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Review: Snowflakes of Time by Kanwal Sibal

By October 1, 2018No Comments

Source : Hindustan Times  –  Maharajakrishna Rasgotra

Kanwal Sibal’s powerful poetry is marked by amplitude of imagination and a thoroughly Indian sensibility

The publication of former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal’s book of poems Snowflakes of Time is a landmark occasion for lovers of poetry in the English language written by Indians. Sibal’s poems are marked by extraordinary power and amplitude of imagination and a thoroughly Indian sensibility. In thought and emotion, idiom and imagery, and in other embellishments that enrich a poem, Sibal’s lyrics are an important, authentic Indian contribution to English poetry.

“If poetry, wrote Keats, “comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”: There is an echo of this in Sibal’s own theory of poetry. In the Preface to his book he writes: “An inspirational mood suddenly creates the urge to write. Why and how such a mood is generated cannot be explained. When the mood is on, words, thoughts and images flow with ease”. He is also of the view that a poem should speak to the reader without undue complexity. His poems faithfully follow that prescription; spontaneity and clarity are their hall-mark. Sometimes poetic excess in a phrase or metaphor, or even in a whole poem, will cause surprise to the reader but the resultant curiosity in him about the poet himself helps establish a rapport between them and enhances the former’s understanding of the poetry without testing too much his patience or academic competence.

Snowflakes of Time, also the title of the first poem in the volume, symbolises memories. Both are ephemeral and fragile to the touch; melting snowflakes leave moist hands, vanishing memories leave behind moist sentiment and “pangs of nostalgic discontent”. Time, past and present, runs through the book as a shadow theme. The following stanza from the first poem sets the tone for several of Sibal’s reflections on Time and Memories:

To denuded branches of time, 
The flitting flakes were clinging fast,
He was an actor past his prime
A spectator of his own past.

From skies within him undefined
Fall moments gone in layers congealed,

Crystals like particles of mind

Through passing seasons lie concealed.

(The unnamed ‘He’ in this and other lyrics is the poet himself: It could be any sensitive human being also.)

The metaphors are notable; ‘denuded branches of time’ invests impalpable Time with the solidity of a tree branch. In congealed moments falling from the ‘skies within him’ and ‘particles of mind’ are, I think, unconscious reflections of scattered Vedantic thoughts on both the permanent and transitory aspects of existence. I shall revert to this aspect later in another context.

For its striking phrase and metaphor another short lyric titled Awakening Memories is even more impressive in its imagery. In the following ten lines from that poem Sibal brings Memories to life:

“Memories wake up and rub their eyes
Stretching their limbs long in repose,
From their deep bed of time they rise
And on its edge they themselves pose
With hand on chin they stare ahead,
Should they get up or linger more?

The thoughts are fluid in their head
As they put their feet on the floor.

They get up ready for the day,

Brisk shower of the present take

And dressed up in clothes of today,

Walk through the door of the awake.

Here is a scene from a silent movie that a painter could not paint. There is a wealth of such pictures in the book. The originality, picturesqueness and surprising metaphors are the striking qualities of Sibal’s poetry. In another poem, titled Death of Winter, written in Moscow, image follows image in breathless rush ending with a startling portrayal of a familiar event in India:

Pierced by the shafts of the sun’s rays,
The snow began to weep;

Drops of tears fell from its countless crystal eyes

And icicles of agony like teeth of reptiles

Bared by the grimace of throes of death appeared.

Winter in its white shroud was being slowly cremated

With the heat from the blazing sun.

The book is divided in seven main sections of which the first five titled Moscow, Memories, Reflections, Nature’s Bond, Dilemmas – contain lyrics which will charm the reader with their rhyme and rhythm, similes and metaphors and also intrigue him by the poet’s complex and intricate treatment of themes of homely familiarity such as car ride, crow, tree, road, rain and wall.

