Matthew da Silva reviews Invisible Eye by Gayatri Chawla

Invisible Eye

by Gayatri Chawla


ISBN-13: 9789352072736

Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA

Themes surrounding politics emerge organically in some of the poems in this book especially as it relates to the 1947 partition of British India into two (and, later, three) countries. To start with there are some place names: one of these is Sind (part of which is in today’s Pakistan) and another is West Bengal (in today’s India; part of what was originally called “Bengal” now comprises the country of Bangladesh). It turns out that an individual’s feelings with respect to this event can be complex, particularly so if you are a woman. 

The ways that these things are communicated often rely on the everyday. Names of mundane things appear that are particular to the subcontinent. “Papad” is a kind of savoury baked item that is made from seasoned dough made out of a pulse. It is commonly called “papadum” and is served as a side dish with meals or as an appetiser. “Kulfiwala” is a seller of a frozen dessert called “kulfi” that is indigenous to South Asia (not just the subcontinent; “wala” is a Hindi word that can mean a vendor of goods or of a service), “kokis” is a deep-fried, crispy Sri Lankan food made from rice flour and coconut milk, “gram dal” are whole pulses, “sandesh” is a Bengali sweet made with milk and sugar. 

To understand the cover images I asked a friend of mine who is from India. She said that the man carrying the woman on his back probably refers to the partition; the woman is tired and cannot walk anymore. About the other woman whose image appears on the book’s cover and the scarf she is using to cover part of her face, my friend said: “If it’s part of the saree you’re wearing it’s called ‘pallu’. If you’re wearing a ‘kameez’ it’s called ‘dupatta’. If you’re poor, it’s just a piece of cloth.” These words, she went on, are used right across the country and veiling of the face, the way the woman on the cover is shown doing, is a sign of modesty. There is one poem in the collection named ‘Purdah’ which talks about other feelings that can stem from this emotion. Google defines “purdah” as, “The practice in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of screening women from men or strangers, especially by means of a curtain.” The word can also refer to the curtain itself.

Like the many listed above, there are other markers of identity used in the book but the author does not labour her points. Feelings stemming from the displacement that is mentioned in the Amazon blurb relate to her father’s forced removal from that part of Sind that is now located in Pakistan, a place where he had lived. This theme emerges in some of the poems with a sometimes-subtle force. 

Time spent with the poems reveals a rich patrimony. These are genuine poems that reach out in order to grasp truths that could not be revealed any other way. Chawla’s voice, furthermore, comes across as authentic. Many of her insights are original though some of the poems are more successful than others. 

‘Hyperopia’ (it means “short-sightedness”) is, fittingly, a short poem: it runs to only six lines. What it lacks in volume it makes up for with expressive power and the richness of detail it offers the reader. It is like a haiku in that it captures a moment in time, an instant of personal observation: a woman is sitting at her desk looking at her PC’s screen. She normally wears glasses to see the computer programs she uses but at this moment she does not have them on. She looks out the window and sees things clearly there: the washing on the clothesline. Inside the room she can see a figure of the baby Krishna in a painting on the wall. On the kitchen windowsill is a pottery vessel.  But what is on the PC’s screen is just a blur. 

Given the context that I have already discussed, such a poem is eloquent. It speaks about the inability of people to clearly see the things that are closest to them. What does she see on the computer display? It looks like “bluish purple bruises”. People might easily identify faults that are apparent in other countries, but at home they might not be able to discern them. As a poem, this small addition to the volume is very strong. How did the bruises get there? What made them? Who made them? Nothing is crystal clear but much is implied.

‘Sweet Bengal II’ also contains echoes of events in the distant past (a past that, still, from reading what this author writes, are relevant today). On its surface the poem is about the confection “sandesh” mentioned at the top of this article. The person through whose perceptions the poem is focalised is talking about her love of this type of food but there are subtexts available if you spend a bit of time with the poem. These lines, for example, contain larger themes:

Self-centred pistachios sit uptight
pristine islands in butter paper
heady mix of cottage cheese and saffron
Sandesh dear, I love you.

Something good can come from the mixing of many different kinds of ingredients. In the case of this food, chenna (cottage cheese) is used as the base but it can be mixed with saffron for colour and flavour. On top you can put pistachio nuts to give it extra piquancy. Given this piece of encomium, Chawla’s other views about her country (she was born in Mumbai, an entrepot drawing people from different parts of the country) seem contextualised intelligently and with nuance. Here is the type of thing that only poetry can deliver: a complex insight into a large issue that affects many people that is given through the lens of the individual. One person’s feelings about a favourite food can be made to stand in for the feelings of the multitude.

