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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Breaking the Silence  

In his first volume of poetry in English, Odia poet Manu Dash examines daily life set against a larger socio-political canvas.

Updated: December 9, 2019 9:47:48 am
The more remarkable parts of the book are on the sociology of modern work life, that arises from meritocracy.

A Brief History of Silence
Manu Dash
Dhauli Books
96 pages
₹295

A Brief History of Silence is the debut English poetry collection of writer-translator Manu Dash. Dash, who writes both poetry and prose, is well-known in literary circles as the editor of a magazine, the curator of a literary festival and the founder of a publishing house. This experience reflects in this immersive volume of poetry.
One can say that good poetry should not only engage the reader but also raise questions. The Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896- 1982) described it thus: “Annihilate the stillness of evening, it’s unfathomably dark/ Light the lamp of poetry, it’s unfathomably dark…”

This collection, a slim volume with 59 poems, seeks to do precisely that. It annihilates the silence that hangs over our dark times by exploring headlines, both local and global, or by taking a step back and offering a perspective on universal issues. Poem after poem conjures up images made familiar to us by news reports.
Juxtaposed against the facts of daily lives, they bring out the dichotomy between our expectations and reality by skillfully using irony and satire to emphasise the gaps.
Take these lines from the poem Headlines, for instance: “Killings in a temple in Benaras,/ Deaths in the Kashmir valley, The exchange of rhetoric/ In Parliament/ Are all due to the vagaries/ Of the weather,/ Says
the environmentalist.”

Again, consider the poem Alphabet of Silence, where during a meeting, “…The speakers clapped./ The listeners sat/ In stony silence./ …Near the temple’s dark sanctorum/ The priest did not chant his hymns/ That challenged the audacity of the Lord;/ A court’s verdict/ Went against personal interest.”
And look at the satire about present times in the culminating poem, A Parable on Cyclone 2019: “Here goes the white-knuckle parable of our time./ …The cyclone visited our bucolic region./ It drops in more often than taciturn politicians do/ At their
constituencies…”

Although concise, these poems are perfect examples of combining the heaviness of current events with the complexity of seemingly mundane events and tasks. It’s difficult to miss the irony in these poems. The poet uses vivid visuals that then move towards unusual endings. The effect makes one pause and question the inertia that is prevalent across our lives. A classic example is the beginning of the poem, Bus Ride to Puri — “Rain-kissed serpentine road, rain-soaked/ Skins of buffaloes, rain-merged meadows,/ Rain-splashed window shields,/ Rain-wrapped green leaves, rain-drenched/ Cheerleaders of God…”

For those familiar with the route in Odisha, these lines evoke nostalgic memories of the countryside. But, then, the next lines, “Prayer-flags at odd-even time, Rain-splashed Facebook-lovers” suddenly take the readers to a more urban setting. The ending brings out the paradox of tragedy and melancholia even in what is a typical scene viewed from a seemingly simple bus ride: “There was rain all day/ All night, long march of bough-carriers/ All day, all night,/ And God indecisive and unfeeling as ever.”

Even when the poems are describing deeply personal experiences, they arc from the aperture of individual viewpoints to a wider, all-encompassing picture. For example, Paradox covers a narrative that speaks of the compromises and dishonesty pervading our lives, and the irony of it all: “…The village where I was born,/ The smell of delicious mangoes/ Sighted in a thick jackfruit jungle./…My soft-spoken professor,/ An ardent Gandhian,/ Compromises himself/ All along this planet/ For miniscule comforts./ …A suggestion to those/ Who dislike living in irony:/ They fail to fathom/ That life is not as white as the January sun.”

Finally, a word about the beautiful cover design of the book that has been done by the Delhi-based artist Arpana Caur. It draws inspiration from folk art and temple sculptures. The image manages to put the collection into context in the way it describes strife and violence, and yet, paradoxically, the beauty and strength that flowers amid these.
This is a collection of poems that evoke as many questions about contemporary living as it provides answers. After all, the purpose of poetry, as Nanne Coda (12 CE, translated from Telugu by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman) says in a poem: “…An arrow shot by an archer/ or a poem made by a poet/ should cut through your heart,/ jolting the head./ If it doesn’t it’s no arrow, / It’s no poem”.

Jonaki Ray is a writer, poet, and editor in New Delhi

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