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When poetry becomes prayer

Sharmistha Mohanty’s new collection of poems demands to be read aloud, and with immersion

Sharmistha Mohanty’s poems are inspired by the Rig Veda, among others.
Sharmistha Mohanty’s poems are inspired by the Rig Veda, among others.

Sharmistha Mohanty’s new book of poems is, in the best sense of the phrase, an extended prayer. A montage of mostly brief and lyrical verse, it comes together as an appeal to a higher power, sometimes to a doctor who is asked to “suture" wounds or an unnamed force from whom precision in thought and action and, most of all, the gift of “broadness", is sought.

The opening lines—Make broadness broadness/ from narrowness/ Lead lead us—may be familiar to those who saw it as part of an installation at the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. In a room overlooking the backwaters, the words of this text were projected on the wall, the letters cascading down, as Mohanty’s soft voice read them out. On the printed page, the poem hasn’t lost any of its incantatory qualities. Its serene rhythm still haunts the ear, much like a hymn.

The subtle architecture of the poems in this collection—with their insistent repetition of words, short lines exhaled like whispers, and frequent pauses—are cues for the reader to read aloud, to climb up their verbal and aural scaffolding, and regard the scene that the poet conjures up so exquisitely.

Mohanty is among the finest, most distinguished contemporary writers we have, though relatively unsung. Apart from being the author of several experimental works, she is the co-founder of Almost Island, an e-zine and publishing imprint that brings together less-heard literary voices from across the world, both in English and in translations. Her earlier work, Five Movements In Praise, is a masterclass in pushing the limits of narrative art, one in which prose and poetry lose their distinction and assume a form that is unique and inimitable.

The Gods Came Afterwards: By Sharmistha Mohanty, Speaking Tiger, 88 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>299.
The Gods Came Afterwards: By Sharmistha Mohanty, Speaking Tiger, 88 pages, 299.

The Gods Came Afterwards is inspired by the Rig Veda—its lofty but intensely humane prayers for the well-being of the earth, animals and people are echoed in Mohanty’s nimble stacks of lines. And yet the poems also read like personal pleas (Doctor, move me from dark/ spaces of invented light), for healing and repair, for a new, awakened vision into states that allow us to take flight like a bird and survey the land below us, to see the entire universe contained in the mouth of its mighty maker.

The movement from the personal “I" to the universal “we", and back to “me", runs through the collection. The reader is taken to soaring heights, like those scaled by the falcon, even to the vast emptiness of outer space. An interlude revisits the words Yuri Gagarin, the Russian astronaut, uttered on looking at the earth from far above the planet. Then we are thrust back into what poet John Keats called the “world of circumstances"—where the alcoholic behind/ flowered curtains/ (is) threatening his mother/ with death". These visions are described acutely, almost clinically, in spare and unadorned language, their texture untarnished by any awkwardness.

Mohanty’s engagement with language reaches a level of abstraction in this collection that feels unprecedented in her work. Emotions are conveyed by the broken fragments of lines that unfold over the page like precariously hanging flights of stairs. Alliterations and repetitions are devices that not only heighten the poetic energy of the lines, but are also signals to our bodies, as readers, to listen to what’s unspoken. In Paddy fields/ earth marked by ploughs/ us, us…, the repeated interjection of “us, us" begins to register like the hissing breath of someone labouring to take in air.

Codes such as these are embedded everywhere along the verbal tapestry that Mohanty spins into her readers’ awareness—and the best way to discover these gems is by repeated readings, aloud and with immersion.

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