by Sudeep Sen
Reviewed by Vyjayanthi Srinivasa
‘Eros’ + ‘Text’ & the Five ‘D’s
Can we judge a book by its cover? Especially if the cover is carrying comments by the “who is who” from various professional walks of life.
Being a psychiatrist and a poet, I was enticed to read the book as the title refers to Eros as an overarching theme that takes within its fold the subthemes of desire, disease, delusion, dream and downpour. The five ‘D’s intrigued me and I kept returning to them as if they were the epicenter of an earthquake.
And then there were the twin chairs of the cover photograph - perhaps a symbol of duality, of ‘Eros’ + ‘Text’? Truly, if life could write itself, this is how it may read, not bound by a specific structure, word count or rhyme or reason.
Insights are graded along six parameters while we study psycho pathology, although Eros is where life originates and Thanatos is force of death. Opposites contain each other and there are flashes of dying in the section of disease of the body, explored in skeleton, joints, temperature, fluids, breaths, and blood.
In ‘Magnetizing Dead Bones’, a disturbing portrayal of the Intensive Care Unit and the experience of what may remain even after death, just the clean bones? Interestingly it seems to refer to Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a sort of literal meaning ascribed to scientific jargon. Electrocardiography- “A person in the room can sense electricity, invisible photons”, again ‘ultra-sonography’ is mystified in fleeting allusions to sound waves. There is whispering vulnerability, “What can I create despite this urgency…Nothing really, certainly nothing that is worth any effort….” The body is minimised and life is trivialised: “They say imagination can conquer anything even the body. It isn’t true.” There is a relentless search for meaning even as the body suffers: “The lyrics if they are meant to, will emerge at the vanishing point”.
Humanising the near death experience is a strong effort in this flash fiction. The words are profound as they equate creativity to something that lives after death. I was reminded of Bessel Vander Kolk’s book Body Keeps Its Own Scores in the reference to ash, bone ash and the abrupt escape into bone-drafts of metered text. Starch and the nurse trying to induce a lullaby, the power of breathing, and virility of ash are images foretelling life amidst death. The ecosystem of the hospital dominates the disease in this fiction, a hesitation to explore the disease or a story of hope- open ended, it lends itself to interpretations like a poem or a dream.
‘Wishbones, Arias, Memories’—This piece is not the typical flash fiction that starts in the middle. It takes up where the last one left off. A sense of continuity exists. There is a struggle to construct a narrative about the body -“Order is sanity”, but insanity also has an order that is a systematic deconstruction. Method in the madness is more glaring than the madness. Wishbone is a morbid wish for death but as the author reveals, his mind is annoyingly alert - a predicament when one wishes for swift death with grace. It is difficult to portray a cognitive experience of death as a territory of the body alone and I like the ease with which this effort to search for death unfolds, in work without ambition, TV without colour and skin that belies his own health. I am reminded of reverse alexithymia or a cognitive dissonance of mind and body, as outlined by Pilowsky.
‘Fever Pitch’ is an allusion in the same genre, a scholarly expertise. The hollowness of these experiences that is abrupt and disappointing like empty rooms full of frantic efforts resulting in images devoid of meanings. Science is repetitively resorted to make sense of sensations in the midst of the vulnerability of the experience. A single line about “aria” as Buddha humanises the narrative even at the peak of the intellectual discourse. Even as it humanises the narration, the imagery remains exquisite. The science of survival battles against intentions of the author and someone, an unformed Buddha (perhaps a generous description of a friend or a family member who is not yet stoic enough to deal with illness) is hoarding all the truths.
‘Heavy Water’is another evocative piece- meditations on water, incessant rain, body fluids, tears, intimacy and the ephemeral nature of love. I liked the logical connections of outer reality to the inner reality of emotions, the paradox of water that does not recognise boundaries versus the really close family who seem to be furthest in their understanding or the inability to draw strict boundaries. It is a beautiful water meditation ending up with a heavy heart. And there is intellectualization, a repetitive refuge in the intellect to protect oneself from feeling albeit in the guise of describing the feeling.
The spray of scented chill pierces my lungs first, then comes the slow desperate heaving, the grinding spasm splaying, trying to centrifuge stubborn coves of mucous - whose greenish-yellow viscosity remains more deceptive than quicksand’s subtle death trap.
My face - confined in the transparency of plastic, frosted glass and thin air - regains for a moment the normalcy of breathing. It is a brief magical world. The oxygen in my blood is in short supply. I feel each and every electron’s charge, spurring my senses.Dizzy in aerosol hope, I try to free myself of the medicated mask, but the frozen rain that batters my face reminds me of the tentativeness of living. As I survive on borrowed air, I’m grateful to the equation of science, its man-made safety, its curious balance that adds that precious molecule to create the sanctity of ‘O3’ - the holy Brahmanical triad - and the triumph of its peculiar numeric subscript.
My breathing is temporarily back now - electrolysed, perfectly pitched and nebulized- as narrow transparent tubes feed dreams into my wide opaque palate.
The sun’s edges are dark, so are my heart’s. No amount of air will light them up.
‘O’Zone’, as seen above, is a brisk gasp of creativity and that obsession with the magical three and Brahminical superstition folding hands before the equation of Science.
‘Night Ward’, ‘Icicles’ and ‘Photons Graphite, Blood’ move on the predictable grounds of accuracy, colour, latent emotion. Darkness has been shown in a wonderful light of warmth and freedom to be vulnerable. And prose poem as the screaming calm.
