A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Essayist
This fascinating collection of memoirs, personal essays and criticisms maps the young essayist Amit Shankar Saha's journey from his school days, to his days at the university as a doctoral scholar, and his emergence as a poet, curator, and assistant professor at a university. The 36 essays included in this volume is a rich melange that captures the essayist's varying moods and areas of critical interest that range from Amartya Sen's Lecture on 'Justice', Post Postcolonialism, the erudition of Dr Santanu Majumdar to innocuous subjective recollections such as 'My first writing experience', 'Calcutta Book Fair and Me' and 'How a Conference made me ponder' among others. This volume will surely motivate and inspire young students and scholars to go forward on their very own special expeditions, by tracking Amit Shankar Saha's evolving odyssey as a scholar, poet, critic and essayist who has recorded with enthusiasm and critical understanding his varied experiences and responses to the world around him and the world within him. Ranging from intellectual discourse to sensitive impressions, this collection will undoubtedly prove that poet and critic Amit Shankar Saha is a skilled prose stylist as well.
- Sanjukta Dasgupta
Little letters of love
Uttaran Das Gupta
Amit Shankar Saha has quietly carved a niche for himself in the overactive world of Indian poetry in English, through a poetic style that’s devoid of any hurry. He is the author of two books, Balconies of Time and Fugitive Words, and also the founder of Rhythm Divine Poets, the cohort of Kolkata-based English versifiers. His poetry is shot through with the sort of aesthetics with which readers of Bengali poetry are familiar. Saha’s latest book, Illicit Poems, the one under review, is a slim volume of 30 short lyrics, that will pleasantly surprise those unfamiliar with his work and not disappoint in the least those familiar with him.
Take for instance the poem, “Love Letter”, which appears early in the book: “All my love letters / I write to you, / my mailman steals / them every day.” One is left wondering if the mailman is a belligerent figure, a competitor in love. The poet/narrator let the intended audience know that the mailman — a curiously American word in an Indian poem — is aware of all his dark secrets and illicit desires. The words of the letters, like words in a poem, take on a life of their own, developing “Stockholm Syndrome” for their thief.
Anyone familiar with canonical Bengali poetry will immediately recognise the echoes of Shakti Chattopadhyay’s “Hemanter Aranye Ami Postman” (The Postman in the Autumn Forest). In Chattopadhyay’s poem, the postman he observes in a yellow forest of autumn is careful with his consignment, unlike other postmen. “They are not like our postmen,” writes Chattopadhyay, “from whose hands are lost continuously our relaxed love letters.” When the figure of the postman reappears in Saha’s poem, he is no more a careful or a careless figure, but a thief of love. This puts the poet in a strange predicament: “My words to you / never gets delivered / and you think I’m / not a man of words”.
If Bengali poetry is an influence, so is canonical English poetry. (Saha has a PhD in English from Calcutta University and is a college teacher.) This influence is self-conscious. In the short lyric “Wannabe”, he pays tribute to T S Eliot while also gently ridiculing the desire of many Indian English poets to imitate his poetry: “We were out for a smoke in the balcony / when Eliot joined us for company. / Etherized in his presence we / discussed some bullshit, some poetry.” Quoting from “...Prufrock”, fashionable among English undergraduates, is deprived of gravitas by the close placement of “bullshit” and “poetry” in the same line. The poem ends: “The high priest and the poet left me / amidst the smoke a wannabe.”
Love is a recurring theme in the book, but so is the poetic process — and both are a sort of throwing the gauntlet to the readers. “Let us go for a fling / shock the world,” invites Saha in the poem “Imagine”, a title borrowed from John Lennon’s popular song. The world is too much, too boring, something like a “solved puzzle”. The invitation continues: “So let us build an eddy, / organise a turbulence, / trouble the waters, / rock the boat / and take the blame.” In the last couple of lines, the poet makes himself vulnerable and invites the reader to do so as well: “See, I have betrayed my feelings for you, / will you now do the same?”
In many ways, writing — like love — is a process of making oneself vulnerable. Saha does not hesitate to do so anywhere in this book, and that is what makes it more than ordinary.
