The Well-Earned, a recently published collection of poems edited by Kiriti Sengupta, has a resounding polyphonic quality, something that makes anyone attempting a review consider ideas carefully lest they risk a faux pas.
The book seems to be crafted for the moment by the time it was ready, ahead of the 75th year of Indian independence. So, is it a paean to freedom fighters? What would be the worth of the book then, one that claims with controlled restraint that it’s well-earned? Does the title merely echo a veneration to the freedom struggle movement in India? And does it include poems that only reiterate pride in the tricolour that is now free to flutter anytime anywhere after the alteration of the flag code?
To reassure, this isn’t a book of that sort. In its choice of works, Kiriti Sengupta has been unsparing — he hasn’t harboured any illusion about the situation that few dare to talk about in public spaces. However, the book makes its intent clear right with the second poem – Akhila Naik’s ‘Kalahandi’. Readers know this unflinching Dalit writer from Odisha, whose ‘Bheda’ made the headlines in 2008 amid the tumultuous times that would change the course of politics in the country. The Hindu, a leading newspaper in India, compared Naik’s protagonist to a Jignesh Mevani or a Chandrashekhar Azad. Therefore, it cannot be summarily stated that the book adheres to a particular politics. That would give the book a political conviction, and the reader will be left searching for the specific poems that related to revolutionary politics.
Indeed, there are poems in this volume that cater to this need. However, there are also poems that are deeply felt and have the personal refuse any sort of politics. They rather forge a politics out of this indomitable free will (which emerges from the personal) to exist and breathe.
The opening poem in The Well-Earned is a delicate prelude by the editor, Kiriti Sengupta, who begins in his signature style, sparing words where one could use silence. He writes with uncanny ease: “Pearls find a way / back to oysters. / Keep count for / a one-off.”
The theme of death is expressed with so much finality that it does not need to reassert the futility of what has been earned — “ye duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai“. This precision, when found in the poems of this volume, does wonders in keeping the theme coherent. For instance, Amit Shankar Saha begins his poem with a powerful rhetoric — “I would become a martyr of love / if someone’s patriotism leaves me alive.”
The sheer context that goes into the making of these lines bears the burden of history. Every pogrom, every atrocity, every bigoted action is made to ring true. The only places where the volume falters a tad bit is where the academic bias of the poets (a lot of them are from academia) gets the better of them. In one poem, for example, the poet stops to explain the “N-word”, by which he means nationalism. Sure, the reader gets the gravity of the racism issue invoked here, but poetry should not use parentheses to explicate a term. That is a clear flaw in stylisation, the systematic violence that is committed on language when poetry is composed.
Another flaw is when poets are occasionally unmindful of syntax, using technical words without any pressing need. One instance is Bashabi Fraser’s poem, “Freedom’s Call,” where she uses the word “static” to mean “stuck” — “Today I sit in your gilded cage / My wings are static by my side.” Although this is a prose poem, the ultimate dejection brought about by the trochaic pattern in the first line is not complemented by the second, which falls flat on its phonetic assertion.
This is the danger that this collection has mostly avoided, and the academician’s zeal to pack in maximum content can be seen as an exception. Fraser however redeems this flaw with the incantatory narrative of her poem that seems to be ritualistically true.
Sanjukta Dasgupta, another noted professor and a veteran poet, is careful about the form she employs in her verse. Her poem, ‘Farmers’, works with a rhythm that rises either every second or third line. Academicians cannot help referring to other academic works, and Dasgupta refers to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In doing so, she does not make the usage feel extraneous. Her rhetoric rings in the right place for maximum effect. This regard for the craft is something which is often lost in complacency when academics use intertextuality as an adornment.
Perhaps, the most endearing poem of the lot (it isn’t easy to pick just one, of course) is Basudhara Roy’s ‘Plotting a Dream’. By equating freedom to a dream cooked up in the mind, she invokes Salman Rushdie’s chaotic genius in Midnight’s Children. When she writes — “Ageless, it grows, / a fire at which history warms, a flag that / nations spin as on legacy’s loom it changes hands, / a myth cradling every bank in its watery limbs,” Roy combines both—the pledge to continue a struggle that can render an anti-colonial movement meaningful in the long run, and the realisation that meaning only rests in the mind, a place where the straight lines of bliss and reality concur.
To draw the final line, the collection is a kaleidoscope of intellectual exercise that is delightful, to say the least. The Well-Earned is collector’s edition with its distillation of pure talent which is sure to leave the reader wanting for more. To the reader’s delight, most of the poets featured in the collection have a few poetry titles to their credit, so there’s no dearth of material if someone likes to dig in. The trouble will be worth it; this choicest selection is a huge bibliography of contemporary poets who have accomplished what they meant to achieve, without much pomp and clamour, but not without evocative, magical, incisive poetry.
Koushik Sen is Assistant Professor (English) at LJD Law College, West Bengal. His works have been published in Harbinger Asylum, NY Literary Magazine, The Statesman, Lost Coast Review, among other places. Recently, he has been longlisted in The Bombay Review‘s “20 Under 30,” a hunt for the best short fiction writers from South Asia. Sen is an avid book reader and loves to write a review only when he feels like writing for a book.