From “Masala Muri” to Flavored Muesli: A Conversation with Kiriti Sengupta
Jul 23, 2019
Colorado Review is pleased to publish Jhilam Chattaraj’s interview of poet, writer, and translator Kiriti Sengupta, winner of the 2018 Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize. In this conversation, Sengupta refers specifically to his most recent poetry collection, Rituals. For more on Rituals, check out Colorado Review’s book review by Devika Basu.
1. Rituals is your tenth book of poetry and is being widely reviewed by readers. Did you expect such a reception?
Thank you, Jhilam. I’m happy to note that Rituals is being well received by readers across the world. It took me slightly more than two years to complete the collection. A few of its poems have appeared first in journals like The Florida Review Online (Aquifer), Headway Quarterly, Moria Online, Noble/Gas Quarterly, The Mark Literary Review, Oddball Magazine, among other places. I’m more than grateful to all my reviewers and journal editors who have appreciated my work. Thanking them from the core of my heart isn’t enough.
Well, I did not expect it to be successful, but I was hopeful that the book would critically awaken at least some of my peers. You see, writing isn’t my favorite pastime. I write with a purpose. My poems are born to deliver messages in many directions. However, Rituals was imagined more as a project than a poetry book. I was captivated by the illustrations done by Subhaprasanna in the book Ma Nishad by eminent Bengali poet, Joy Goswami. I decided that one day I would have a similar book; one that would offer poetry as an experience.
2. It was indeed an experience for me. I found the poems replete with cultural messages and the distressed illustrations heightened the aesthetic charm of the words. Interestingly, the poems are rooted in the quotidian and in many ways evoke the emotional voice of popular folk music of Bengal. To clarify my understanding, I would like to point out that your collection is dedicated to the Bauls of Bengal. As a poet who has primarily published in English, how did you connect your poetry with the Bauls?
One who hasn’t seen the Bauls yet won’t probably understand your question, let alone my answer. Bauls are intimately connected with Bengal, especially Bengali culture. Bauls aren’t merely folk singers; they practice the intricate philosophies of life. They aren’t solely dependent on deities but consider life as the enlightened master. I’m sure you are aware of Lalon Fakir who is regarded as the fountainhead of the Baul lineage. Lalon’s songs address issues faced by householders who long for salvation. There aren’t just lyrics but hymns containing scriptural messages in an extremely lucid way. Baul songs are simple, layered, and easy to chant.
The poems in Rituals address life and its challenges. They are philosophical and offer ways to the reader to accommodate the obstacles. In this context, let me cite an excerpt from the preview by Dr. Mosarrap Hossain Khan as published on Cafe Dissensus:
[This collection] views life as a series of unconsciously learned beliefs, which could be metamorphosed, loosened from the deadening force of habit. It is the job of a poet to defamiliarize the ordinary. In Rituals, Kiriti Sengupta does an intriguing job of distilling wisdom from the dross of our daily life, a necessary condition for the possibility of poetry and living.
To me language is not a barrier; it has been a liberating experience to write Rituals.
3. On a lighter note, I wonder if you are seeking salvation at such a young age when you still seem to be tied to your past especially in the first poem, “Comeback.” Could you share with us how the poem sets the tone of Rituals?
Jhilam, salvation presently is desirable but not attainable. And now, on a serious note, my poems are designed to convey messages. The messages rule the arrangement of poems. You are right, in “Comeback”, I revisit the past spent on unrestricted enjoyments. I refer to the time when people remain aimless and seek solace in all worldly measures. And it is the onset of “rituals” when Nature wants us to come back to our old selves. Like all, I too have experienced that life and wish to leave it behind and walk on.
4. In Rituals I have seen you unveil uncomfortable layers of your own self. Your faith in god holds the torch of rebel in the poem, “When God is a Woman”:
How many householders meet in
How many mujras dwell in a kotha?
How many neonates hew to a bordello?
Like her admirers
the god is silent.
In her sinews
hides a hint of soil
from the yard of courtesans.
I pause at the line, “the god is silent.” Is this a poet’s quarrel with the world or a mere observation?
It is both: a complaint and an observation. While making deities of goddess Durga, the sculptors take a pinch of soil from the yard of sex workers and add it to the clay dough. It’s a ritual that has been followed religiously for ages. How will this goddess save her followers? How does the society treat prostitutes? Do they enjoy freedom of expression at all? Does patriarchy allow equal rights to women at-large? A female god with a hint of brothel is no god: she prefers to keep silent even when women are abused. Perhaps, she knows that a woman’s voice will not be heard.
