Hawakal Publishers ($10)
by Jagari Mukherjee
Kiriti Sengupta, the author of nine previous volumes of poetry and prose, came out with his latest book, Rituals, in April 2019. Sengupta’s loyal readers and fans, eagerly awaiting this new release, were presented with a bundle of poems unlike anything that the poet has composed before, yet the collection still shows his signature.
The poems in Rituals are of a highly personal nature, inviting readers into the poet’s private space. The poems seem to have crossed the fine line between poetry and memoir, employing aphorisms to delineate Sengupta’s philosophy of life. In the foreword, Dustin Pickering references the most famous diarist in modern history, Anne Frank: “Frank kept her hopes in humanity, knowing that despite the evil we enact we are still children of a benevolent power.” Sengupta, too, is known for his spiritual and philosophical poetry; even the most “earth-bound” of his poems, those of a confessional character, have gossamer wings to soar into the realms of spirituality.
Many of the poems in Rituals are related to spaces within and without, which take on a sacred tinge for the poet. Time, too, is inevitably related to space. The opening poem, “Comeback,” depicts several objects crammed together into a narrow space when Sengupta returns to his home after a year—a home which was presumably unoccupied during this interval: “The room is full of dust, the floor smeared with thick silt; the mirror on the wall is glued to ripped paint, and it deceives.”
The poet thus becomes an “observer” who is an intrinsic part of the historical time within which he finds himself. In this volume Sengupta is an observer not just of the social milieu around him, but also displays an uncanny ability to examine his own body, mind, family relationships, and the rituals surrounding each one of them, all while displaying a touch of amusement at his own small vanities (“The Unclad God”):
Nude men affected me in many ways.
Every time I saw them
I became conscious of myself
followed by a comparative check.
If mine was shorter
I’d run to my workspace
and read a memo to myself.
It said size had nothing to do
with female orgasm.
Sengupta packs in vivid imagery using deceptively simple language. And he does not remain at the shallow corporeal level but comes to a profound realization as the poem progresses:
I don’t look at unveiled people anymore.
It is either my age or hormones.
I now look beyond the flesh, bone and keratin.
I’ve been told
the finer body dwells undressed.
The boldness of the poem, placing Sengupta as a voyeur, is another remarkable aspect. Sengupta does not censor what is perhaps one of his secret vulnerabilities—anxieties about size—and weaves it into the fabric of his spiritual experience.
Spirituality and nature are often interconnected in poetry, most famously by Blake and Wordsworth. The prose-poem “On the Richter Scale” merges the God-created and the man-made with an astonishing sense of wonder and beauty, notably when in the third part of the poem Sengupta mentions a canvas, and the canvas is open to interpretation: is it an artist’s canvas or the sky? There is also a beautiful implicit metaphor of a veiled bride:
A seven-year-old canvas invites dust bunnies. Mopping whitens it; gray patches lurk in the brightness. It looks at the artist, Desolation, who paints fresh water-colors. The cloth blushes. It absorbs all the cuddles. The elbow hits and makes it pale. The veil dissolves. A mirror bathes in glassy water to reflect light. The sea longs for a rendezvous. Desolation stands still. The Richter scale fails to respond.
Spaces referred to in the poems range from the premises of a book fair (“After The Book Fair”), a baoli (“The Stepwell”), a guardhouse (“The Blues”), a white bed (“Appraisal”), and a bordello (“When God is a Woman”). In the last poem, the idea of God as a woman is all-inclusive, containing even the idea of “fallen women.” Thus, the bordello becomes an analogy for a place of worship:
Like her admirers
God is silent.
In her sinews
hides a hint of soil
from the yard of courtesans.
Intrinsic in all the pieces are associated rituals. In “Y-Gene,” dressing a daughter in frilly dresses is a wish of a ritual, here unfulfilled. “A Place Like Home” depicts Sengupta as a witness to the ritual of drinking by people attempting to numb their minds, to pacify the restlessness in their souls. In “Promising Griefs,” Sengupta rightly understands that there is no escape from the rituals of grief. This simple poem shows us that every flowering inevitably leads to a death:
Consider the rice seed—
Not sure if it will rejoice
sprouting into a plant
that will invariably die
to give us food for life.
Rituals further strengthens and confirms Kiriti Sengupta’s place in the cosmos of Indian English-language poetry. True to the tradition of his works, it is an extraordinary book encapsulating miniature memoirs, each memoir being a memento for readers to store in their souls.