Jacarandas are a Deep Shade of Blue
Haibun collection by Johannes Manjrekar
Geethanjali Rajan reviews the book
Richness in Simplicity
To review a book by Johannes Manjrekar would be the equivalent of going where angels fear to tread. After all, many of us in India have picked up and honed our skill of crafting haibun by reading his work on the internet. However, I go on to remind myself that Johannes was very democratic in his approach (and that idolisation (and panegyric) appalled him), before I start reviewing the recently launched book of haibun, put together by his wife, Nandini Manjrekar.
The haibun (there are 53) are a selection from childhood –from his arrival in Mumbai by ship, his idyllic days spent in Mysore, some from Neral and others from his observations of total strangers - children in the neighbourhood and on the street. But the poems are not just about kids. They are as much about the adults in the environment, the community around us peopled by two-legged, furred, feathered, tailed and four-legged folks. And, in true Johannes style, the writing reflects our social milieu and its inequalities. The book also features more than 25 stunning B/W photographs taken by him - of children, birds, animals, and life as it passes by. (I have never seen Johannes without a camera.)
The very first haibun (Magic) is magic at its best where the poet defines the term for his readers.
…a green-golden chrysalis… the aching delicacy of jacaranda trees, the flooding sweetness of jelebis….
A substantial part of this book is about the silences and the stillness in the frames, in the descriptions of dusk, of summers, of the endless rain. His has always been a style that is understated, matter-of-fact and yet, relying on the deep and micro-observations of very ordinary scenes from everyday life.
that flash of gold
in the sun
The poems in this book are laced with a sense of humour (that Johannes often directs at himself) and lends itself to the ability of stepping out of the moment and reflecting on life’s ironies. There are many examples of this, where the haibun begins on a light note but soon, progresses to more serious and thought-provoking issues. For instance, in Free Speech, the poet starts with a light observation on his childhood habit of listening to adult conversations and sometimes, blurting out something (many of us I am sure, have been that same person in a living room). However, this very endearing description soon progresses to one where the visiting adult shuts off the child with his comments on ‘westernised children’ and how the visitor himself wouldn’t have dared to butt into adult conversations. This shared personal experience could well be magnified to understand what happens in many homes even today, where the autonomy of children (and adults) are non-existent and perhaps, holds up a mirror to some societies too.
The poet’s wry sense of humour is more at play in the haibun titled, Sendosh. One might want to run for a dictionary to check the word, but hold on a little and continue reading! The discovery that it relates to a person had me laughing (I am not going to reveal the plot). But there is no derision in any of his humour. The haibun carry it lightly and the point of the writing is not the humour itself. It just takes you to a more serious place without sentimentality or overt righteousness.
In the poems Heartbreaker and Clouds, the tone is more sombre. The poet’s disquiet about social inequalities simmers beneath. The poems do not sermonize nor do they tell the reader how to feel. It’s for us to join in on the journey.
Sample this from Heartbreaker, a haibun about two children on the street:
The two small girls sitting in the grey-brown dust are playing something like pat-a-cake. The one letting the dust trickle between the fingers is wearing a dress that’s a bright shade of red. The one watching is wearing nothing at all and her hair is a bleached shade of brown. It’s the colour of malnutrition.
The piece above is laid out right beside a photograph of two children marching off to school in uniforms and with reasonably new schoolbags (one with Barbies on it). If this itself isn’t a commentary on our social milieu, what is?
In the haibun Equality, Johannes has us questioning our place of privilege and the general dictum of not handing over money to children whose homes are the street. The quiet but firm persona of the poet is on display when he calmly challenges the woman lecturing him, with a few ‘why not’ questions.
Some of the haibun on his childhood friends (Vispi, Nothing Was Said, Sendosh) take unexpected turns and the reader shares the shock of the poet. But the ones about his family, his relationship with his father, siblings (DIY Zoology) and daughter are gentle and warm. The story on ‘zaars’ (Just the Other Day) had me thinking of my own daughter who had said the very same thing around 15 years ago, when asked about what she had learnt in school!
Is it really fifteen years since she came tripping into the house with her little standard-issue black shoes on the wrong feet, her pleated blue school uniform skirt generously spattered with mud, to announce that they’d done zaars in school that day?
(From Just the Other Day)
The pieces from Germany (Herr Mildner and Roots) set off a mix of emotions in the reader. Roots is a portrayal of what the poet discovers about his ancestry. He ends the piece with – “After all this is where one part of me comes from. ” - an acceptance of what one has to make peace with.
Paresh Tiwari says in his Afterword that this book has been “an aide-memoire that Johannes embodied simplicity.” I couldn’t agree more. Given his ability at languages, his could have been a wordy or vociferous style, but then, Johannes’ sensibility was always about minimalism (and maximum impact owing to that, I would add.)
The book’s design by Dibyajyoti Sarma (Red River) scores several sixes, and I think I share a bit of what the poet felt when he heard that Ashok Mankad had crossed over from 97 runs to a century (Rappelling).
The last time I met Dr. Johannes Manjrekar, was in Mumbai in Feb. 2019 at the conference on haibun at SIES College. As always, it was a delight to listen to him and his views on the haibun form – minimalist, fuss-free and yet, leaving a lasting impression. Prof. Nandini Manjrekar’s choice of haibun in this book do justice to the man, the artist, the social commentator – why wouldn’t it? The Foreword by her leaves us in the hope that there will be more volumes of his haibun for us to read. And for that, I can only be grateful.
But before all those books, do read this one. Several times.
About the Author
Johannes Manjrekar (1957-2020) spent his childhood in Hameln, Germany and later in Mysore (India). His education largely consisted of observing nature, bird-watching and writing short stories for pleasure, supplemented eventually by a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. From 1988 to 2019, he taught in the Microbiology Department and Biotechnology Centre at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda. Apart from being ahijin, he was a keen observer and photographer of insect and human society.
Geethanjali Rajan teaches Japanese and English in Chennai. She has been writing haiku and haibun for around two decades. Her poems have appeared in online international journals and print anthologies. She is currently the editor of haiku at cattails. She is also on the editorial team of Café Haiku. Geethanjali’s poems with Sonam Chhoki (Bhutan) can be read in the book Unexpected Gift (November 2021), a book of haikai collaboration. Another book of haikai poems with Sonam Chhoki , Fragments of Conversation, is forthcoming. Her interests include music, books, and Japanese calligraphy.