Not This, Not That
- Rupa & Co., India; 1994
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Not This, Not That is Shanta Acharya’s first collection of poems representing work over two decades. The title of her book is derived from the Sanskrit, neti, neti, highlighting the infinite variety of Reality; in the final analysis, God is without attributes. She explores the resonances of the concept as she reflects on life – assimilating the spiritual with the sensuous, intuition with intellect, the sublime with playfulness.
Much of her work derives from her own experiences as an Indian woman coming to terms with life’s contradictions. The candour of her perception, the lyrical freshness of her imagery, with her immense sense of fun celebrate the quest along with the questioning that is an essential element of her poetic self-awareness. Each one of us determines the limits of our engagement; like Rilke, she reminds us that poetry is about everything.
There are things
you need not know
my mother once said
when I pricked my balloon
to discover what hid inside.
There are things
you need not know
my father once said
when I pricked my finger
to see how I bled.
There are things
you will fail to find
both my parents said
when I flew from their nest
to explore my brave new world.
Fever in Diwali
Pious neighbours celebrated diwali
with neat rows of oil lamps
promising the destruction of evil.
My fever flew fast through the coil of night
setting ablaze the desolate sky
like a child conspiring with confetti stars.
Harassed doctors came with tablets,
magic, miniature moons
with syrup in exorcist cups and hermetic brew.
While the snake-charmer's fluted thermometer
grinned its flinted fangs wider and wider,
I ate moons and laughed at stars.
My limbs could've even danced a few steps to appease
evil with the grace of lightning in a storm ripped sky
like blue throated Shiva with snakes in red matted hair.
White sheeted, I lay still
like an Indian monkey in summer.
In the Dutch room, amid Rembrandt's paintings
I sit sharing my reflections with myself;
my woollen jacket no comparison with Belshazzar's
mantle of ermine studded with jewels,
his silk turban, white and resplendent,
crowning his unfocussed gaze of distraction.
The room acquires the aura of a court in session,
members of the jury appear unmoved, indifferently
floating around like creatures treading on the moon.
The wooden bench, the murmuring crowd,
the parched sensation in my throat,
deeper rumblings in my stomach,
tired eyes and cold feet; a bone-marrow fatigue
alienates me from the artistic feat.
But the haloed hand, the writing on the wall,
offer unexpected food for thought.
Mene Mene Tekal Upharsin. You have been
weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Belshazzar's face aghast with such revelation!
Do not despair, one was saved; do not presume, one was damned.
I close my eyes thinking of God mercifully
adjusting the divine scales in my favour -
myself, poised on one side, insubstantial;
my burden of sins on the other, weighing down
heavy, leaving me quite unbalanced.
But God kept adding extra weights of suffering
to help me overcome my unbearable lightness of being
like an ingenious doctor shrewdly intent
on restoring me to life by increasing daily
the bitter pills of my life in Self-exile.
I had a vision of grace reconciling me
to myself, to see me poised and not wanting.
You may have mistook my strength, dear God
to emerge from your gift of suffering balanced !
The Vulnerable Plot of Green
Under our very different sun
there are no illusions
about the sacred realm of art,
the shaping power of the imagination,
nor, for that matter, the imperial self.
No longer sacrosanct
the vulnerable plot of green,
begging Please, keep off the grass,
on rusting metal plates.
It is now criss-crossed
by the paths of haunted minds
frantic to defend
their humanity through art,
by means of a means,
the green season of the mind.
Busride to Char Minar
Cramped in a corner,
I ride a bus to Char Minar.
Bursting bodies press on me
as strangeness begs familiarity
in sharing a hard, narrow seat.
I feel the soft, wrinkled skin
of an old Hyderabadi begum
leaning to the window for fresh air,
gasping curses on Allah for her plight.
The mother with child at her breast
squats near my feet, quite content:
two little dirty hands tug innocently
the edge of my crumpled shawl.
Before I mingle again
in the crowd of Char Minar,
two sunken eyes offer me
eternity in a begging bowl,
promising me a reserved seat
in the crowded bus to heaven,
provided I pay the commission.
It was the Danish physicist, Neils Bohr, who said that a great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a great truth. In poems rooted in the Upanishads, yet connecting through natural imagery with New England transcendentalism, Shanta Acharya summons courage to face such truths. It’s hard to write ‘mystical’ poetry these days, yet no other overall vision seems likely to prevent ‘the vulnerable plot of green’, as she says, from being trampled by ‘frantic minds’ not yet clear enough ‘to defend their humanity’ by reconciling contradictions.
Shanta Acharya’s is the true voice of the poet. She writes with poignancy and gentleness, with a mildness of manner behind which lurk wells of sad expressiveness and occasional acerbities. She controls her phrasing meticulously and invites the reader to return to her poems again and again to explore more hidden resonances and insights.
Her poetry shows a rare combination of lyricism, intelligence, sagacity and a wicked sense of humour. She is not afraid to tackle large themes, to take on the abstract, metaphysical, spiritual or to use the idiom such themes demand. It is refreshing to find these qualities in such an engaging and individual voice.
Shanta Acharya’s poems are inspired by her emotional experiences, for which simple but convincing words, phrases and sound effects have been found. There is nothing artificial in her statements and choice of forms. The complex and profound are equally well expressed in her imagery.
- Acumen (UK), 20, October 1994. By Patricia Oxley.
- Indian Review of Books, (India), July 16-August 15, 1994. “Compelling Insights.” By Anjana Desai.
- Sunday (India), June 11, 1994. “Sense and Sensibility.” By Keki Daruwalla.