“Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree” Simi K Rao (Written Dreams) – book review

Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree Simi K Rao front coverSimi K Rao has published short stories, novels and poetry and this book collects some of her poems and short stories. Writing seems to be a cathartic process, in “Delirium”,

“My words
assorted images
evanescent squiggly lines,
stumbling out of my head
in fractured sentences
Traveling in a split second
from sunny blue skies
to a cold dark room”

All poems are centred, unlike the stories which follow standard presentation. Most use free verse structures with accessible vocabulary, designed to be read and understood with the reader guided to think over the poem’s message. Some of the messages are timeless, e.g. in “Woman”,

“She bore him sons,
despite incredible pain
her daughters he rejected
because they brought him shame

He covered her up from head to toe
treated her like a possession
shackled her up in his house
scourged her for his own indiscretions

Would you find people more of a hypocrite
in any other part of the world
who deify innumerable goddesses
yet smother a baby girl?”

It’s hard to disagree with the poem’s sentiment, but it’s not saying anything new or finding a new way to say something that needs to be said again.

There’s a baffling short fiction, “Crush” where a school girl taking part in a quiz finds herself unable to answer any questions but dismisses the reaction she has to the quiz master (about whom she knows nothing) as a crush. She leaves the quiz venue only to be pulled into a dark alley, kissed and groped and asked if she’ll leave with him. Realising the quiz master stands before her, she agrees. It’s an uncomfortable story. The quiz master is described as young but clearly adult and he knows she’s a school girl. But the story is gentle, selling this as romance. I’m not buying. It’s a dangerous message. Love is not something that gropes and helps itself no matter how much the recipient lusts after the groper.

It’s in complete contrast to a later story “The Ritual” where a newly-wed dreads her first night as a married women after previous sexual harassment. It’s an arranged marriage but one the newly-wed agreed to. Her new husband however backs off and lets her sleep. In the morning she explains and he is suitably respectful, agreeing to go slowly and give themselves time to get to know each other. I feel more comfortable with these two as companion pieces rather than stand alone pieces where the first gives a disturbing message.

Some poems come with notes (presented as they are in the text), e.g. “Crossfire”,

“Like a random bird in the sky
I fall
I meld with the dust
of another land
I remain nameless
Who am I?
But another random bird in the sky

About the poem: This poem is about the Malaysian passenger flight 17 that was shot down on July 17, 2014 when it flew over a war zone. It is about innocents getting
caught in the crossfire.”

It helps in this case because there’s nothing in the poem that hints at its subject or that the “bird” might be a metaphor.

The collection ends with “A Cup of Tea”

“It is a moment
booked just for me
to waste as I please
to brood
sit by the window
look at nothing
or hitchhike on a plume of steam
to neverland.”

Is this Peter Pan’s Neverland or Michael Jackson’s or a different one altogether? I assume a different one altogether, but writers need to know that words carry baggage and are open to interpretation.

“Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree” is a place to people-watch and observe. Stay long enough and all life passes by: school children finding their way, women from newly-weds to the elderly, men who are divided into those who are kind and those who are a threat and the addicts: the smoker who only gave up when dying of cancer, the drinker who gave up long enough to gain a liver transplant but returned to drink when her mother took her life. The poems strive for upbeat aphorisms, searching for those treasured moments when you can take a breather from life before getting back on its treadmill.

Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree is available from Written Dreams Press


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