Senses and sensibilities

Poorna Swami | Updated on January 08, 2018

Reel logic: Murali deftly uses the fantasies of cinema as a playground to both excite and indict

Blind ScreensRanjani MuraliPoetryAlmost IslandRs 750

Ranjani Murali’s début collection of poems underlines the realities — clear, hazy and abstruse — that the acts of seeing, feeling and even smelling invoke

“Seeing is believing”, the idiom goes, but Ranjani Murali’s début poetry collection, Blind Screens, runs far from that cliché. Winner of the 2016 Almost Island Manuscript Competition, the book is a journey through different sights, mundane and extraordinary, that unpacks not so much the sights themselves, but the act of seeing. There is no one way to see and, so, there is no one thing to believe.

The book is divided into six sections, each standing at a different vantage point. The first section, ‘See You Then, Cracked Eyes’, begins with poems of observation. Descriptions of nature overgrown between human habitation — an old house, a graveyard — hone in on small visions we might miss. In ‘Bombay Burial’, the speaker directs our attention to the tiniest details of ant colonies:

“… water-tanks brimming

like thick tongues, and their diagonal windows,

speckled with ant-shadows.

Such minuscule sights can be astonishing in Murali’s poems, especially because the speaker remains a distanced presence, offering observations about the world around us almost as facts. The power of the poems rests in how these facts pile upon each other.

In incremental movements, the collection departs from the minuscule to the colossal. To fully see something, Murali’s poems begin to suggest, we must also inhabit it. And to inhabit something, we must look beyond sight. The poems now enter fuller sensory experiences, of smell, touch and sound. Formally, too, they leap in different directions, between mythology and mathematical equations, news and fantasy, ghazals and lines fractured by symbols. Most striking is the breath between Murali’s words — her lines run over, and into each other so that when they finally complete themselves, the punctuation gives us space to ponder the immensity of what we have witnessed.

‘Audio Tour of Alcatraz Prison’ is a brilliant conference of sight and sound. As the speaker wanders the prison, negotiating the enclosed place she walks and the sounds in her headphones that direct her, she pauses, drifts into mediations of other places and moments in time. “Instead I imagine”, she says, “overhead, jets spraying the tricolor”. These outward imaginations culminate in that hankering for flight, for “release:/ from the sound of gulls and the hunger for sky”. In standing witness, whether physically or in our imagination, seeing becomes passage.

Touch, another sense within sight in this collection, pushes the poems into more precarious spaces of lust, violence, and uncomfortable humour. ‘To Kama’ begins with sights not meant for us: “I spied you, scampering/on the full-breasted heroine’s clavicle”. The erotic push and pull between speaker and heroine builds, until that pleasure of touch is cruelly interrupted, for this is a film set — “cut, cut, “Villain-sir come back./ Grab the heroine and run towards the hot-air balloon, yaar.”” That subversion, at once incisive and darkly funny, calls out our perversions, and the falsities of our flight.

The film set and the movie theatre hold the core of this collection. Murali deftly uses the fantasies of cinema as a playground to both excite and indict. In her poems, it isn’t wrong to want pleasure in viewing, to escape into realms far removed from the unpleasantness of the world. At the same time, the movies, which are magnifications of our aspirations, augment also our darkest corners. Like inside a cinema hall, we adjust to seeing better with little light, what lies outside and within.

In ‘A Singing Cancer: Ars Film-Poetica’, Murali calls out the “waylaying of fictions by our own personal fictions”. That blurring vision, she writes:

turn[s] our bodies into a reflection of every instance

of flinching or fraying in the movie-reel, our minds a freeze-frame suspended

between seeing and being seen.

Half-way between voyeur and viewed, our pleasure, then, is complicated. The movies become a metaphor for a larger-than-life pleasure that sits close to pain and morality. ‘Blind Movie-Goer Speaks’ is a humorous analysis that chastises moral policing and yet acknowledges the moral implications of spectatorship. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker clarifies, “the Google search “showering ladies”/ does not offend me”. But the end of the poem is a direct criticism of our misguided readings of the female body: “Unlearn these electricities and you will be freed from the need to measure her femur/ or the height of her hip joints — mere diversions from the grammar of the body”. In the delight of seeing things as we’d like, we are also living in the ramifications of our blind spots.

The biblical character of Lot’s Wife has long been used in literature to describe the admonishment of the voyeur. Lot’s Wife, when told by the angels to flee Sodom without looking back, turns around to look at precisely what she was denied. For this crime, she is turned into a pillar of salt as she watches. Although we, too, are voyeurs, staring at unbecoming sights in Blind Screens, we don’t turn to pillars of salt. We are meant to see what we shouldn’t or what we’d rather not. And what each of us sees will always be different. As the last lines of the collection assure us:

another victory for us voyeurs, living,

as we were, on the edge of our

reflections, our flight.”

Poorna Swami is a writer and dancer based in Bengaluru

Published on October 20, 2017

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