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Subhash Chandra , Malashri Lal
“Mandalas of Time” by Malashri Lal
Subhash Chandra

Mandalas of Time | Poetry | Malashri Lal |
Hawakal Publishers, New Delhi, Calcutta, (2023) | Hardcover |
ISBN 978-9391431990 | Pp. 114 | Rs. 500


( An aside: I have known Prof. Malashri Lal for over thirty years. And yet, it now turns out I have been presumptuous. Only through a reflective encounter with the poems in her debut collection, MANDALAS of TIME, have I met the real Malashri).

Poems rich in imagery, varied in themes and yielding newer meanings

I think all creative writers—whatever genre they create in—should sometime in their lives write poetry because it comes straight from the soul and dialogues with other souls to establish a pristine, translucent communion. Nothing warps this dialogue, nothing can disrupt this kinship forged in an intensely private, sacred space—a spiritual universe—much like a Mandala in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. A Mandala is represented as a circle, intersecting other Mandalas to form a patterned whole, with a center.

All of us carry within us such Mandalas or instinctive memories of experiential reality treasured in our temporal consciousness. These memories cumulatively construct an individual’s ‘self’ which is often dispersed, or even jumbled. Initiating an inward journey through the Mandalas becomes a consecrated, mystical movement intended to unify, de-mystify, and apprehend the nebulous, ‘self,’ to attain what is known in Buddhism as ‘Satori,’ and Enlightenment (Epiphany) in Hinduism.                 

The poems in the collection can be divided broadly into four major heads:  

(i) Meditation on ‘self’ in relation to the ambient socio-cultural environment to resolve the contraries resulting from the poet’s feudal legacy and her choices.
(ii) Empathy with the marginals,
(iii) Feminism:
(iv) Love for Nature.

I will reference one or more examples from the representative poems to elaborate on my points.

Meditation on ‘self’:

Poetry is therapeutic, as we know. It has the power to heal and make you whole. Lal navigates her discordant feelings arising from the divided sensibility of her feudal heritage and her feminist urges. 

“Shyamoli” (p. 40) expresses this anguished conflict between --

Divided loyalty –
The feudal heritage of my childhood
Fights off the reformist Bengali lineage,
My troubled feminism struggling
Between Poshak and Purdah,
White Thaan and patriotism.

And she begins to wonder

whether silence
And surrender are the best answers
Or a rebel’s dying shriek of non-belonging?

She finds a resolution to her conflicted identity “… flitting between Rajasthan and Bengal/Unable to claim either,” through the words of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore:

Emotions have no fixed language
The mind has no physical limits
Music resounds in the open sky
Dance is the joy of a free spirit anywhere. (“To Rabindranath Tagore”, p. 83).

She attains self-realization that she belongs everywhere with no schisms or contradictions. Her search for the ‘self’ is complete.  

Empathy with the Marginals:

The poet’s empathetic heart goes out to the old Amma who subsists on “Yesterday’s roti and dal,’ (“Summerhill, Shimla”, p. 103) and is anguished at the pain of the family which is asked to “Leave the slum or pay the rent,” which it cannot afford. “Leave the slum or pay the rent/…
… Get out – go anywhere.”

So, it begins a trudge to nowhere, in search of a home.


The collection has several feminist poems and that is no surprise. Lal’s commitment to women’s concerns and their empowerment through scholarship and advocacy goes back decades. Her book, The Law of the Threshold: Women Writers in Indian English (2000) is a pioneering work in the field. 

The placement of “Ardhanareesvara” (p. 21)—a feminist poem—is important. It prepares the reader not only for several feminist poems in the collection but also points to the non-adversarial, post-feminist paradigm in them. Being half male and half female, Lord Siva symbolizes Androgyny (Virginia Woolf), stands for “Indivisible Unity,” of women and men, and is a “Ubiquitous, limitless reminder of equality” of the sexes. Secondly, to me, as a reader, the poem is significant also because, being the first poem, it seems to be an invocation to Lord Siva. 

“Ladies Special,” (p. 69) is one of the most poignant and important poems. It sears the heart but exemplifies an empowering precept of feminism: ‘Sisterhood.’

The suffering of the poor in the metropolises is pervasive, and the plight of women pathetic. The pregnant woman, following her husband, gets labour pains at Ratlam station; steady hands lead her to the platform.

Screened by women surrounding her
A kind lady doctor takes control.
Pooja sees a puckered face squinting into the first light
‘This is home,’ she mutters wanly,
Among strangers who cut the cord and feed my newborn.

“The Woman Migrant Worker,” (p. 76) is another impactful poem that leaves you emotionally bruised. When her husband decides to walk a thousand miles from Nashik to Satna, Shakuntala, abides by his decision without a murmur of protest, notwithstanding that

… her womb ripened by nine months
Was not anyone’s concern.”
… …
Birth is destined by the stars,’ they said.
The mother’s shrieks of pain by the roadside
Took none by surprise.
Touching Mother Earth and believing in her God,
Shakuntala took an interval in the long walk home.
A newborn joined the walk a few hours later,
The mother’s crumpled womb
Was not anyone’s concern.

The repetition of the line, “Was not anyone’s concern” at the end of the two stanzas underlines the callousness of patriarchy which implicitly governs women’s lives, and trains them to live with “Words crushed into silence/Lips sealed against utterance,” (“Crushed” p. 41). 

Love for Nature

Several poems reveal Lal’s love for Nature in MANDALAS of TIME, viz. “Amaltas in Summer,” “Another New Year,” “Autumn,” Bougainvillea,” and “Hibiscus” to name a few.
I would like to comment in detail on “Another New Year” (p. 52) for its unique craft and multiple significations. It employs the poetic technique of ‘Imaginative Transference.’ The feelings and perceptions of the poet are transferred onto the personified Pilkhan tree that repeatedly witnesses the hollow, hypocritical, and sham lives of people. They gather around the tree with “fulsome gifts and vacant smiles,” to celebrate the New Year, but their talk is “Scandal, gossip, jokes.” The poem constitutes a trenchant critique of the modern decaying society and resonates with Eliot’s classic, “The Waste Land.” However, it also symbolizes renewal and the possibility of hope. 

MANDALAS of TIME includes poems on several other aspects of life, viz., old age, filial relationships, mythology, Covid, etc. A mindful reading of the verses in the collection will shift horizons and stir emotions.

Epilogue: The poems are rich in imagery, varied in themes, and yield newer meanings on the second reading.


Issue 113 (Jan-Feb 2024)

Book Reviews
    • Sukanya Saha: Editorial
    • Aparna Singh: “The Crossings” by Chaitali Sengupta
    • GSP Rao: “Why Didn’t You Come Sooner?” by Kailash Satyarthi
    • Madhulika Ghose: “Tales of a Voyager (Joley Dangay)” by Syed Mujtaba Ali
    • Sapna Dogra: “The DOG with TWO NAMES: Stories that Celebrate Diversity” by Nandita da Cunha
    • Sreejith Kadiyakkol: “Journeying with India” by Y . Varma
    • Subhash Chandra: “Mandalas of Time” by Malashri Lal
    • Yamini S: “A Dark and Shiny Place” by Pragati Deshmukh