Thought Box



by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri June 19 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 51 secs

In an unexpected journey from skepticism to admiration, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri explores Mehak Goyal’s evocative poetry. Goyal, a young poet defying social media stereotypes, captivates with her powerful verses of feminine experiences.

It was on the sidelines of a literary meet that Mehak Goyal handed over a copy of her book of poems to me. Deeply skeptical of the ‘social media’ breed of poets, I took the book home and promptly forgot about it. Till one night, as sleep eluded me, I found this peeking from behind a pile of books I often have next to my pillow. I opened the book, and began flipping over a few pages almost desultorily, willing myself to close my eyes. If I was looking for poetry to lull me to sleep, I was pleasantly and happily mistaken. For once, I wasn’t unhappy about losing a few hours of sleep.

Like Prerna Gill’s collection of poems ‘Nowhere’, that I was bowled over by and that I wrote extensively about, Mehak Goyal’s poems held my attention. Here was a voice that was arresting. Yes, unlike Prerna’s, Mehak’s poetry was not tangential, abstract. But like Prerna’s, it was powerful. It made its statement in strong confident lines. And it was ambitious – trying to encapsulate a world of feminine experiences from childhood to youth (Mehak’s poetry belies her age), with a killer title.

I subsequently got in touch with her (possibly stalking her on Instagram, because in my disdain for ‘young social media poets’ I hadn’t bothered to ask for her coordinates). As the book went into reprint soon after the Atta Galatta Poetry Prize 2023, Mehak spoke to me about the book, about her concerns and what it takes to make round rotis and how she has made a metaphor of that.

Q: What inspired the title of the book?

A: For far too long, a woman’s worth has been entwined with the perfect roundness of her rotis. In my extended family, the question loomed ominously: ‘If she can’t cook round rotis, who would marry her?’ This reflects ingrained societal expectations, unfairly judging a woman’s worth by her culinary skills, overshadowing academic and professional achievements and confining her to traditional gender roles. My book, Failure to Make Round Rotis, delves into these intricacies, highlighting the unjust burden on women and their ongoing struggle against societal expectations that undermine diverse capacities and aspirations. As the lines from the poem that gave the book its title goes:

Remove a dream from the dough/Roll on hands until it is confined to a circle/Place on the rolling board and crush (lightly)/Use ingrained displeasure and rage to/flatten it with a rolling pin//Toss the roti on the virtuous tawa/Round and puffed/serve it warm for a worthy fortune.

This culinary pressure extends beyond domestic expectations, symbolizing cultural norms where warmth not only pertains to temperature but also signifies acceptance and conformity. The book aims to cast light on these dynamics, offering a compelling perspective on the challenges women face and their resilient spirit in navigating a world steeped in tradition and expectations.

Q: How old were you when you wrote your first poem?

A: My journey into poetry began when I was in seventh standard. A school project required me to write about someone in my family. Back then, writing, for me, was more of a ‘first draft’ phenomenon, and I didn’t grasp the value or importance of editing. The first poem that I started writing for my book, ‘Remembering Childhood’, proved to be a challenging endeavor, consuming six months and over a hundred pages of rewrites and edits before achieving the final version presented in the book. I worked on the other poems simultaneously. I firmly believe the most exceptional work unfolds when you step away, allowing for a rewrite with an objective perspective.

Q: Tell us something about the poets you read and who inspire you?

A: I drew inspiration from legendary poets like Kamala Das and impactful voices such as Tishani Doshi, Arundhati Subramaniam, and Fatimah Asghar. Their works, like ‘The Old Playhouse’, ‘Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods’, ‘When Landscape Becomes Woman’, and ‘Shadi’, resonated with me deeply.

My exploration of feminist poetry, both classic and contemporary, served as a catalyst for understanding the nuances of the art form. These poets emboldened me to shed fears and embrace self-expression. Their poems serve as more than just inspiration; they are guiding lights that illuminate the vast spectrum of human experiences. Their work has ignited a belief within me that poetry should be expansive, embracing a myriad of subjects—from the intricacies of start-up culture to the deeply rooted taboos surrounding topics like arranged marriages, menstruation, the prevalence of catcalling, and unrealistic beauty standards imposed on women.

Q: You have achieved what many would say is impossible in publishing: a first book of poems that has been reprinted in months and won a major award. Tell us something about how you went about publishing this?

A: My publishing journey involved overcoming over 100 rejections and ghostings, each accompanied by familiar refrains: ‘poetry doesn’t sell in India’, ‘lack of industry contacts’, ‘get 100k followers on Instagram’, and ‘no English lit degree’.

It’s important to acknowledge that every rejection shook me and momentarily made me doubt my work. So much so that I found solace in revising a new poem every time I faced rejection. However, I also knew that one acceptance can change the trajectory of your career, so have faith in your work and in yourself.

Juggernaut recognized and published my book within an unprecedented one-month timeline from manuscript submission, a remarkable feat in an industry where publication timelines often span 1-2 years. Upon securing a contract from Juggernaut, I left my job, realizing that marketing and ensuring the book’s success were as crucial as its launch. The warm reception of the book is not just a personal victory; it underscores the need to publish more poetry in India and provide opportunities for poets.

