I say this rarely about writers – but I have loved and admired everything that I’ve come across written by Sharmistha Mohanty. Earliest of all, Five Movements in Praise (2013), a text in prose that unfolds with the cadence of a poem, and in keeping with the musical metaphor moves like a chord progression through the sections “Town”, “Forest”, “City”, “Caves”, “Landscapes”. Is it a novel? I’d found myself asking; I hadn’t quite come across anything like it before in structure and form.
It brought together text and image, it deployed ways of telling unusual for a novelistic project. Perhaps it is a novel, I’d come to conclude, and so much more. One couldn’t really say, and I realised only later, that that was perhaps the point. To push the boundaries of what we experience as, and expect from, a novel, a book, a text.
Next, more recently, The Gods Came Afterwards (2019), a collection of poem-prayers that demanded to be read aloud, that were sparse, Biblical, Indic. Here, Mohanty harnessed in her poems the power of orality, the relish and revelling of sound and repetition. I was so struck by these poem-prayers that I included some of them in my course “The Spoken and the Sung” at Ashoka University, which explored how oral storytelling traditions might inspire us to write better, more effectively.
Vignettes and spaces
Mohanty’s latest, Extinctions, is a slim offering, and lies in your hand quietly beautiful and devastating. This semester, I’m teaching the craft of short fiction at university and have been thinking a lot about the short form – in text, film, podcasts – and the “vignettes” in Extinctions challenge, again, what I think I understand about, and have come to expect from short pieces of prose. They lie, as so much of Mohanty’s work does, in the spaces in-between – in between prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, telling and showing, image and word, poem and prayer.
They are wild things. Unruly, unwieldy, unwilling to be slotted, categorised, boxed and labelled and stashed away on a shelf. At the moment, I take Extinctions with me wherever I go, slipped into my tote, so I can dip into the writing, again and again, revisiting and re-relishing. They feel alive and urgent, and demanding, in a way that certain kinds of writing can be – look, they say, look and re-read.
The greatest draw of course, is Mohanty’s language, lying on the page as music, as water, startling and elemental, taking you on journeys through long, complicated sentences that she makes sound so terribly seamless, so terribly easy. The first vignette, for example, “Street”, extends sans full stop over two and a half pages, like a street, you walk and walk through its linguistic constructions, and eventually – after passing the fruit sellers, and yellow birds, the thin maidservants and the tamarind tree, the old man and the church bells, the immense moon and the teenagers in their spaghetti straps, the fallen leaves and the old couples, do you come to the end, where “a few incisive stars cut open the sky of smog and dust and smoke.”
So many of the others are as delicious – in “The Horse” statues of clay horses lie unsold and buried in a forest of dust, or enter living rooms wrenched of their original context, and the piece moves from a section on the connection between the animal and colonisers who brought them to the subcontinent, to a meditation on wishes, and a moment of quiet on red earth looking up at the stars – “horse” eventually transforming into a wish for “boundless spaces, a wish for the inexpressibly wide and broad, for the whole earth as well as the skies, for the unharnessing of human life.”
These vignettes are performative – functioning as moments of pause, as breath, and most poignantly as gestures – here, a grandmother gently tilting the face of a younger woman, perhaps a daughter or granddaughter – “they will both look at each other” – or hand-making kajol over a flame with a “lifetime of steadiness”, or a beloved aunt making a kantha by a “process akin to loving, which is always in movement and without destination”, a statue with a small smile, rising “from the spine upwards, with the body’s sap and blood and breath – unbreakable”, a mother making an alpona with luminous white rice paste, always drawing from the centre outwards, like a universe expanding from a point like a navel, grandparents standing at the top of the stairs in sunlight, sitting on wicker chairs in a sunlit balcony, a boatman calling out on the wide river.
A meditative landscape
These gestures don’t just remain imagistic, though; Mohanty teases and draws, moulding and remoulding the central image into an expansion, a meditative space that stretches like a landscape on the page. Varied as they might be, these pieces are held together by recurring motifs – the zebra, the wind, references to forests, even the International Space Station – and, as the title suggests, a thematic, exploration around the idea of “extinctions”, of passing and passing away, of losing, in a deliberate way, for all time.
They are eulogies, marking the shift from existence to non-existence, yet also serving as reminders of vast time, vast histories, geological in scope. In a favourite vignette, “Forest”, Mohanty reminds us of shifting landscapes – even landscapes that seem to have always been as they are now – and the beginning of a forest, that started with a volcanic eruption almost 65 million years ago, and how much later, the soil formed from the lava flow, rich in essential minerals, and gave rise to trees and plants – a place “where what is tamed can return to wildness”, where “All that has narrowed can widen again, the contracted world begin to open.” It is imperative to enter the forest alone, so that when they return “it is with all the world.” The experience of reading Extinctions is similar – by the end you emerge with richness and plentitude, and with a wish always to return.
Extinctions, Sharmistha Mohanty, Context.