Candice Louisa Daquin
It’s hard to place the infusion of senses you get when reading modern Indian poetry but there is an intangible distinction that is entirely different to Western poetry. I would say it is a redolence of intent. A depth that doesn’t easy permeate the West. Perhaps in the very subtle observation from a radically different vantage point. World travelers may decry this observation and say; No! The modern Indian woman is every bit on par with a Western woman. However, that’s not the point I’m making. This is not about equality or exposure, knowledge or equity. If anything, many Indian women excel and fly over the shoulders of their Western counterparts.
No, this is about the soul and spirit. Hence why it is intangible and difficult to explain. I can only say it’s not even about being fluent in language, though perhaps speaking an Indian based language first and foremost, lends the translation a quality that other language speakers do not possess. I think it is best summed up in quotes, suffice to say, a Western writer would probably not say: “like a woman in delirium” or “when I failed to write / a few couplets for the rain.” (Some things never end). I’m really glad an Indian poet does.
It is the relationship between the woman and nature, how she observes, how she pays homage to her surroundings, her relationship with herself and others, there’s just something radically different and if you read a lot of poetry you begin to ‘feel’ it more than you acknowledge it logically. It escapes distinct clarification. As I understand it, this is a cultural nuance that belongs to a continent or country, place in time or culture. Not all Indians are the same, nor are all Indian women the same. Cultural variety is startling and endless in India, making other countries look quite plain faced in comparison. Aside the obvious religious and language differences,
India looks and feels different depending upon where you live. If you write from one part of India, you sound and feel differently to writing from another. Until these things are taken into consideration, along with the superb education system offered those fortunate enough to enter it, you are so far from the West and it’s dropping of values, as you can get. As Westerners read less, and when they do, read less substantively, many Indians I meet envelop themselves in the classics and have that rich legacy through literature that may have existed for some at the turn of the 20th century. You can tell when you talk with someone who knows those classics, who can pinpoint the evolution of writing through the ages, and is deeply influenced by writers few read today, that this will impact their writing and it does.
What is especially impressive and thrilling in Oindri Sengupta’s collection; After the fall of a cloud – is that awareness of language and how to use naturalistically a wide and sumptuous array of words and descriptors. At its heart, this is poetry, and yet, many forms of modern poetry appear to forget this and seek to be confessional without heed to language, or disjointed, for the sake of it, or adhere to form without a heart brimming with a love for words. When a poet pours themselves onto the page and evokes their favorite words to describe the world around them and within them, they set us alight with their evocation and we become part of that journey. I rarely feel this when reading short Westernized poetry. When I do it’s because I’m reading an acclaimed author. Oindri Sengupta may not yet have achieved that rank, but she has the same gravitas and intensity to her writing that I am drawn to re-read many of her poems for their sheer emotive pull:
“In our house lives a sorrow. / When the rain had last forgotten to arrive, / it came through our western window, / perched on our floor and when we walk, / it gathers as sweat around our toes.” (In our house).
Granted, there may be an element of privilege to any Indian writer fluent in English who achieves publication, but isn’t that a universal trend? When I published The Kali Project, an anthology of Indian female poets, I didn’t know it would stir a debate over privilege, and the exclusion of those Indian female writers who didn’t speak English (why should they?) or those impoverished and unable to submit. We were asked if The Kali Project represented all Indian women. Of course not. Nothing can hope to achieve that. We hoped we created a conversation where a larger conversation could be born. I think that’s all any writer can hope for, and it’s a worthy hope.
I didn’t know Oindri Sengupta’s work at this juncture, but had I, I would have included her work in The Kali Project for the value and beauty of her poetic voice. We should be careful not to discount work simply because the author has some privilege, we don’t truly know what brought a person to this point or what they have endured, and if we’re going to be inclusive, that means accepting voices on merit as much as ensuring there is inclusion and diversity. Without knowing anything about Oindri Sengupta’s life, I can find in her work a purity you don’t often find, where the poet is completely unselfconscious and simply presents her second-sight into emotions and life, like a clairvoyant:
“Some paths lead to the marigolds and magnolias / where the gardener lifts the dawn from her hair, / and I become the night.” (Nectar of ashes).
It is that clairvoyance of observation that marks a poet from other forms of writing. Poetry incapsulates the intensity and moment in a way no other writing can, and this is why we use it to describe extreme moments but also softer ones that are lent gravitas by its medium. Much like a song can evoke such emotion, a poem has the same urging and longing, it can sweep you into its world and harness your emotions like a reflex
“The dark horses of sun, / ride over the shores of night / to paint the blue dawn with feathers of sorrow.” (Pure as sorrows).
