beliefs in the contrary, led to being convinced. 

One of the ways in which he does this is to turn colloquial expressions inside out—a ‘serial killer’ is replaced by a ‘serial kisser’ for instance. ‘If on a Rainy Night, a (Serial) Kisser’ is a 22-line poem where the word ‘kissed’ appears in all the lines except the first. It does not take too long to realise that ‘kissed’ is the brick in the architecture of this poem, and its repetition builds walls like a series of bricks do in buildings. The spit and spittle accruing from these 21 kisses become the equivalent of cement. Everything and everyone are kissed, tree and leaf and flip flops and cows and doormen, but what keeps the relay race going are the wet kisses as it were: ‘Kissed the sap... Kissed the puddle... Kissed a woman wet in the rain... Kissed a man wet in her wetness./ Kissed some wet girls giggling in jeans./Kissed a wet yellow lamp post./Kissed a wet metro rail pillar... Kissed her in the puddle... Kissed the world wet in the puddle’ (italics mine). Structured in the likeness of a ‘list poem’, this one is a good introduction to Ra Sh’s politics of the body. 

It is not part of his aesthetics to spell out a definitive curriculum on how an architecture of flesh can be created or achieved, but to the reader of these poems they come floating on the surface. I use that metaphor of water with purpose. Humans, being land animals, have looked to water with caution, with fear, and often with curiosity. It is the water inside us that scares us the most: spit, teardrops, vomit, urine, semen, snot, vaginal lubrication and so on. Our politics of the body—and the state—has been focused on keeping it dry. Only the dried, water-wiped body has been deemed fit for a civilised society. 

Like mist from the lake, we parted. 
Across the waters, the jungle awaited you.
Beneath the skies, a google map awaited me
. (‘Red Star Resort’) 

In Ra Sh’s poems we are grateful to encounter a lively politics of wetness, even if it is of ‘harsh river’ and ‘inhospitable marshlands’, one that challenges conventional notions of ‘dirty’ and ‘sloppy’. Wetness, because of its inherent nature, refuses to recognise boundaries and compartmentalisation and genres and differences. How delicious is the subversion of categories of prettiness when the ‘plump girl’ in Ra Sh’s poem ‘smells of melting fat’, this viscous wetness getting another life after the lovemaking, when she’s ‘glowing like a pool of egg yolk’. It is only fitting then that the collection should end with ‘the oil of love’ and ‘two droplets of milk’. The transition from ‘wet dreams’ to ‘wet poems’ has been successfully made 

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