Sibal’s Nature poems are a blend of idea and emotion, dream and delusion in which man becomes Nature and Nature man. In the poem titled “Swimming in Pools of Light”, he writes: “I distilled the redness from the evening skies/ And with a mental syringe / injected it into my blood; I rolled the sunlight into a tiny pill/ and swallowed it.” Then, after a few harmless exertions he concludes: I swam thousands of miles around the corners of the room,/ And stretched upon the turf, / I felt the greenest grass grow from the million pores of my body.

This mingling of Man and Nature, with each regenerating and renewing the other… Is this dream or delusion? It is a matter of common observation that poets do sometime slip into delusion. But dream or delusion, the result is still poetry. In another poem he says, “He always felt one with the sky” which, sometimes, he also sees in his mind. He proclaims that “the birds ecstatic in branches” are him. In another leap of the imagination he sees not only Nature but the entire universe in him – “The atoms of his smallest cell / The solar system replicate”!

In these and other such expressions, of which there are many, there are philosophic insights and intended or unconscious echoes of Vedantic thought. The Mahanarayana Upanishad, for example, asserts in Verse 7, section 13, that Man’s heart is the great abode of the Universe. Poetry and philosophy are akin, one to the other, and as Aristotle, the first to lay down the rules for critical appreciation of poetry, authoritatively says, poetry is the most philosophic of writing.

Two poems, filled uncharacteristically with much romantic longing and the poet’s regret at the missed opportunities of fulfilment moved me deeply. ‘The Wall’ tells the story of a chance the poet let go of a paradise of beauty and love which he saw by entering through a door, which seemed shut for ever but was opened just this once, perhaps by an inmate’s design, for his benefit. Having seen the vision, he withdrew from it for fear that the door behind him might get shut, cutting him off from the familiar everyday life. The guilt of committing trespass on what was not his because of “temptations that rose in his mind” also troubled him. He now asks: How he should make one more ingress,/ even when he knows he can’t possess / the beauty that the wall surrounds. Alas, neither love nor fate offer again the chance once spurned.

The other poem – ‘No Road Ahead’ – is about the regret and agony of a parting. The poet and an unnamed companion are walking on a road hand-in-hand, in increasing intimacy, toward a desired destination, but the road comes to “a sudden end on water’s edge that lay ahead”. The only boat to cross the water has just one place, which is taken by the poet’s companion. The poet feels has to let go the hand he had been holding. In sadness he watches the growing distance between them “not knowing what more he could do”.

The best answer lies in the two concluding lines of a poem by C. Day Lewis titled Walking Away on a parting which was gnawing at his mind:

Selfhood begins with a walking away
And love is proved in the letting go.

There is a sixth major section in the book titled Humour in which, Sibal says, his writing moved from sensibility and softness to satire. In these verses he takes digs at the flaws and foibles of Indian politics and politicians, exposes the hollowness and hypocrisy of current issues of international politics such as multipolarity. About India’s negotiating style, he quips: “It is our great diplomatic feat / to see some success in defeat”:

He makes fun of the two-nation theory:

The robust Muslim faith allows,
Eating of Hindu’s holy cows;
Women are an inferior race,
In Islam must hide limb and face
While Hindu girls like slender skiffs 

Sail smoothly with exposed midriffs

The so-called progeny of Khans

Bred mostly on kebabs and nans

Feels so different from all those, who

Can with some vegetables do.

The Indian Parliament’s washed out sessions cause him much concern. “The country will begin to rue”, he says, “The state of our democracy / With Parliament being made into / A playground of hypocrisy”.

These, so called satires, are fun reading and I myself found enjoyment in them. But they do not have the hate, bite and sting of satire; they are more like epistolary admonitions to folly and wrong doing. Sibal will probably write some more in this genre of versification, but Lyric is his true gift from the Muse and in lyric lies his strength as a poet and the high worth of his book.

Maharajakrishna Rasgotra is a former Foreign Secretary and a well known Hindi poet.



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