Unwinding Self: A Never-Ending Pursuit of Knowledge and Liberation

BOOK REVIEW

By DHURJJATI SARMA

Susheel Kumar Sharma’s new book of poems Unwinding Self is a roller-coaster journey through a gamut of emotions and experiences based on specific yet wide-ranging events of life. The opening poem ‘Snapshots’ immediately confronts one with a mingle-mangle of collaged incidents from the quotidian reality of modern-day existence. With a skilful juxtaposition of a mundane event like checking one’s emails (“My email cribbed./ Laid, Layed/ Overload, overlayered/ Crash, crushed.”) to one of global concern (Greenhouse reduction;/ Human displacements,/ Withered livelihood;/ Civilization marches ahead.”), the poet draws attention to the levelling down of life’s priorities on a single plane with not one more important than the other. The last stanza gives a mythic finality to this experience of involuntary banality: “I am Uma./ I am Vishnu./ I am Varanasi./ Where is Bhagiratha?” thereby intensifying the dialectic between the cosmic and the chaotic. A typical characteristic of the poem is its fast-paced sonic virtuosity. Another poem ‘The End of the Road’ shifts attention from ‘sonic’ to ‘sight’ as the narrator grapples with the predicament of weak ‘vision’ (possibly both literally and metaphorically) and the agency of ‘borrowed sight’ manifested through a sequence of spectacles presented to him at various stages of his life. The sense of over-dependence on the ‘sight’ provided by an artificial medium has led to a gradual withdrawal from the ‘original’ colour of this world. The narrator can, on the other hand, choose which ‘reality’ he wishes to live in – a privilege that is at once empowering and disconcerting (“Now I have six pairs of spectacles./ I have to choose one to suit to the occasion;/The world has lost its original colour.”). The poem ‘Durga Puja in 2013’ is significant precisely because of its evocation of the annual visit of the goddess to the mortal abode in conjunction with the disastrous Cyclone Phailin that ravaged parts of Thailand, Myanmar, India (Odisha), and also Nepal in the year 2013. It was as if Durga had arrived at Kalibari and Gopalpur with all her ferocious (and regenerative) intensity – the treble raging of thunder, wind, and water complementing the rhythm of the dhaks.

A vivid testimony to Susheel Sharma’s critical-sociological engagement with literary studies is the poem ‘On Reading Langston Hughes’ “Theme For English B”’ which is a topical reconstruction within an Indian context of the seminal poem by the poet of the Harlem Renaissance. On being asked by an Indian professor to “Come tomorrow/ With a page on thyself;/ Just about a page,/ Written in one sitting,/ Say your interests.”, the student writes a very poignant note on his daily travails to fulfil his dream for a better life of freedom and liberty, just like what his counterpart in Hughes’ poem aspires for: “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love./ I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. … I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like/the same thing other folks like who are other races./ So will my page be colored that I write?” Similarly, in Sharma’s poem, the student throws back the question on the face of the teacher, when he retorts: “I am told, you justify Dronacharya’s every act/Will you repeat him? Will you replicate him?” This brings to fore the age-old politics of exclusion practised against the lower classes of the society vis-a-vis having access to knowledge, an anathema or a social evil similar to that of racism in the Western societies, amply illustrated in Hughes’ poem. Another poem called ‘The Destitute’ looks at a related but more problematic practice of ‘mimicry’ adopted by the a non-white to make himself/herself adaptable to the society of the whites. One with a soul tormented by the proverbial ‘ghost of Macaulay’, the brown-skin takes upon himself a borrowed identity that gives him recognition but gnaws at his conscience from inside. Susheel Sharma uses his highly disturbing and scathing imagery to describe the agony of the ‘mimic man’: “The strings are becoming tighter/ The apron is no more soothing/ The air seems to choke/ Me to death./ I’ve to kill myself for regeneration.” Two other poems in the collection, namely, ‘The Black Experience’ and ‘Me, A Black Doxy’ are articulations of related experiences from the margins of race and colour regimes perceptible across the world.

