To be able to distill your love for words and art into the work that you do for a living, and that work of a nature that fulfills a niche in society, is to be fortunate. Debjani Chatterjee, well known and much awarded poet from Sheffield, England, was once a community relations officer. She helped many estranged, isolated women acquire a sense of identity and relief through writing, whereby was born a little book, Kanta Tarer Bera i.e. ‘Barbed Lines’. She was awarded the MBE in 2008 by the Queen for her tireless work both as a poet and for the Asian community. She reads for children in schools, libraries, cancer hospitals, runs a cancer survivors’ group (‘Survivor’s Poetry’), as well as the Bengali Women’s Cooperative. For children she has written many stories, some republished in India by Rupa and HarperCollins.
As a translator, she keeps the bond between the writers of the subcontinent alive and has been invited to Lahore in recognition of her work. In 2000 she won an award for her publication The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry. Peter Forbes named her among three notable Asian women poets in an article ‘British Poetry in the Nineties’.
One assumed that the title of the present volume of poetry Words Spit and Splinter was born out of her fierce battle with the imperial malady and medical bureaucracy. Surprisingly the 59 poems here evince no bitterness or anger. She transmutes her pain and fear with irony. The X-ray is like ‘spears of saffron—lava’, a healing gift from Surya (Radiotherapy).
Helpless on the operation table—
Trapped in a bubble, fists pound against walls.
No Brakes, no steering, forsaking control.
Thoughts of death hover however, a situation which appears self-ironically in ‘November 1994’, the year of her father’s death, where a dead fox on the street, a killed spider on the wall admonish her—
Waving away a mosquito, she’d kill it
On another day without a thought—
Karma be damned—but not today.
The long poem ‘For No Soul Should Linger’, dedicated to the memory of her father, is occasioned by the ash-immersion ceremony at Loughbrogh, in the River Soar, of someone who migrated three generations ago.
Like every river in every land, the Soar
is a new Baitaruni, an English Lethe,
transporting souls to the shanti of moksha.
Debjani’s poetry is human and humane in a very essential sense. They emerge out of her understanding and observation of human nature and condition with gentle humour. An occupant of a room in a hospice is bemused by the repeated appearance of a faded blue T-shirt belonging to the 8 months dead previous resident of the room, ‘like a ghostly hand-me-down’ (From the ‘Wash’).
In the second long poem ‘Let Curzon Helde’, Debjani sardonically remarks how Viceroy Curzon’s home Kedleston Hall is bursting with Raj souvenirs, evincing his love for India’s art while his impact on India’s history was devastating.
Debjani’s interest in mysticism, with a doctorate in Religious Studies, is apparent in this volume that includes a number of poems from Indian myths and legends. In ‘Tandava’, the serpent speaks as Demon Kalia, Vasuki, Shiva’s snake belt, then Seshnag , and now the messenger of Bhoomidevi, warning man the despoiler of Earth-
Your Brother Seshnag
Your witness to the end of time,
Shiva dancing the tandava
On our mother’s burning breast
Most interesting is the story of Angulimal, the ‘finger-monster’ of Buddhist legends, who becomes in the poem, an emblem of universal evil:
How many Angulimals still stalk the earth?
Are any fingers safe?
In counterpoint there is the delightful ‘Monkey Tale’, of the great simian Hanuman and his Pandava sibling Bhim.
Debjani once said, she indulges ‘in occasional nonsense verse for the sheer exuberance of words and sounds.’ Of this genre the most enjoyable in this volume is ‘In Praise of the Potato’—
So edible and sensible,
Distinguished in salt and pepper,
with just a dab of vinegar
The appeal of Debjani’s poetry lies in being accesible. She steers clear of some contemporary complexities of style which deals in extreme ellipsis. She is interested in formal experiments—villanelle, ghazals, haikus.
Sometimes great effect is achieved by a simple strategy. In the tsunami poem ‘Remember the people, Remember the Places’, beginning with—
On Boxing Day 2004,
A tsunami ogre devoured the land,
Each of the five verses is constructed by assembling a crowd of names and place names typical of the ravaged countries—Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Tamilnadu, Thailand—thus enshrining vividly wherever loss occurred. This is in the line of W.B. Yeats who wrote poignantly about tragic human loss—
to murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come.
This slim volume of poetry as well as its poet, so lauded in UK, with her feet culturally planted firmly on South Asian soil, deserves to be read and known more in India.