When Verses seek the Panacea by Nabanita Sengupta

Sufia Khatoon’s debut collection of poetry ‘Death in the Holy Month’ is a series of poems that speaks of death, pain, longing, love and spirituality. The theme of pain and death, as evident from the title, continues as an undercurrent, tying the poems together in a uniformity of thought. The poems stand apart for their richness of imageries and depth of thought. A humanistic approach to life and a deep rooted sensitivity become significant features of each of these poems. While there is an autumnal ‘mellow fruitfulness’, there is also the bleakness of winter. Yet, in spite of all these there is the warmth of hope, a positivity that only a firm belief in life can give.

When a poet is also a painter, visual images are bound to abound. Sufia Khatoon’s poems are a celebration of such visual images – at times colourful, at times bleak, just like the various facets that life holds. In a riot of orange colour, she speaks of an orange sun, an orange dress and an orange skin in the poem ‘Orange Skin’, making multiple associations with this single vibrant shade. She speaks of ‘yellow sun, of ‘colour of sensible and sensitive perspectives’, of ‘green continent of hope’, and much more. Not just colours but very detailed imageries paint word pictures for the readers. As you read, you also seem to watch the poems unfold.

In her maiden collection of poems, Death in the Holy Month, Sufia takes us in a journey of the soul through pain and healing, life and death, love and longing, hope and despair, showing life not just in binaries but in its many shades as well. There is a deep understanding of pain in the poet’s mind and a universal empathy spills out from her pen. As she herself says, ‘you can never truly understand pain. Why it emerges from the crevices of our mind and travels throughout the body?’ This book is a personal attempt to understand pain. The poet internalises sufferings – her own as well as of the others and as it passes through her pen, it becomes universal.

“Mother is digging/ adding seeds to soil and some care too./ October hibiscus didn’t bloom in her garden/ she worries, “they die untimely death.” A mother and a gardener come together in an act of creation. The pain and fear of losing one’s child that is universally maternal is revealed through the gardener-mother’s concern for her October hibiscus. Garden imageries are scattered throughout the poem. The poet engages intimately with nature and both its beauty and bounty.

In another poem ‘Seasons of Death and Mangoes’ she therefore sings, ‘Summer of 2018 – / ripened mango oozing/ out of my lips.’ Fruits stand not just for health and vitality but also death, as her next lines go on to say “I look for my grandfather’s stick again/ to drive away the fear from my soul/ the fear of afterlife’s uncanny aftertaste.” This sense of uncanny permeates through a number of her verses.

Death becomes a tangible, real presence that, if not celebrated in the Tagorean style of ‘maranare tu hu mama shyama samana’ (Death you are like my Shyam), is not shunned as well. Death is a presence just as disease is. And they become a part of life as well. The poet says, ‘I am disturbed to think of death/ to come once/ and leave the dead hanging/ in a heaven and a hell’ but immediately counters it with ‘the lingering sense of life’ which tells her ‘Souls belong to nature, mixing in earth, sky, fire and water…’ . The soul has no end, the spirit of life keeps burning and salvation comes through prayers.

In an extremely polarised world, Sufia’s poems speak of hope. As the title suggests, it brings together death and holiness, spirituality mingles with our everyday and gives death a new identity. In ‘God is Falling’ she boldly takes upon the fanaticism in the name of religion. ‘God is falling in your hands/ your blow fatal to His beliefs’ is a direct attack on the fundamentalist thoughts as she goes on to ask next ‘Did He divide you? / Did He ever tell you to/ rage war and chaos?’ Such scathing questions keep surfacing in her poems as do a heartfelt cry for a more tolerant and secular world which is why she can say in the poem ‘Angular’ “In the middle – / azaan and arati find the same voice”. It is the cry of the secular, humanist voice for sanity in the middle of an ever increasing religious fanaticism.

Sufia Khatoon holds many feathers in her cap. She is a multilingual poet, a translator, a painter, an avid lover of nature and much more. All these facets of her personality reflect in the verses that she creates. But what becomes most important is the voice of hope that peeps through her words. The world might be an Eliotesque Wasteland, but it is upon us to redeem ourselves through love and prayers. Death in the Holy Month is a search of the poet for that remedy, a universal panacea. Though at times the images of death and sickness tend to overpower the readers, the voice of hope, the struggle to overcome pain resurface through her verses to help readers cope with the morbidity of the world around.

About the Author

Dr.Nabanita Sengupta is presently working as assistant professor in English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. Her areas of specialization are 19th century travel writings, women’s studies, translation studies and disability studies. Some of her translated short stories have been published, the latest contribution being in the Anthology of Modern Bengali short stories published by the SahityaAkademi. She is also a part of two ongoing translation projects one undertaken by Viswa-Bharati and the other by Sahitya Akademi. She has presented papers in various national and international seminars in India and abroad. Recently, she was the co-convenor of an International webinar on ‘Organised Higher Academics in South Asia’ which brought together various universities and scholars from India and abroad using ICT and led to an interesting discourse on South Asian studies. She along with Suranjana Choudhury had guest edited a volume at Café Dissensus on women displacement in South Asia. Her creative writings have also been published at various places like Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, etc. She may be contacted at nabanita.sengupta@gmail.com

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