Saima Afreen’s Sin of Semantics: A journey into magic realist fantasy and a chronotope of absence

Review by: Deeptesh Sen

Book Details:
Title: Sin of Semantics
Publisher: Copper Coin
Year of publication: 2019

Price: Rs 299

Saima Afreen’s debut collection of poems, titled Sin of Semantics, takes the reader on a journey through a dreamscape of magic realist fantasy. Every movement, every brushstroke and every allusion is carefully sculpted so that the transition from one image to another is often seamless, magical and carried out with an effortless mastery.

Afreen’s poetry is heavy on images that create rich paintings, with the colours spinning on a wheel to create magical images. Each image is beautiful and fleeting as it morphs into the next one at a breathtaking pace. The transition is often radical but it brings about a willing suspension of disbelief so that it leaves you gasping for more.

In ‘Shab-e-Qadr’ for instance, the sunset is sliced thin like butter paper the size of a school workbook and the starlit sky marks clear prophecies.

Deeptesh Sen
He too slept
under the net of stars that were clear
till he destroyed it with speech
within which grows a door and then another door
embraced by bakhoor forests.

Sweet scents move within sleeping bodies
like babies smiling in exile
tasting deserts, then milk.

The fake star from my mother’s dress catches light
as she tosses between silks, shifting between souls 

In Afreen’s dreamscape, ‘metaphors rain, mingling with the green waters’, ‘the moon
drowns herself in the water lilies of Monét’ and ‘flowers in transparent glass turn into perfume’ like the last act of survival as the sky collapses. To traverse this dreamscape is to travel through heightened sensory perceptions into a world of ethereal and sublime beauty. It is a beauty that enthrals and at that same time strikes terror with its power of fantasy.

Every sight, sound and smell comes together in these poems to create a Bakhtinian chronotope where time and space meet and melt away as you transcend the banal and travel into the realm of the ethereal. Yet the divergence is never absolute; rather the two are intertwined like in a Mobius strip. It is this seamless transition from one world to another, the presence of the ethereal in the everydayness of being that lends the magical quality to these poems.

Fairy lights swallow
the shine of glacé cherries
the reflection of white cakes
dancing on clear glass,
the way its glint partitions
the rest of the world
from the world within
lit up with Hanukkah candles

Saima Afreen
Two angels drop tears
on wide shoulders
their pens move, their mouths don’t
they count the angels within, the soft haze, the whisper
from split wicks, dry blood.

What make the images richer are allusions that refer to a wide gamut of places, folklore and literary classics. Afreen’s poems travel through and across Greek mythology, Russian classics as well as the magical lands of Persia, Palestine and Kashmir.

At times, these magical lands also bring with them their troubled geographies of map-making and neocolonial violence. People turned into prisoners in their own land, these places with idyllic landscapes also bear the sad history of robbed childhoods and ‘butchered lullabies’.

Do not long for the moon.
It will be cremated
By wolves in khaki:
Guards of ‘Peace’!

The thud
Of their boots
Tramples upon the wails
Reverberating from the red carpet
Of fresh blood
On streets.

Afreen paints a chilling picture of Kashmir filled with unburied shrieks of beheaded dolls, smashed skulls and crushed butterflies. Even children who would rather play with crayons have been robbed of their childhood — red is the only colour they know of. It is like the Syrian child in ‘A Small White Balcony in Banjara Hills’ who does not know ‘the difference between a refugee camp and his sister’s dollhouse’.

Like in ‘Survival’, each poem in this collection carries petals rich with metaphors of possibility. Each petal has a story to tell and a world to show, but also carries with it the promise of a missed future. Peel away the layers and colours from this dreamscape and you will find stories of unhurried nostalgia for a past that has been irretrievably lost.

Therefore, the charpoy that grandmother left behind becomes a tapestry of absences, its each rope carrying the DNA of lost maps and the sad history of Partition.

 There she is again in the shadows
of a white cotton sari, sitting,
smiling on the charpoy she
chose from her father’s house
as a 13-year-old bride when red
was the only colour she knew—

then she saw her house near the border
of Pakistan: a white square fading
in an orange dusk. All that was left in her eyes
was the print of barbed wires and prayers on her lips,
the rosary moving between her fingers.
The charpoy creaked
under the weight of violence her face sighed,
each rope in its crisscross knew a tale:

The onslaught of absence is sometimes stark and sudden when the poet remembers the couplet by Faiz that her grandfather hummed while picking a sugar cube for his tea. Soon his sweet memory of the couplet unfurls a sense of deeper loss.

The couplet slows down like the train
he alighted from at Nizamuddin.

He looks down at the rim of the cup
the brown water wells up to the top
he has stopped humming, his eyes fixed
on the lips of a young man in a clean shirt
my dad, who also hummed the couplet till
the day he came home:

wrapped in two yards of white.

This absence is one of the recurring undercurrents of these poems — it manifests itself in the form of the portrait of the father in the ‘60s when he ‘waves in his ebony hair/Parts rivers with his pink knuckles’ as he sets time on his HMT watch. The smell of Cherry Blossom Shoe Polish evokes memories of ‘My hands./Held by a ruddy pair firmly. Dad./ Sitting in a sea of shoes. Family feet’. It is the smell of absence wafting from polished shoes. However, the footsteps are fleeting and prints can never be captured; just as they had appeared, they erase quickly.

This absence also manifests itself in the form of remembering a past that is fast vanishing. We are transported to the Calcutta of old, with the old corporation buildings painted red, the silver screen of New Empire cinema hall and the hand-pulled rickshaw. It also makes way for a deeper absence in the textual space as letters splinter and fall, opening up symbolic gaps that can be traumatic to encounter.

Inherited by a sentence
What is it that weeps
Inside the frontier
The rivers and mirrors?

Darkness s p l i n t e r s as my sun

And I—f a l l
Into a
That stems from you

It is the symbolic absence that opens up as the sea polishes the corner of the names written in cursive nastaliq on the shore.

The temptation to get lost in Afreen’s rich dreamscape of metaphors and magic places is indeed alluring, but richer still is the world that lies underneath. This world is different; stripped off the technicolour of butter paper sunset and Monet’s waterlilies, the absences are stark, sudden and endless. Afreen invites the reader to take this journey beyond the colours to endless depths of loss as she writes:

December only remembers snow, not the dead
underneath it.

Author bio: Deeptesh Sen is a PhD student at the department of English in Jadavpur University, Kolkata. His book of poems titled ‘House of Song’ was published by Writers Workshop in 2017. He blogs at

1 comment :

  1. Superb In-depth review! Congratulations to Saima and Deeptesh


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