Gloss on a Betel Nut


Cow., Theo van Doesburg, 1918

by Jessica Sequeira

by Kavita A. Jindal,
the wind in the trees, 2019

Fodder: cows and horses eat the stuff, dried hay or straw, but what is it exactly? A beige substance to be consumed and excreted, a material to be burnt, pure fuel. To make others or ourselves fodder in the literary sense is to exercise a kind of cannibalism, to incorporate and process the raw stuff that through the poet will turn to beauty. What is a muse? Fodder. The close observation of a dying friend? Fodder. The confessional poets made fodder of themselves, with consequences to their health. Politics too is often fodder, the sufferings of elsewhere used to intensify the poem. It is impossible, perhaps, to avoid making something fodder, even the act of writing: metafodder. The betel nut is fodder for the patina that covers it, which digests the kernel within to produce the tint, the art.

The idea of “fodder” is at the heart of Kavita Jindal’s intriguing first-person collection. Several of her poems attack the archetype of the muse from the perspective of the would-be muse; Jindal explicitly asks to be given a more active role by those who would stare at or admire her. These poems, some of them records of the surrounding urban detail and others more abstract meditations on contemporary issues of identity politics, arguably do the same. “You are fodder,” she mentally says to the singer of an operatic Schubert performance, and a brief link is made to the way that Nancy Storace was fodder for Mozart’s aria. But if muses are fodder, isn’t using real life material as she does a variation of this? Jindal sometimes hints that it might be so, a compelling idea. An even more explicit engagement with this notion — perhaps even a celebration of it — would make this short collection an even stronger one and perhaps give rise to the material for a full-length book.

Jindal introduces the idea of quick writing, capturing a fleeting moment”: “it was just lying here / the poem, the dream by the window sill,” she writes. Yet the beautiful title piece describes the “patina” of a personal hurt as the varnish created by melted sugar around a betel nut, whose juice hardens to a gleaming dark red finish, “stripping and polishing the core”. This patina suggests a longer process, an aestheticisation of pain which cannot be done in a minute or a day. The polished ease of the lines made me curious about the betel nut within; Jindal’s capacity for hard beauty and pride in her own unsentimentality—“There’s no weeping to show for it”—along with an irreverent playfulness made me want to see her take this tone to its limits, to interrogate her own premises.

The co-founder of The Whole Kahani, a collective of British Asian writers, Jindal is a prolific poet; many of these pieces have been published previously in other collections. Patina is concerned with action over passivity and raises many contemporary social issues, especially the important question of the ways in which women can productively and meaningfully engage in creative work. Jindal seeks to do so without preconceived concepts; she praises movement and seeks to elude definition as a “post-post” person, that is, beyond post-colonialism, post-modernism, post-desi and all the rest, preferring to be a “dancing nataraja of a soul”.

At their best these poems speak in a calm yet ludic voice. My favourites were “My Birth Telegram”, which riffs on both her birth and the birth of poetry (“Kavita” means “poem” in many Indian languages); “Water”, in which her mother describes “The Dry” when this precious liquid was lacking, in a tone reading almost as a dystopia; and “Kabariwala”, in which a scrap paper man informs the author’s family that he is “going foreign” to a land where there is free love and where old things are not re-processed, a lovely metaphor. Jindal shows that she knows how to weave elements of melancholy and subtle critique, and that she has an eye for details, such as in “It was in May. The sky poured”, when despite the author’s sadness the trains run on time, and “Faucet”, written after Arun Kolatkar’s “Woman”, a droll tribute to “the women who knew how”.

In other poems Jindal gallantly takes on the contemporary, with varying degrees of success. Consciously or unconsciously, she often turns to today’s marketing language (“source” as verb, for instance) and near-satirical Victorian English-styled rhymes, traditional poetry crashing into the present. In the poem about “hashtagspeak” she describes her temporary withdrawal from social media after noting that her use of language has been influenced by it. Poems about current topics are everywhere, about racial prejudice, violated women, Nigella and the burkini ban, and Chinese dissidents. These are written with delightfully prancing prose but also come off as slightly didactic. The weakest poems put down slogans about rights and deal in generalities, such as those about “Brett, Boris et al” and Women for Trump. Jindal has a way with words and these are well-crafted poems, but the ones I like best lose the veneer of certainty. Rather than in her stances of praise or condemnation, I prefer Jindal in the contemplative mode.

What does it mean to use news stories, descriptions of unknown women seen from afar and memories of other people as fodder for one’s poems? Jindal’s elegant lines are a patina that surround the fundamental, unanswered question. She tends to be reticent about her own self: “I have wrapped up the hurt / like a betel nut in a betel leaf.” When she is in a “stupor” one morning, for instance, unlike the mood of the “sprint” she admires elsewhere, she sees some women doing their makeup on the Piccadilly Tube, transforming it into a “salon”. It isn’t totally clear whether she wants to be like them or not, whether she desires their “chutzpah” or is slightly judgemental of their self-confident egoism, as the last lines of the poem seem to suggest. Perhaps, and this complicates things in an interesting way, she is torn between these reactions and enjoys admiring their confidence from afar, delighting in surfaces and rejecting the notion of a kernel of the self.


About the Author:

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French.