lacerating precision

Shalini Sengupta reviews S. Niroshini’s Darling Girl.

Darling Girl S. Niroshini
Bad Betty Press £6.00

S. Niroshini’s new pamphlet, Darling Girl, published by Bad Betty Press in May this year, is a craft of lacerating precision. The poems begin in medias res – with a kiss at the plantation – and continue like a fever dream that teeters at the edge of desire, violence, beauty and trauma. At the locus of this pamphlet lie the ghosted histories of enslaved bodies in Ceylon, Sri Lanka, who were maligned for their otherness and destroyed for their difference. The poems operate in exhilarating sweeps of emotion, their flightpath exhuming ancestral memory and trauma and holding them in perilous suspension in the contemporary moment. ‘Who cared for the body of a little brown girl in the nineteenth century?’ the poetic speaker asks at the very outset (9). And again: ‘Who cares for the body of a little brown girl in the century in which I live?’ (9)

 

These questions form the centre from which the rich, interlocked concerns of Niroshini’s pamphlet radiate outward. The idyllic opening gives way to a brutal cinematography of death where images of violence – of colonial crossings and brutality – stumble into each other within a lyrical dervish of speaking over and silencing. There is an inevitable return to the need of writing an affirmative history of Ceylon’s past – its history of indenture – and the very impossibility that structures such an act. From the very beginning then, this is a text that is about the anxiety of language and the inheritance of silence. There is a repeated invitation to speech: ‘you asked me to write a poem about the history of indenture’. (9) But the sense of fragmentation that governs the rest of the pamphlet troubles easy access to meaning. To seek this history – the pamphlet seems to remind us – is to know it through dislocation and dissidence; interruption and entanglement.

 

Niroshini’s experimentation with the genre of the bildungsroman allows for a poignant and stratified exploration of such concerns. The pamphlet opens in the territory of girlhood and deconstructs performances of otherness. We find ourselves listening to a motley of voices that are tenderly devastating: a girl who is nine; a girl waiting to die in the mouths of her lovers; a girl who experiences her first puberty ceremony; a girl who has birthed three daughters; and a girl caught in dialogue with the goddess Kālī on the battlefield. The pamphlet brings a granular ethics of attention to these different histories, tracing a flightpath through different cross-hatched landscapes: Ceylon; the submerged waters of the Indian Ocean; an east London park; a rooftop in Colombo; and South India. Niroshini’s pamphlet skilfully holds the reader’s attention through such dizzying – vertiginous –movements across time, space, and generation. Bodies are re-imagined as star, carrion, clay and spirit in this collection of poems: much like the one thousand and eight names of Kālī, they become subversive in their heterogeneity and multiplicity.

 

The pamphlet ends with a poem that dares to imagine a future poised in anger, grace, and freedom. In curving away from norm, the raw and risk-taking voice of Niroshini’s pamphlet stays close to the very ethos of Bad Betty Press. Trenchant politics meets exquisite lyricism in Darling Girl: its various poems deconstruct and abandon the politics of respectability to propose an almost galactic insurrection. This is an urgent work that is – at once – both a revelation and a reckoning.