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Writing at a tangent to market forces

For nearly 20 years, Sharmistha Mohanty has offered a platform to writers who occupy the space between literary forms

Sharmistha Mohanty in her Mumbai home in 2015.
Sharmistha Mohanty in her Mumbai home in 2015. (Mint photo)

In 2013, when I was in charge of the Books pages of Lounge, I received a review copy of Sharmistha Mohanty’s latest work, Five Movements In Praise, published by Almost Island, an independent imprint she had founded. The book looked like nothing I had seen before, let alone read, as part of my day job.

The blue-black cover, textured and grainy, had the feel of tree bark, which, as I read on, felt apposite. Landscapes and nature dominate the narrative of Five Movements. On its pages is a peculiar amalgam of texts and images, linked by affinities rather than logic or teleology. The blurb described the book as “a fictional work where the landscape and the human have equal presence, and whose pleasures are not in the fulfilment of narrative expectations, but in the creation of new pathways of desire in storytelling”. This remark set the tone for a work that refused to play by any rule, freely challenged every boundary, and yet, left the reader exhilarated by its sinuous, hypnotic energy.

Over the last decade, I have had a chance to know Mohanty as a friend, fellow believer in the power of words and a cherished guide to little-known but brilliant writers and writing that blossom on the fringes of commercial publishing, like wild flowers in the thicket that remain unseen by our distracted eyes.

As founding editor of the online literary journal Almost Island, Mohanty has, for nearly 20 years, offered a platform to writers from across the world, especially those from the Global South, who inhabit a liminal space between literary forms, writing at a tangent to the market forces in English and other languages. (Full disclosure: in the last three years, I have been an occasional contributor and editor to the magazine on a purely voluntary basis.)

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In the last eight-odd years, Mohanty has expanded her repertoire to create a sound-based poetry installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016 as well as published two volumes of poetry—The Gods Came Afterwards (2019) and Extinctions (2022). In December, Contxt, an imprint of Westland Books, took the unusual decision to bring out a new edition of her first book, self-published by Mohanty in 1995 with funds from friends and well-wishers in a limited edition.

The title, Book One, has an ironic directness about it. Its literalism is in sharp contrast to the elliptical form the narrative takes. Mohanty’s refusal to play by the rules is apparent even in her very first offering. By this time, as a collaborator of film-makers like Mani Kaul (some of whose early responses to the book are appended in the end), she’d had her apprenticeship in the art of seeing, feeling, and making sense of the world, beyond the carefully laid borders of the conscious mind.

In an afterword to this revised edition of Book One entitled “Formations”, Mohanty traces her literary inheritances to poets like René Char, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, the Bhakti poets and Chinese classical poetry. Yet, it is apparent, at least to readers familiar with Bengal and its vast literary universe, that in the accent of her lines, the strange beauty of metaphors (“dead river days”), and a hauntingly tragic sensibility, there is more than a hint of the greats of Bengali literature: Rabindranath Tagore (Mohanty writes on the ineffable feelings roused by The Broken Nest in one passage), Jibananda Das and Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.

Although exquisitely artful, Book One is, in its broadest sense, an autobiographical work, one that also chronicles histories of emotion, ways of being in the world that have all but vanished from our lives, and the shifting realities of individual and social experiences.

“Nothing in the world is a product of indifference,” Mohanty writes early on, “There is only the inside landscape. It has its own laws, not that of the man-made world, not even that of nature.” The subject of her work is interiority, words are her tools. It isn’t easy to chip away at the layers of history, memory, and trauma to exhume what lies buried deep inside the body. “I always live with things that are sharp, feelings and emotions twisting my body,” she writes at one point.

In Book One, Mohanty confronts and acknowledges this sensation of living on the razor’s edge as part of her inheritance. It is a chronic condition that is handed down by her ancestors, men and women who, once severed from their original homeland by Partition, had cradled their loss in their DNAs. Their lifelong unease with the world has infected the generations, it’s become an essential ingredient in the process of being and becoming who they are.

And so, after her father’s death, even as she is shattered by grief, Mohanty notes, “My mother has a body that is primarily pain’s own receptacle.” It is a state of being she recognises in the air of her crumbling walls of her ancestral home, a “sharp, hollow sorrow of not knowing the stagnant from the eternal.” This in-betweenness isn’t a purgatory for the writer, but rather a path towards more clarity, a gift of making meaning of the past that comes to only those who are willing to endure the torment of acceptance. “It is not hate that is the opposite of love, it is not-love, and my mother is brimming with it,” as Mohanty writes in another passage. “What emptiness this not-love is, what barrenness, what parched earth waiting eternally for the rains and I think of the sages with beautiful faces and watching eyes, as tender and full of love and as dead as my father.”

If there is longing in these lines for what has passed and can no longer return, an elegy for a time one can never return to, except in “an afternoon sleep’s oversized dream,” there is, also, a quiet reckoning with what remains. As Mohanty puts it, “The ancestors gather around me sometimes in my solitude. They come when I turn my face halfway back and give the past a transient, loving glance. There is no nostalgia, the heart moves merely at the fact of change.”

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

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