In a recent interview with The New Indian Express, I said that worshipping a female deity has hardly altered our society’s attitude towards women. You see, when people worship Durga, they don’t remember the failure of the male gods who were unsuccessful in defeating the invincible demon, Mahishasura. It’s meant to be like that—failures of men are best ignored. It is where my understanding of faith overshadows the popular notion of religion: God is amorphous and omnigender.
5. I hope poetry does what religion could not do. On a different note, your poems scan the ordinary truths of life. Most poems in Rituals observe while some struggle. It would be lovely if you talk about the poem “Images,” and how it addresses the concept of identity.
You are right, “Images” talks about identity. It also says how people love to add Indianness to the practice called “meditation” (a Western convention) that has its roots deep in the Indian tradition of yoga. The scriptures call it Dhyana, which is but a state of mind. One can meditate (indicates action), but one has to achieve the state of mind, otherwise known as Dhyanavastha. The poem has satire; here it is:
What does it take
to look like an Indian?
A saree, dhoti,
or diya for arti?
Sit on the floor cross-legged,
better if you can do the half-lotus.
Forget the angle your hindlimbs
form in a plane.
With closed eyes
let your index finger meet the first digit,
and others stretch outward.
Keep your smile.
India meditates across the map,
guided or otherwise, sometimes
endorsing a pair of faded jeans.
See, there is dark humour: “Forget the angle your hindlimbs / form in a plane.” Traditional yoga has always emphasized proper posture (asana). And again: “Keep your smile.” Meditation offers a chance to look good, but in Dhyana one loses control of the voluntary movement of muscles. The last stanza of the poem points at our limited understanding of Indian culture of practicing yoga.
6. I do not agree with your critique because cultural practices are meant to remain in a state of flux. However, it is such ideas that make Rituals a suitable text for scholars of Cultural Studies. You address popular culture in the poem “Sridevi” (a renowned Indian actress who passed away in 2018), and contemporaneity in the poem “After the Book Fair”:
Their premises won’t attract readers anymore. Publishers, sellers, and a handful of authors will spend hours in packing books and goods unsold. From the shelves new hope will follow the merchandise. Apprehensions too will fill spaces in the packs. A sense of relief prevails over bargains.
Could you share with us your worst and best experiences as a publisher?
Thank you for bringing up the poem. It’s a personal favorite. I wish authors had done their homework well enough before approaching us to get their work published. We have been publishing poetry traditionally for years, and when someone asks, “How much money will you charge for a collection of eighty pages?” it does not comfort us. It rather injures our trust on poets.
We have helped resurrect two immensely valuable forgotten texts. The first is A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945 by Kylas Chunder Dutt. This is the first fictional narrative written in the English language by an Indian (circa 1835). We got Professor Somdatta Mandal, who edited and wrote a long introduction to the text, published in 2014. The second is The Persecuted by Krishna Mohan Banerjee. This is the first drama written in English by an Indian (circa 1831). We got Dr. Paromita Sengupta, who resurrected the lost text with a long critical introduction, published in 2018. Shambhabi Imprint takes pride in all its publications; however, publishing these two titles has been extremely rewarding.
7. In this connection, it would be wonderful if you could give us some insights on the dynamics of writing in English and publishing in Bangla and English in India?
Well, at present, I do not have a statistically researched answer, but based on my experiences, I can say that although Bengalis could be traced in almost all countries, Bengali literature has a limited market in comparison to literatures in English. Thanks to global online shopping websites like Amazon, Bengali books are being sold in the United States of America, United Kingdom, and other countries of the world. But, readers are few. Bengali literature has its share of rich legacy. However, I do not know if Bengali readers residing outside India welcome contemporary Bengali works with an open heart. They seem to be stuck to the classics and stalwarts of yesterdays.
8. Poets, poetry, politics: Where should we place you and Rituals in the context of the above idea?
Would you call Rituals apolitical? When I say “political” I don’t mean banners, or colors, or the so-called party leaders. How do you treat politics of living? Please allow me to read “From Being Late in Calcutta”:
As soon as you mark me
I’ll talk about events
that guide me to the records
I’ll explore other issues
the next time I reach late.
There is an undercurrent of politics in here: “I pointed at my salary that failed to buy organic veggies.” As an academic you can talk about politics of publishing, politics of translation, etc., but as a human being, won’t you address politics of the day-to-day challenges you are to deal with? That the government has not banned manufacturing cigarettes but helps sell them with a note of statutory warning is a nasty political stance, as well as an amoral one. Here you need no banner to raise your voice. Poetry allows one to nourish the humane qualities: it helps us evolve in all aspects. Moreover, as an artist, it is more important to spread compassion rather than disseminating terse political awareness that often comes with logos.