‘Cocoon’ (the title itself is redolent with meaning in the context of things already spoken about in this review) gives you another personal view of the world. In this case, the idea of the twin is linked with another idea: the mother. On a mantlepiece is a matryoshka doll (a Russian children’s toy that comes in a form where smaller dolls, of different sizes, are contained within larger ones). Layers can be revealed by removing the outer casing, but there are two dolls sitting on the mantle side by side.

they look related
distant cousins,
cousins distant over a family feud.

Another toy, a snow globe, appears near the end of the poem. It contains an empty bench (perhaps a bench where a famous dollmaker put together his creations?) Suddenly, in the final two lines, the eyes of the person who focalises the poem return to the task she is performing in the kitchen: possibly preparing for dinner some potatoes, which have their own eyes. In this revelatory series of images, as in the case of the even shorter ‘Hyperopia’, a hundred different feelings converge in a poem of 17 lines. One thing leads to another as the eyes of the person focalising the action flit around the room and as her mind restlessly wanders, finding thoughts emerge unbidden.

‘Concealer’ is also complex, and centres on a woman seen in the street by the person focalising the action. The person seen appears to be superficial: the clothes she wears and her accessories point to conspicuous consumption. But suddenly the poet shifts perspective and you are transferred to a place within the life of the woman seen. Here, a darker truth appears suddenly, at the end of the poem, like an accusation. Why the “scars”? Who is superficial? And then: what can we really know of the lives of others? This theme had already been alluded to in ‘Cocoon’ in the word “sondering”, which I had to look up. Google defines “sonder” as, “The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.”

In ‘Fidelity’ the author turns to look at her parents. In this poem, feelings associated with parents – common to people everywhere in the world, it would appear, and commonly full of conflict – rise to the fore. Once again, you have eloquent details from observations made in the domestic sphere. The eye might be invisible, but still it sees everything. 

One of the most wonderful things about reading fiction is being exposed to the ideas of people who write books available in translation. But even – as in the case with the present collection of poetry – where the language used is English, a book written by someone from a foreign country can be full of insights into other cultures and societies. But no matter how different they might be, it always turns out that people, wherever they are born and brought up, are broadly comparable in terms of their motivations, desires, and dreams. The context might differ but humans are always humans.


MATTHEW da SILVA is a journalist and writer who lives in Sydney.

Samantha Trayhurn reviews Traverse by Tineke Van der Eecken


by Tineke Van der Eecken

Wild Weeds Press

ISBN 978-0648320678

Traverse by Tineke Van Der Eecken is a novel about the micro-offences that culminate in the end of a marriage. Physical distance and emotional distance. Wandering minds, snide remarks, broken trust. Part travel memoir, part personal reflection, it shows how a relationship doesn’t dissipate with a single wrong doing, but is slowly eroded by tides of actions that break a person down. At the core of the memoir, a wife (Van der Eecken) recounts a 5-week traverse through rugged Madagascan terrain – the territory of her husband’s affair with a work colleague – as she accompanies him on a field trip in an attempt to save their marriage. The premise alone is enough to pique interest. Some readers will identify this as an act of bravery, and others complete reckless abandon. Who would want to sleep in the same villages, swim in the same rivers, and eat the same meals, as their husband and his lover? This isn’t a typical divorce narrative, but we soon learn that there isn’t much that is typical about the relationship we observe.

Tineke and Dirk are a Belgian couple who spent their courtship and early married life in Africa, before moving to Australia and then England, following Dirk’s work as a geologist. At the time that the narrative takes place they have two children, and have just uprooted a life they had grown to love in Australia, to settle in Cotgrave, a small English village. As part of his new role, Dirk takes frequent field trips to Madagascar where he meets and falls in love with logistical manager, Fara. Tina is left to try and assemble a new life in Cotgrave, while sensing that her husband is drifting away from her.

We had met in Africa and we had married in Africa… We had our children in Africa. Was I now becoming associated with middle-class English life for him? I had no part in the choice of our home base, but it became clear that he was looking at me across a distance… (39).

