THENEWSMINUTE.COM | Life in poetry: Kerala writer Soni Somarajan’s ‘First Contact’ is a moving memoir

In a house called Manjadithara in Puthupally, somewhere in the district of Alappuzha, Soni Somarajan was born 47 years ago, held in the arms of a dazed mother and missed by the airman father who sought his photo. Soni was in the Air Force academy of Hyderabad in his kindergarten years, sometimes holding a younger sister’s hands, other times falling into the dust or chasing dragonflies. He was six when he looked at his working father and wondered if he had thoughts of the son.

Soni has sprinkled these thoughts across 64 poems that became a memoir of his life in the first collection he has published – First Contact.

“It is a memoir in verse—a collection of reminiscences of my life, places I’ve lived in, and also certain experiences that stood out in my memory. Connecting them was key to evolving a sound structure for the collection. It would dawn only later. The poems were not written in a linear way, along the years. The poems were later arranged according to the order of the events they described. Once I realised that the poems could be arranged in a timeline, it dawned on me that this was going to be a memoir. The structure I was looking for had arrived from nowhere, like so many things about this book. In fact, the poems pertaining to my school years were the ones written last,” writes Soni in an interview about the book.

His poems have been published as part of anthologies before, and among the writers’ circle of Thiruvananthapuram, Soni’s is a familiar face. He is present for most literary events, using a wheelchair.

He was diagnosed with Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular disorder, the year after he finished school – at the Sainik School in Thiruvananthapuram. That was also the year he began writing poems. “For a while, I felt it was the end of the road. My dreams were limited to the armed forces but realising that it would never materialise was a shock, something I realised over time. In those days of worthlessness, my father once took me to a beach nearby at Azheekal, Karunagappally, that I had never been to before. When we returned home, the response to all that had transpired emerged as poetry. It seemed the easiest thing to do than prose itself,” Soni says.

The pain is in the last lines of poems, not explicit, not calling attention to itself. Quiet like Soni, who moves around with his smile through the palace grounds of Kanakakunnu for every literary festival.

Photographic memory

No acid build, just the kick of fleeting feet. I almost fly. Wait. I can’t catch up — whispers my wheelchair.

That’s at the end of ‘Dream Selfie’, his poem about a dream, written at Ambalamukku, Thiruvananthapuram. Every poem comes with a place and date, like newspaper reports. Soni’s memory is photographic, he remembers the colours and tastes and most surprisingly, the feelings he felt as a young boy.

Filled to its seams, the room holds its breath, unable to mourn the one who built it, the periods of hush broken often by a sudden wail, sometimes a staccato.

This comes in the middle of ‘The Day Communism Died’, a poem about his grandfather’s death in 1979. Soni was six.

“There are always wisps of memory floating around as incidents, a key impression, a scene, an event, a fall while running in the playground, or plucking a fruit straight off the tree and devouring it. This is my attempt to recapture those details, sometimes even connecting two separate memories related to the same thing to flesh out a poem,” Soni writes.

The poem about his airman father at work, also carries memories of the lunch at the airmen’s mess, and the face the dad wore when he was busy repairing radios as an extra income.

For now, I suppose he forgets not his promise of lunch (pulao and chicken curry)

That was little Soni’s thought, watching his dad. “Whenever I felt a certain memory could do with more details, I’d ask my parents or my sister, sometimes photos from the albums from those years helped. It’s only when I asked such questions, my parents asked me how I had managed to remember the hazy details from when I was a little boy. Now that I’ve written this, I know that if you persist with a memory, it will yield eventually. Sometimes, our memories are also repaired by new details, either remembered or fictional—that line can often be thin. It’s a fascinating thing,” says the poet.

‘Poetry is cathartic for me’

Poetry has been cathartic for him, he says, making him feel full of purpose. These poems have held him up in the times he had doubted himself. They also tell the story of who he is, to a certain extent.

“If I wrote about all the memories that I had, the collection would probably have at least 30 poems more. The poems in the first two sections, most of them, came later and were bold experiments. That fascinated me. The last two sections dwell on the emotional aspects of certain life events and are less descriptive unlike memories from long ago. They were written as certain events transpired, in the present moment, and hence are descriptions of emotions,” he says.

He calls the poem ‘Learning Malayalam’ as one of the most fulfilling experiences in this book, dwelling on his relationship with his mother tongue that he never formally learned at school. “One of my biggest regrets,” he says.

There is another set of poems on his days at the Sainik School, with the boys, that he says were the most difficult to write. He had arrived with a metal trunk painted black by the dad, for those were the rules, and left seven years later with the peeled paint ‘exposing the lie’. The voice was difficult to arrive at, Soni says. “That bird’s eye view arrived pretty much later, that distance you need to write about what are your fondest, most cherished memories.”

Corners mangled, it has stood up to heavyweights. And, it has given a taste of home to a lonely boy, when it could.

Soni writes of the black trunk.

One wishes that he had included a picture of the trunk in the book, it sounds like the right kind of friend to have. For Soni has thrown pictures in between the poems, photos he has taken of beaches and boats and the Kovalam lighthouse. Photography has become a ‘favourite hobby’ in the years that went by, he says. Life as a copywriter and content consultant has come to mean ‘stealing brief moments’ to write poetry and take photos, he says. Something he has marvelously managed.


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