The River Within

Book Review by Lakshmi Kannan

Title: letters in lower case

Author: Jaydeep Sarangi 

 Jaydeep Srangi is an academic who writes beautiful poetry. letters in lower case is his tenth collection of poems. The poem that bears the title in the first section, blithely mentions the names of super figures such as Tagore, Tutankhamun, Ashoka and others in lower case, like it is an act of defiance, with the last three lines taking on a tongue-in-cheek tone to explain:

my letter to my boy hood idol is undelivered                                                                                                                                                        navigating an outswinger, the peon is on leave.                                                                                                                                                 all letters are in lower case. (Letters in Lower Case) 

He dedicates this book to his father-in law:

I know not how to pray --                                                                                                                               the hot tears I possess                                                                                                                        with that I will worship your cold feet. (Dear Departed)

The poems are classified broadly under three sections – ‘Laws of the Land’, ‘Gesture of Surrender’ and ‘The Window you Hold’. Poetry is often born between the said and the unsaid. Sarangi’s best poems leave some things half-said to reverberate in the mind of the reader. Sarangi returns to the lower case in another poem in the last section, only this time it is not just letters but life itself that is in lower case.

I take off the shirt that i liked so much,                                                                                                                  names written in only lower case                                                                                                                     here i shall rest in peace. (Life in Lower Case) 

The ‘I’ takes its place in a diminutive ‘i’.

Sarangi’s poetry has a distinct sense of geography.  Jhargram in West Bengal where the poet spent his boyhood days, together with the river Dulung, become powerful motifs. They are magnified manifold times to haunt, to evoke associations and emotions that one cannot always explain. Sarangi writes:

Stand near me, speak to me.                                                                                                                              Time arrives at my lips. 

He goes on to evokes a series of vivid images before he concludes:                 

With body carrying memories, dysfunctional habits,                                                                                  I wait for your green touch sometime, somewhere. (When You Visit Jhargram) 

In a number of poems, Sarangi has internalised the river so deeply that it seems to flow in his bloodstream.

Dulung in summer.                                                                                                                                        Where farmers can cross                                                                                                                         Cows can walk down.                                                                                                                                                          Each leaf is green. 
In love, I ask you to become a river.                                                                                        …
Dulung is sleepless tonight.                                                                                                                        It can’t wait to see                                                                                                                                 How dreams meet in a river. (Gifts of the Night)

Dulung calls you at this hour,                                                                                                                        trees are deep with the night,                                                                                                       mysteries of the world are back                                                                                                                         with bats calling a bad weather. (Dulung Moment) 
where do we all go? my mate, you know me --                                                                                                           for years, since my family nestled on your bank                                                                                          you have watched me with care and concern.                                                                                                        you always instructed me what to do and how to do. 

dear river, pure silver of the earth                                                                                                                     true mineral in humans, by blood and voice                                                                                                                     lead me to your honest home, always faithful,                                                                                       but never take away the window you hold. (My Growing up as a River) 

Like rivers, the rain holds a special fascination for poets, music composers, singers, dancers, and all artists. Interestingly, it means different things to different people. Sarangi’s poem “Rain Means” needs to be read whole to absorb the impact of the line ‘Rain brings me back to you’ that begins each stanza. So does the beautifully written poem ‘Rains in my Garden of Dreams’ and ‘Raining Always’. Life, memory, new experiences are all inextricably woven into the poem ‘Where the Rain is Born’. However, my favourite is ‘Waiting for Summer Rains in Kolkata’ with its laconic, understated humour, held on a tight leash. There is supplication, anticipation, yet an awareness of the wayward, capricious nature of rain. It is structured in a superbly ironical mode.

If she decides to come,                                                                                                                                               she may not.  
If the forecast is, she will come,                                                                                                            she will not come. 
Taking her on our side,                                                                                                                                               we keep white flowers on doorways

The third section of the collection is refreshing in its mix of poems about some of the most precious things in our lives, such as friendship. A poet’s best tribute to a friend is to pen a poem that could be remembered. It was a joy to read Sarangi’s ‘Makers’ to his ‘Friend Forever’, reminiscent of feelings evoked while reading Alfred Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’.

