The word shringara, the title of Shanta Acharya’s fourth full-length poetry collection, has a special reverberation for me. In my childhood, reading Bengali poetry from the olden days, I would come across this mysterious word, the sheer sound of which delighted me, but whose real meaning eluded me in spite of my precocity. The only thing that was clear was that it was something special that a man did with a maiden… It is a Sanskrit word shared by modern Indian languages—I imagine it is as much a part of Shanta’s native Oriya as it is of my native Bengali—whose primary meanings include sexual desire, erotic love, and indeed sexual intercourse itself. It is also a keyword in traditional Indian literary theory, in which literature is meant to evoke in the reader states of stabilized emotion, known as rasas.
Rasa itself is an interesting word, its primary meaning being ‘juice, liquid essence’. Some nine or ten fundamental rasas are enu-merated in Indian literary theory, with shringara heading the list as the adi-rasa (or the ‘primal juice’, as it were). There are other subsidiary senses in which the word shringara is used, but if I had to choose a European equivalent for it, I would settle for the Greek word eros, with the French jouissance as a runner-up.
The cover of this book, too, a deep blue inset with the photograph of a tree in blossom, with reddish flowers, encouraged me to think that I was about to read poems about love. To my surprise I found that the very first poem was a meditation in London’s Highgate Cemetery, though with yew, clematis, ivy, insects, larvae, butterflies, and birds, the ambience there had ‘more to do with the living than the departed’. As I read on, I realized that the collection, a worthy successor to Shanta’s last volume of poetry, Looking In, Looking Out, was a sheaf of grief, an elegiac volume about the loss of loved ones, through which a rawness of the pain still throbbed. Emotionally, the poet has let her hair down. Though each piece ends with a sense of poetic resolution, we as readers are allowed to feel and touch the author’s spots of pain and inflammation. She lost, within a year, her maternal grandfather and father. But other deaths, disasters, and losses of friendship (as hinted at in ‘Remembering’ and perhaps also ‘Speak To Me’) have added their shadows to the predominant mood of this volume. Among such events are: the 1999 cyclone in Orissa, when, in the morning after the storm, ‘the sun shone brilliantly/ in a freshly painted sky with not a single leaf in sight’; the ‘9/11’ of New York and the 7 July bombings in London; accounts of the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ given to her by her late father and the subsequent breaking of India ‘like a wafer’; the tenth anniversary of the massacre in Srebrenica; the deaths of personal friends in England; the self-sacrifice of soldiers who laid down their lives at Kohima during the Second World War; other deaths from the same war, including that of the Hungarian-Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti, force-marched, then shot dead with others, thrown into a mass grave, but identified by the notebook of his last poems in his trench coat pocket, and of the painter Charlotte Salomon, who presumably died at Auschwitz at the age of 26; the killing of Gandhi; the collapse of a man the poet does not know, in a park, when she is taking an afternoon walk there; group suicides in Japan, using the Internet; the tragic death of the wife of the poet Keki Daruwalla, when having just arrived in the USA, the couple were travelling from the airport to their daughter’s home and a paramedic van crashed into their car—‘A split second and the world changed’.
There is, of course, a conscious artistic design in all of this. Shanta has turned around the meaning of the term shringara, cloaking the name of her book with a paradox. While the title and the accompanying cover picture suggest an erotic dimension, the poems themselves are more immediately preoccupied with thanatos, not in any morbid or decadent sense, but in the philosophical sense of how one comes to terms with it and learns to live with it. Can we call this a trope? Dealing with grief is in the domain of the third rasa of Indian aesthetics, karuna-rasa. Propelled by bereavements, Shanta is looking back at her life, surveying life around her, remembering the human stories she has heard or read about, and learning how to balance and reconcile love and death, the systolic and diastolic aspects of existence. One poem is called ‘Losing, Finding’. Another poem ends with the line: ‘I recognise the myriad ways of our losing and finding.’ So her theme is timeless and universal, but the poems derive their particular flavour from the combination of her own special circumstances: her mellowed, female voice, the counterpoint between its Indian inflections and the language she chooses to write in (which she herself calls her ‘borrowed plumage’), her intellectual and historical interests, and her diasporic life, threading Highgate, London, with Bhubaneswar, Orissa.
