Redefining the canon - Radical art and craft of Kiriti Sengupta

Brief meditation on his book of prose poems: Reflections on Salvation

- By Sunil Sharma

Reflections on Salvation
Reflections on Salvation
Kiriti Sengupta
Published by Transcendent Zero Press [Houston, Texas] in July, 2016
ISBN: 9780996270465
Price: 8.00 US Dollars

Kiriti Sengupta, a dental surgeon from Kolkata, is industry-trained to deftly operate by digging deep into nano regions. Probing the rough surfaces in circular manner, inside-outside, in quick seconds within an open mouth, requires patience, observation and skill of a high order. Peeling off the enamel, filling up the cavities and decay in complicated procedures with a pair of nimble hands and few gadgets — is challenging for both the doctor and the patient; for the latter, a bit more, as it involves personal space for the inspection of a foreign body. But the end-result is worth the costly ordeal. You get clarity and relief in an hour or so, reclined on the chair, a soft medium in the expert hands of a person in white; pleased with the state of temp nirvana, post-consultation. The doctor-assisted process is intricate—

Relief from pain

[About your disease, from the specialist]

And a regimen to avoid frequent visits and the daunting prospect of getting teeth pulled out or in, with mouth open but gagged. Majority listens to the advice and acts accordingly to avoid an unavoidable repeat performance … or until the time, it can be further postponed.

Kiriti Sengupta is no ordinary surgeon. He is a globally recognized writer, editor, blogger, columnist, interviewer, promoter… and these days, a sage poet dispensing gyan [wisdom] to those seeking escape from pain and suffering, but this time, of different scale — caused by/to mind and soul.

Reflections on Salvation [RoS] is a handbook of a sort for the hurried. Or, is it a help book? Or, is it a string of pearls that in a bland syntax, literary journalists might opt to call wisdom?

No coincidence that it is your favorite dental surgeon, who is often tasked with the job of extracting that last tooth [third molar] giving lot of discomfort and some insight/hindsight into the existential suffering inherited in general by human body in an otherwise violent and absurd world of mall-killings, suicide bombers and sectarian cleansing! Wisdom! Wisdom tooth, and the dental surgeon, as your typical angel, is on the call.

No doubt, Marquez dedicated one of his magic-realist short fictions to — whom else, but a dental surgeon in a troubled part of the world. And Marquez devotees love that story.

The same set of cognitive, mental and visual skills combined with dexterity is brought into play by the artist Kiriti in his latest offering, the RoS. The scientific, medical, poetic and speculative side of a scholar gets enmeshed in this line of inquiry manifest in the book published in the United States. From evaluation to enlightenment; decay to restoration; pain to relief; inside to outside in a circular motion, and finally, a few of gleaming pearlies that reflect back from the coated surface. In the present context, a series of glittering words that render new insights into the very nature of reading/writing/cognition and praxis. The entire procedure is minimal and non-invasive and leads to heightened clarity.

Kiriti Sengupta
Reflections on Salvation is a verbal probe into the perplexing duality of the past/present; the dynamics of heritage/contemporaneity; sacred/sacrilege; tradition/modernity; word/meaning; signifier/signified; construct/constructed and de-constructed for another re-construction in an endless play.

Through the book of “random” thoughts, Kiriti undertakes and destabilizes the very act of hermeneutics and sets up the democratic right of the well-informed reader to assert their right and autonomy of their objective reading of a pluralistic text.

In a way, it recalls the bold gesture of Martin Luther or Galileo in resisting the official hierarchies involved in the solitary act of reading texts or interpreting things held sacred by the politics of a given era.

Kiriti is here on a demolition job. Working on a stream of ideas like Joyce but in a different direction, Kiriti questions the authority and weight of opinion accumulated carefully by a Brahiminical system of regulation of thought; a hegemonic structure of policing and power over national imagination and collective perception of reality as evidenced in great texts. He interrogates the rituals, chants, thread, holy books, color code — the entire signifying system of the Hinduism, analyzed in small paragraphs called chapters, in total eighteen.

It is Zen-kind of meditation triggered by insignificant things that lead to most significant insights, views on a hoary past informing our present through a clutch of symbolic practices designed to perpetuate an outdated order of moral authority and sacredness for a priestly class, out of sync with a tech society with its own mythologies.

In simple prose, Kiriti deftly delivers the key results, working on nano spaces and decaying surfaces of our communal existence.

Take this parable called “Third Molar:”

“A woman came to my clinic with a carious wisdom tooth. She had severe pain and wanted immediate relief. I made the tooth numb by lignocaine. Once relieved the woman became insistent and said that she wanted to save the affected tooth. I had to decline and prescribed a few medicines that would eliminate inflammation in the first place. I advised her to return after five days and get her tooth removed. She didn't agree and named a few modern procedures that might help her. She even questioned my skill, “Aren't you aware of atraumatic restorative treatment?”

I could not help it; I smiled and said, “Trauma necessarily precedes wisdom!” (page 6)

This is illustrative! A doctor and his mundane world of instruments, light, sedatives and suffering patients in search of instant relief in a well-equipped dental studio; a sharp intellect searching for answers in that clutter and deadening routine, and, finding the perfect answer to the riddles of the complex universe, in a wisdom tooth.
Again, the binary of insignificant/significant gets reversed and its arbitrary nature revealed through such an investigation of truth. The conclusion is beautiful: “Trauma necessarily precedes wisdom!”

