Book Review: Kiriti Sengupta’s ‘Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral’
By Jagari Mukherjee
Title: Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral
Author: Kiriti Sengupta
Publisher: Hawakal, 2017
Price: INR 350 / USD 15
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear,
Woah, livin’ on a prayer. – Bon Jovi
When I started reading Kiriti Sengupta’s Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral (2017), I felt as if I have set out on a voyage which will change me irreversibly. The trilogy is outstanding and I can unarguably claim that I have not come across anything like it before (I proudly boast of being a voracious reader acquainted with many gems of world literature).
The title of Sengupta’s poetic trilogy, Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral, seems to embody a paradox. Can that which is ephemeral or transient also be considered as sacred? However, we realize that life itself is both, and the trilogy is ultimately an extended, implicit metaphor of life. The book is a pioneer venture by Hawakal Publishers, as it is the first trilogy of its kind in India, blending both prose and poetry. It is a refreshingly unique look at life through the lens of literature. The first book, My Glass of Wine, covers a variety of interesting topics in prose and captures their essence through interspersed poetry. The Reverse Tree is a more profound exploration of life, its experiences, and the invaluable lessons learnt from those experiences. Healing Waters Floating Lamps is a volume of spiritual poetry infused with pure magic. Sengupta’s Introduction is designed as an ‘Alap’ or a prelude to a classical performance. He mentions, “In My Glass of Wine and The Reverse Tree, I intended to offer shreds of autobiographic images, along with some poetry weaved into the prose.” On the other hand, the inspiration behind his Healing Waters Floating Lamps was a suggestion made by one of his reviewers, Gopal Lahiri. Sengupta gives credit where it is due.
In the first chapter of the first book, entitled “As I Traversed,” Sengupta describes the incident which led him to delve into literature – a chance question by his future wife. The poet, thus, sets out on a never-ending journey. The chapter ends with a bewitching short poem of seven lines, employing an extraordinary simile in the first three lines:
like an infant consuming
Killed essence of
the eternal soul; and consumed,
essentially I remain…
The spiritual fervor of this little poem transports one to the era of the Bhakti movement, where sages like Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu were consumed by their passion for the Lord.
In the eponymous second chapter of My Glass of Wine, Sengupta begins by reminiscing about his attraction towards Christianity during his college days, and from there he goes on to describe the significance of the blood symbol in various religions. Thus, his exploration of life is always a journey from the personal to the universal. Further on, in “Rains,” the poet muses on various subjects like love (mother and lover), melancholy (rains), shoes and their loss. The melancholy note reminds me of the song at the end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with the refrain “For the rain it raineth every day.” There is a lovely lyric called “The Air” on page 29, with an unforgettable last stanza.
No one knew I worshipped you
With my flaming heart;
No matter if I had a flower white,
You were to float, and fly
Like the passing kite.
As someone who experiences ‘rains’ often, Sengupta’s exposition of the same is a wonderful reminder that one is indeed fortunate to experience them.
The book has a delightful chapter on “Clips” that appeal to the readers immensely, especially in the bits that deal with letter writing. “Clips” also contains two of this reviewer’s favorite poems: “Wide,” and “Vermilion.” While the former has an austere tone, the latter is replete with modern imagery. The last chapter of My Glass of Wine, entitled “My Master and the Cover,” is an intriguing introduction to the practice of Kriyayoga and drawing an analogy between its principles and the cover of the first edition of My Glass of Wine. Sengupta also writes extensively of his Guru, or Master, Dr. Ashoke Kumar Chatterjee, who has initiated him into Kriyayaoga.
Nor is Sengupta’s volume devoid of humor. His second book, The Reverse Tree, contains a tongue-in-cheek chapter impishly named, “Long … A Metaphor.” Sengupta questions the rationale of male poets keeping long hair. However, even Coleridge in his “Kubla Khan” envisioned a poet with “floating hair.” I personally feel that just like rock stars, male poets who keep long hair wish to flaunt their anti-establishment status, as people who prefer to flout social norms.
In “Crisis,” Sengupta puts forth his strongly worded opinions on sexual orientation, which I agree with wholeheartedly. He expresses well-founded indignation at the fact that under section 377 of the Indian Legislative Code, gay sex is a punishable offence that can even lead to life imprisonment. Sengupta opines that a sexual act between two consenting adults, notwithstanding their genders, cannot (and, by implication, should not), be termed a crime. Sengupta also narrates the story of Lara, a transgender sex-worker, with whom he develops a bond of sympathy and friendship. It is perhaps the most poignant tale in the whole book, and the poet reveals an uncommon human sympathy and kindness in his warm, completely non-judgmental depiction of Lara. Fiery moments in the trilogy are interspersed with moments of quietude, like the long poem, “Sleep,” in the chapter on jet lag.
The last chapter of The Reverse Tree (“Reversal … Reverse All”) explicates the rationale behind such a name. Sengupta asserts: “Humans are the only such trees that have their roots [brain] up and the branches (limbs) down.” He also dexterously sums up the essential teachings from The Bhagvad Gita, which provides its readers with the ultimate philosophy behind life and living. We also briefly visit the realms of western philosophy with Sengupta’s almost Platonic take on the role of the translator, who “constructs a faithful mirror that reflects the soul of the original literature.” The translated work is compared to an image, and the reader must possess the eyes to comprehend the original piece of literature through the image. One is immediately reminded of Plato’s “Theory of Forms or Ideas.”
Sengupta further dedicates a poem to his mother, in which he recounts a personal spiritual experience. As a young boy in the seventh grade, he could courageously share his experience with his mother. And in doing so, Sengupta’s mother and Lord Rama become intrinsic halves of the same godly revelation. Another lively bit from the chapter is the recounting of the incident of Epitaphs, a unique concept for an anthology, where several poets were invited to submit an epitaph. Sengupta observes, “…surprisingly only a few wrote epitaphs about themselves.” One remembers the incident of the “Yaksha Prashna” from The Mahabharata:
Yaksha: What is the most wonderful thing?
Yudhisthira: The most amazing thing is that even though every day one sees countless living entities dying, he still acts and thinks as if he will live forever.
The third book, Healing Waters Floating Lamps, dedicated to Rabindranath Tagore, is a collection of twenty-eight poems replete with spirituality and mysticism. The first four poems give the impression of rituals associated with cleansing, which in turn, leads to healing. The opening poem, comprising of only four lines, is infused with a sense of beauty and serenity.
Beyond The Eyes
I reach the sky
While I draw a circle in the water
Looking at the image
I take a dip
A particularly lovely piece which struck me is “Eyes of a Yogi,” where a mother bird is recognized as a mother first and then accorded a divine status through her connection with the sky.
In the poems, form blends seamlessly with the content. Although most of the poems are in free verse, some have end-rhymes. In “Namesake”, the second section is a prose poem. The collection is encrusted with jewels like “Celluloid”, “Fish-Lip”, “Scratches Are Only Human”, “The Sun”, “Close Circuit”, and “Adios”.
As I reached the end of the trilogy, I seemed to have woken up from a beautiful dream-like trance. Yet, the memory of the dream clung to me like the fragrance of a rose. I re-read my favorite bits from the book time and again. I remembered Caliban from The Tempest:
…and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
Note: This review recently won the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize. Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral is available here.
Jagari Mukherjee is a writer from Kolkata, India. She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Pune, and was awarded a gold medal and several prizes by the University for excelling in her discipline. Her writings, both poetry and prose, have appeared in several newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and blogs. Her first book, a collection of poems entitled Blue Rose, was published in May 2017 by Bhashalipi. She has won several prizes in literary contests.
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