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Book Review: Kiriti Sengupta’s ‘Solitary Stillness’

By Amit Shankar Saha

Title: Solitary Stillness
Author: Kiriti Sengupta
Illustrations: Joyeeta Bose
Publisher: Hawakal Publishers, Calcutta
First edition: August, 2017
Price: INR 150

It is a tradition still in practice in Eastern literature to exploit the pithy nature of poetry. The aphoristic convention of poetry is prevalent in most literatures of the Orient in the forms of haiku, doha, gazal, and so on. There have been numerous convergences of Eastern and Western traditions in literature, especially the influence of the translations of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam to the works of Khalil Gibran. All these works ride on the technique of epigram, which has its own Western tradition coming from Martial and others. In the Western tradition of writing poems, the advent of the modernist movement brought imagism into vogue. Thereby poetry in English became the art of condensation of thought in a few words. Thus, it is not surprising if there is an intersection, if not altogether a confluence, of Eastern and Western traditions in the practice of Indian writers in English, too, who curiously inherit both the traditions through the mediations of colonial and global cultures one after the other. In this context if we read Kiriti Sengupta’s latest release, Solitary Stillness, which is a book of aphoristic verses and prose poems, we are indeed reading an example of the said intermingling.

In the foreword to the book, Dustin Pickering writes about the “terse paragraph that offers glimpses of thought” and adds that Sengupta tips us to the edge of truth without actually telling the whole truth. He calls these “flash” paragraphs of wisdom “that highly sought and abundantly ignored prospect.” It is wisdom that is the essence of any aphorism. To come back to the question of hybridity, it will be noted that it is not only the mixing of Eastern and Western literary traditions but also mixing of prose and poetry, the mixing of Indian and Western cultures, and the mixing of expression and silence. Take for example the opening piece titled “The Pilgrimage.”

Pipiray pak uthe moribar tore…”
Phullara says, “The ants grow wings to fetch death…”
Fire is clearly not the cause,
however their flight, the pilgrimage!

The first line is in the Bengali language, although written in the Roman script, whereas the rest of the lines are in English. “The Pilgrimage” refers to Chandimangalkavya by Mukundaram Chakraborty, where Phullara is the wife of Kalketu. But, the proverbial saying that the ants grow wings at the time of their death is not alien to any culture. Just as there is a blending of English and Bengali, there is also a blending of the specific and the universal. The ants grow wings and fly into the fire and die. Do they do this by ignoring death or do they do this in ignorance of death? Ignoring something and ignorance of something do not imply the same. The wisdom lies in this interplay of ignoring/ ignorance. There is still further layering in this poem. The attraction of the fire that causes death is the quintessential trope of love and death. But Sengupta states that fire is “clearly not the cause.” The poem ends with the word “pilgrimage”, giving a glimpse of a possible truth through a spiritual experience. In Hindu mythology, life is often seen as a pilgrimage towards death and the soul is ultimately purified by fire. It almost becomes a metaphysical poem where corporal experiences attain religious dimension. It all happens within a few lines where allusions tip us close to the edge of truth. This is how the aphoristic nature of Sengupta’s work functions as it brings the reader into a momentary flash of poetic epiphany and, then, returns to prosaic reality.

It is not surprising that Sengupta’s poem “Quietude and Loneliness” starts with the line, “For god’s sake, don’t take silence for granted!” It immediately reminds us of the opening lines of John Donne’s poem “Canonization”: “For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love.” This opening line of Donne’s poem is often seen as abrupt, colloquial, and even abusive where a lover advises the outsiders. By using this intertextuality Sengupta not only replays the affront but also makes the moot point, almost in the manner of a metaphysical conceit that effects a shock in the second line: “It is loud, hypnotizing and over-rated.” That silence has a spiritual charm and is also associated with death are aspects that are often not taken into ready reckoning. Silence works insidiously in Sengupta’s poems, working its way where words are absent and making spaces for loudness of thought, hypnotism of interpretations and, perhaps, in self-deprecating way, overratedness.

This collection of twenty-one succulent pieces in words accompanied by an equal number of symbolic illustrations speaks of the stillness of solitude. It is a morsel that can be masticated for long. Just like writing, reading too is a lonely pursuit until there is “Illumination”:

We were walking down the solitary lane
from the light to the dark end
We two men saw twin selves
but not in flesh

The shadows

They emerged from their mortal frames
but didn’t hesitate to grow longer
and even surpassed
as we went ahead
Our shadows cherished
every bit of the lightlessness

until a sudden gush of glow bathed us

There is this and nothing else. Two men along with their twin shadows walking in a lane from its light end to its dark end is a profound metaphor for life’s journey. The past is an end where we cannot go back, the present is the light that makes us see things, and the future is the unknown, unseen and hence, dark. Shadows vanish when there is light all around and shadows also vanish when there is darkness all around. It is this peculiarity of shadows and yet when there is light at one end and darkness at the other end, the shadows appear, giving a direction, a perspective, a meaning to a journey. Shadows, which are not flesh and blood, have nothing corporal about them, not even light. Their lightlessness indicates so much that we don’t know, so much that lie in the darkness, the dark half that never comes into our view, the dark matter that mystifies, the darkness of absence. Until there is illumination; who will now bathe in the gush of glow?

In the prose poem, “(Re) Formation,” Sengupta makes the statement: “A deviation from normalcy is not necessarily pathology!” and he adds further, “You never know when your body accepts the changes and makes them a parcel of your constitution.” His experience in the medical profession comes handy here. He knows how the irregularity of pulses in the body is often adjusted by the body as a regular phenomenon. At a deeper level, we realize that a deviation is not necessarily evil and bad. It is deviation that propels mutability. All life forms on this earth have evolved from such deviations. Life would become meaningless and endangered without mutation. This is also true for human relationships at some level. As we go deeper into Sengupta’s words, we are sucked into a realization of a truth and our own cognizance of it. In the poem, “Where Do Old Birds Go To Die?” he writes:

I’m not aware where birds hide
when they are unwell, but
I can say, birds heal themselves,

and die solitary
amidst the quiet flora—unnoticed.

This is where Kiriti Sengupta’s works leave you. No doubt aphorisms endure.

Solitary Stillness is available here.

Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Seacom Skills University. He did his PhD in English from Calcutta University. He is also a researcher, a short story writer and a poet. His research articles, essays, reviews, stories and poems have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals, and books nationally and internationally. He has won the Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature (Short Story-2015), Wordweavers Prize (Poetry-2011, Short Story-2014), The Leaky Pot – Stranger than Fiction Prize (2014), Asian Cha – Void Poetry Prize (Commendable Mention-2014), Reuel International Prize for Poetry (Shortlisted-2016) and other prizes. He has co-edited a collection of short stories titled Dynami Zois: Life Force and authored a collection of poems titled Balconies of Time. He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets, a Kolkata-based poets group dedicated to the promotion of poetry.


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