Sati Mookherjee’s grandfather was arrested 17 years before India gained independence and went into exile in the UK. He returned to India in 1939 when England entered World War II. Mookherjee’s debut, Eye, based on her grandfather’s memoirs, is not a traditional collection of poetry, but rather a series of just three poems that give a vivid sense of his experiences during this historic era.
The title of first poem, “Kal”, which is also that of the last poem, is from the Bengali that means, Mookherjee writes in an author’s note, both “yesterday” and “tomorrow”. This first “Kal”, short (much shorter than the other two) and lyrical, and which evidently had been published previously, is set in Bellingham, Washington.
In my childhood home was a globe of the moon,
muddied celadon, with the ancient oceans
just as they look from earth: Serenitiatis. Nubium…
And wonder, then, at how someone reasonable and smart
had marked lines of latitude and longitude—
fixed a lunar Orient, a West.
But it’s at the end of this first “Kal” that Mookherjee alludes to the structure and titles of the other poems and how time in the the poems can look both forward and back.
I learned to read
what that polished globe spinning under my hand
a story of travelers and immigrants.
The second poem, “Dukkho”, which she translates as “sorrow”is a more straightforward tale of Mookherjee’s grandfather’s exile.
In the summer of 1932, the season Varsha, my grandfather wrote,
I rose early one morning. It was still cool. A moon went stale
in the western sky. The courtyard pigeons shifted
in their nests, sleep thinned by the blade of light slipping
down the brick. I think of him there, at a shadow-shot desk, idly
battling the peeling globe with his fingertips
until the revolutions effaced every ocean and continent.
I took a last meal in my sister’s home. A swallow
of milk somersaulted twice in the teacup
and succumbed. He was only twenty-three, convicted
of sedition, conspiracy against the Crown.
Twice imprisoned. Unrepentant.
In exile in England, Mookherjee’s grandfather rents a room in Manchester and thinks back to his childhood in India and the joys of attending school.
His schoolhouse had eight thatch roofs
and no walls, soot-water for ink, scraped
toddy palm leaf for paper …
He stood with the other boys
to sing the counting poem
his father had sung, and his father
before him, reconvening the ordinary world
in parts, from one to one hundred:
A fortnight in two weeks,
Eyes in threes …
He also travels around Europe, visiting the place in Copenhagen where Tycho Brahe studied astronomy, including the moon, a steady presence in Mookherjee’s poetry, that connects him in exile with his homeland in India. Later, as he leaves England, he barely escapes Liverpool as the Germans start bombing.
The third and final poem, the second “Kal”, is told mostly through Mookherjee’s point of view in the United States as she remembers her grandfather and the legacy he left behind. This “Kal” looks at both her grandfather’s yesterday and her tomorrow.
Two years before his death,
I am at the threshold
of the shuttered room where my grandfather sits
within white walls of net.
Cello-taped to the pocked wall
A poster of the Mother Durga
garlanded in hibiscus.
Mookherjee’s writing in this short book clearly shows her grandfather’s longing for home when he’s in exile, as well as the author’s pride in her family’s legacy in India and the UK. Her grandfather passed away over twenty years ago, yet Mookherjee appreciates the legacy he passed down to her.
Totality: the moon blotted out
but for a hennaed ring.
I carry my grandfather’s daughter’s
daughter’s son outside. His gaze drifts
over the cove of sky, but alights
on the moon—I know by the burnished rim of light
showing his eye.