Book Review

“Ritual, properly understood, signifies gratitude and is rooted in the habitual nature of the human organism,” writes Dustin Pickering in his foreword to Rituals, a collection of deeply reflective poems by Kiriti Sengupta. Sengupta’s poetic endeavor touches nearly every domain of our existence, ranging from carnal to spiritual, and his passionate soul longs to fill his “glass of wine” with finely woven symbols and metaphors. Poetry is, in part, a soliloquy where the poet speaks to his alter self, encounters the hidden and the forbidden with occasional outburst, and tries to build a “pleasure dome” of verses with multiple layers of human emotions. Sengupta is not an exception. With a contemplative eye, he builds a trajectory of poetic texture encompassing void and stillness: lamps on the ghats of Varanasi, “the earthen flute.” Rituals certainly adds a new feather to his poetic voyage where he plunges into permanence and transience, mortality and morbidity, and an “infinite zest” for life. Rituals is a journey in introspection where the poet himself is a lone voyager, trying to come to terms with the succinct metaphors of life. His poems are, to some extent, an epiphany where existence precedes essence. Interestingly, the book is dedicated to the wandering minstrels (bauls) who dedicate their lives in search of their beloved (moner manush). For Sengupta too, life is an eternal quest and he has portrayed myriad shades of our existence within the poetic frame.

If poetry is an expression of life, Sengupta’s poems stand out for depicting the divergent roads—from dark alleys to luminous lanes. The unrhymed verses stand out to portray the bewitching and the fascinating, and readers feel the tremor while going through the turbulent poetic waves. As found in “On the Richter Scale”: “4 on the Richter scale sits comfortably on the human body. A scattered crowd walks on the street. Roadside lamps romance with their acrylic veneers. Doused Banyan trees await desiccation. West side of the footpath marks the ghettos. Here the residues burn.” And later again, “The veil dissolves. A mirror bathes in glassy water to reflect light. The sea longs for a rendezvous. Desolation stands still. The Richter scale fails to respond.”

Sengupta absorbs the subtleties of life with a painter’s eye and words come out in “full throated ease.” The lilting flow of verses pinpoints at the roots, the poet’s affinity with his family gushes out with a hidden sense of loss, and the apparent simplicity of his verses, at times, hints at a profound sense of unease: “I return after a year. The room is full of dust, the floor smeared with thick silt; the mirror on the wall is glued to ripped paint, and it deceives. Several prominent lips on cups and plates . . . cigarette butts stick out from the water jar . . . the filth radiates intimate odor” (“Comeback”). Sengupta’s search for roots reminds us of Indian-English poets like A. K. Ramanujan, Nissim Ezekiel, and Kamala Das who suffered from a sense of alienation, their poems reflecting an earnest desire to return to the roots. In “Male,” he writes:

I find myself connected
when my child says Baba.

Moments of intimacy surface
when my wife wants me to listen.

Mother makes sense
when she calls me son.

Performing the last rites
adds to the legacy.

These self-revelatory lines from the poem mark him as an Indian poet trying to strengthen the filial bond, thereby adhering to the poetic tradition of his predecessors. Sengupta’s collection is a fervent appeal to cling to rituals—customs and beliefs that enable us to nurture our values. His subtle poetic touch reaches crescendo when he shares his utmost private moments in verses. In “Observance 1,” Sengupta says:

Visitors, who checked
in to see my father post-surgery,
appeared stressed.
After his discharge several came home.
Eyes moistened, they wished him Godspeed.
All of us except Baba knew . . .
Ma informed him months later.

No one pays a call anymore.
Three decades. . . .

Along these lines, Joseph Campbell, American mythologist, professor, and writer, says:

A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow.

While analyzing Sengupta’s poems, one finds a tenuous undertone of myths and rituals pointing to the exploration of human psyche. An apt example is “Kalpavriksha”: “Trees are girdled by threads of trust. They / evolve to be imperturbable. Grounded on / earth and its evil, prepares them for prayers.”

The poems in this collection unmistakably present ritual as an integral part of our existence where the sacred evolves out of the “yard of courtesans” (“When God is a Woman”), which is wonderfully juxtaposed with the brutality of our male-dominated society. Nirbhaya, being an innocent victim, is depicted in “The Untold Saga”:

That you are worshipped in earth
gave no relief to gasping Nirbhaya.

She was scourged by scoundrels
who dug into her body parts.

She followed death,
thus could not create an epic.

Sengupta’s verses pour in spontaneously. He bleeds and the apparent physiological features come out with an innate realization in “Observance 4”: “Pregnancy and motherhood are inseparable. Childlessness finds therapies and centers endorsing Tagore on display: Amar hiyar majhe lukiyechhile.”

The poet questions the age-old customs where women are still accused for giving birth to a girl-child, with a complete negation of the X factor, leading to female feticide. “Y-Gene” portrays Sengupta’s wish for a girl-child:

My friends were aware of the wish I nurtured.
If I had a daughter,
I would name her Srividya!           

[. . .]

My wife’s desires were girly too.
She wished to drape her daughter
in frilly dresses.

[. . .]

My son is at school.
It’s a co-education convent.
After school he tells his mother,
Girls sit on the left side.

Sengupta’s collection is draped in cryptic insight where the poet envisions rituals as something inherent, which “do not add to our credos” (“Faith”). He alludes to Hindu mythology, the Kalpavriksha being a symbol of wish-fulfillment. The hegemony of male-dominated society has been put into question and the societal norms have been dealt with a firm conviction to usher in a new era, as in “Anam weds Azhar”:

The invitation read:
Anam Weds Azhar

I was prompt to point at the line,
and asked whether the names
should have appeared in the reverse order.

In the course of nikah the bride is asked first
whether she willingly accepts the groom,
quipped his wife.

Change is inevitable and Sengupta himself sets out as a wandering minstrel to bring out the inner psyche within the poetic canvas. His poems, vibrant with an insatiable zest for life, give readers a healing touch, silence plays the flute, and readers plunge into “solitary stillness” where poetry pervades. “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words,” says Robert Frost. Rituals, too, is a revelation where emotions flow like a cascade, to spill over in verses. Sengupta has braided the pearls to bring out this rare gem which harps on the strings of emotions to the core. He seeks recluse in verses, his passionate soul longing for “salvation.” Rituals has also shown how heartrending prose poems can be with befitting images and poetic overtures. Sengupta’s pen touches upon a variety of themes, keeping intact an underlying harmony. This collection unobtrusively pinpoints the poet’s versatility, which elevates Rituals to the sublime where Sengupta can find his moner manush in verses.

About the Reviewer

Devika Basu is a high school English teacher, bilingual poet, translator, and a lover of Spanish literature. She loves to explore the hidden treasures of different literary genres, with a special focus on poetry. Her published works include four books of poems. Her pen scribbles the diverse aspects of life; Devika has traveled extensively and she would like to walk across the inroads of life with poetry.