STRANGE FLIGHTS OF THE EARTHY KIND

Review by: Debasish Lahiri

From the Wrong Room

Tapas Bandopadhyay
Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2021
65 Pages
Hardback, ₹ 200 INR
 
Calling us to the things of this world, isn’t that what maps do? – Ideas sit on the brittle shoulders of poets, like over-sized angles, and sing their praise to forgetfulness. Anxiety wracks the poet. The burden of angels – angels of memory, angels of forgetfulness – unbalances him. Tapas Bandopadhyay shrugs angels off with élan. His From the Wrong Room buries the anxiety of vivifying the past – from the brief, coruscating, meteorite days of Leftist revolutionary fervor in the early 1970s to the harrow-in-the-marrow of Kolkata (the hurricane Amphan & the Covid19 virus) in early 2020. Bandopadhyay rather concentrates on himself. The cartouche of his experiences form a map of half-a-century of the city, the country and the world.
 
Bandopadhyay’s Preface, etched with a Borgesian economy and profundity, should surely have been the titular poem of this collection. Its precision, wisdom and self-deprecating sententiousness carefully chiseled into a circular, inevitable philosophical refrain – why rooms go wrong and why wrong rooms afford the right view of the world – make it a masterly prose-poem.
 
               But at the end of it all, all that remains are the impressions
               of the bright house. The feelings you felt in the right house.
               And that is all that there is to all of this.
 
The Preface fits the start of a stream of individual, emotionally intense, but craftily controlled meditations on life, love, longing, despair and anger in the collection. It is essential to an understanding of this story-telling in verse that unfolds in Bandopadhyay’s collection.
 
From the Wrong Room is not about tarot card or fortune-cookie philosophy by fits-and-starts. It is hard earned, hard-edged, bearing in equal measure the rigour of labour and the levity of imaginative ease. The dew-drop taper of the sandstone nose of a Gandharvi on the walls of a temple in Khajuraho is no accident. Stone does not pout or sniff with lips and noses, but an artist’s sinew mines it for cavernous desire or grace. Words can be as hard as stones. Bandopadhyay shows us how hard it is to craft words, how difficult and unyielding as stone they can become. Yet, he also shows us what delightful artefacts words can become once those word-stones are given their taper: once they become touchstones of our ideas.
His words are, thus, no accident.
 
In his very first poem in the collection, “Is”, the nose of the Gandharvi emerges, tapered, piquant as wisdom, from the truculence of stone-words:
 
            Have worked it out
            that only the light
            is.                               
 
Bandopadhyay’s long apprenticeship in the smithy of poetry allows him to work out these simple, yet abiding riddles of time and light, that we in haste christen as the ‘mundane’ as we pursue that mirage of novelty. The true poet knows that the pause in his incessant travels must come beside an empty well. Contemplation of its stone-bottom sounds like cool, green-algae water and behold, a moment of incomparable beauty is nigh.
 
         Better water than
         stony bottom of the well.
         Look how the moon breaks.
                                                                        (“Just Before…”)
Tapas Bandopadhyay’s poetry has not missed out on the rage of the demotic idiom – the turns of sophisticated corporatized English-speak are speckled with just the hint of ventriloquist evocations of mining district suns (in modern day Jharkhand) and grime-humour that shrugs the lemon and Earl Grey Englishness off words. The energy and ennui of breathless, cultic youth in the 70s and 80s in Kolkata, the joys of losing, the deciphering of flint and iron love in an atonal self-flagellation also has a demotic shape in Bandopadhyay’s lines.
 
                  I’ve burnt my real wings
                  and taught myself
                  to obey the rules
                  of gravity.
                  …
                  Now what is left to burn?
                                                                  (“Nothing left to burn”)
 
From the Wrong Room is also testament to the ubiquity of vers libre, although contrary to critical diagnoses it does not kill the poetry by reducing its memorability. Some of the most memorable lines in the collection arrive on the crest of a free-verse stanza in the poem “Morning”: “Don’t look at the clock, or the day will break.” What begins as the indolent, almost vacuously timeless moment of morning, before it slides into the routine of work, ends with the rising of the stars in the evening: the hunt for a bit of serenity having traversed the interim between sunlight and starlight.
 
            Jobs have to be paced.
            “Going to office,” is falling off the shelf.
            “Meditation,” runs off to the street.
            The walk will have to find
            An evening when work has left at six
            And it doesn’t rain.
 
Bandopadhyay’s voice in the collection is a neutral one. No mean feat for a poet because very often one finds practitioners of verse dragooned into a self-presentation that toadies to the reader and traps him/her in a formulated persona – unfailingly sensitive, modestly touched by venial guilt, but invariably charming. The voice that resounds in From the Wrong Room is an objective one, carefully inflected at crucial moments to register, a flicker only, of that which “passeth show”.
 
