Karmic Chanting is Sonnet Mondal’s sixth published book of poems. Mondal may be young, but his poetry, especially in this book, reflects the image of a brooding, lost-in-his inner-world poet. Even when the object of his musings is nothing more substantial than cigarette smoke curling up and towards a lamp, he manages to find something profound in that very insubstantiality.
Mondal seems to be in love with this idea of himself. A figure set in dark silhouette against a material world busy with its pursuits. All is not sombre in his poetry though. The light in his poems are inspired by nature.
In the poem “The Rooftop”, for example, an owl sits, shooting the poet with “cryptic jargon.” And, in his own words (from his poem “From Tushar’s Apartment”), “Nature gazes like a winsome stranger…” Nature does indeed meander through the poems, not like a stranger though, but more like an old familiar, in fact. As one goes further and deeper into the poems, nature is more redolent, like “the clear sunny smell of stacked hay” (from “Dadaji”).
“...cross the wall of illusion...”
There is a whole forest of poets out there these days in India writing in English. A whole range of chants that can be a bit much at times. Mondal belongs to this forest. But as he states in his poem “Strange Meetings”, it is possible to “run into someone…/ and our bones refuse / to fit inside the skin / the same way”. Especially when that someone is a poet.
When that happens, the poet’s words need to be plucked straight out of his poems in order to better evaluate his weight. To quote K Satchidanandan’s take on Mondal, “There is poetry here, but it goes beyond mere verbal play that seems to define a lot of contemporary poetry.”
Mondal’s poetry is, to quote the poet Thomas McCarthy, one of “brilliant metaphors and similes…creating a balancing act between being and non-being.” A few poems that spring to mind from the collection are “Haze and High”, a succinct poem which asks for several readings, “Smells”, and “Untitled”.
However, at times his metaphors are overwhelming, and instead of adding to, or layering the poem’s body, and fleshing out the meaning, they tend to overshadow the intent of the poem. Every poem has its own story, and one must take care to ensure that the shine of the metaphor or simile does not draw the attention away from the whole poem.
Mondal is adept at using enigma and raw nature, the way a photographer uses light and shadow. (And I must mention here that the poet is in fact an avid photographer.) He plays the physical world against the mystic. The resultant effect is rather surreal. Like sunburst through rainclouds falling on water that folds into itself.
So, the reader must “leap / like limping grasshoppers / to cross the wall / of illusion.” It creates an arresting visual experience. In some of his tender poems, like “Grandma”, for instance, grief is expressed with a gentle touch, like “Reflections as skipping stones / …leaping over…melancholy.” “Grandma” is followed by a two-line poem – “Why does life seem / like the skyline impression of an aircraft?” – compelling one to actually peer at the sky, and join the poet in his search. A search that, needless to say, remains inconclusive.
“...life seems a piece of fiction...”
Anguish is a recurring motif, often subtly used, but at times expressed with more candour in poems like “Answer Me Ma”, and almost like a riddle in others like “Locked”, in which “a life that came / with boldness / got swept into / isolation – by the tongue/ of melancholy rust.” The image is that of a humble iron lock, which is a mute slave in this short poem, awaiting human fingers. \
However, it is the poem “Beginnings” that appears to be the axis on which the entire book spins. “Beginnings” is the distillation of Mondal’s poetic sensibilities. One whose “head like a shapeless asteroid / revolves around beginnings...” As in the poem, elsewhere too Mondal is straining to understand the whys and the where-froms, the hows and the where-tos of this spinning world.
At times his quest becomes the journey itself. In “Being Yourself”, for example, Mondal is so immersed in his thoughts that he seems to have ceased to exist, so that his “life seems / a piece of fiction”. The image of the solitary poet cannot be more solitary than the need “to re-root / itself to the origin / of its birth…”
In “Hunted”, for instance, the poet’s “dream to be a Nimrod / gets cornered…” And in “Barely Known”, he ends up questioning “the validity of your vision / in the darkness / prevailing inside”. Finally, in “Blame”, he states in anguish that “we try to entomb destiny.” This is a mystery he attempts to solve in his poem “Inception or Epilogue” by “showing up a path / that starts and ends in itself.”
“...vagrant birds from nowhere...”
Through the anguish and the search, Mondal sets out on a path of meditation as well. “Journeying” is a poem with an inward gaze; a long train of thought condensed into tight lines that create a powerful, urgent poem. In others, the last lines fling answers back, like sand thrown into one’s eyes, almost making it impossible to see what he wants to readers to see, without first getting the grit out. At other times, Mondal’s involvement in the present is so acute that the poem’s tenses get intertwined, creating a dissonance in the narrative’s flow, stalling Mondal’s need to know and understand the self.
Many poems create disconcerting images. In “Who Am I?” for example, “vagrant birds from nowhere / vanishing nowhere” instantly take our eyes towards the sky, where flocks of wheeling birds disappear, only to reappear in the same formation further towards the horizon, making one wonder how they got there. It’s a common enough occurrence, which Mondal, his eye forever trained on nature, has noted and transformed into a metaphor for his quest.
“Many Faces” achieves a similar affect with an altogether different subject. It’s a visually arresting poem with surreal nightscapes, which Mondal successfully turns into a reflection on human society. Likewise, in “Some Things are Best Unchanged”, he reflects, on his return from Dubai, “like those leaning dark palms / musing over their recumbent reflections.”
“...the encircling presence of mortal ruin”
Some of the poems lean towards the political. Like the powerful “Nobody Speaks of You Syria” which closes with the anguished lines, “you look so lean Syria / but your history is getting fat.” Anguish may be a common thread in Mondal’s poems, but his observations on love and relationships are sans sickly-sweet sentiment. In “Freedom of Love”, he scrutinises that emotion with “the truth of detachment.” And in “April and My Plastic Sunflowers” he balances a mundane object – plastic sunflowers “that create the functional year-long April in my bedroom” – with the deeply personal, turning the entire poem into a metaphor, and manages to brush a patina of wry humour on it as well.
“Looking at Lake Ohrid” is one of the most accomplished poems in this collection, in which Mondal seamlessly works nature’s omnipresence into the personal, intertwining himself completely with the surroundings with such ease that his “existence isn’t untrue.” The last poem in the book, “Asides,” is composed of four stanzas, each laying out a different image, but strung along a common spine. The poem portrays life as something very fragile, without articulating it explicitly. Once again, the poet wanders through the lines, solitary and brooding.
Sonnet Mondal has achieved early success with his poetry. Poets are explorers too, and that path can be long and arduous. It is ultimately about endurance and the constant will to chisel poems for perfection. In many of Mondal’s poems I got the impression that he likes to write them from end to start, with his culminating lines laid down first, much like a building’s foundation.
This could be his personal crafting style, and there is no quarrel with that. At times though, the endings hold up self-contained, powerful lines that could well stand alone. Perhaps because his poetry is suffused with metaphors, often casting ordinary objects into the ocean of larger philosophical musings, it makes it difficult for a reader to gather up that single idea within each. He does however, as the late poet Meena Alexander had observed, flesh out difficult abstractions with feeling, making the reader “feel the pulse of desire, and the encircling presence of mortal ruin.”
Karmic Chanting, Sonnet Mondal, Copper Coin.