“How does one accustomed to the cold candour of stones/ bend one's knee in reverence to the opulence of marble?” asks Shanta Acharya in her poem “Italian Prayer”. The poems in Dreams that Spell the Light appear to take this question forward, concerned as they are about travel, exile and displacement.
Marked by a rich, sensory awareness of place, Shanta's poems are unself-conscious and honest. Many of them revolve around the profoundly unsettling experience that travel and pilgrimage can be: “How does one sustain the journey from Konarka to St.Peter's,/ From lingaraja to Santa Maria del Fiore, from the temple/ of Jagannatha to the basilica of San Marco?”
The poetic persona walks lightly across spaces, countries and continents, discovering Wazir Khan's mosque in the bazaars of Lahore and vendors selling “bread and dried fish, silks and slippers,/kola nuts and cassava, tinned food and palm wine” in the markets of Ibadaan. And yet, despite all the appearance of lightness, the travel is never easy. The poem “Dispossessed” speaks of what can happen when one ventures out to the “promised land beyond the treacherous seas” while “Return of the Exile” reflects on the impossibility of return. “Can't we explode space and time/back to when it all began?” asks the poet.
One of the most striking poems in the collection is “Kabul: 14th November 2001” where a man and his wife have literally and metaphorically retrieved themselves from their earlier lives. The man who has shaved off his beard looks into the mirror and meets a “long-lost friend” even as his wife sings to the tunes playing on the radio, tunes that have “emerged from purdah.”
Shanta's tendency towards laboured end-rhyme occasionally gets in the way. For instance, describing the mosque of Wazir Khan, she writes: “Once a sheer celebration of magnificence, now sadly fading;/ a thriving enterprise between commerce and learning,/the mosque has now lost its calling.” The awkwardness of these lines are partly a result of forced rhyme. The same is perhaps true of the “Sundarbans” sequence, the last lines of which go: “The Sundarbans may one day disappear,/leaving no man fit to take the measure of another.” In a poet as versatile and mature as Shanta, this is surprising. One would expect a more skilful stitching together of sound and meaning, other ways of working with rhyme.
Shanta's interest is clearly centred upon philosophical questions or life questions, an interest which expresses itself in the form of injunctions as in the poem “Never look back”. Particularly charming is her poem “Easter Message” which contains a story about an encounter with a refugee in the London underground. “Shaadi.com”, perhaps the only whimsical, light-hearted poem in the collection, stands testimony to the range the poet is capable of, a range that is however never fully explored in this particular collection.
Gentle and nuanced, drawing on some deep place within, Shanta's poems succeed in evoking in us an emotional response. Given their air of apparent simplicity, it is easy to miss the extent to which her poems are layered. And yet, layered they are, arising as they do from within a vibrant belief system anchored in hybridity. The things they touch upon cannot but matter to us, living as we do between and within multiple worlds.
Dreams that Spell the Light,Shanta Acharya, Arc Publications, 2010.
K. Srilata is a poet, fiction writer and an academic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org