The last six poems of the book are inspired by “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago. While all the other poems in the book are in free verse, unrhymed, these six poems take on a sort of singsong rhythm. The theme is still love, but the poems rise like a crescendo, or perhaps the sizzle of a mountain river. “My dear Lara / What is love? / Love is a ride on the flyover / with the wind in your hair” One can almost see the narrator and beloved, on a bike maybe, driving over a flyover in Kolkata, after a spell of rain, with their hair open, their heads thrown back in the wind. Proceeds from the earnings of this book will support poet Linda Ashok’s crowd-funding endeavour to provide skills training to women reeling from the effects of Covid-19 and Cyclone Amphan.
The Journal of Commonwealth Literature | SAGE | 2020 Vol. 55(4) 590–633
sagepub.com/journals-permissions DOI: 10.1177/0021989420962768 journals.sagepub.com/home/jcl
[In] Fugitive Words, the poetic canvas brings the animate and inanimate imaginatively within its purview: “Trees squat on tall grasses,/ a pond cries for drowned souls,/ plantains droop into muddy sleep,/ fishes breathe hyacinth dreams,/ weeds and stones outlive the night.” An intense femininity informs the collection and Saha’s observant and reflective gaze captures the complex aspects of women’s lives.
— Payal Nagpal and Shyamala A. Narayan
The Asian Age - Polyphony by Sudeep Sen, 13-03-2020
Amit Shankar Saha’s second book, Fugitive Words, is a joy to read — both for the poetry’s tight economy, and for the oblique narratives. His “words” carefully delineate the poems’ plot — direct and abstract, intimate and universal. Here’s an extract from ‘Ruminations from a Sick Bed’, set in tercets: “Last Sunday / around 1:15pm / I turned old. // A hundred butterflies / gathered for winter jamming / inside my left knee joint. // A couple of snakes / crossed over each other / inside my right foot. // … // A sad black cardigan / hugged gently my white shirt / in a lonesome embrace. // … // Winter wars have left me / with broken birthday candles / and an air of insanity.” There is a wonderfully imagistic quality carrying all the hallmarks of a good poem — precision of image-making, careful use of words/phrases, judicious use of line-breaks, and an ease of linguistic flow. I look forward to this poet’s promising future.
Muse India ISSN: 0975-1815
Way of Words and Images
Poetry thrives in sunshine as well as in darkness but without knitting words or leaps of imagination, we lose the pleasure of promises. ‘Fugitive Words,’ the second collection of poems by Amit Shankar Saha, interweaves words with memory and despair, language and history that reflects and reveals the inner space and refracting reality. This is a collection that achieves resonance between an awareness and a landscape of elusive words. He approaches poetry with humanity and warmth and his poems thoughtfully touch on themes of identity, nostalgia, love, religion and society.
Let me pause to say: Saha has real gifts as a poet and it’s impossible not to hear the meta-textual echo of words in his luminous poems reaching from the precise to general.
Dustin Pickering has rightly pointed out in his introduction, ‘Saha is an expert in economy of words, picking them and sorting them in the most emotive and empowering way. They speak for more than Saha himself. These ‘fugitive words’ are literal fugitives, escaping criminal proceedings brought against them.
Reasonably sheltered but far from prearranged, this collection of poems is poignant and inviting in their familiar ease, broadening from the grounding details of life to manage to be both realistic as well as indefinable.
We know that language is a vehicle of history. Some of his poems put an argument – where does reality end and the dream begin? And if reality is the pit stop constant, have we been dreaming all along? Those poems feel intensely familiar yet disquietingly inexplicable. His poems are informed and sometimes unwelcoming, even though enlivened up by his refreshing way of words. Most of his poems seem to have absorbed the essence of the fugitive mind, the sense of time extending and shrinking and prevailing all at a time.
The opening poem, ‘My Words’, enters in the world shining in the light of dusk and introduces a new territory where the words enjoy freedom in the open space.
my words, those that live in huts by the tracks,
who owns their lives in this light of dusk?
