Book Review: Kanwal Sibal’s Poems are Slices of Creative Genius

Two weeks ago when my editor suggested that I review a book of poetry, my answer was a vehement “No”.

“Poetry is not for me,” I told her without mincing words. “But the writer has penned his poems around his experiences and I think you’d enjoy it,” she said.

With much reluctance, I agreed for her to send me the book – and to cut a long story short, from the moment I took it in my hands, I haven’t been able to put it down.

Sibal Pokes Fun Without Malice

In his first anthology, Snowflakes of Time, Memories and Musings (published by Bloomsbury), Kanwal Sibal, one of India’s best known diplomats, brings together a collection of 100 poems written over a period of 50 years.

“Writing poetry was a personal affair,” he mentions at the introduction of the book, and adds how he never intended to publish it; “but… a stage came when I felt I could take the plunge to socially communicate what I’d written over the years.”

A career diplomat with 41 years of experience, Sibal is at his best when he writes about bilateral relationships, foreign policy issues and international politics – all of which he says provides him with “an inspiration to write”. All at once, I am reminded of a quote by the Roman satirist, Horace: “Wisdom is not wisdom when it is derived from books alone.” True that!

And much in the style of a Horatian satirist, Sibal’s humour is witty, playful and light-hearted. He takes a dig at his chosen subjects – but in his own words, “all of his pieces are written without malice”. Take for example these lines from one of his poems which poke fun at India’s “confused policy” with Pakistan:

asking our neighbour not to strike

With terror at us is quite like

Telling a gunman he shouldn’t shoot,

A raider that he should not loot,

A predator that it mustn’t prowl

Or a jackal it should not howl…

…by helplessness that we display,

Our morale sags day after day.

No policy can simply be:

Keep talking to the enemy!

The fear is real that the long rope

We give to Pakistan in hope

Of its reform could well be used

To hang an India all confused.

— from ‘Kneeling for Diplomatic Slaughter’

Sibal’s humour is witty, playful and light-hearted. (Photo Courtesy: Kanwal Sibal)

A Poem in the Shape of a Perfume Bottle

Sibal, who reached the pinnacle of the Indian Foreign Service on becoming the Foreign Secretary in 2002, credits many of his satirical pieces to his knowledge and extensive experience of dealing with these themes as a diplomat. In fact, many of his poems, such as, ‘Oh! Sonia Dear’, ‘The Houdini Act’, ‘Washed Out Session’, ‘Double Standards’, seem to reiterate the chatter overheard inside diplomatic corridors. It is no wonder then that most of these poems had not been heard outside of “congenial company” up until they got published.

As to what triggers him to write about a subject, he does not know, but, “when the mood is on, words, thoughts and images flow with ease,” he says.

However, it is not just external affairs and politics that Sibal writes about. His themes are diverse, so are his moods. On the one hand if he is reminiscing about his stay in Russia, on the other he comes up with poignant pieces on the the passage of time – for instance:

Like echoes of time that recall

Those moments in the past interred,

Memories like moving shadows fall

On mental paths that are wayward.

Like an impression of the past

Upon the canvas of today,

The sky of present overcast

With passing clouds of yesterday…

— from ‘Echoes of Time’

And that’s not all! There are some poems that he has dedicated to his children with themes they can easily relate to, and some others where a particular form reflects a theme – for instance, reflections on champagne taking the form of a champagne cup, or a poem in the shape of a perfume bottle – “this required hard work as the content had to be meaningful, yet arranged in a shape that is not normal to poetry,” he says.

(Photo Courtesy: Vani)

But, no matter what he writes, his words are evocative, his imagery vivid and his poems have a lyrical quality about them. “For me the structure of poetry is important,” he says. “I have always liked rhyme in poetry. Rhyme imposes a discipline, of syllables, feet and metre. The writing becomes more chiselled.”

I’d end this review by a few lines from one of his poems that implore a person to never stop, much in the way as Robert Frost would say— miles to go before I sleep:

…he sensed the final

bell would ring

While he had still

some work to do,

And to unfinished sheets

he’ll cling

Waiting, waiting

to start anew.

— from Echoes of Time

(Vani has worked as a business journalist and is the author of ‘The Recession Groom’. She can be reached @Vani_Author)

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