Book review:Articulate Silence [Archives:2003/636/Education]

May 12 2003

Reviewed by Dr. Murari Prasad
Sana'a University

The blurb on the back cover of Sanjukta Dasgupta's Dilemma says that it is her second book of poems after Snapshots (1996), her debut collection published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta.She wears different hats: teacher of English and so a professional academic, poet, critic and translator. After reading the thirty-nine poems in this anthology one can say that she is arguably one of the most notable new voices in the English-language poetry from India. She has an interestingly individual poetic sensibility and her poems stand out for impeccable articulation, fetching images and considerable thematic space. She constructs her lines around an intricate filigree of moods and perceptions.
Effusions of second-rate verse in English published in journals and magazines following the increasing penetration of the leading global language are a dime a dozen and of unequal merit. A good deal of the flourishing body of free verse is formless rubbish. Since these poets (or poetasters) do not seem to be aware of the constraints in free verse, their poetry is no better than chopped -up prose. Not only that; they are perversely impenetrable and banal to the point of somnolence. In contrast, Sanjukta's poems yield a rewarding harvest. She manages the pause, break-up of lines, internal rhyme, assonance and patterning of rhythm, as well as manipulates appropriate measure of cadence without getting high on words. With the form, ideas and images in perfect balance, the craft shows no straining after-effects.
The first poem titled “Dilemma” introduces the dominant flavour of the book. The poet is caught up in the oppositional pull between urban commotion and rural repose. The mesmerizing materiality of the city on one hand and the fecundity of the country on the other define her dilemma. She draws on micrology)- the tedium of daily grind)- and turns in the distillable tension in a whirl of rhythm. She uses a varied palette to savour the quirks and oddities around her, and sure enough her vignettes flow into an enjoyable time capsule. Poems such as “Misfit”, “Loneliness”, “Nihilism”, “Analysis”, “Alliteration”, “Ceaseless”, and “Estranged” articulate varying dimensions of the seize and squeeze in the relentless, leaden treadmill of daily life.

Every yesterday pours into today
A cupful of the same dregs
The fog and moss like mucus

Blurs the view
Deludes with the never-will-be
But then turning away

Sharp and arresting images of excruciating isolation and creeping asphyxiation, mindless violence as well as endemic inequity and waning amity in the poet's world inform the stuff of these poems. The poet's control of the content in the constraining form of two playful and petite poems ” Alliteration” and “Analysis” has lent unmistakable economy and elegance to them.
Sanjukta's feminist slant characterizes quite a few poems in this collection, such as “Shame”, “The New Mildewed Millennium”, “Empowered”, “Identity”, and “My Fifty Year Old Woman”. The growth of feminism during the late 60's gave a powerful impetus to women's poetry, but Sanjukta is not straightjacketed into a subculture of feminist poetry. She brings great delicacy to bear on domestic themes. The theme carries over in several poems, not particularly feminist most of the time. A comparison of her poems with those of the best-known poets of the recognizable feminist school such as Michele Roberts, Alison Fell, Judith Kazantzis and Nicki Jakowska offers the contrast between culture-specific indigenous brand of feminism and the Western feminist agenda in terms of distinguishing gender perspectives.

Now enfolded, slowed, shackled in cloth
Lifelong imprisonment of shameful vulgar limbs
I hide and seek lifelong.
Saree shackled woman
Crippled but with limbs intact
Waits and waits and waits
For that midnight hour
Of metamorphosis)
I am now stark dark Kali
With flying tresses

The poet looks beyond the trammels of tradition and enlists her voice in the emancipation and empowerment of women in the liberated dispensation. She mobilizes the cultural images of women's power and energy to underline the new stirrings of women's assertion.
Sanjukta is good at defamiliarizing things)asking the readers to see familiar things in unfamiliar ways. The poems triggered by her response to India's partition, a recent terrorist attack on India's parliament and the desecration of the Bamiyan Buddha are etched with chilling images of insane frenzy. Compulsive reiteration of the Partition in literary representation on both sides of the Indo-Pak border bears out the long-lasting psychological effect of the traumatic event which is, to quote Krishna Sobti, “dangerous to remember but difficult to forget”. Sanjukta's poem “Lament” is a sensitive rendering of the country's cleavage. In “Telephone” the poet makes unexpected connections and excavates filial feelings for her 'closest kin' sucked down under the maw of time, beyond call by any manner of means. Unlike Devjani Chatterjee and Sujata Bhatt, her peers, she doesn't project displacement or cultural juxtaposition. She is rooted in Indian realities and her poetry has the feel of life about their palpable ambience.
While most of the poems in the anthology are happily articulated, there are some in which the lines labour along. For instance, in “Death of a Flower” the effect is rather sporadic and elegance a tad insipid. Again, these poems, like the mainstream English-language poetry from India, are written in, to quote late A.K. Ramanujan's phrase, “upstairs English”. Linguistic innovations coming from non-standard forms of English, from slang, street language, journalese etc are few and far between. As Peter Forbes, Editor of London's Poetry Review once said, India is unusual in having and preserving pure English or, in a manner of speaking, “fossilized English”. Sanjukta tries to pull the language from its well-worn rut but we do not see the local language colouration or the homegrown patois of English. Besides, there are some howlers too: 'snaless' (p.22) instead of sandless, 'rend' (p.34) instead of rent, 'eraze' (p.20) instead of erase. But these quibbles are not going to detract from the poet's real achievement.
All in all, these poems show a talented poet at work with fertile language and appropriate measure of discipline and control. Writing free verse is, as someone has said somewhere, like playing tennis with the net down. Sanjukta's poems show her signing up for the ground rules of the game and notching up scores. These poems are a good read and this reviewer does hope that she will morph into a major voice in her succeeding productions.