They clamber into my poems
like a broken bridge half-way into a river,
like a broken roof half-way into a house. (My Words)
It can almost be about an aggressive inner self wondering at the ways we cross and hurt one another. There is porousness to lines such as these which float up and away. More common are minute observations, surreal moments and moving uncertainties. This and many other of the poems involve yearning and I love the stillness of the imagery, as intensely quiet.
A slow train at Talit
looks befuddled at fields
of ripe-green memories (The Eyes)
What is all the more remarkable is that he is neither emotive nor tedious nor foreseeable in his poems. The poet introduces a voice that intent on investigating spaces we do not ordinarily occupy and the arresting lines keep the readers on their toes –
My solitude becomes frail
as memories starve in the night
I, a water diviner, search
for a solvent to sustain life (The Water Diviner)
A short and startling poem, ‘Ajar’ possibly tells us more about inner self, exploring the sense that the meaning of things is not to be found in the obvious, in what is explicitly stated even though memory ‘ruptures neurons, punctures brains’. And yes, it is the quieter poems that resonate, that marvel the commoners –
From a slightly parted window
Light comes and settles in
My room at night. Lingers on
one wall for long. Staring
at my sleepless body. Soon
it will be dawn. Memory
too slightly parts my mind (Ajar)
There is melancholy that rings true in his poems at times yet his lyricism ripples with light. The nature is vibrant in his poems but not at the expense of human connection. The poet’s ‘fugitive’ words at times detain the readers. In this collection he shows poetry as a form of literary close work, reimagining as critical appreciation.
Ra Sh has mentioned very rightly, ‘Amit’s poems in their journey with words and memories are not limited to any singular species of memories, but are drawn from many histories and geographies.’
Let us plagiarize a chunk of verse
From a Hindu poem and profane it
With the lines of a Muslim poem (A Poem for Dark Times)
While the diversity of content and forms at times dip in lost love and silent grief, cynicism and sarcasm keep the freshness of the wordplay strikingly alive. The love of indifference is everywhere – in a literary sense, too. In particular, he borrows light from the surround and history that quivers between ominous and fresh doggedness to preserve. The locales are the right additive here and one can savour the sublimity of the following lines –
A little ahead of Shyambati,
night sheds lights to reveal
its mysterious shape.
It’s like walking into
At the bend of Ratan Palli (Convalescent)
I can’t put it down and have kept returning to these poems by their beauty and clarity. The prismatic output of the words is among the most significant, paradoxical, advanced and immense. A tender and succinct poem is as follows –
I never came close enough
to register your fragrance
days become months
and then there is an odour-
I know it is the stench of memory. (Olfaction)
Sometimes Saha digs deep and words are his reserve accretion. His subtle observation, ‘I make love to the lump/and it transforms/ into a poem’. Holding history and the contemporary in his palm, the poet displays his poetic canvas with an unwavering eye and his poems provoke and surprise with nuanced expression –
Missing you is like winter
Spent hidden under an old quilt
In the dark, without a torch,
Without being spied, without being sought. (Abyss)
This poem reminds us of the words we play with our minds to calm our own edginess. Saha’s wordplay and local narratives take us deeper into environs and familiar places as they shape boundaries between what might be and what really is. Saha writes poems that are loving evocations of surreal moments and memory, waking up the heart and rallying hope. He embraces the grace and virtually paints with words –
You find a dried-up yellow rose
Inside the pages of a broken book.
The story of the broken rose
Obscures the story of the yellow book
One day my books with your words
Will reach some unknown readers. (Windows)
Here is a poet whose voice is so strikingly rich that his wordplay requires no background information to appreciate. Some of his poems carry the shining presence of alliteration and assonance lacing with lyricism yet create the mellow sound of despair.
Staring long at a grey patch of green,
It seems the greys are the greens
And ungreatness a greatness
And all deceiving undeceiving. (The Greatest Love Poem)
What strikes me most in his write, is the weaving of the words and generation of metaphors. Shadowy, unsettling and mindful, these poems linger through rare images and glowing words.