            When I turned back
             Emptiness sizzled on a rock
             Drowned
             In the thirsty cooing of a koel
 
             As if she had never been.
 
                                                               (“Now I see you, now I don’t”)
 
In fine, Bandopadhyay watches the same light that we all do, but differently. His is the fine ability to find that pip of darkness lodged at the heart of the daily fruit of light. The oddness of the everyday finds pride of place in his poetry. With streetlights “wrapped in fog” he notices how the “pavement mistakes nine for zero”, he stumbles upon the fact that a contortion of fingers can “beckon in Tamil” and that the “eyes of Krishna’s cows” can also bear witness to the “heavy tempests of life”. The heraldry of poetic vision does not sunder him from the pain of realizing how close the afternoon light is to the abrasion of sandpaper and how near the sylvan dream sits to the counting table of life’s ledgers. Like Eliot’s Prufrock who sees his own severed head brought before him on a platter, like the head of St. John, the Baptist, a “white-haired Tapas” who “crosses to the bar” at some watering hole on Park Street and who like “Calcutta” comes out “best in diffused shades of grey” realizes:
 
           An execution took place
           And my severed head
           Was abandoned to cry for itself.
                                                                                  (“Commemoration”)
 
A singularly arresting and accomplished first collection from Tapas Bandopadhyay, From the Wrong Room does not promise to sew up the moon in seven syllables, but parse the thousand syllables of driftage across broken, difficult contours of life into poetry.  

***

 

Author: Tapas Bandopadhyay

Tapas grew up in various railway towns in eastern India and in a Calcutta torn by political strife in the early 90s. He graduated in Mining Engineering from the Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University (now IIT-BHU) and spent his youth working in the coal mines of what is now Jharkhand.

His poems have been published in the 8th Day Supplement of The Statesman, Calcutta, Shot Glass, The Brown Critique, Prosopisia, the anthology A Breath of Verses and elsewhere.

***

 

Reviewer: Debasish Lahiri

Debasish Lahiri is an Assistant Professor in English literature at Lal Baba College, under the University of Calcutta. His writings on Postcolonial theory, Indian, American, African & Australian Poetry, and European Modernism have been published in international journals and anthologies of criticism.

He has delivered Keynote & Plenary Talks on Poetry at leading Universities in India. Abroad, he has been invited to speak at Manchester Metropolitan University; University of Paris Nanterre, University of Grenoble Alpes and University of Paris 13 among others.

He has one collection of essays Chiaroscuro Curfew: Essays in the Lives of Art (2020), a co-edited book, Literary Transactions in a Globalized Context (2010), and one co-authored book, Tragic Survivals: From the Hellenic to the Postmodern (2017) to his credit.

Lahiri is an internationally acclaimed poet. His poems have been widely published in journals like The Journal of the Poetry Society of India, Muse-India, Indian Literature, Inkapture, The Poetry Salzburg Review, Mediterranean Poetry, Weber: The Contemporary West, Six Seasons Review, Byword, The Punch Magazine and The French Literary Review among others; in French translation in Siècle 21, Europe, Recours au Poème & La Traductière; and in Portuguese in NERVO: Colectivo de Poesia.

His four books of poetry are: First Will & Testament (Writers Workshop, 2012), No Waiting like Departure (Authors Press, 2016) which was shortlisted as one of the five best collections of that year by Scroll & India Today, Tinder Tender: Poems of Love & Loitering (Authors Press, 2018) and Poppies in the Post & Other Poems (Authors Press, 2020).

Paysages sans Verbes (Landscape Without Verbs), a French translation of his selected poetry was published in May, 2021 from Edítions Apic, (Algiers/Paris). 

Legion of Lost Letters, a collection of narrative poems on common lives in Roman Britain is due to be published in 2022 from Black Spring Press, UK.

Lahiri is currently on the editorial board of Gitanjali & Beyond (Scottish Centre for Tagore Studies). He is a reviewer and regular contributor to the ‘Life & Letters’ column of The Statesman newspaper. Lahiri’s essay on the pandemic in Kolkata appeared in the L’Obs magazine on 27th July 2021.

(https://www.nouvelobs.com/bibliobs/20210727.OBS46970/calcutta-en-2021-entre-nos-quartiers-calmes-et-le-grouillement-des-malades-dans-les-hopitaux-nous-sommes-perdus.html)

Lahiri is the recipient of the Prix-du Merite, Naji Naaman Literary Prize 2019. He is an honorary member of Maison Naaman pour la Culture.

***


No comments :

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।