Week 4 Poem of the Week: ‘Panchali’ by Vinith Bhandari
We spoke to Vinith over Zoom about the background to his Indian epic-inspired poem
Panchali goes to the spa on Tuesdays
Her soul rejuvenates and her hope rekindles in there
Or that’s what was advertised to her
As there is no therapy that could help her get over her scars
No memory erasing wand to use that’ll wipe out the trauma she endured
Her husband’s retired and on vacation from one beach to another
She prefers the cold Himalayas instead
Panchali goes to the gym at 6 pm
The women and binary hour
Nothing against men but she prefers to not see any
Actually something against men that she prefers to not see any
She goes in at 6:07 and hastens when the clock strikes 6:58
Some days she prefers not going
To avoid encountering Arjun there
(The only gyms are where her husbands are)
Although she can always cast a spell
She prefers not to.
She keeps her body fit and maintains a good diet
Her body has endured less
Her soul more broken
Her husbands are the poster boys for the gym
Posing in every mirror, every angle
She prefers no mirrors instead
Panchali goes to drama school
They enact her take in vivid details as she assists the director
She listens to the birds sing
As though mocking her epic tale
Well, why shouldn’t they?
There was no space for her perspective
Yet it was all about her
Like this poem and hundreds before
Nothing from her soul, her heart
The gambling and the battles shred her soul
and the storyteller in her too
There’s just plain silence that’s music to her now
Her husbands still play the same roles with the same enthusiasm; she prefers to assistant
direct and at least pretend she has some control over the storyline.
Her husbands play with mazes to reach Heaven
She prefers her home instead (she was born in a fire, red hot and fierce)
After reading his poem, we spoke to Vinith to learn a little bit more about the story behind it.
I was curious first of all to gain an understanding of both the background and context of this poem, which comes as a one of a series that Vinith wrote during the month of April, otherwise known as National Poetry Month in which participants are challenged to write one poem per day for the duration of that month with the help of prompts. The prompt for this poem was to “write about a historical or fictional character, and something unusual that they would do.”
For this, Vinith chose Panchali (otherwise known as Draupadi), a figure who features in the ‘Mahabharata’, one of India’s most well-known epics.
“[Panchali] is a very famous character who has 5 husbands, and essentially her whole life contains a lot of pain and trauma: that’s what I had in the back of my head when I started writing this. This is another style that I was trying to get into: writing about characters about whom you don’t necessarily feel the same way but trying to put yourself in their shoes. So essentially that’s how I got into writing this poem.”
I follow up by remarking on the obvious interspersion of certain routine activities with aspects of divine or magical forces in his poem. Vinith goes on to explain that one common theme throughout the story is that of “injustice” against Panchali, who ends up leading a “pretty mundane” life: for although she was “born out of fire” and “made powerful” through her control of magic, yet she chooses not to “use her powers.
“In Indian mythology you have these women who go through these stages of injustice. It’s a nice commentary – especially in the current age – on how you treat people, or women especially.
“Another interesting take here is that this poem has nothing to do with what happens in the epic. This is something that happens after the epic – that’s what I was trying to get at. Something of a new take I was trying to do myself: something different.”
As for any feminist undercurrents, Vinith says that his poem is rather a “reflection into someone’s life, what they go through and an attempt to put yourself into their shoes. And when someone reads it, they should know that this person existed, that this was how they felt, and that this was how their life went on.”
Indeed, for Vinith, poetry has become a means of trying to gain an insight into other characters and their experiences, even if he did not always write it for this purpose.
“Initially when I started writing poetry it was to stress my emotions, to talk about what I was going through, what was in my head; but now it has become more of a fun activity and also challenging to put yourself in different places. Especially after this year, having come to Cambridge, I started writing more on things which I don’t really feel or express, but which I can think about or feel.
For example, this character and the way their life works are not things that I could feel or really know; but I’m trying to go out of my way and understand that. For me, when I write poetry to perform, it’s usually something that is close to me and I want to express; but generally, with written poetry, I try to go a bit different with the styles and see if I can write that way.”
I also wanted to learn a bit about Vinith’s experiences of poetry-writing and reciting prior to his current course at Cambridge, which turned out to be quite extensive. He explains that during his undergraduate degree he ran a Poetry Circle which obliged him to write poems fairly frequently, and since then he has kept up the tradition, even if writer’s block does interfere from time to time. Upon moving to the UK, he was delighted with the fact that “there are a lot more places where you can perform and showcase your poetry”, citing the Cambridge-based Blackbirds Poetry Society as one space in which he particularly enjoys reciting his poems.
As for his main influences, Vinith names Kahlil Gibran, favouring his distinct way of crafting poetry in the form of “sermons or prophecies”. He notes that this style did have some influence on ‘Pandari’, but at the same time stresses that “for this poem especially, I haven’t really had any particular poet in mind while writing it”, seeing as the focus is very much on the experiences of the poem’s titular character.
Thank you Vinith for your submission and for a great discussion! Don’t forget, there is still time left for you to send in all your amazing poems, old and new, to rmtp[email protected] for the opportunity to be published. We look forward to reading them!
Feature image credits: Keira Quirk