I undo my smoke-leaden
Tresses onto my yellow skin
To hide the marks of Basanta
Left by a migrating spring. (Grey Love)
Some of his poems make real efforts in combining memories and a surreal present in reimagining the familiar to desired effect. His poems are thoughtful but subtly formal, distant but accessible. This poem is full of surprise and wonder and conjures the rainy landscape within soul. Perhaps the rains are like tears without saltiness as the poet envisages elsewhere –
It is raining inside me
but you can’t see
Clouds of words enter me
but you can’t see (Rain Within)
His poems delving deeply into contradictions at times yet agree with its final tally. Nostalgia and grief surface throughout Saha’s writing, intent on uncovering the incongruous beneath the everyday life, even as it remains hushed, detached and blurry. Not to be stuck in a groove, the buoyant mobility and full of unexpected fronts in his poems leave the readers enthralled.
At the waterfall the wind ruffles
the hair of water, shaking off drops
like flakes of dandruff from the head
of a crevice top. How unkempt? (The Waterfall)
There is a joy in encountering a collection that insists with exceptional grace how to craft a painterly line with elusive words moving without pressure and finally leaves an indelible impression. This book has an urgency about being alive and a quieter seriousness in reconnoitring precisely the life, love and memories and raising its voice in the ‘adverse time space’. If his poems are to believed, there is nothing as consoling as ‘word’ in particular. Fugitive Words reflects a significant deviation from ‘Balconies of time’, the debut collection of Saha’s poems. Tender and artful, this book is a gentle celebration of life and beyond, a spiritual exploration of inner soul.
The cover page demonstrates how much can be achieved by not overdoing it with extravagant illustrations. The book is a must for every poetry lover.
Memory Ecologies: A Review of Amit Shankar Saha’s Fugitive Words.
Review by: Sutanuka Ghosh Roy
Fugitive Words is the second collection of poems (first being Balconies of Time) by Amit Shankar Saha, an award-winning poet and short story writer. He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets and fiction editor of Ethos Literary Journal. As Dustin Pickering, in his foreword to the volume, describes, “Amit S. Saha explores memory and desire through the lens of loss and despair. The grief is beyond personal”. “…As we travel these poems, we are introduced to a scientific understanding that is compatible with humanist spirituality”. Ra Sh in the blurb to the book writes, “Amit’s poems in their journey with words and memories are not limited to any singular species of memories, but are drawn from many histories and geographies.” The poems bring forth the literary mediation of memory and experience set in the narratives of particular time, space and milieu. The understanding of memory mediated through the poems refers to a specific modality of reflection by which the poet examines lived experiences ingrained into poetry. The approach is to arrive at propositions which locate poetry as an archive for memory. In the poem “Paisley”, Amit writes:
You, who will find her one evening smiling
at me while wishing an untimely goodbye
and leave me with you under a roof roofless,
know her footsteps echo an ancient
amnesia of the beginning where
she left paisleys of footprints on the leaves
for generations of my rebirth to see
and not recognize the fossils of the past (25)
Memory here is not referred to as an abstraction per se- but a way of passing through the empirical in order to prepare new entities of interpreting poetry.
In the poem “Spices”, Amit writes,
In Paradise Pickle Factories
smell of grandmothers sits
cross-legged to tell stories
of spices who went on long
voyages across the seas.
In that long long past
Forefathers and foremothers
of fenugreek and cardamom
traded in gold and silver
in the bazars of Persia.
… Today in my turmeric mind
when I recall their memory,
listening to smells, smelling stories,
tastes of a bay-leaf past
seep in with all the oils and cloves. (23)
It is important not to see memory as the inevitable result of merely an accumulation of data or information. The varied fields of poetic representations have changed the contours of memory formation and re-cognition which leads to new conceptual innovations and ideas. Another poem “Your Grandmother’s Sari”, speaks of his grandmother who has left many saris for his mother who wears them now. Along with the saris he is reminded of her habit of having betel nuts. The chief object of Amit’s poem is to determine the relationship between memory of everyday experience, lived events and its translation into poetry.
The poet stoically sits through the night reveals layers of personal passions, social insights and aesthetic delight,
If I remember you tonight,
it is because my fugitive
memory escapes the flaccid hours
spent on the banks of forgetfulness. (“Scattering”,49).
