Rituals is a remarkable collection of poems by renowned poet, translator, editor and critic Kiriti Sengupta. This latest book explores the panoply of human experience and elucidates the meanings and rhythms of a mature poetic life. “Customs are like meditation,” writes Sengupta as he weaves religious liturgy and the opera of gods as the quotidian backdrop of a married life and experiences with his son. Not just interested in the matter of appearances as a poet, he delves into questions of what makes an Indian and how Hindu goddesses can strengthen willpower and remove the ‘venom’ from life. The mythological and the quotidian blend and inform one another, the goddess appears in iterations of the wife, the daughter, the mother. These poems also talk about Monsoon and Muri as snacks that overlap with dialogues of intellect and Sanskrit.
Acclaimed American poet writes the foreword to Rituals, the latest collection of poems by award-winning poet, Kiriti Sengupta.
How much does ritual depend on nature? In this slim volume, poet Kiriti Sengupta explores the boundary between human nature and the world of Nature. He also muses on the concept of Indian identity and the distinct relationship a person of India has with the remainder of the world.
In “Kalprivksha,” Sengupta writes these eloquent lines of the divine tree: “Grounded on / earth and its evil, prepares them for prayers.” Such verses carry the meditations from the natural world into the world of supernatural immediacy. What the lines appear to say is that evil itself, while not explicable in human terms, exists to direct our consciousness to the world of God. God must have known we would not rely much on His counsel if nothing existed to require redemption. In response to this question of theodicy, the young Anne Frank wrote these lines in her diary, “It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Frank kept her hopes in humanity, knowing that despite the evil we enact we are still children of a benevolent power. In issue four of Dialogos Richard W. Kropf writes, “But just suppose that evolution, as it is commonly understood, both on the inorganic but even more on the organic level, might be the only way that God ‘creates’ or indeed even can create. Thus, as the evidence indicates, the Creator seems to have had to begin with the disordered state of energy in which the universe appears at its very beginning. And then suppose, in addition, that the aim or goal for creation is the eventual appearance of intelligent, free creatures, beings who, to some extent, are able to share God’s own attributes.”
Anne Frank and Richard Kropf are wrestling with the same theological doubts. Ritual, properly understood, signifies gratitude and is rooted in the habitual nature of the human organism. In a state of nature, we are feeble creatures subject to flux and irrational occurrences that breed fear and awe into our composition. This state could be called “reverence” and it is shared by religious authorities, scientists, and the average person alike. Albert Einstein wrote in a letter known as the “God letter” that “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness.” However, he also wrote to the Hungarian mathematician Cornelius Lanczos, “What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of ‘humility.’ This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”
The poem “After the Book Fair” negotiates a different kind of ritual, one of passing. After the fair, there is an inevitable sigh of relief and period of cleaning up. Rejuvenation is implied in the lines, “From the shelves new hope will follow / the merchandise.” After days of selling and promoting, the authors and publishers store their books to launch their sales at another place and time. The strangeness in the poem is its implication that everyday affairs are a kind of ritual containing elements of redemption, hope, and finality.
The reader returns to the question of Indian identity in the poem “Faith” as Sengupta outlines particular rituals, “Rituals do not add to our credos.” What is the proposition here? National identity is larger than religion and ritual. So we are tossed to our backs on the question of the importance of ritual. What makes ritual important and necessary in human life? How exactly does it define us and our relationship with the world?
The final poem “Exhibition” gives us startling wake-up call in true Ozymandias fashion. Sengupta’s “traveler from an antique land” is himself, observing the ancient exhibits in a museum. He makes one strange observation. The various artifacts are missing their noses! The poet then playfully teases the historical pride of man, “Nature made the nasal frame fragile. / How do they breathe the vain air?”
These poems in a surprisingly original way remind us of the folly of human arrogance, the beauty of the historical circumstance in which we are situated, the impermanence and grandeur of Nature, and the need we humans have in our mortality to create habit from a fear of death, destruction, and chaos in order that we can praise life’s gravity and uniqueness before the vastness of its being.
Rituals unifies many aspects of human life in one bold cry of vexation. The poet remains agnostic about his discoveries and dances quizzically throughout his words as if to sustain his curiosity. Sengupta, in this new collection of both personal meditations and social commentary, proposes to move his work into new territory. His previous writings have spoken of tradition, family, culture, solitude, Nature, and womanhood with a curiosity and sense of awe. This collection carries that mission forward. After Solitary Stillness, these meditations will appear less solitary and meditative. Rather, they embrace a universal human paradigm. Sengupta discovers ways to approach this paradigm with clarity and compassion. He both accepts and distances himself from human evil while expressing his gratitude toward the “infinite jest” that composes life. His reflections on the gifts that make his life wonder-filled bring us closer to the heart of this man of bestselling poetry.
It is this aspect of Rituals I find most satisfying to embrace. We face a man in his reflections and see ourselves in his personal meditation. He does not shy to make this line of inquiry about us, the people. All readers of this collection will find satisfaction in discovering their own rituals.
Jan 14, 2019
Houston, Texas, USA
185, Kali Temple Road, Nimta, Calcutta 700 049 (India)
Author: Kiriti Sengupta
Price: 300 INR | USD 9.99
“Sated with Bengali flavors Kiriti Sengupta’s forays in English are fraught with the essence of syncretism. Rituals is his best work to date.” — Sanjeev Sethi
“[These] poems inhabit a space between poetry and aphorism in the way he compresses thoughts and pitches them in a tiny enclosed space. It is the job of a poet to defamiliarize the ordinary. In Rituals, Sengupta does an intriguing job of distilling wisdom from the dross of our daily life, a necessary condition for the possibility of poetry and living.” — Cafe Dissensus
About Kiriti Sengupta: Kiriti Sengupta, who has been awarded the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize (2018) for his contribution to literature, is a poet, editor, translator, and publisher from Calcutta. He has published nine books of poetry and prose, including Solitary Stillness, Reflections on Salvation, The Earthen Flute, A Freshman’s Welcome, Healing Waters Floating Lamps, The Reverse Tree, My Dazzling Bards, My Glass of Wine, The Reciting Pens, and The Unheard I; two books of translation, Desirous Water by Sumita Nandy, Poem Continuous—Reincarnated Expressions by Bibhas Roy Chowdhury; and he is the co-editor of five anthologies, Scaling Heights, Jora Sanko–The Joined Bridge, Epitaphs, Sankarak, and Selfhood. Sengupta’s poems have been published/accepted for publication at The Common, The Florida Review Online (Aquifer), Headway Quarterly, Moria Online, The Mark Literary Review, Mad Swirl, among other places.