In Subliminal by Radha Chakravarty, you encounter the selves with whom you coexist and the other lives you never lived. You long for the roads not taken. The collection is an exploration of inner and outer worlds through the “parallel life of words”. The visions and imagery are charged with primal energy – the words leap out of the page and hit you right in the gut.

Chakravarty hints at limitless possibilities in life, leaving you with a feeling of fullness as well as a sense of loss. As she evokes the forests “never braved” and the “sunsets never seen”, you bemoan the confines of your mundane existence. She, however, emphasises the power of words and the worlds you can craft through the medium of verse. In “Work in Progress”, the poet meets her many selves – which collide, crackle, dissolve, transform – calling into question the notion of a settled identity. The “me” that helps you find a firm footing in the social world is never fully formed. Its evolving nature holds out the possibility of redefining the self.


A dreamlike encounter between “me” and “not-me” awakens you to the haunting presence of the shadow self (repressed or unacknowledged aspects of yourself):

The mirror shows a stranger.
With a penetrating gaze
Her eyes unmask my inner soul,
To show my darker phase.
I stretch my hand to touch her
And she reaches out to me,
But the cold glass divides us
And splits our worlds apart. 

The mirror seems to force a confrontation with the shadow self but prevents integration with it by standing in between. In “Alien”, the act of looking at yourself in the mirror becomes a frightening experience. The poet seems to conjure up the self that has been othered – the “not-me” – likening it to an alien caged in her “woman body”. She uses vivid imagery to indicate the unsettling nature of self-scrutiny:

In the hall of mirrors, at night, I see,
New-grown fangs, and forked tongue,
Twisted talons, serpents writhing
In tangled hair, black hollows for eyes.
In the mirror, is it me I see, or an –
Other, my own dark twin, alien, trapped
Here, in this lonely planet, this body?

Chakravarty depicts the body as an awe-inspiring anatomical structure that serves as her home. The poems suspend you in a twilight zone between wakefulness and dreams, reality and fantasy, the conscious sphere and the subconscious realm. They affect you on a visceral and, of course, subliminal level.

Besides venturing into the psychic domain, the poems capture “the frenzy of our unquiet age”. “Hate”, written with special attention to form, follows the template of a Fibonacci poem and matches the pace of the fast-spreading virus of hatred. The devastating impact of this pandemic is conveyed through a series of images that carry the force of brevity:

Mingling, multiplying voices

The collection contains poems that tackle subjects ranging from women’s emerging, mingling and multiplying voices to the plight of migrant workers wearily trudging through the roads of a city that abandoned them during the lockdown.

In “The Severed Tongue”, Chakravarty gives voice to the story of Khona, a legendary Bengali woman gifted with wisdom and clairvoyance. Her oracles were silenced because she stirred envy among the men. That did not stop her sayings from spreading far and wide, frustrating the efforts to stifle her voice:

For her severed tongue bled and bled,
and the blood spread, sweeping
others into the flood, and
the torrent of voices swelled, becoming
a rising tide of women, speaking, speaking, speaking out,
in many tongues

The Covid-19 pandemic is a prominent theme in the collection. Chakravarty shares the lessons we learnt during this period of panic: we cannot mask our cruel indifference or “quarantine the despair of the damned”. On the brighter side, a world engulfed by darkness allows us to “see with new eyes”. She revives memories of those days when we wondered where “the axe might fall” next. As I read the poems, I relived those days of trauma and terror. We had languished in our “separate, solitary zones” and nursed “our loneliness” behind masks. We had washed our hands again and again to get rid of “the smell of our guilt” – an allusion to Lady Macbeth, who, beset by guilt, obsessively scrubbed her hands to remove imagined bloodstains. The wisdom gained in the crucible of the pandemic had kindled the hope of reshaping the world – a hope that simply faded away. “The Key”, a sonnet written during the pandemic, reignites that desire for a better world:

As the old world recedes, we must search for a key
To unlock the future, a new world, more free.

Every poem in this collection is a finely chiselled gem illuminating the worlds and whirlpools beneath surface realities.

Subliminal: Poems, Radha Chakravarty, Hawakal Publishers.