The comparative study of both the written way of representing memory and reproduction of memory is the central argument here.
The poet is quite an expert in economy of words carefully picking and choosing them. The words speak for more than poet himself...
my words, those that live in huts by the tracks,
who owns their lives in this light of dusk?
They clamber into my poems
like a broken bridge half-way into a river,
like a broken roof half-way into a house. (“My Words”,15)
These words are “fugitive words”, they are literal fugitives, they escape the legal proceedings against them and find themselves rounded up in the verses.
I have jailed my heart,
no fugitive words
will escape from it
except in disguise
like those trespassers. (“Fugitive Words”, 65)
The poet thus adopts a human approach to reach those dark fugitive lands of our essence. In this dark land he speaks of rains,
Two drops of water dribble
And settle on a scooter seat but
Their meniscuses don’t meet.
The days become wet and sticky
Like folded damp paper. (“Forgetting the Rains”, 60).
In some of his poems like “This Bijoya”, “Autumning”,”Grey Love”, “Rai”, “Brinda”, “Binodini” Amit does the “code-mixing”, having a dialogue between Bengali and English words, which is integral to the poems ideas of place as well as identity. Words like “Bijoya”, “Hemanta”, “Rai”, “Binodini” reflects the Indianness of the sociolinguistic trends in India. The long poem “Lahore Bomb Blast Series” speak volumes, and pulls the heartstrings!”The Hind Shawl Repairing House” is steeped in nostalgia and leave the readers to ruminate. Fugitive Words uses stored memory for future use and the poems in this collection acts as a repository. Unlike a human mind it is not prone to everyday degeneration. Through these acts one visits, revisits the past as well as the present and future. The artistic cover add to the aesthetic pleasure of the reading experience.
-Sutanuka Ghosh Roy
XS: Not a Poetry Review by Jhelum Chattaraj 26-7-2019
Poetry without Hashtags: Not a Poetry Review of Amit Shankar Saha’s “Fugitive Words”
“Fugitive Words” is a collection without hashtags: it is unpretentious and effortless to the core. The poems have a background score too, and it’s Billie Meyrs’s “Kiss the Rain.” I was struck by the resemblance between the charming vulnerability of Amit’s poems and Billie’s voice. The song like a faithful dog followed me all through the read. A strange but pleasurable experience :)
Amit’s words arrive gently and his aching voice, like an ardent Romantic tells you that there is much salubrity in the ordinary beauty of life. In a Keatsian fashion, he creates synesthetic experiences in his writing and sometimes he evokes Pablo Neruda too. His style is lyrical, uncluttered and evokes pertinent conversations between nature and human nature. It was refreshing to find the lesser known places of Bengal like Bolpur, Rishra and Talit. The Bolpur poems carry a Wordsworthian fragrance: rain, summers, small, mysterious windows:
It never snows in Bolpur.
The midnight of my hair
starts to fade. (lines 1-3)
In other poems, such as “Spices,” he churns up memory and nostalgia. The poem, “Paisley,” reminds one of Agha Shahid Ali’s words on Kashmir. Amit’s tone is fragile and reflective.
I particularly enjoyed the poem, “Grandmother”:
What if our grandmothers come back one day
from a parallel universe to re-
claim all that they have left behind and find
how wars have eaten up the family
heirlooms or partition devoured them, how...
but these are negative thoughts and I must
not harbour them. (lines 15-22)
Poems like “Bijoya”, and many others, make the collection a cultural trip back to Bengal:
A late hour interacts
with your kamala sari.
I walk into
a cafe of thought,
order a wok
of Banalata Sen. (lines 1-6)
The poem, “The Outsider,” illustrates Amit’s striking imagination:
I imagine my imagination
stunted by language of power,
and all the words I birth
become husbands and fathers. (lines 10-13)
Later in the collection, the poet offers some succinct lines like:
Mothers are like nations:
they make us emotional. (“Late Mother’s day Celebration”, 12-13)
The poems also talk about sub-continental politics in a terse voice. However, he does not dwell much on that, instead probes deeper into the politics of the body and self in poems like,“The air that ate eternity” and “Ruminations from a sick bed.” The collection has seventy poems and many of them, those with a relaxed tone are eclipsed by poems that insist to stay with you, and share a drink or two as you analyse them.
