Reviews & Recommendations

Much food for thought...

Amit Chaudhuri excels in providing much food for thought in this tiny book, often making one smile through the slowness

Rini Barman

You may think this is yet another saga of how rosogulla happens to feature in Mamata Banerjee’s tweets, but hold on. While it is tough to present a recipe for a good poem, once your fingers feel like they have savoured every line, is when you know poetry has been a satisfying experience. Hitherto, award-winning novelist and essayist Amit Chaudhuri had done wonders in the literary world as a fiction and non-fiction writer. His works entail a wider canvas around memory, altering geographies, mindscapes and more. When asked in The Guardian last year about the book that made him cry, he had told, “It must have been a poem, and it must have been joyous. I don’t know if this counts, but that whole sequence in Ritwik Ghatak’s film Komal Gandhar, in which a character is singing “Akash bhara surja tara” (“the sky full of stars and sun, / the world full of life”), brought tears to my eyes”.

It won’t be inaccurate to say I had a similar pang reading his latest collection in verse, Sweet Shop. I am not a fan of sweet-meats at all; in fact, I dislike how the metaphor of sweetness pervades some cultures in India. Simply put, “mishti” has a layered meaning, a taste that also means a compliment in Bengali—“mishti lagche”. In my mother tongue, which is not the standard Assamese but one that’s fused with colloquial flavours in Kamrup “seni khaise” (literal meaning eating sugar) means everything from a sweet wooing to an irritating cajole. Then, there is that popular refrain “Cheeni Kum” (Cheeni=sugar) from the eponymous film—the lack of sugar hinting at a lack (possibly) of an easy youthful romance. And yet these phrases compel us to pause and ponder beyond taste. Every time we hear them, it is not a traditional walk down memory lane, but a ladle of anguish, nostalgia or laughter. Senses that pour from one’s eating plate into another’s—like the utterance of the word “Sandesh” as the poet mentions:

“You’re news
That stays news
although chhana
goes off easily
crumbles, soon sours,
disintergrating
regurgitated semi-solid.”

On a familiar vein, the poet also analyses how the consumption of taste creates an unease for him. The confectionary shops in Kolkatta and the dedicated cooks propel him to walk those lanes again, each taste emerging in a different vitality. Conversations around sweet shops also serve as buffer-zones, sometimes as meaningless and inconsequential questions. In one such mood, he asks why Faltu should be a pejorative word— it is, after all a word that immediately strikes a chord home. He writes,

Why, if I were to say
These words are faltu, should it be self-deprecation?
I like the sound—so much more
Personal and nearer
Than ‘inconsequential’, ‘waste of time’,
Or ‘feckless’.
Like a pet name
Or a relative
Or a small town you once visited
And remember intermittently.

Sounds, sights and smells are all significant study-categories in this collection. But it also has the distinction of being one of the few poetry books which test your pace. Only a delicate, slow re-reading can reveal the mould of Chaudhuri’s art. It creates visuals, and noises in your mind without really elaborating them, but leaving space for the reader to tarry along with the poem. For example, in “Telebhaja” or fried in oil, he writes of the rising real estate in Kolkatta and its depersonalised cooking scene. The pavements are “hard to traverse”, the poet says:

Someone keeps launching fritters in oil,
the telebhaja drown,
rise steadily, and brown.
The smell of kerosene
And smoky besan
Stirs this market’s
Appetite for itself.

Chaudhuri’s poems also talk of belongingness—in “Petha”, (an Agra ash-gourd based soft candy) he describes middle-class hypocrisy and attitude towards tastes that are relatively alien. He writes about Petha, with humour and a strange melancholy--

“You lack the pedigree
That politesse determines.
Despite your abundance
You’re made negligible
By our intolerance of translucence.”

Sweet Shop may seem like it ended too soon over less than fifty pages, but then, isn’t less more in the domain of poetry? Amit Chaudhuri excels in providing much food for thought in this tiny book, often making one smile through the slowness. The image of sweets that are “pillow-shaped”, ones that the poet says, “instinct alone could have given them shape” remains with you till the end. It almost reminded me of Hieu Minh Nguyen’s line “Grief can taste like sugar if you move your tongue along the right edge”. Chaudhuri’s book will hold a souvenir like place in my memory and is likely to stir up your soul as well.

Rini Barman is a Guwahati-based independent writer and researcher

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