Chintz: Leela Soma, Dreich
This pamphlet by Leela Soma breaks new ground with its multicultural layers, at the threshold between India and Scotland. The two cultures sometimes merge but at other times clash. Soma’s literary work has been widely published. She was nominated for the Pushcart prize in 2020 and was appointed Scriever for the Federation of Writers (Scotland) in 2021. She was born in Chennai (Madras), and now lives in Glasgow.
In Chintz she traces her Indian heritage from the time when Vedic wisdom was dominant until the period when British colonialism was oppressing her ancestors. The lustre of this cultural legacy, which is above all spiritual but also encompasses fruit, traditional Indian dishes and spices, as well as clothes, furniture and precious stones, depicts the complexity and fascination of a world that has never been forgotten and cannot be replaced. A different homeland cannot be a substitute for the land of the author’s ancestors; it can only be a temporary shelter. Her poems weave in the wisdom of the Vedas either as an epigraph decorating the poems, or as deep meaning within the verses:
A wasted life for man indulges his huge ego
he struggles towards power and wealth
lost in avarice, for a few moments of glory.
Unaware of the Maya of life, transitory as a gossamer
spider’s web, we are but tiny specks in history.
Time devours all lives and returns us to dust.
We are ‘All in One and One in All’, a Vedic slogan that inspired the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger; we are part of one of fourteen worlds, and we are looking for healing in our state of human fragility on our damaged planet. This profound sense of vulnerability and awareness of mortality goes with the incessant flowing of life. Myths and legends become important in the search for this identity that dwells in gods and goddesses. Flowers become symbols of our human condition:
Hindus strive for evolution of consciousness, to spiritual liberation
within each human is the scared spirit of the lotus
achieve a sense of detachment like the water droplet
on a lotus, stand tall above the mud and water.
The sense of the displacement of the ‘Asian Brit’ is evoked in the figure of the chameleon, which changes colour according to where it is living: “colour shifting at will/ashamed of their immigrant parents” (‘Chameleon’). It defies conventions and looks for a temporary compromise that is never satisfying.
The devastating consequences of colonisation, the oppression and the exploitation of Indian resources, are pointed out in the title poem:
Chintz, from a Sanskrit word chitra mongrelised
colonised, textiles yearned for, etymologised
into Webster's dictionary, words that are in
common parlance, - pyjamas, seersucker, gingham
shawl, sash, dungarees, calico -
their origins in the 'dark continent' the Indian
spinning wheel an invention that gave the world
soft and fine cloth of comfort replacing wool
the oppressors gaining an Empire, plundered
riches, an opulent lie in gathering amber storms.
Language is the place where the two cultures clash: “words in English have lines, words in Tamil, which is Soma’s first language, have curves/curves and lines make shapes, words appear/in Tamil, round words delicious like a mango” (‘Mist’). The English words are “clean and practical”; they reflect an organised society, while Soma’s “multicultural mist” suggests multilingualism and hybridism. This “mist” signifies the blurring of languages of a bilingual writer, the beauty of the words, their shapes and feel on the tongue.
Colonisation, the oppression and the exploitation of Indian resources, are finally redeemed by an ‘Independent India’ that makes Soma proud of her past. A sense of deep compassion and the importance of belonging are the final messages of Soma’s poetry. Her work is generous and captivating, conveying the luminosity of a ravishing ancient culture that has been overlooked by the west.