The Quiescence of Lexeme: A Book Review by Semeen Ali

Title: Noise Cancellation

Author: Jhilam Chattaraj

Publisher: Hawakal Publishers

Year: 2021

Pages: 98

Price: Rs. 350

ISBN-13: 978-93-91431-12-9

The opening poem of the book is on food. The idea of food in literature has always held an important role especially when it comes to talking about familial relations. In South Asian literature, food takes on multiple meanings including the language in which it is spoken about. The way a particular dish is pronounced brings along with it the historical connotations that come with the idea of food- what it means to an individual and the memories that it evokes. As Aloo Posto opens the book, Jhilam looks at food that also brings with it a particular kind of a noise. The noise from one’s past and the images that a family/familiar environment evokes.

This is what you came home for—

a distilled escape from the tandoors, tarkas,

the measured spoons of corporate dining.

Another poem titled Phuchka takes on the theme of migration and looks at the gritty side of what losing one’s self in a sea of strange faces feels like. Stephen Spender has observed that nostalgia is about remembering as well as forgetting. The mind turns selective in what to retain and what to let go off. Or maybe it never does let go; hiding it in the upper dark corners where it might one day turn to dust or can be dusted and aired. However, there are influences that pervade one’s existence and tend to walk in and out of one’s psyche like a revolving door. One can’t help but remember how the novelist Virginia Woolf in her memoirs wrote about her mother being that “invisible presence” and here, Jhilam in her poems takes articles of clothing of her mother to return to her/remember her. In one of her poems, her mother’s sari turns symbolic for the presence the mother holds in her life. It is a tribute to her mother and weaves in the social, political, and the undercurrents of the dynamics of the varied relationships.

from farmers, weavers and men.

Their curious figurines

melting into a fabric—ripe with moisture

and a million perforations.

While in another poem, on her father’s passing away, Jhilam looks at her mother’s handkerchief to understand the emotions that her mother would be experiencing.

But the book is not just about personal relationships. It extends to look at the relationship people have with a location; with themselves. The struggle that one faces when outside of one’s comfort zone extends to geographical spaces as well; resulting in discovering the multiple layers that a self can carry. Either creating new ones or destroying versions of one’s self in a lifetime.

They do not see my shadow

Shrinking through seven Indian summers.

Then came the sentinels of culture

to write on stunned tongues

of technology, ‘the tribes are alive.’

A triumphant answer to ‘man’s search for man.’

Edward Casey writes on nostalgia— “It is like—indeed in one basic respect it is—omitting site from the world…nostalgia as a valid state of mind all by itself, without attachment to the particularity of place and without specific bodily symptoms.” In the poems that feature in the book, nostalgia turns into this idea of a home where one is in a state of transition. One is not coming back to stay but to depart yet again. The fluidity that it provides to move seamlessly and at times in a jarring manner from one room full of memories into another has been captured poignantly in this book. One does turn into a variety of selves to face the world and as one of T.S Eliot’s famous lines goes— To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet. Jhilam time and again reminds her readers of that preparation that one undergoes every time.

The poetry collection derives its inspiration from not just Eliot, but has traces of Ezra Pound’s imagist style of writing to echoes of Nissim Ezkiel’s poem Night of the Scorpion. One of the poems that stand out is an interesting take on John Donne’s The Flea—giving it a desi flavour and in quite an impressive manner. Echoes of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours reverberate in a few poems making the collection a space where one can discuss not only how a place has been represented but also makes it a discussion on the re-presentation of selves and the constant engagement with divergent histories and one’s place in them.

migraines meditate on brows,

nerves peel, snake-skin, phosphorous woman

dressed in ashes- many heads squeeze into one. 

Identities therefore turn into the various ways in which we are located on an invisible timeline that remains a force to reckon with and how we position ourselves in the narratives that look back at what might have been. The past is not dead—it remains in the background, speaking to us and reminds us repeatedly that looking back is not an easy act. There are layers to a ‘simple’ past which at times one decides to unpeel in the absence of a conscious remembering. From “what we really are to what we have become,” one is reminded of the cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, who looks at the idea of cultural identity and says that one has several imposed selves; artificial in nature, on one’s ‘true self’ which has been buried under these superficial selves. And this is what the collection is all about—a plurality of selves, each of them identifiable and recognizable as one reads this book. This collection reveals how memory is a palimpsest and at the same time an interwoven narrative of varied lives and experiences that brings forth a rich and engaging voice that reads out a love letter to one’s self and for those that come together to create the various selves.


not house, a blue

postcard, the smell of blue

ink, curl of your fingers — warmest


Bio Note of the Reviewer

Semeen Ali is the author of four books of poetry and has edited a few poetry anthologies with national and international publishers. She reviews books for leading Indian journals as well as is the Fiction and Poetry editor at Muse India.  

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