Q: Let’s discuss the thought process behind the sections you have divided the book into: Medal, Adulting, Bottle…

A: The book is organized into eight sections, reflecting various life stages and experiences, exploring the privilege and resilience that made up our childhood (Medal of Participation), the doubts that you carry even as you become an adult (Adulting), the toxic relationships (Bottle of Promises) you chase because you deem yourself unworthy, the guilt and insecurity that haunts you when you finally find that deserving love (Lottery of Love), the tug and pull of love and hate with yourself (Wallet of Happiness and How to do Laundry), the dark reality of arranged marriage (The Indian Matchmaker) and the unfair expectations and casual discrimination that women face every day (A Woman’s Lexicon).

Q: Let’s take 1 poem from each section and talk about their origins.

A: ‘Water Bottle’

Parched, they walk up to me –sip, take notes, /slurp, suggestion, /gulp, gulp, favour. //I am left at the corner of the stairs, /forgotten and empty.

This poem reflects my introverted childhood, where friendships often had an expiration date coinciding with their need. The imagery of an abandoned water bottle, a vivid memory from my school days, encapsulates the ephemeral essence of those connections.

‘Parent and Child’

The sun rises. /The sunflower sprouts. /Let’s call it birth.

The sun struts. /The sunflower follows faithfully. /Let’s call it childhood.

The sun shifts. /The sunflower yields hesitatingly. /Let’s call it adolescence. 

The sun summons. /The sunflower assertively faces east. /Let’s call it graduation. //Let’s call it nature.

Adulting involves moving away from parental thoughts and values while maintaining love. This poem pays tribute to the journey of becoming one’s own person without diminishing the parent-child bond.


He snatches his hand from mine. /A dictator ruling his subject. /A bully tormenting his victim. /A judge sentencing his prisoner.

I am to /accept his authority, /shake like a leaf and /suffer my sentence.

Post-breakup, I was dumbfounded and felt unheard. This poem articulates the sense of being bullied into a sentence without involvement or agreement.


An intoxicating drink of optimism. /Endless appetisers of care and support. /Main course of acceptance and respect, /garnished with excitement.

A cool dessert with sprinkles of kisses and hugs. /He is my buffet, /I am always hungry.

Promising to write happy poems upon finding love, this piece is a joyful celebration, fueled by both the emotion of love and my passion for food.


The itchy bra clings to /my sweaty flesh like a /watermelon rind to its ripe fruit. /Its crescent-shaped wire cuffs my skin.

Even in solitude, /after I have discarded it, /the memory of its choking hold remains /as I stroke the grooves it leaves.

Still, I wear it /again the next day /without protest. //Why is it so normal?

Drawing parallels between wearing bras for societal norms and carrying guilt, this poem explores the burden of expectations placed on Indian women.

‘Befriend the Darkness’

Loneliness, like darkness, /is consuming and endless. /The monster stares. /I scream loudly. /I kick frantically. /I pray faithfully. //‘You are alone,’ it laughs. /Slowly, /Hours pass, maybe days. /Fear walks away. /Anxiety stands at the corner. /My breath returns to me. //I befriend the darkness.

Loneliness and darkness haunt us all. This poem aims to create a powerful narrative by combining both elements, exploring the shared human experience.

‘What was said when he fell in love’

She can’t even cook Okra /She drinks tequila /Look! This guy is hugging her on Facebook /Short skirts. Hot pants – that’s all she’s wearing /She likes her job more than you

You’re innocent /I have seen the world

Your love won’t last /Promises won’t be kept

You have had your fun /I only care about you and your happiness /I will choose someone for you.

‘What was said when she fell in love’

He drives a Honda /He has been at the same company since the last 5 years /You will just be shifting from one rented house to another /My astrologer assured me that you would rule a business empire

Leave him /I only care about you and your happiness //Stop crying. I will find someone.

Addressing the unfair stereotypes of arranged marriages, this poem challenges traditional roles assigned to women and men as caregivers and breadwinners.

‘How to Make Round Rotis’

Snatch the book she is reading intently. /Pull her hand, her weight if you have to. /Assemble the bowls and ingredients. /Hit her with the rolling pin if she refuses.

‘This is for your own good,’ //assure her periodically.

Take two cups of unbound flour in a mixing bowl. /Add three-fourth cup of water of discontentment. /Knead with knuckles of fragile hands. /Reiterate, the dough should be /soft, smooth and pliable. /Touch floured hand to forehead, make it white.

Remove a dream from the dough. /Roll on hands until it is confined to a circle. /Place on the rolling board and crush (lightly). /Use ingrained displeasure and rage to /flatten it with a rolling pin. /Toss the roti on the virtuous tawa.

Round and puffed, /serve it warm for a worthy fortune.

Inspired by the collective experiences of friends and cousins aspiring to make round rotis, this poem offers a poignant account of the expectations placed on women in the context of this cultural tradition.

Q: Can Mehak Goyal make round rotis? And when she is not making rotis or making poems, what does Mehak do?

A: Reaching a point where making perfect round rotis is no longer an aspiration, I see it as a metaphor for rebellion.

In my free time, I immerse myself in reading and travel. Prompted by a thought-provoking Ted-Talk on the dominance of fiction from the USA and UK, I have expanded my literary horizons this year. Diving into books from diverse corners of the globe, I explore different perspectives by reading poets from various regions, prioritizing translations over the UK and US narrative. From ‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Ali to ‘In the Time of the Butterflies’ by Julia Alvarez, and ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, my reading list now includes a rich tapestry of global voices. This exploration offers rewarding insights into different cultures and perspectives, and I eagerly anticipate continuing this literary journey.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.