Uttaran Das Gupta’s verse is conversational and deals with the everyday of urban Indian landscapes and the hopes and thoughts of their citizens with an insight and a formalistic command that are rare. He writes in unobtrusive rhymes, in simple yet masterful patterns, at a time when free verse is a fad. The effect is remarkable, especially when the reader realises to her surprise that the flowing dialogues, often of lovers, are in fact written in rhyming verse, even as they carry the ease of a convivial evening spent with one’s (somewhat learned) partner in a Delhi barsati . For Das Gupta’s poems are most often about Delhi, his Visceral Metropolis ; at other times, they can be about Kolkata. Always, they retain the same vivid imagery, the same easy tone.
A prefatory poem, ‘Obstinacy’, one of the very few in free verse in this collection, sets the tone well when it expresses the surprise of a past lover: “I always / knew he was a little weird but I didn’t / know he was such a pervert. When did he / write all this? How did he find the time?” The poet-narrator asserts his obstinacy in working with craft, “like a slave at a / pyramid-construction site,” such that he can now confidently assert to touch any word and it “metamorphoses into / poetry.”
Philip Nikolayev, who has introduced the book, emphasises the place of love in Das Gupta’s poems. The love for what? Nikolayev doesn’t quite clarify. It is, admittedly, the love for a woman. It is also the love of cities, and namely Delhi at that. But what is perhaps most deeply rooted is the love for poetry and its craft:
“The death of a famous poet
is a reason to celebrate:
There’s no time for us to indulge
the rituals of loss. We’ll divulge
clever patterns of electric
lights to decorate the civic
infrastructure, buildings and streets
for the carnival. An elite
team of policemen will escort
the cortège. All public transport
will be off, as publishers,
drunkards, prostitutes and lovers,
in a midday procession, dance,
in a riot of defiance.”
There is self-conscious social defiance here, through the hyperbole of the seeming momentousness and social recognition of a poet’s death. And yet, there’s an acute awareness of the reality too; the funeral participants are only publishers, drunkards, prostitutes, lovers, and the poet-narrator. The elegant description is broken into poetic lines that allow scope for inconspicuously rhyming and half-rhyming couplets.
However, this is not to say that the other loves are unimportant. The conversation in Delhi continues in a ‘Walk, After Lunch’ at Hauz Khas Madrasa:
“We press on to the lake.
The fort was restored to defend
the water from the Mongol hordes.
These Khilji-Tughlaq ruins now boast
of peacocks, lovers and ghosts;
no one remembers Taimur’s sword.
The dusk is smoggy, the village
is lit-up. We hear jazz, Sufi,
and debate on rum or coffee.
‘To not drink would be sacrilege!’
We each order one-and-a-half
measures of rum: the cold retreats.
Good I didn’t get the coat, it cheats
me of the warmth of friends.
—‘Or rum?’—And we laugh.”
Once again, the easy ABBA (letters refer to the last words of each line) rhyme patterns of these verses celebrate the quotidian pleasure of the young and the middling in Delhi’s winter, and point at the cyclic nature of lives. The city and its history are subtly woven into the lives of citizens, just as rhymes and poetry are subtly woven into conversation.
Nonetheless, it is not all prettiness and beauty. Das Gupta is just as alert to the city’s impending demise as he is to its charms. Not only does he pick up on damning headlines such as “Delhi will drown in its own waste”, but as an acute observer of Delhi’s many ills, he lampoons the city’s propensity to romanticise its ruins at the cost of its poor. Poems such as ‘Boundless & Bare’ and ‘Water Problems’ present interesting possibilities in adversity: “‘Can I come over, wash my hair?’/ Your call interrupts my nightmares.”
Delhi’s laburnums rise without the characteristic descriptions of yellow flames but more so as a mood of the Delhi summer, in a number of poems. In one poem, “Amaltas, hallucinatory, / on these muddy pavements discard / all their auric, summer glory / to quench arid territory.” In the same poem, Das Gupta goes on to claim: “Delhi has no competent bard — / Here, the angle is all awry.”
He is indeed a little disingenuous here, perhaps pointedly so. For in Visceral Metropolis , Das Gupta has valiantly staked his claim as Delhi’s bard. His poetry speaks easily to many who have spent evenings sauntering through the city (in love or not). As a bunch of poet friends concluding its last poem say, “The dusk can’t make us disappear”.
Maaz Bin Bilalteaches English at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat