Sunday, 30 July 2017

The jnani in the poetry of Shanta Acharya

When I was a child the only thing I really associated India with were elephants, tigers and a 
Ladybird early reader on which gleamed phantasmagorical an image of The Taj Mahal. 
I lived in a small town on the North West of Ireland without an Indian restaurant or any 
other cultural signifier of the presence of the other. We had an International Folk Festival
every August during which visitors from other places would perform in the Town Square. 
 My friends and I were avid attenders.
I remember trying to copy the hand movements of some Indian dancers. We surmised
that this grace was synonymous with all Indians, and were more than envious. After all,  
what other country had as symbol a testament of a husband's love for his wife? India had it all
for the girl that I was : tigers, elephants, dancing, and the certainty of adoration in the hazy 
marital future. All these years later, life has widened my lens. Scant knowledge replaced
by the experiential knowledge of writers as diverse as Kipling, Chandra, Seth, The Bombay 
Review until I arrived at the shores of Shanta Acharya. 
This journeying was the backdrop to my own efforts in the fields of poetry, and resulted in a 
trip to London to read from my first book of poetry " The Language of Coats' in Lauderdale
House. This reading was hosted by Shanta, the series of monthly readings called 'Poetry 
in the House'  that took place between 1996 and 2015. And so began for me a journey that
looked at India through the female lens and also as importantly through the lens of reconciling
the differences between two cultures. Born and educated in Cuttack, Odisha, Acharya won a
scholarship to Oxford, where she was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy for her work on Ralph
Waldo Emerson. Harper Collins India has just published " Imagine", which brings together 
poems from her first five collections and new verse, from which the book takes its title.
The poem the collection opens with is from ' Not This, 
Not That' published in 1994, and is titled ' Faith'. 
                 "There are things
                  you need not know

                  my mother once said .."

This is the answer the young poet receives when she
pricks a balloon to discover what is inside. It is the
same answer she receives when she pricks her finger
to discover how she bleeds. This fatalistic worldview
is reiterated in the final verse of this stunning little
poem when they both tell their questing daughter:

                 " There are things

                    you will fail to find..."
The poem's title is in direct opposition to such advice. Although the trope of flying the
nest is well worn, it is the jnana she sets off to find that is the lynch pin of many of the
best poems throughout this book.In many ways, this book is a narrative framework of
a dialogue between Shanta Acharya and her guide and charioteer Poetry, as opposed to
the dialogue between Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Lord Krishna.
As such just like in the Gita, there are thematic repetitions that bring us the reader into
an ever deepening understanding of the illusory nature of reality, the beauty of that
illusion, the search for love and connection and the brilliant colours that the illusory
nature of reality is painted with and the part that jnana/knowledge plays in that journey.
The leper that sits in lotus pose ' under the shamiana of a tree' is likened to the crippled
imagination waiting the 'toss of a coined idea' in the poem titled " In the Jagannath
Temple." Jagannath is a non-sectarian deity and is worshipped in regional traditions
of Hinduism and Buddhism. He is ' Lord of the Universe' and his icon is made from
wood, without arms or legs. It is from the annual procession of this deity that we get
the word juggernaut. The last line of this poem ' as gods emerge out of decrepitude'
create a frisson of excitement in the reader, as we realise that the leper is Jagannath.
Seeing deity experiencing suffering is somewhat different from seeing deity in that
same suffering.
In the first of the sixteen ekphrastic poems in this collection, Acharya uses
Rembrandt's painting of " Belshazzar's Feast" to comment on her own version of
' the writing on the wall'. She is in self-exile, and worries that she will emerge from
god's gift of suffering unbalanced. The painting materials and technique used by
Rembrandt in this painting do not compare with any of his other works.Perhaps
the same may be said of the poet herself. The title " Not This, Not That" comes
from the poem ' The Night of Shiva'. Written in seven sections it begins with the
poet celebrating Shiva's commemoration night in the solitude of her Highgate
maisonette. She eats a ' feast of fruits/from foreign shores' as she chants the ritual
words to transform sins into nirvana. The power of words to transform reality is
one that all brought up with belief can relate to. In this case the words are :
Om Namah Shivayam. The poem moves in recollections then of other Shiva nights.
Nights when her parents were traditionally dressed as opposed to her brothers in
the cultural apparel of globalisation, namely 'jeans/T-shirts, Seiko watches, Nike
shoes'. The temple of Shiva houses the god in the image of a ' munificent phallus
erect on a yoni'.
            " In all the temples of Shiva tonight
               women will kiss the lingam without shame or thought.."
The erotic in the midst of worship is particularly striking for any modern reader.
Aids had not yet entered the vocabulary of that time, not yet the language of identity
politic. Like many poets that recollect the past can seem a place of simplicity and that
could be why she suggests she will thank Shiva for her childhood naivete. The smell
of the incense and camphor and the sounds of the many praying pilgrims permeate
the next section of the poem bringing us the reader into a visceral experience of this
holy night. Shanta has a wry humour as evidenced in the line:
 " bananas gone rusty brown, limp like deflated members-"
We are not surprised to learn in the next section that -
" ..those who can focus their thoughts on Shiva
  can always achieve knowledge and powers divine.."
And the knowledge she seems to have had conferred on her by this special night is
that her notions of humanity may have been stretched by myths and legends, but
that ' Atman' had revealed itself to be ' not this, not that'. All xenophobes take note.
All life is flux. Humour takes over in the next section when she imagines Shiva
visiting London with his dread locked hair and tiger-skin mini-skirt. The poem ends
with the phone ringing and Shiva is on the other end.
This rather surreal ending is an apt lead in to the poems from Acharya's second
collection: " Numbering Our Days' Illusions". There is nothing quite as surreal
as enduring violence by a partner, in that everything you thought and felt about
reality shifts. Everything looks different and everything feels different. There is
a much heavier weight than the concerns of the deities in these poems, although
Acharya lightens the load with some gentle and exquisite lines.
Lines like ' Look stranger/you can hurt no longer./ The dappled moth escaped
/trembling/waltz-winged. in ' The Dark Hours'.
Or in ' Sometimes' with its epigraph from Eliot the wisdom of these haunting
 .. "  You always preferred silence,
        refraining from words to fill me
       with your infinite loneliness.."
Once again her quest for knowledge appears as over-arching theme in the lines
that end this poem: ' Knowing it not, whatever one desires/one is. Knowing is
all.' The familiar mirror trope makes its appearance in 'No Longer Do I Frame
Myself' and is a rather ironic play on that same trope. She floats across the
mirrors that once ' caught her in multiple images'. The multiplicity of the many
selves that construe an identity is given a beautiful homage in ' Hindu Women'.
They are the heroines that aid the poet's journey through an unsteady and shifting
world. I loved it. Sita's escape gives hope on the page and when hope is written
on the page it can transcend into reality, illusory or not. The title of this collection
comes from a poem of the same name, and although Acharya says 'We grow with
the sun,/ numbering our day's illusions' I think the poems here also say we grow
with the moon too.
What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the butterfly calls the beginning.
In the poems from ' Looking In, Looking Out' Acharya flies on larger wings as
she alights on art work after painting after Hindu fantasy and fable after flowers
after origin myth after ars poetica after political commentary until she reaches
the attic where the book's title is gleaned. This is a much happier series of poems.
Much has been sloughed and the lines are leaner and more honed. She is more
sure of herself and of her identity as a poet. The humour is as wry but is married
with a gentle tone. This is a writer who is cognizant of pain, and who does not
wish to confer it in any way.
In ' Of Poems' she announces:
  ".. They seldom arrive at your door, ringing your bell
       like the postman with a registered letter or parcel,
       friends invited for dinner, Friends of the Earth,
       or even the truant monsters from hell."
The transformation Mrs. Kafka has in ' Mrs. Kafka's Dilemma' is apparent in
some of the writing here. The humour of ' Dear Tech Support' is ironic and the
poet appears to be having fun with the tropes of the web. Its answering poem
" Dear Customer' made me laugh and these two poems would go down well
with the demography that have attached digital technology to themselves like
another limb. In 'Looking Out, Looking In' we are not surprised to learn that
the poet's attic is an art gallery. Perception is one of the ways in which we
attain knowledge of ourselves and of the world we inhabit. The narrower the
field of vision the narrower the worldview. When she says ' The jharokhas
of my mind are magical looking glasses' we are also expanded in our own
perceptions of the worlds we inhabit. Incidentally, a Jharokha Darshan was
a daily practise of addressing the public audience at the balcony of the forts
and palaces of medieval kings in India. I love that Acharya has conferred
regal authority onto herself and the perceptions of her mind.
In the poems from ' Shringara' ( 2006) the journey to jnana is one that enters
the valley of death. The poet has lost her grandfather and father and the two
elegies that remember and celebrate them are ' Aja' and ' In Memoriam'.
The title of the latter was made infamous by none other than Tennyson, but
Shanta makes it her own. In many ways this is quite a political poem in that
she elevates the Indian father to a position in the canon of poetry previously
unoccupied. It was here that I began to see that we cannot truly appreciate
the other unless they have a line on the same page. This poem prepares us
for one of my favourite lines in the whole collection. From ' Learning' the
poet states ' Learning to reconcile difference is poetry'.
Many of the poems in ' Shringara' focus on remembrance: ' " Remembrance
Sunday", " 9/11", " London: 7 July 2005", " 11 July 2005 (On the tenth
anniversary of the massacre in Srebenica", " Bori Notesz", 'LIFE? OR
THEATRE?", " The Final Act" ( for Wislawa Szymborska) " Remembering
Gandhi"" Remembering" , " Almost" and my favourite " On First Reading
The Bhagavad Gita", which is dedicated to the memory of the poet's
grandfather. He gave her a copy of the Bhagavad and urged her to' see things
as if for the first time.' Books encouraged her to find life's meaning. This is
a beautiful poem with lines that you the reader will remember at the strangest
of times. I was paying for my groceries earlier in the week and the teller
asked me to give him a line of poetry to stave off the boredom of the day.
The opening lines of this poem sprang to mind.
" From an ancient land we came,
  a continent vast as memory".
Sringara is one of the nine rasa, usually translated as erotic love, romantic
love, or as attraction or beauty.The poem from which the collection takes
its title is also called " Shringara". The poet prepares for illusion by putting
on make-up and it is as if grief has removed the last of illusions. She ends
the poem and the poems from this collection with ' The days become my
It is no surprise that Acharya was drawn to Emerson, who said that his
central doctrine was ' the infinitude of the private man'. Acharya seems to
have as her central doctrine ' the infinitude of the private woman'. Emerson
led the transcendentalist movement of the mid nineteenth century. His views,
the basis of Transcendentalism, suggested that God does not have to reveal
the truth, but that the truth could be intuitively experienced directly from
The poems from Acharya's fifth collection " Dreams that Spell the Light" (2010) are poems that tell of journeys to other places and to other cultures. The one that spoke most directly to my multiple selves was most definitely " The Sunderbans".
The Sunderban is a vast forest in the coastal region of the Bay of Bengal which is one of the natural wonders of the world. Its literal translation is ' beautiful forest'. It is an important habitat for the endangered Bengal tiger. Lines like ' A twelve-year-old tigress, one canine missing/ patrols the village with a gap-toothed grin.' bring the tiger back from the metaphor of
Blake into the here and now.
She says that only the pure of heart enter its labyrinth and that ' all migrations leave scars'.
I loved the similitude between our own human migrations and those of the animal kingdom.
I must also admit to not knowing what an apple snail was until reading this poem. What an
apt naming though. I also did not know that elephants retreat when they hear the approach of
bees from the honey trees. Imagery that is rich in concrete detail and at a slant from the
humdrum marks Acharya from the crowd, but she surpasses herself in this poem. The last
lines :' The Sunderbans may one day disappear/leaving no man fit to take the measure of
another' are also characteristic of the deep wisdom of her philosophy.
Acharya comes full circle in her quest for knowledge. In " Black Swans" she asserts that
' There is no way of knowing what we don't know'. There is nowhere to go then but
to ' The Wishing Tree", where mother and daughter ' cast dreams that spell the light'.
In the final section of the book the reader is treated to new poems from 'Imagine'.
It is no surprise that this title poem focuses on the natural world. All boundaries have
dissolved and all borders too. She asks us to imagine a world after a succession of
images of nature and her creatures bereft of nature's blessing. This poem softens the
blow of the previous poem " Nirbhaya", which means fearless one. This poem was
inspired by the death of Jyoti Singh Pandey who was gang raped on a bus in Delhi on
16 December 2012. In accordance with Indian law, her name was not publicly disclosed
as she was raped.She was dubbed the fearless one by the Indian media. Her father wanted
the world o know her name and so he revealed it.The last lines bring us back to that central
tenet of knowledge but this time we know that the jnana women bear and reveal is
one which requires jnani.
.." As long as I can summon the strength to pick myself
   up when cast in the gutter, and rise like a phoenix-
I'll let the universe know it does not exist without my dreams".
Like the yogini in the forest in " Spring Fever" Acharya is in splendid possession of her
poetic craft and the knowledge she has accrued over the years culminates in a conquest
not of her animal self but of all the multiple selves she and we are. In the poem that
concludes this collection, Acharya returns to a figure from her country's history in a search
of the answer to the question' what makes a good leader?' " Ashoka" is her answer, and in
its 335 lines Shanta Acharya not only narrates an important life from her country's history
but also asserts her right to write it. The confidence in the poems that conclude this collection
show the jnani that is such an integral part of the belief system of Hinduism.
My initial romantic notions of an India that builds palaces for its beloveds, and that is roamed
by elephants and tigers was a beautiful illusion. Without that illusion I would never have
been prompted to journey through finely wrought tales of life across the waters. I would never
have acquired my own jnani of the country that gifted me many happy dreams without having
read the deeply wise poems of the yogini that is Shanta Acharya. And all this without never
having visited the country that gifted us one of their finest poets.



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