Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople
by Mandira Pattnaik
Fahmidan Press, 2022
25 pages
Reviewed by Manisha Sahoo

In its collection of twenty poems, Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople by Mandira Pattnaik captures stark portraits, in varied shades of life and personalities, of the titular townspeople. We meet happy as well as dysfunctional families, lonely individuals, lost and broken souls, and those persons who are surviving on hope alone. Each home has a story to tell, sometimes filled with good tidings, sometimes brimming with misery and tragedy, and oftentimes riddled with a melancholy edging towards loneliness.

Mandira Pattnaik is an Indian poet, fiction writer and columnist. Her work appears in over 200 print and online publications in fifteen countries. She is the Editor, trampset, and Contributing Editor, Vestal Review. This is her debut poetry chapbook, published by Fahmidan Press and released on November 20, 2022.

Pattnaik infuses and unites her world tightly through several themes, such as the relationships one forges in a lifetime, especially the unbreakable bond between a parent and their child. In “Parturition”, a young couple “cling to the promise / of a miracle” and dream of a happy life ahead, while in “Our Light Hearts”, a single mother and her child sustain each other with their presence through the dark times that befall them. “A River Name” has a daughter struggling to reconcile her mother’s identity in her distorted, failing memories—

While on a walk by your meandering
mindscapes, I tread unlit pathways, discover a
kaleidoscope of yearnings, some frozen ripples
and a scoop of treasured gems.

This unbreakable bond is sometimes the source of immense pain and lasting hurt in others, as witnessed in the daughter who visits her incarcerated father after thirteen years in search of answers in “Abeoji”, and in Hereto, a young boy who lost his mother and had to grow up drastically in “Erosion”—

Ochre day,
Hereto folds himself
Like a paper boat,
to ease his hunger pangs.

In this small town from the poet’s memory and imagination, women play an immense binding role across ages and careers. She, as a housewife spending hours alone in “forever afternoon”, muses how

tangled now in
dense undergrowth, chained to
what remains, are our dreams of
better days.

She, desolate, is urged to carry on and rediscover herself in “woman, alone, on a balcony”, whereas in “When”, she contemplates the company of one and how “solitude is so plentiful, the landscape so unchanging”.  She, being the one who has fallen out of love and cleverly depicted as such by Pattnaik in “Whatever It Might Be, Or Flowers Wilted Underneath The Cherry Blossom Tree”, is steadfast in her determination to call it quits—”I’m not the grave on which you shovel in the / soil of your happiness.”

As a mother, as a dutiful wife, as one reeling from the adventures of a night, as a girl figuring out her calling in life, as a grown woman scarred by the past, the women of this quaint town embody their roles in bold strokes of confidence, even in the worst of times.

Through their mundane day-to-day, one can sense an undercurrent of hopelessness wriggle in and attempt to disturb the townpeople’s peace of mind, such as the narrator in “fire in the rearview mirror” states— “was carried, a feather, / by winds that didn’t abate”, or when the subject of “After Effects” is reminded of the harsh reality—

At the end of which,
you remember singeing smoke,
careless smudging
the canvas of colours.

Filled with rich nuances, Pattnaik manages to create tangible lives which resonate out of the pages. She draws on the daily struggles of the people living in a small town as they embrace the roles they are born into, thrust into or choose to step into. The thin line separating reality from a comforting daydream is thus often blurred for many, if only to make it past the harsh blows of life. In “Correlation Between Fatigues and A Simple Cotton Dress”, a soldier dreams how it would be to embrace his wife and their newborn. He imagines a return to normal life bearing the scars and wounds of the battlefield, and yet the reality pierces through with cruelty—

It melts into shades of
longing until we’re fused in
a cowrie shell, and gurgle the night with doubts.

In “If and But”, Pattnaik doles out a heart-wrenching narrative of what-could-have-been of a real war hero, Captain Batra. A trapped miner in “Empty Pitcher in a Flooded Coal Pit” pictures a hopeful what-if, should he be rescued, “while water’s swallowing half his body”. A farmer’s wife shifts in and out of whimsical yearnings while moving through the everyday ordinariness in “All My Dreams Are Scentless White Flowers”, wishing for a life beyond the pale nothing—

My dreams are
stepping stones,
sometimes drowning.

Quite as the poems form a unified narrative within the chapbook, so are the individual tales of this neighbourhood parenthesized by those of them as a collective in the community. Right off the bat, Pattnaik apprises us of the natural disaster threatening to tear through this quaint town in the titular poem, “Anatomy of a Storm-weathered Quaint Town”. Anticipating the approaching force of nature, the townspeople reflect on their lives, pray for survival, and wonder “whether the / sum of our perennial / woes will find burrows” once the storm wreaks havoc. Culminating the overarching story of the quaint town, the poem “now and beyond” reminds us once again how all those we had passed by in the nineteen poems before were but part of a unified locality— “we, the history of tomorrow, sow and / reap the harvest of our deeds”.

Perhaps they were prepared to face whatever might come their way. Perhaps the storm of today would not uproot their past and leave them searching for a way back. Perhaps the future would be better and bigger, or at the very least, as mundane as the days it was wont to mark as yesterdays.

Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople brings us into its universe and leaves us wanting more. As someone who has lived a significant part of her life in a similar kind of small town, this chapbook of twenty-odd pages pummeled me down the memory lane—an unpaved, old street lined with identical looking houses and brimming with neighbours and family friends of a lost time.