 With friends, Sarangi returns to rain again: ‘my old friends are fresh raindrops’ he declares. Other poems evoke memories so vivid and alive that Sarangi could have opened a box of perfectly preserved treasures. ‘In Folders’, he gives a feel of nostalgia with Jamdani muslin saris or his grandmother’s ‘delightful Bengali silks’. It is in the interstices between paradoxes and enigmatic ironies that Sarangi’s poems speak much the way life does – in fragments, snatches, lucid glimpses and haunting fade outs. 

Keep me in the waiting                                                                                                                       Once you attend to my call                                                                                                         My lines will lose charm. (Gifts of the Night) 

Lakshmi Kannan, also known by her Tamil pen-name ‘Kaaveri’, is a bilingual writer. Her twenty-five books include poems, novels, short stories and translations. For details regarding the fellowships and residencies she received, please visit her website


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Nostalgia Slices from Life

Yesterday Once More?

Renowned film analyst Ratnottama Sengupta revisits a page from her past, weaving history and films into an eyewitness account of events that had occurred as chaos reigned on the streets of Cairo, Egypt. 

Cairo Film Festival, November 27 – December 6, 2012


“This one week will change everything,” Amir told Farah in The Winter of Discontent. Ibrahim El Batout’s recapitulation of the Arab Spring had inaugurated the 35th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) on November 27 of 2012. “It will take them one week to find out who uploaded the protest on the net,” the activist tells the journalist, “but one week later this government may not be there.”  These words were borne true in January of 2011. They had sounded ironic when the festival was flagged off on the sixth day of Tahrir Square 2 — by Egypt’s Minister for Culture, Mohamed Saber Arab. He had hugged festival director Ezzat Abu Ouf who was in tears as he said, “In difficult times, it is important to protect one’s freedom of expression.”

It surely must have been difficult to host the festival that was paused following the Revolution. “I am Positive” was the slogan of CIFF that urged ‘positive thinking’ on revolution and freedom. Besides the inaugural film by Ibrahim El Batout, who mastered shooting in war zones for international channels, there was an entire section devoted to cinema of revolution. These documentaries included Good Morning Egypt that displayed people’s mixed emotions on the eve of dismantling Mubarak’s regime. The Road to Tahrir Square searched for the roots of the Egyptian revolution in the country’s labour movement. Eyes of Freedom and Street of Death documented the demand to speed up Presidential elections and handing over of authority from the Military Council to a Civilian government. By the end of the day in January 2011, the police and army had attacked the demonstrators and forced them to evacuate Tahrir Square, outraging the world by the human rights violation.    

All this would have been perfect material “to express the heritage of the past, the reality of the present and the dreams of the future” – to quote the city’s Governor, Osama Kamal. For, “cinema records and relays to the world stories of our lives, our thoughts, feelings, social issues, principles…” And “meaningful art is one of the basic pillars of struggle and progress of a people,” he declared. That is why the logo of the revived CIFF depicted the hawk, a symbol of the pharaohs, perched on the metal arm of the revolutionaries in the precious metal of gold.

But it had turned ironic as the awards were cancelled due to the reality outside the Opera, close to the Square and venue of the festival that seeks to empower the youth by providing a platform for their talents. On Thursday, Qasir el Niel bridge leading to Tahrir Square had been blocked off. The museum housing the treasures of Tutankhamen was closed as it was on the turbulent Square. People — reportedly paid by the Brotherhood — were being trucked in for Saturday’s show of strength. Deaths were being reported from outlying areas where the Opposition was more restive as the channels were agog with news that the draft of the Constitution was ready and “any hour now” President Mohamed Morsi would sign it, pre-empting the opposition by the judiciary, intelligentsia, and the liberals who would lose much of their freedom if the Shariat laws would be enforced in Cairo’s open society.

The “action replay” on Tahrir Square was protesting the President’s move to arrogate himself extraordinary powers “until the new Constitution is in place.” Their objection was that he had pushed out the Christians and liberals from the Constituent Assembly, in order to ensure a smooth passage of the Constitution and present it as fait accompli before its expected date.

Yes, that one week in November 2012 had once more changed the course of history on Tahrir Square.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.