Despite being an academician trained in English studies, the scope of Susheel Sharma’s poetic vision extends beyond the disciplinary boundaries and often touches upon an intense kind of Indian experience. Poems like ‘Chasing a Dream on the Ganges’, ‘Bubli Poems’, and ‘Kabir’s Chadar’, among others, provide a panoramic view of the manifold contours of an Indian way of life, negotiating with ambitions of transcendence and non-fulfilment (or violation) of expectations. The Ganges and the figure of Kabir together convey a dynamic sense of fluidity and non-conformity. The poet says, “The meandering Ganga does not seem to leave me.” Yet it is difficult to track her footprints for she takes upon new identities at every dip and turn. Following the trails of the river and seeking to trace its origin, the poet embarks on a journey that lasts for a lifetime, till he reaches the point of emergence only to be greeted with a question: “What is the use of/ Coming thus far/ For penance/ If one does not wish to lose life?” Similarly, the poem on Kabir deals with the materiality of what constitutes the essence of one’s life? The chadar is a metaphor of existence; it comes in varying shades and textures. Kabir’s chadar is in austere white and is thinly woven, whereas the poet’s one is thick and patterned with rich colours. However, the dazzling colours on the chadar only end up hiding the uncleanliness and blemishes that have accumulated over the years, and such a state is readily exposed on the day of reckoning, i.e. the day the chadar is given for washing. It is returned as it is, for “[i]t was too dirty to be cleaned.” The poet wonders, “How could Kabir/ Afford to return his chadar/ As he had obtained it?” The chadar is the ‘body’ that we ‘borrow’ when he take birth in this world; the challenge is to return the cloth in the same state in which it was lent to us. Kabir did that; the poet could not.

The ‘Bubli Poems’ launch a powerful attack on the wiles and hypocrisy of patriarchy as it tries to muzzle every opportunity for Bubli to assert her self-identity and fulfil her ever-growing aspirations to live a life ‘bubbling’ with a thirst to make her name in the world (“To ask questions, to seek knowledge”). She tries to model herself on every female celebrity she comes across, thereby causing a huge consternation in her immediate family and society. “She could dance; she could dress and undress;/ She could move around; she could read; She prepared herself for this world and the/ Other world which was not very far away.” In the end, she finds peace in the realisation that “Losing one’s identity and becoming one/ With the Ultimate is the real Liberation.” But then she still has a long way to go. Susheel Sharma has conceived the character of Bubli not merely as a rebellious female figure, but also as the proverbial knowledge-seeker, the adventurer thirsty for novel experientialities. Another poem that captures the spirit of rebellious womanhood is ‘Wearing the Scarlet Letter ‘A’’ which is based on the character of Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter who is pronounced guilty of adultery and condemned to a life of ostracisation along with her newborn baby after being shamed publicly for her alleged immoral act. It seems that the narrator, who is Hester Prynne herself, addresses her lover Arthur Dimmesdale, who is incidentally the father of her illegitimate child and who desists from standing beside her in this moment of crisis. The poem captures a key moment of the novel where Hester, despite being humiliated, stands her ground and keenly observes her lover as the latter writhes in self-reproach and internal agony yet cannot gather the requisite courage to stand by his ‘fellow sinner’.

Unwinding Self is an exercise in unravelling the myriad textures of life and longing. It narrates experiences that strike a chord with every pulsating heart and unsettle the equilibrium of every thinking mind. Every poem holds out the possibility for a detailed analysis; something not possible considering the spatial constraints of a review. Yet one last poem invitingly titled as Stories from the Mahabharata where the poet juxtaposes snapshots of various key incidents in twenty-five capsules that propel the narrative of the epic to its eventual culmination. The beauty of these lines lies in their brevity and suggestiveness. With lines like “Blue blood occupies throne./ The maid’s son reads books./ History is rewritten.” and “The dog can’t bark anymore./ The tutor shows loyalty./ A Bhil’s son loses his thumb.”, the poet emphasises on the questions of dharma or true conduct raised mostly on account of its violation throughout the expanse of the magnum opus by Vyasa.

The poet has provided an exhaustive glossary at the end which provides in-depth information on key characters, events and terms mentioned in the poems. It stands as a testimony to the poet’s deep and sustained engagement with his subjects, something that also highlights his position as an expert academician in literary and cultural studies. It is a commendable fact that Susheel Kumar Sharma, the poet-academician, has resisted the temptation to go an extra mile to explain what he intends to convey through his poems. As was evident in the poem discussed above, brevity and suggestiveness can be considered as defining features of the poems in the collection. Unwinding Self shall remain one of the highest points in the poetic career of Susheel Sharma. The more one reads, the more one gets to know something new and not known before. It is hoped that he carries on with his endeavour in the future and presents many more enthralling narratives in verse.

Bibliographic Details of the Reviewed Book:

Susheel Kumar Sharma, Unwinding Self: A Collection of Poems, Cuttack: Vishvanatha Kaviraja Institute, 2020.

Dr. Dhurjjati Sarma is Assistant Professor at Gauhati University

email: dhurjjati.sarma@gmail.com