This is a classic Zen-moment: A Zen epiphany. Call it by any name. The truth is couched as a simple one liner … short … succinct ... luminous — like a rain drop, detached from heavens and resting on a blade of grass in a lonely meadow, away from highway and its machine madness.

Surrounded by the tools of his craft/trade, Kiriti articulates the benefits of pain to a disciple-like figure: Better awareness of the universe is obtained through most unlikely routes, in this case, a molar. Baby Krishna showed the cosmic reality to his mother in his widely opened mouth!

That pain, trauma and death are the springs of religion and philosophy are a well-known fact. Siddartha knows this the most. Operating in that environment, Kiriti ponders over human condition like an adept and comes up with his own manifesto in the form of the illuminating RoS. Take another look on color saffron:

“Why do we commission a priest to worship the household gods? I wonder if we are not capable enough to perform the action on our own. We are perhaps glued to the sacred thread, the holy shaligram, and we nurture the very thought of listening to the loud chants of the religious verses. Aren't we cursed badly by ourselves?

Saffron adds color and flavor to certain delicacies, but when it shows up on your attire, I find you saintly pious. It is all in my mind that has been grossly tuned to accept and refuse the effects of the colors they carry within. I'm telling you, with saffron comes sannyas or renunciation, and with renunciation arrives attachment. Attachment with the world, attachment with domesticity, or may be the gods.

How does one become a monk? Is it by renouncing the fruits of actions one undertakes? Even the gods invite dependence, and remember, they are considered superior to the saints! (“Saffron”, page 1)

In this engaging candid conversation with a reader, Kiriti lays out the contours of the map beforehand, in the introductory chapter. Here is the essence of the journey surmised for writer and reader:

“The Geeta has been interpreted by many scholars, saints and monks down the ages. One considers another wrong or b vad. One interpretation invites another, and it has been observed that what once had been referred to as a right interpretation, has later been criticized as a misinterpretation. Why do we need an interpretation of the verses as contained in The Geeta? The verses are meant to be read, absorbed, felt, and followed, and one would need an enlightened Master or Guru to guide followers. Even the Masters differ while explaining the teachings of the scripture, and who am I to utter the final words? I have no intention to start an exclusive lineage of devotees, come on!

Scripture does not allow one to be judgmental. Scriptural verses deserve contemplation, and Reflections on Salvation is a work of literature, spread across eighteen short chapters, which hopefully stir the age-old notion about sacrifice, renunciation and salvation. [“Have You Secured a Happy Afterlife?” page iv]

Kiriti’s prose is deceptively innocuous, especially the last line that declares that the writing intends to “stir’ the age-old notion about sacrifice, renunciation and salvation. It, indeed, does. It stirs the concoction skillfully and serves the stir-fried meal for hungry soul. What is sacred? What is reading? Are the values of the ancient religion, Santana Dharma, of The Geeta relevant in a materialistic world; a world of consumption and instant gratification, in a global market where every item gets neatly labeled and sold to that segment of interested consumers?

What is the autonomy of an enlightened reader in this packaged and pre-ordered universe? Can rites be re-interpreted? Can such a meditation be called literary? Or, philosophy? Can random thoughts — stream of consciousness carefully manipulated, cultivated, edited, designed and then published in that beckoning capitalist nation U.S.A. ---be called art or serious writing? Is speculation an art? Philosophy?

Sunil Sharma
Well, to me, here lies Kiriti’s genius. He re-defines the boundaries and the canon like every serious artist. He is radical in pushing and reformulating the genre and making us see the Keatsian truth in a Grecian urn, despite the opacity/age, on the strength of his sincerity and conviction and a fluid style. Kiriti Sengupta is avant-garde. He announces a kind of writing inaugurated earlier by Woolf and Joyce that challenges the ossified order, traditional narrative, representational modes and ushers in a new way of seeing/reporting/documenting the falling atoms.

In a way, Kiriti subverts the writing process also and de-centers the old ways of thinking/seeing by heralding New Writing that is enthusiastic, bubbly, ecstatic and questioning the old modes and searching for new answers to some fundamental questions of civilization. Through RoS, he attempts a new poetics of existence, human condition, through a restrained lyricism and spiritual debate and produces a revamped episteme about scriptures held dear by a culture and its managers for their own monopoly and survival in a caste society, on the brink of transformation by economic and tech forces. The RoS is Baconian in its insistence on knowing the nature of reason and Sartrean for trying to understand the nature of being and choice-freedom in a circumscribed world, over-determined. The book is a new renaissance valorizing the individual and placing that Rousseau-figure over and above tradition and the belief that our inner reason, conscience, is capable of realizing the sacred within: “They say God dwells within!” (“Salvation,” page 18)

Human agency: It is an assertion of humanism over the stranglehold of stale custom and hierarchical religion and liturgy.

The style is poetic that is resonant. The descriptions are lucid and brief for a reader on a go. The RoS is modern classic that refuses to be pigeonholed and thus, destabilizes the very artificial nature of canon-formation; categorization; labeling of intellectual discourse, its boundaries and taxonomy practices by a culture ready for branding/selling every experience. It is a book for the quester willing to navigate global pathways to new knowledge. The surgeon and artist delivers … a Savant-sage has arrived!

(This review was earlier carried in Transcendent Zero Press, USA.)