ONMANORAMA | Wheelchair-bound for 20 years, this Keralite writes ‘autobiography in poetry’

Soni Somarajan’s debut poetry collection ‘First Contact’ is quintessentially a memoir in verse, a genre not many dare to attempt.

For Somarajan, 47, who has been suffering from a progressive neuromuscular disorder for the past 30 years, poetry is more or less a means of travel; the wheels that ride him back and forth between the past and present, and sometimes to the future.

No wonder, when he convinced himself that it was time for an anthology after writing for over three decades, Somarajan wanted to build a solid literary structure, memory by memory.

Hence ‘First Contact’ took shape as a perfect book of poetry, brimming with life reluctant to go into the oblivion.

Structured into four parts – First Contact, Lingua Franca, Arrival and Degrees of Separation – the collection has 64 poems, each marking a memory; personal yet shared.

A random pick of a few titles alone would offer a glimpse of the text and texture of the book – In Amma’s Arms (Manjadithara, 1973), Grandfather’s Room (Manjadithara, 1979), Learning Malayalam ( Manjadithara, 1982), Kovalam (1993), Leaving Bangalore (2003)… the list goes on.

“The book is basically an autobiography in poetry. Memory is the central theme. Some memories in our lives are too small that others, even our parents, may ask us how do we remember that. I have explored such incidents also in these poems,” Somarajan said.

The beginning

Somarajan started writing poems in 1992 when he was in college. After his college life ended in 1995, the poet in him took a long break before he resumed writing in 2000-01. Again there came a break until 2010. Since then, he has been writing continuously and publishing some of his works.

‘First Contact’ is not a collection of the poems he has completed over these years. It’s a book constructed purposefully and that is what makes it different. “Between 2010 and 2015 I had compiled a few poems for a collection. However, I was so unsatisfied and I abandoned them all. Then I started working on the current collection in 2017. It was then that this idea of memories struck me,” he said. The poet then met the perfect publisher Delhi-based Red River. The book was released in September.

The shattered army dreams

Born and brought up in a military family and as a student of Sainik School, Thiruvananthapuram, Somarajan wanted to become an army man. “My aim was to join the National Defence Academy. However, my dream was shattered after I was diagnosed with the disease. What I wanted to do with my life was completely gone out of the picture,” he said, recollecting his journey to the realm of poetry. His ambition to study literature also did not work out due to some reasons and he had to opt for a course in hotel management in a college in Kovalam. “For me, poetry became a means to find an order in such a life,” he said.

For Somarajan, poetry is not always simply the Wordsworthian spontaneous overflow of feelings. “When an idea strikes me, I will wait for it to evolve within me. During the wait, new ideas or new metaphors may come to me. I often wait for a strong ending. Then I compose it,” he said. “Some poems come to me in its whole while some others in pieces.”

He is also a poet who knows the importance of editing and rewriting. He spends a good amount of time editing and rewriting his poems. This becomes possible because of his professional experience as a copywriter, editor and content consultant.

Somarajan’s note titled ‘Why I Write Poetry’ is as beautiful and captivating as any other poem in the collection. “For the past thirty years, I’ve borne the brunt of a progressive neuromuscular disorder. Two-thirds of this time, I have had a permanent sidekick: a wheelchair. It’s almost as if I have accessed a parallel world. Quite naturally, I yearned to express this experience… . Poetry, I realise, is the finest way to express myself and my fading past. I recognised its unique ability to speak for me in ways inconceivable. Where social anxiety overpowered me, poetry became my anthem of freedom – a confession in an everyday tongue, coded with secret doors and traps. Perfect for my anxious need to hide in plain sight,” he wrote.

“I’m often asked why I write poetry. I’d say it’s how I’ve come to make sense of my world,” he concluded the note. For one who takes the beautifully-crafted collection in her hands, that makes total sense.

—G. Ragesh

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