Reality and imagination slide into each other comfortably in this set of poems.
The poems in this outstanding debut collection by Manash Bhattacharjee, even while dealing with a variety of themes, are all products of concrete contexts in space and time, of the direct experience of love, of art, of places, as well as of the experience of reading poetry. There is an unprecedented personal intensity in many of the poems in Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems.
Quite a few could have been written only by one who has grown up with the city of Delhi (‘Rain in Delhi’, ‘Poet in Delhi’), especially those on the poets and musicians, from Amir Khusrau, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mirza Ghalib to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Saaznawaz who represent the city’s unique composite culture. Manash is as rooted as he is cosmopolitan and is able to travel easily through space and time traversing vast landscapes of memories and leaping across oceans of languages. The poems move comfortably from the lyrical to the narrative, gesturing towards a world where reality and imagination, the world of history and that of art slide into each other and become indistinguishable.
The poems are replete with original images — some of which are laced with subtle humour — that stay with the reader even after they have all been read through. Some of them are descriptive, creating a character or a picture with one or two deft lines: Till we met the father who hid/Grapes in his mouth and wore a face/Older than his tongue (‘Wedding in Muvattupuzha’). An ancestral tree, its trunk more drunk/ Than I could be/ That wet afternoon. (“Ibid”) other At times they are semi-abstract: A Rilkean soul ripening/From within (‘Diary’), at others they turn the abstract into the concrete: Your fragments are more than poems/They are a broken architecture of time (‘To Sappho’). Sometimes they connect myth and memory with a stark experience of the present as in this picture of Kashmir: Parvati’s anklets, eons later, rang on Lal Ded’s feet/Their echoes now shiver against gunshots...(‘Shahid: A Ghazal’)’. or The Buddha did not teach/Octavio Paz to die/Nor how to be a poet. At times similes grow into images: …you had first stirred/ Inside my head like a child/In a sick mother’s womb.
There are painterly images too like that of Mahmoud Darwish carrying the landscape on his shoulders and looking for his address in the clouds (‘In Memory of Mahmoud Darwish’), of the night who is a whore no poet can turn away unless she is pregnant (‘Dissonances’), of Billimaran which is a busy stream of shoes hung for sale (‘A Visit to Billimaran’), of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the singer pouring Amir Khusrau’s idolatrous wine on raised chalices of ears and becoming “ a river of many gods” emptying his vagabond love like a Sufi ( Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), of the poet smelling her far-off country in her hair “wavering over stalks of memory” ( The Meeting), of Delhi: two syllables of paltry rain/Dusts the dust from its parched throat (“Rain in Delhi”), of lovers who “spell their names on a stone’s forehead” (‘Poet in Delhi’), of the railway station which is like a page from a storybook where “people were stationed like heavy luggage waiting to be lifted” (‘The First Train’), of Gods dissolving in Ustad Saaznawaz’s tongue “of slow fire and pure glass” (‘Ustad Saaznawaz’), of the turbulent Tahrir Square of Cairo becoming “a fortress of the heart, engraved in rebellion’s calligraphy” (‘Cairo’), of Octavio Paz, a tree in his nights of love, knotted blood watering his roots (‘Octavio Paz’) or of Darwish’s guitar “lying dead on a table full of jasmines” (‘Five Years Ago’). At times the whole poem is a playful series of images as those of the dog, the moon and the night in Stillness.
A poet’s mastery of poetic craft can often be judged by the way he/she ends his/her poems. Look at some examples from this collection: I was young Basho on the bar stool/Watching the rain pour over a monotonously/Beautiful landscape (‘Wedding in Muvattupuzha’); One such moonrise the roses melted/Into so many stares and your face/Became dust (‘Rainer Maria Rilke’); To love you was like staying alive/Inside my grave (‘Lolita’); But they didn’t know those without a home/Are always hungry for memory (‘In Memory of Mahmoud Darwish’); Love doesn’t redeem life but time. One day, almost sinisterly, the vase will break to their music (‘The Broken Vase’); All he discovered was the/Memories of Sita’s feet and the wrinkles/On his wife’s face (about Laxman coming back home to Urmila, the wife he had abandoned to serve Sita in the forest: Effects of Fetishism); And life is an inverse/Journey by train/Where the wheels of memory/Run over you (‘Reading Sebald’); The Truth shall set you free/ But we haven’t found a way/To set Truth free (‘Dissonances’); You slept like a rainbow. As I watched you sleep I fell in love with you (‘Falling in Love’); … I heard Darwish’s echo from the depths of/ Night, asking Ritsos why/The horse was left alone (‘Five Years Ago’); Your couplet wafts like incense through the bazaar/Your heart was always heavier than your eloquence (‘Ghalib’s Tomb II’); In his voice of humble sorrow/You trace the darkness of blood (‘Ustad Saaznawaz’).
The poet who is worshipful when he speaks of his dear poets and singers grows sharply ironic whenever he speaks of himself as is proved by a poem like ‘Self-Portrait’: I take pride in gifts/I do not possess./My heart is an invisible/Artist who does/Not know how to paint. But after reading these beautiful intense poems, one is not so sure the poet does not know how to paint. The poets and artists he so carefully chooses to celebrate would never have thought so, even while grasping the subtle politics of life that illuminates the vision behind these well-crafted lines.
Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems; Manash Bhattacharjee, The London Magazine Publication, ₤ £2.99.