I have learned in recent years, having edited much Indian poetry, that the English language as explored and translated through India, is different. Many Indians will use antiquated or unusual turns of phrase, that are not grammatically used in the West such as the typical ‘I will revert to you’ at the close of a letter. You can understand exactly what is being said, but it is being said differently, as if the words were put in a jar with Indian soil and Indian colors and Indian air, and rolled around before being spoken. I find this a gorgeous translation of an otherwise plain language (English).
I too learned English as a foreign language, I can deeply appreciate the nuance of a native language, being filtered through the mastery of a second (or 3rd, 4th, 5th) language. It has a spice within it that marks it unique and beautiful in an entirely different way. So, when you may not typically say ‘pure as sorrows’ plural, nonetheless it works because it is poetry and because it is poetry written by an Indian woman in English. The accomplishment of doing this often better than native speakers must not be ignored, nor the dizzying embodiment of contrasting cultures, able to be melded together.
“Sky used to be younger then, / and had a voice of its own. / It was that voice, which first taught me to sing, / and my loneliness soon turned into a song.” (Birth).
If I haven’t illustrated this adequately it’s because as much as anything, it is a sensation, a feeling, much like dancing or singing, that you simply have to experience by inhabiting the language and proffered world of the poet. I find myself transported into a rich landscape of unimaginable beauty, where the poet is inspired by the inanimate and spiritual as much as she is the tangible and physical. How many of us in the West can embrace that duality of existence so naturally without seeming false or trite? Even when the poet writes about something seemingly banal, there are layers that are anything but:
“Reality gives life an illusory reality. / And we move on/ towards the morning table / where tea is being laid. / We meet as strangers / in this island of nowhere, / playing merry-go-round / with our masked identities.” (Strange Meetings).
My interpretation of this poem is not ‘a strange meeting’ of meeting strangers and feeling awkward, it speaks to far more. This is about existence, the layers of which we barely fathom and our ‘castrated emotions’ are unable to free us from this feeling of incompleteness. With the lines ‘reality gives life an illusory reality’ there is the clever contradiction (because surely if we reach reality we cannot be in illusion) of knowing what we deem ‘real’ is illusion at best and no such thing as (truly knowing) can be found. It is about our dance around with masks and illusion, attempting to gain entrance (know someone else) and the challenges of feeling ‘strange’ when we ought to feel comfortable. I found that poem deeply true and prescient, as well as possessing the clever observation of a real thinker.
I am also a fan of understated melancholy and I find Indian women poets excel in this genre, perhaps because overt melancholy is frowned upon or judged, so the medium of poetry and its natural inveiglement, enable the poet to use poetry as a confessional without needing to over sell the point. That subtle melancholy acts more like a haunting than an outraged cry, and though it is popular to do ‘angry outrage’ poems, and I love many of them, I also appreciate the gentler approach and feel it has as much power because the message is still conveyed, though without needing to shout it:
“I do not call it despair, / as it is the wind / that borrowed the light from me / to break itself into a song.” (When the wind broke into a song).
Surely that is the gift a poet brings, enabling us to appreciate say, a sadness, without needing to show it in all its gore. The subtle poet has perhaps been replaced slightly by her louder sisters, but I believe there is much value to be found in other modes of expression, not least what is not given, what is left to the imagination. The subtlety of this approach creates a hungering, which a poem that lays it all out, doesn’t possess. Sometimes giving hints and tastes of the subject and depth of subject, creates as much of a complete picture as we need to get the message and impact from a piece of writing:
“Now when all is lost, / I have filled my hands with the gifts of losses / to create another night, / where winter will ascend the stairs of my shoulders / and give me rains to fly.” (When all is lost).
Personally, I love that approach and find myself almost becoming detective to Oindri Sengupta’s querying words. It creates a unique relationship between reader and poet, one that leaves a deep impression. I am left with many questions, to consider many avenues, and this is as it should be. A poet need not give everything of herself to leave an impression, but rather, the amuse-bouche of wordplay necessary to pique the thinker into making the journey. With its heady evocation of our senses, After the fall of a cloud by Oindri Sengupta accomplishes this deftly.
4th May 2022
CANDICE LOUISA DAQUIN is an Egyptian/French Sephardi immigrant to America, working as a Psychotherapist and Editor. Daquin co-edited The Kail Project and SMITTEN, two award-winning poetry anthologies from Indian women poets and lesbian poets respectively. She worked in publishing for many years in Europe. Her latest book Tainted by the Same Counterfeit is due out September 2022 by Finishing Line Press. www.thefeatheredsleep.com