Insect’s Nests and Other Poems is Aju Mukhopadhyay’s sixth collection of poems in English. The book contains 44 poems divided into three sections: “With Nature Again,” “Already with you, humans” and “looking the other way.”
The title poem, “Insect’s Nest,” has Mukhopadhyay observing a wasp’s nest on the wall at the back of his computer. But, philosophically, he ventures that in time everything, be it humanity, nature or insects, will all be confined to dust:
Ain’t all the great constructions
like insect’s nest
brittle and fragile
sure to go
today or tomorrow
measured by time?
Why bother about any mark made by lime?
The lengthy poem, “The Profiles of Birds,” is both literal and figurative, as the poet observes the golden orioles in his garden. He readies his camera to capture the beauty of the birds, but only succeeds in catching their shadows and feels perhaps it was wrong to try and imprison their images. This first section then sees nature through the eyes, heart and mind of the poet. In “Sky and Rain,” after months of drought, there is a storm, which “continued to rain / without refrain,” but during its intermission, the poet “looks with wide eyes / what the men and their wives / are doing below.” “The Tree” details the growth and production of a variety of trees: saguaro, deodar, redwood and bamboo, among others. Mukhopadhyay tells us about the nature of trees which provide us with an abundance of gifts:
Beside flowers, roots, fruits, leaves, woods, seeds and shade
They give juice, oil and bread, their bodies to insects when dead.
Epitome of silence, patience and perseverance
Trees are essential to others for their existence
So receptive to human love and touch
Trees are love and beauty incarnate without any grudge.
The second section, “Already with you, humans,” reveals the rewards of the structuring device used in these sections, most clearly. “Passing by the hillock of garbage / he lifts the handkerchief mechanically / to his nose” (“Kolkata: A Still-Image”), which
features a man strolling through the city, “Walking until he halts before the “fragrance of flowers.” “Hunger and Thirst” brings together “the basic urge of life.” As the poet says,
It is futile to talk about peace
until the fire of hunger we extinguish
in every human being
if not in every living thing.
“The Advasi” (a six-page poem) is concerned with “The adventurers from Europe”: Columbus, Cortes, Cook and others. It details over its length the ways in which the colonizers converted, brainwashed and exploited native peoples. He surmises that nothing has changed over the centuries:
Nothing has stopped, nothing goes unhindered
Old world of exploitation marches on –
Extracting wealth from the bowl of earth, sea
And sky for prosperity, industry;
The old incorrigible, superstitious
In “What Peace is Like,” peace is compared with natural phenomenon: “the early rays of the Sun,” “the rising full moon,” “the deep silence of the wood,” and the “concurrent rain.” Most of all:
Peace is love, Peace is smile
Let the true Peace spread
Let this not be fragile.
The third section, “Looking the other way,” contains lyrical meditations. Mukhopadhyay has the ability to grapple the great subjects with a melancholy that belongs to us all, with a deceptive simplicity that sounds as if it is coming from his wisest self. In this section, his subjects are our subjects: retirement, the passage of time, the formless Being, the revolution and transformation of humanity, the changes in circumstances that concern us all, and our temporary sojourn on earth. Many of his constructs are colloquial, yet philosophical narratives. In “The Channels of Life,” he ponders what it means when “this flow of life” slackens. It is only by peace and harmony, the utilizing of our powers and resources that we can find satisfaction in our lives:
There is regret, there is remorse
pull and push
but if you agree
in sweet harmony
to initiate the drive
towards the height, the infinity
life becomes secured
utilizing its resource.
“The Being” considers the overwhelming Being who is “beyond all cognition.” It is a whimsical wondering. The thought of such a Being, overwhelms us as we cannot recognize its power. But the poem concludes with the poet staring into the everyday, where he may be about to reach the Being and find solace:
Such a Being
beyond all cognition
will fulfil me beyond all definition
if by chance I reach it
completing a full circuit.
Mukhopadhyay seldom makes moral judgments. In his plain statements, he keeps his mind focused on the issues and makes his language accessible to everyone. He knows the trick of pulling the mysterious out of the everyday. He does it just by looking at things long enough with the attention available to us all. His musings ponder everything. Here is the poet talking about himself and saying that no-one is self-sufficient – we are all part of the same universe and rely on each other, nature and resources for our wellbeing:
The body I was born with, the cover
The one I am living in, the shelter
Not the same it seems yet it is the same
Excitement, happiness and bereavements
All the relationship in between us,
Earthly creatures, are inevitable links
It is Mukhopadhyay’s lack of moral judgment on his subjects, his taking a stand one way or the other on the important issues of life that adds to the refreshing quality of his work. A great example for how this presides in his poems is the book’s closing verse, “Tenant,” in which the poet imagines the dilemma of not being aware of our neighbours and what happens to them.
Only sparrows, crows and mynas
the housewife and her daughter
who used to spread
on the balustrade
curried rice and crumbs of bread
left over anything
The conclusion of the poem is perhaps the perfect summing up of exactly what it is that works in Insect’s Nest, and has worked in Mukhopadhyay’s best poetic meditations in previous volumes,
Ain’t all of us tenant
living in whatever tenement
changing it like our raiment
Ain’t everything on earth
based on temporary arrangement?
Thus, the poet returns us to the title poem, dedicated to the wasp’s industry and its determination to hold onto life no matter what stands in its way.
It is as though Mukhopadhyay’s persona, the poet revealed behind the curtain is you or I. Or maybe an apparition that forces us to observe, to learn and to capture the spirituality of the natural world in which we live.