After each trip Dirk returns more and more enamoured with Madagascar, and Tina soon learns that it isn’t just the place, but also another woman, that has won his affections.

Early on in the Prelude we learn that this story is being recounted six years after the fact, and is a collection of memories filtered through anger and a sense of betrayal, but most of all a desire to comprehend just what went wrong. “I must do this – must record to understand,’ (12) Van der Eeken states as she sits down to write her memoir.

With this proclamation readers quickly understand that this isn’t a travel story simply penned for entertainment and a love for far off lands. If anything, to Van der Eecken, Madagascar evokes at best discomfort, and at worst disdain. The country becomes entangled with her bitterness so much so that it becomes a third accomplice in the affair. It is after the first part of the book (Tremors) when Dirk’s unfaithfulness is revealed, that Tina decides she must overcome her negative feelings towards the place, and embark on his final trek with him, if the marriage has any hope of survival, “We would not be able to continue together unless we resolved what separated us most. I needed to go to Madagascar with him.” (71).

From the converted railway carriage where the author writes, it is as though even after an extended period of time, the act of writing is a salve for a deeply personal wound that can only be truly healed by retracing.

At times while reading, I felt weighed down by the repetition and self-pity of the narration– it is difficult to endure the circulatory thinking of a scorned partner, perhaps because it recalls repressed feelings, or makes us think about how we would behave in the same situation. That being said I found myself drawn in: I wanted to know just what the author was capable of enduring, and how she was able “to traverse and emerge on the other side” (9). Van der Eecken’s writing is at its strongest when she is truly present and offers her observations of the landscapes and cultures she experiences: “The roads built by the French reminded me of other rural roads in Africa. Once the industrious (and mineral greedy) colonial administrations had left, the roads had gradually deteriorated and made it impossible for motorised transport to pass. Now they looked like honeycomb.” (121). “In the last few years vanilla has increased from 30 to 190 euro per kilo” (133). “There were no independence monuments, no little shops, no signs of any contact with the outside world.” (151). These interesting facts and tidbits not only provide a counterpoint to Van der Eecken’s internal conflict, but also give an insight into who this woman is when she isn’t pining for her husband. She is worldly, compassionate, astute, creative, strong. It is a stark reminder of what jealousy and fear of rejection can stir in a person.

Many readers will find it hard to like Dirk, let alone understand the author’s desire to remain married to him. He is presented as belittling and mean; self-absorbed and cold. When Van der Eecken expresses that she misses her career, he responds off-handedly, “what career? You never had one” (56). When she talks about the book that she has been working on for a number of years while juggling family life, he snidely comments, “you’ll never finish that book… You better look for a real job” (29). When she is seized with fear and can’t cross a makeshift bridge during the trek, he scurries past her and utters over his shoulder “crawl if you have to” (162), never offering a hand. Of course, we are receiving one-sided memory, but the cracks in the relationship seem clear early on. Perhaps this callousness is Dirk’s way of distancing himself so he can pursue the love that he feels for Fara. So, when Van der Eecken documents moments of affection or making love, I was always surprised and a little bit disappointed. I suppose I wanted her to deny him, but I was reminded of how when anger and love mingle, things are only ever further complicated by these fleeting moments of romance.

One of the biggest questions that Traverse raised for me is, how much is a sense of place tied to a sense of self? Here, a woman who has been following her husband and his career all over the world senses that she has lost something along the way. In the final section of the book (Postlude: A sense of home) when Van der Eecken thinks back to sitting outside the renovated railway carriage in Australia with her friend Ros, she realises that by identifying a sense of belonging, she feels at ease: “I felt like a river that, after a long drought, had returned to its riverbed” (211). In this section Van der Eecken goes on to hint at the true motive for penning her story: overcoming an acceptance of betrayal that began with her father and followed her all her adult relationships.

I had lost all trust in my father, and by extension, in men. When the man I loved back then betrayed me in a similar way, it was the beginning of false starts in my own relationships, the compulsion to follow my parents’ patterns (211). 

While not a perfect piece of literature, Traverse is a real account of the complexities of relationships, and is a rewarding reading experience that demonstrates how one can marry physical adversity with emotional adversity to gain the strength to go on.
SAMANTHA TRAYHURN is a writer living on the Central Coast of NSW. Her work has appeared in Westerly, Overland, LiNQ Journal, eTropic, and others. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University. She is also the editor of Pink Cover Zine.