9. In Rituals, you have a more compassionate understanding of your own self, a state of mind that you have manifested after two years of working on poems that you often auto-edit for hours. I am curious to know if there are any “gift poems,” poems that wrote themselves and did not require much editing.
Last year, I got a chance to gift my family a tour to the capital city of India. We were flying off to Delhi when we had turbulence due to bad weather. I understood from this experience that we are not ever too far from the earth. A sudden drop from turbulence only to reinstated our connection to Mother Nature. As soon as we reached our destination, I wrote “Gravity”:
The aircraft takes off.
First officer alerts,
The dismal climate may cause turbulence.
Upheavals follow air-pockets.
My scared son grips the armrests.
I comfort him, Relax! Bumps help us
realize the earth.”
Again, it was in Delhi we visited Purana Qila (Old Fort), where we saw the baoli (stepwell) that was built ages ago by the Mughal emperors. It was made to ensure availability of water to the inhabitants. The architecture of the stepwell prevents sunlight to enter the water, and thus, evaporation does not occur.
When I looked into the baoli, there was the stale water; it was black (giving rise to the term kalapani: kala [black] and pani [water]), and a sense of persecution prevailed. As I returned, I wrote “The Stepwell”:
Kalapani insinuates servitude for a lifetime.
In the premises of Purana Qila
the baoli is alive.
Eighty-nine stairs down
water is yet to scour the shine.
It awaits liberation.
These two poems happened spontaneously and I refrained from editing them so as to retain the rawness of expression.
10. Rituals captures the panorama of everyday human experiences in fine details, but with an ethnic zing! I would love to conclude our conversation with the beautiful poem, “Masala Muri.” Your nostalgic attachment to puffed rice (muri) needs to be shared with readers. I hope it will enhance our appetite for Rituals.
I should tell you this poem, too, also has a political undertone. The urban and semi-urban Bengalis are tempted to have sugarcoated muesli rather than muri. Thanks to globalization, that muri has safely been replaced by pizzas, instant noodles, and pastas, and further thanks to the government that allowed such brands to rule our taste buds. Muri,which used to be available at street-end grocery shops, is now available flavored and packaged at supermarkets. We cannot possibly ignore the health hazards associated with modern-day snacks, and in this context muri is clearly a winner. Here are a few lines from the poem:
Ginger slices do not titillate
my taste-buds again.
The tangy golden of mustard oil
does not tease my nostrils anymore.
Onions fail to dew my eyes now;
they were never kept in cold water
before Baba chopped them; while he got
his lenses damp, Ma had tears.
On every stormy Sunday
we invariably had power cuts,
and Baba cooked dinner for
a moderate serving of Muri mixed with
onion, ginger and blobs of oil.
On such occasions we used to sit close,
facing each other we shared our stories;
from airing endless grievances on our barren
curriculum, the dialogues on the utility
of learning Sanskrit,
to refuting Ma’s advice on being courteous
even to strangers we would meet.
Our room shined in kerosene lamps!
Load-shedding no longer casts its spell;
the back-ups are prompt and steady
we order food . . . the mobile app comes handy,
but Muri seldom makes it to our monthly grocery.
The next monsoon I wish to buy
a new lantern,
and I’ll light it once in a while
to accompany the old snack
and fresh stories in our family.
Jhilam Chattaraj is presently working as an assistant professor in the English Department at Raja Bahadur Venkata Rama Reddy Women’s College in Hyderabad, India. She has authored two books: Corporate Fiction: Popular Culture and the New Writers (2018) and the poetry collection, When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays (2018). Her writings have been published in journals such as World Literature Today, Cha-An Asian Literary Journal, Frontier poetry, Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine, The Pangolin Review, and Guftugu.
Kiriti Sengupta, who has been awarded the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize (2018) for his contribution to literature, is a poet, editor, translator, and publisher from Calcutta. He has published ten books of poetry and prose, including Rituals, Solitary Stillness, Reflections on Salvation, The Earthen Flute, A Freshman’s Welcome, Healing Waters Floating Lamps, The Reverse Tree, My Dazzling Bards, My Glass of Wine, The Reciting Pens, and The Unheard I; two books of translation, Desirous Water by SumitaNandy, Poem Continuous—Reincarnated Expressions by Bibhas Roy Chowdhury; and he is the co-editor of five anthologies, Scaling Heights, Jora Sanko–The Joined Bridge, Epitaphs, Sankarak, and Selfhood. Sengupta’s poems have been published at The Common, The Florida Review Online (Aquifer), Headway Quarterly, Moria Online, The Mark Literary Review, Mad Swirl, among other places. More at www.kiritisengupta.com