‘Wo|Man’- as elaborated in ‘Heather’, ‘Carole’, ‘Feminine Musk’, ‘White’, ‘Gold Squares On Muslin’ and ‘Odissi’, has the scent of a man, the contours of a woman, the eternal fascination of the male with the sensual atlas of feminine hair, clothes, jewels, kohl and the essence of libido as a natural force of nature like salt of the ocean and the grain of sand on the shores. As Tolstoy remarked all happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way and all healthy desire is alike. Lack of desire or thwarted desire has varied explanations. To me there were flashes of cold reason that were still a screen between the writer and pleasure:
The sea smell tries to induce a misplaced sense of romanticism in me. Selfishly, I try to grab on to any illusion of love that comes my way, but my heart can only gather the heavy weight of gloom.
(-‘Gold Squares on Muslin’)
In ‘Odissi’ the mood gets philosophical as stone and flesh become one, man and woman become one, heart and head as one, and one is one and one is she — a melting of boundaries, the ecstasy of union.
‘Lines of Desire’ begins by saying it all begins in the mind, a demystifying of male eroticism. It starts with the imagination. The progressing texts get shorter like the breath itself. A delight to the senses encompassing the foreplay, lovemaking as longing, wanting, silence, mingling, hunger and satiation. Here is the piece, ‘Longing’:
The very last drop of rain perched on the edge of her navel -the last bead of sweat balanced on the feather of her eyelash - the last long-wet of my kiss on her skin - all these demand more, more, more -
more wet, more wet - yearning for more rain, fire, desire, moisture - and the cool chill of crystal-water, thirst, saliva, longing, rain.
Gayikaa’r Chithi: Notes from a Singer’s Scoresheet’ is a long cry of nostalgia. The longing for Dhaka is more palpable, translating Bangla to English syllable by syllable. The recipe for poetry as cups of tea, songs, stories, human interactions and endless hints of a muse wearing “shiuli” flowers, looking askance, not aware of herself as a poem to be written. These are themes familiar to the Indian psyche.
Your body scent and strands of long night-kissed hair left on my pillow - broken blouse-buttons on my bed sheet -
A disengaged lone eyelash, curved, left behind as a question mark - What happened? My answers live in your punctuations
I particularly liked the above piece ‘Question’-a sort of incompletion or misunderstood intimacy or even forced intimacy? “Broken blouse buttons” can be consensual urgency or “a disengaged lone eyelash” could be a last minute misgiving, a time when it was possible to stop, if answer was found in words. It is thought provoking to know that the morning after is not always a good sleep, with the face turned to a wall, eyes closed like the desire to know her more than what was known by the scent of her hair. But when “Tagore is a witness” to the nights, every night - it is bound to be sensitive. Here is the ‘Shiuli’ piece in its entirety:
Shiuli flowers, slow-warmed in your clenched fists, drenched in morning dew, greet me with the scent of your soft palm, fingers and heartstrings.
I weave these tiny flowers, petal by petal, threading their stamen filament by filament, into a delicate garland - inking a love song’s score in handwritten script.
Unknown to me, you wear these florets in your silk-raven hair, and around your slender wrists; singing my new song -Tagore as your witness - tonight, and every night.
‘Delusions’ reflects on immigrant status as a precursor to paranoia. Such an astute observation as it is one of the etiological factors outlined for paranoid psychosis. Permanent resident, resident alien or the other and the marginality is poignantly being explained to the “postcards” that are unanswered and all that remains is philately, another legitimised hobby. The enforced poverty of seized bank accounts, metaphoric dismembering of upper limbs by the executioner Smirnoff defining the spirit of Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Seamus Heaney, distills the homelessness. This particular fiction lends voice to the faith lost in a church or a temple or Durga —delusion, a false fixed belief, not culturally shared perhaps is a reaction to an alien culture or by-product of culture shock.
It is morning again - time to retire. I put my night gods to sleep. Another postcard threatens to arrive through the door’s letter-vent. I am grateful for such meagre company.
But all of a sudden - I am apyretic, apyrous and aqua-cool - I am not at all my own self. It is merely the beginning. I can scent a bloodstained epistle on its way.
This loneliness flows touching the reader intimately.
‘Downpour’ begins as an inspiration to cover, the weaving of quilt, every square inch of earth denuded. The author is inspired to weave a little piece to protect him from the mood swings of the wind. Affirmations of self: “I like the unknown”, “I like the mystery the sense of encountering a virgin even though the path may be traversed before.” A very typical male excitement when feeling the fresh smell of wet earth. “Visual, spontaneous and sure.” The love of illusions haunts the imagery of rain as it provides more space than the exact space for imagination. And, the abiding insight “Strength and dignity comes from the elegance of a trained spine….” All the nuances of rain are captured at several levels of experience and several aspects of geography.
It is bone-dry - I pray for any moisture that might fall from the emaciated skies -
There is a cloud, just a solitary cloud wafting perilously -
But it is too far in the distance for any real hope - for rain.
The book ends with the piece, ‘Knowledge, Need’. It is a thirst for more because it is not about knowledge, it is about the interpretations of a sensitive mind, of the very essence of human existence:
“The more you know, the less you need’ -
but that is not true at all for thirst, water, or rain.”
Sudeep Sen, EroText
Vintage: Penguin Random House.2016. 240pp.