PAPER ASYLUM BY ROCHELLE POTKAR

review by Siddharth Dasgupta

'The tap of the typebar against the ink-fleshed ribbon fills my ears, as does the snapping of the hands of the big clock on the wall,' writes Rochelle Potkar in 'Typewriter’. 'It’s 10:30 a.m. in Davar’s secretarial college on the second floor of an old Victorian building in Flora Fountain, Bombay.'

The same building houses Kitab Khana, a 'teakwood bookshop on the ground floor' – and a veritable Bombay institution to boot. Once needled by her manager that she would always remain a secretary, Potkar relates how she (or the poem’s protagonist, if you will), returns to the same stage, years later, to read out her poetry.

The poem finds its conclusion in a haiku:

sickle moon-
the earth sheared into
cloud continents

Potkar’s new collection of poetry – Paper Asylum (Copper Coin, 2018) – is a celebration of the small and the not so small, where even the soul-grinding monotony of secretarial work has the propensity to be graced with the willing hand of karma. This is the writer’s second book of poetry, after Four Degrees of Separation (Paperwall, 2016). Comprising primarily haibun – the Japanese variation of prose poetry, interspersed or clinched with haiku – the collection dives into the intellectual and physical possibilities of its form.

Much of the haiku on view is strong enough to compel the reader by itself; it’s the narrative juxtaposition with the prose, however, which creates a rhythmic dynamic that both permeates and echoes. At times, the haiku confronts despair and desire in a poem with the lingering remains of hope; at others, it serves as cryptic confirmation of the poem’s central theme.

In ‘Gravity’, the material life, particularly one lived out in a new country, is given the once over. 'We fall from grace with each packet of noodle, ready-to-eat food tray, notification of fruit that has exhausted from the dinner table … We have fallen across the lengths of the pyramid.' As the haiku at the end suggests, this fall stands every chance of being confronted by its own denouement …

sudden thaw …
the melting wings
of snow angels

In 'Thirst’, 'she travels in crammed trains, photocopies her anatomy over other women, and throws up her lunch at a station like a page from a printer, or loose change from a vending machine.' Once at home, safe, disconnected, and clean, she begins to crave the filth – 'the shadow-light mosaic of the chattering world' – all over again.

planets in retrograde …
henna patterns change
her fate lines

Regret rests on many of these pages like drops of water – shimmering, stilled. This isn’t the sort of repentance that begs attention or craves the unending wallow, though. It’s another manner of emotion entirely, the kind that revels in the textures and acts of dissent it brings to a life. Some of the best poems in the book dance the tango with this mien of remorse and sorrow, perhaps knowing well that in the dance lies a chance of redemption, that in the act of acceptance lies the sucker punch of rebellion.     

Take the poem ‘Asylum’, where constriction calls for the imagination to blossom: 'The window frame of my bedroom holds ebbing water, swirling cloud, hovering mist, arriving and departing boats that cruise on the endlessly ebullient grey.' 'She is an onlooker now, one of the many without the original poetry, or pencil sketches that can justify the curve of his nape to him,' broods 'The Behaviour of Rain’. A transient home exerts an unexpected pull in ‘Entombed’: “Free now in this morning mist, I still can’t let go. I am taking this place with me: its taste of black stones, grainy mud, the silhouette of unsymmetrical trees…'

In adherence with the Japanese tradition, nature and human surroundings are afforded an unusually keen eye. 'In the night, the road is long. The sea emulates the sky’s colour, twinkling boat lights and ships that glide on the inky rustle – palanquin of night,' begins ‘Selena’. At the opening of ‘Spice Garden’, 'elaichi grows, pepper explodes, oregano erupts, chilli revolts, coriander spruces, cilantro flowers, and curry leaves fester.' This reviewer is riddled with the strange embrace of familiarity when in ‘Scabbard’ he discovers sentiments and poetry that mirror ones in one of his current pieces of work. The poet muses over how saffron, once an instant entry to memories of spice, 'the taste of words in the mouth' and Greek gods dazzled by nymphs, now elicits mob violence and the carnivorous tendencies of the Nepenthes plant.    

Due to the storytelling nature of haibun, the collection, viewed from a slight distance, reads like a memoir. This is Potkar’s life thus far, sketched out across Bombay’s furtive secrets and crammed locals, crafted through the wit and brevity of characters both real and imagined, gathered on the fickle memories of failed relationships and cherished lovers, brandished via the suffocating ache of lonesomeness and the dipped-in-camphor cadence of physical abuse, infused within the undeniable aromas of a Goan recipe and a Goan frame of mind, hitched to her dreams as a writer and a feminist, wedded flimsily to the follies and fallacies of a nation and a world in flux …

Across the collection, whether bemoaning a land in desperate need of reclaiming its soul or celebrating a love that lingers, if only in quieter spaces, a sense of musicality never deserts Potkar’s words. It refuses to falter even during the few missteps, such as the poems chronicling the poet’s brush with cinema (‘Retake 1’, ‘Retake 2’). 'Autumn whirlwind … a child grabs at her/ candy floss,' she writes in ‘Lapping Oceans.’ And that might well be the single most emblematic motif to this collection … that sense of something fluid, sweet, and necessarily ephemeral.


Siddharth Dasgupta is a Poet & Novelist. His words have appeared in a gamut of global literary journals. As part of his dual life, he also undertakes cultural immersions with the likes of Travel + Leisure and National Geographic Traveller. Find out more about his work here. His short story collection The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows and poetry collection The Wanderlust Conspiracy both published 2017, have been met with critical acclaim. The former has been praised for creating a powerful, meditative exploration of lives as viewed through the prism of 'the other'. You can purchase the book here.

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To purchase Paper Asylum by Rochelle Potkar click here.