Art & Culture

Epics in miniature

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiJan 22, 2016 | 19:07

Epics in miniature

This month there were only two submissions, both by previous contributors to The Sideways Door. This in itself is interesting because it's possible to see the way one mind responds to different prompts.

Both submissions chose to write not about mythological or grand narratives; instead, their choices of the very personal and the everyday made the central simile a more malleable and living thing. I enjoyed this quality of their responses.


In Goirick Brahmachari's poem "Release", death is the subject:

  • Release
  • Like vultures that eat dead bodies at the tower of silence,
  • My life pricks meaning out of me.
  • Uncertainty, numbness,
  • Inactivity,
  • A smoker's pain grips in,
  • Fading frames, visions
  • Of waking up from a bad dream, of thousand dreams
  • And a thousand waking up,
  • For years and years, inside this earth
  • Cut into pieces, scattered by the banks of a river
  • For vultures to eat each one of them
  • One by one.
  • Like Brahma, who makes love to Saraswati
  • I seek love from those who I call my own.
  • Will I be poisoned or burnt alive
  • For this very line I write above?
  • Rain sets in, comes Fall
  • By January, tall memories evaporate.
  • The hay is then put together and set aflame.

The first stanza has the main epic simile I has asked for, so the following two stanzas puzzle me somewhat; the second one, with Brahma and Saraswati especially seems irrelevant. The last stanza also, though it has a really lovely image at the end of it, is not a part of one epic simile and so dilutes the effect of the entire poem.

The first stanza, however, uses the idea of the epic simile in, what I thought, was an interesting way. Instead of setting out the simile itself, and then elongating it, Brahmachari states the essentially fragmentary nature of both life and death and then compares the two to the process by which a body is picked at and dismembered by vultures. The simile also, is not a single breathless sentence, but - like life and death - fragmentary in nature.


Brahmachari begins with the simile, and in the course of two lines, equates death with life. It is an excellent beginning. The following lines are a disappointment: two lines comprising of three rather inexact adjectives, followed by two ungrammatical and fairly incomprehensible lines. I am also not sure of exactly how the bodies "inside the earth" ties in with the vivid image of vultures having at a body flung from the towers of silence, but I feel there might be something there that could emerge more crisply in a later draft.

It's a poem that has the kernel of something really good, especially because it does not approach the epic simile as an unshakeable edifice, but seeks to dismantle it. It needs work, however.

The second poem by Swayambhu Sudyut, "Thirst", follows the structure of AK Ramanujan's Sangam translations quite closely.

  • Thirst
  • The path, hard
  • The search, long
  •     You grow weary
  •    silently asking
  •     for some form
  •    of appeasement
  •     like in hikes at school, when
  •     you near the top, but
  •         realise that the water can
  •        you were carrying
  •        has ruptured
  •   but still there is
  •   something
  •   that tells you
  •     to go on.

First a word about the formatting, since Sudyut has kept so closely to Ramanujan's structure: it would have been better to separate the enjambments with stanza breaks, for instance, after the second line and the section beginning "You grow weary", through the poem.

I also think that the single thought and sentence (separated by the simile) lies in the first two and the last four lines. The last four lines, therefore, should have aligned under the first two, instead of under "You grow weary".

This may sound like quibbling, but it really isn't; in a poem that relies so utterly on simplicity, the visual impact of the separation of simile is crucial.

The poem itself is a wonderful juxtaposition of the really large idea of search - even a spiritual path that the speaker is on - with the everyday but also (for students) special occasion of a school hike. It's a multiplying effect of the contrast between the excitement and unruly enthusiasm of students setting out on a hike, with the difficulty of ever reaching the insurmountable "top" and the attendant weariness. There's also something of the futility of a Sisyphus (or do I mean Tantalus?) in the leaking water bottle (I'm not sure of the word "can" in this context).

It's quite a sophisticated poem for one that reads so deceptively simply. My minor problems are with the words "appeasement" - which just seems wrong in this context - and water 'can', especially as it is used with "ruptured". And the formatting and line/stanza breaks, of course.

This may have been a month with meagre pickings, but what poems there were, were engaging especially for the way large ideas were wrestled onto a small canvas.

Thank you for your submissions and I look forward to next month's responses. Do look out for The Sideways Door in early February.

Last updated: January 22, 2016 | 19:07
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