"Fugitive Words" will be thoroughly enjoyed by readers who prefer poetry as a turncoat, a secret harbour where one can safely anchor emotions, sit back, relax and marvel at the simple and rustic truths of life.
Balconies of Time
Amit Shankar Saha’s debut collection of poems Balconies of Time emphasizes a poetic spirit that can engage words and rhythm in a felicitous fusion. So the poet’s sensitivity and skill in the use of words to create emotive images exhibit a refreshing brilliance of concision and cadence as he writes, “Some winters are so cold you need to hug a hope for warmth”. A student, teacher and researcher of Western literature and Indian English Literature, Saha has admirably used the English language with felicity, demonstrating the malleability of the English language, one of its outstanding merits.
The forty eight poems in Amit Shankar Saha’s collection Balconies of Time, traverse a wide trajectory, from Awadh to Park Street and Southern Avenue, from Uxbridge to California. The poems also bear the unmistakable stamp of a diligent student of western literature, as some of the poems are titled, Gyre, Double Helix, Cryptology and Delilah. Delilah ends with the telling line, “gaze eyeless at Gaza”. Apart from the rich diversity of content one noticeable feature of Saha’s chiselled poems are their brevity, concision and the internal rhythmic nuances that enfold each new thought, each imagined image, each emotive expression that blends sense and sensibility seamlessly. Amit Shankar Saha’s debut volume of poems, Balconies of Time, will surely inspire newer generations of poets to play with words meaningfully, in order to create timeless aesthetic expressions.
- Foreword, Sanjukta Dasgupta
Cicatrix of time
By Saima Afreen | Express News Service | Published: 27th February 2018 04:12 AM |
Last Updated: 27th February 2018 04:12 AM | A+A A- |
The New Indian Express, Hyderabad
HYDERABAD:We are home to other beings, objects and places revisited by the memories of the same every now and then. The landscapes within thus emerge as an interplay of light and darkness, shifting to give space for fissures left unattended. The lacunae develop their own lava and find a way to erupt, emerge: sometimes all at once, sometimes one by one, step by step, word by word. Poet Amit Shankar Saha’s first book ‘Balconies of Time’ is an attempt to bring forward these hidden geographies of memories recorded in bricks of mind’s own time. The body just acts as the host for the colonies of these recollections.
The poet explores both the mind and body to set alight dormant kilns of reminiscences within. The slow flame flickers lighting up the vast cities housed inside the atoms. The poet begins a microscopic search dealing with landscapes first. That’s how the introductory poem in the collection is titled ‘Awadh’ with the mention of Ghalib, the great Urdu-Persian bard, who once lived in Calcutta at Ramdulal Street when he visited the British Capital in February 1828. Amit, too, lives in the city and one can notice the delicacy of an Urdu couplet surreptitiously seep in the last lines of the poem:And again the night stumbles in unsteadily,Like a poem disinterred from one’s memory.
The simplicity of the words define the poet’s craft as he chooses clipped lines, concise fragments to let the light within his stanzas flow. And his images are of everyday life lacquered with the beauty of thoughts. The journey of letters continues sometimes in a train that gathers ‘Chips of abandoned sleep’ traversing to the mental landscape of celebrated US-Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali and kneading his words into: “Mad heart, how brave can you still be?” The indescribable happens here. The heart is questioned: a complex mesh of arteries that are also silk routes to feeling[s] as tender as the first snowflake.
The streets in the heart also house balconies hanging from pillars of distant times that forget their existence and which axis they belong to. Amit, in his title poem explore the madness of heart that appears and disappears jumping from one elevation to another leaving nothing but ashen moon: the harvest of time as a reward for the mad heart of the poet which he carries as grey dust in the streets of Calcutta that several other poets and artistes have done before. ‘Balconies of Time’ is a guide-map of memories that are nothing but work-in-progress. Amit practises this cartography not just with words, but heart, too.