Her Indian family is the core from which she draws her warmth, compassion, and the will to live. The family portraits in this volume allow us to glimpse the nest and the upbringing within it which have given her so much strength. This is the capital which, wisely invested, enables her to survive abroad. She regrets never having been able to entertain her maternal grandfather in her Highgate home. She is not disloyal to London, the metropolis which, she acknowledges, has sheltered her body and touched her soul, and where, like a crocodile in its swamp, she is at home, ‘unseen, unknown, watching the world pass by’. But there is a tension between the world of her natal home and the new environment. English has a limited stock of kinship terms, and in expressions like ‘older brother’, ‘younger brother’, ‘youngest brother’, I can detect the strain of trying to accommodate, within that framework, relationships which are of primary importance in Indian family life. The poem ‘Aja’ is in memory of her ‘grandfather’, which from an Indian perspective is an incomplete expression, in this case crying out to have the qualifying adjective ‘maternal’ inserted before it. Two poems placed side by side present an interesting contrast between her own stable background and a contemporary English dysfunctional family. In ‘Missing’, the poet as a grieving daughter repeats the word Bapa (Father) like a mantra, as if the act can restore him to her. In the next poem, ‘Silent Witness’, she observes the rudeness of a daughter to her ‘Dad’ in the London Underground and longs to tell her how life is too short for such uncaring behaviour. Indian images and metaphors seep naturally, effortlessly through Shanta’s English. The evening sky as ‘a woman bleeding, giving birth, dying,/ sacrificing her body in a cycle of creation’ is a very Indian image. So are images such as these:
Handsome as a peepul tree you sheltered many a traveller under your shade. (‘Days’) I’ve been visiting you like the seasons year after year, celebrating our reunions. (‘In Memoriam’) our mother was widowed, a tree shorn of leaves and blossom in an unseasonal storm. (‘In Memoriam’)
Despite the pain which the poet does not try to hide, the poems do not leave us with any feeling of bleakness or bitterness. She knows that ‘Life is here, now’, that we must fulfil ourselves, ‘taking flight like the smile of a camel’. Unable to obtain canned coconut milk, she makes do with a solid cake of the stuff, ‘stirring in slivers of milk’ into her prawn curry, affirming the sheer pleasure of living even while her ‘eyes are blinded with grief and a child’s fury’. Her prayer is:
Let me not die to new ways of seeing the world born of this contrary time in a multitude of lives. (‘Learning’)
Embodying the best of Indian humanism, she knows that ‘Our only hope is embracing the Other/ inviting the unknown into our hearts and homes’. After exploring the sundry bizarre ways in which we meet our deaths, she concludes: ‘Think then of how we must live, not how we might die…’ This is a volume that enriches us not only with the lessons learnt from bereavement, but also with a philosophical meditation on the concept of zero (‘Shunya’). Shanta’s gentle but sure craftsmanship is well tuned to her poetic purposes without being obtrusive. Perhaps the two exceptions are ‘Farewell Ghazal’ and ‘I Do Not Know’, where I feel the form is drawing too much attention to itself. I prefer it when her language flows limpidly, like the breeze she describes in the opening poem: ‘Through the hawthorn and blackthorn, field maple and elm/ a cool wind blows steadily through our realm.’ The subject-matter necessarily elicits some interesting ways of describing death itself. The death of one friend is ‘this unloading of soul from carcass’; the death of another friend, an American woman who had married an Englishman and had continued to live in London through twenty years of widowhood, is the condition of being ‘bereft of herself among strangers’. Shanta also has a canny way of ending poems with highly effective three-line sequences:
In unmapped terrain within us we bury in terraced catacombs painful memories. If only we could let them grow out of us like trees. (‘Highgate Cemetery’) Discover in loneliness the continents of your self, it is a secure place to wander in for nobody can trespass unless you let them in. It is an island of freedom and peace. (‘Loneliness’) not on anyone’s list, my soul, entrusted only to me, my passport through time and space – price of an invitation to this journey of a lifetime. (‘Nothing’s A Gift’)
A few minor misprints, always regrettable in a volume of poetry, could have been eliminated by more attentive proof-reading at the publisher’s end. My main complaint is that the crucial term shringara, which is used with such powerful irony as the title of the book and of the last poem, and occurs at least three times in the poems themselves, including in the very last line—‘The days become my shringara’—ending the book ‘on the note’ of this concept, is not explained anywhere at all. Given that this is a British publi-cation, the publisher should have surely asked the poet to provide an explanation somewhere. Without it, the powerful trope is tossed away. Shringara has not entered the English word-hoard like nirvana, samsara, guru, mantra, karma, or yoga. To suggest that we need not understand the meaning of this keyword in order to enjoy the poetry is to trivialize the intercultural nuances of this poetry. In this book dedicated to the poet’s deceased father and four grandparents, the concept underpins the way the poet confronts death. We are here today precisely because of the shringara of our ancestors, because they loved and procreated—no more, no less. We are in a chain, and there is pathos in not being able to contribute to its continuity. The following is surely a poignant confession:
I dream of you and mother on clouds floating having waited all these years for my leafing. I stand alone, your daughter, without offspring – reaching for the foot of the rainbow… (‘Missing’)
Would a contemporary poet writing in Oriya have chosen such an explicitly erotic title for a book of poems dealing with grief? I have difficulty in imagining a contemporary Bengali poet, however bohemian or postmodern, doing so. Perhaps Shanta’s choice was influenced by the fact that the book itself is in English, a circumstance which masks the earthy connotations of the title, transforming it into a mysterious, exotic motif, an ancient decorative medallion, whose sharp edges time has blurred.
Ketaki Kushari Dyson was educated at Calcutta and Oxford and has been based in England since her marriage. She writes in both Bengali and English and in a diversity of genres: poetry, fiction, drama, essays, literary translation, and research-based scholarly books. She writes original poetry in both her languages and has published ten poetry collections as well as some major works of poetry translation. For a full list of her published books, 33 titles to date, visit her website at: ketaki.dyson.dial.pipex.com.