Shankha Ghosh was a poet of suggestions and subtleties, seldom strident or flamboyant like the “Hungry Poets”, who were his contemporaries. His poems are essentially lyrical, poems of moods and feelings, though always filtered and moderated by his sharp intellect, which distinguished him from the romantic crowd.

He was not a narrative poet either, though at times his poems tend to have narrative contexts, questions, conversations and colloquial expressions. It is difficult to compare him with any of his contemporaries, or those who lived and wrote before or after him. He modernised Tagore’s legacy by distilling his style; he could be imagistic like Jibanananda Das, but was rarely nostalgic like him; he could surprise like Shakti Chattopadhyay, but was more moderate.

It is likely that he learnt from the French symbolists but the impact is oblique. He never stood out from the crowd like poets with an imagined aura around their heads, and he wore even his formidable scholarship rather lightly. I held him in great reverence as a fine poet and a man of unsullied integrity ever since I met him first decades ago at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, though our exchanges have been infrequent and modest.

I cannot comment on his poetry with any authority since I am no Bangla scholar; but after all, we speak about many European writers and even write dissertations on them by just reading their often-inadequate translations, which is perhaps the sole justification for this pardonable act of heresy.

Experimental, yet traditional

The two primary qualities I look for in poetry are freshness of image and metaphor and an element of surprise created more by the syntax and structure than the subject and theme. And no poem of Shankha Ghosh’s has disappointed me on either count. I love the tentative, inconclusive nature of his poetry, which is free of assertions that many contemporary poets are fond of.

There is nothing crude about his poems; he worked on language like a sculptor and was never tired of chiselling his lines to possible perfection. He kept his range deliberately limited so that you may not find the abundance and variety that TS Eliot saw as the first two signs of great poets, but he certainly had the third quality in plenty: competence.

He was experimental in his own unique way, but too timid to tread the perilous peripheries like some avant-garde post-Modernists dare to do – and if that is being traditional, yes, he was traditional in his understanding of the art of poetry and turned it into his strength, unlike the successful mimics of some set traditions. He was vivacious but not opulent.

In the poem, “The House” the poet says he has always had a house in his mind, but is now looking for one in the real world outside. He fears he may soon be swept along by “the water of light”. It is anxiety about death that the poet sees as a dissolution in the eternal flow of the radiance of existence, which lends immediacy to his concern for a solid house that is more than imagined. Solidity and fluidity are presented here in their dialectical relationship.

A similar magic happens in “Love”, where the woman adorns her lover’s body with bark, speaking about love, and he in turn fills her flesh with fire. The poet does not use the terms “wildfire” or “death” anywhere, but by sheer association the lines evoke the image of a tree on fire and also of death, where the wood and the flesh meet to light a fire in Time.

“Canal”, which also deals with love and separation, uses water and its intricate incarnations and associated objects and animals to present a complex state of mind-river, a wrecked boat, dolphins, and canals. The melancholy is tempered by time, where face-to-face encounters give way to marginal memories.

In poems like “Puppet Dance” and “Richard”, the poet moves out of the claustrophobic space that the earlier poems occupy and begins to meditate on issues of freedom, equality and determination. I do not know enough to say for sure that this was his way of being a voice of resistance, along with the many other voices that came up in the ’70s, but this voice of resistance, even if subdued by his personal aesthetic, is unmistakable.

The poet does not want to dance following the movement of the puppeteer’s deft fingers, or produce poems to order. “I moved on so none could ever buy me” – but now a dirty hand seems to be trying to turn him into a primitive. “The dirty hand” may be the hand of power of some kind with blood on it.

He refuses to jump into the death-well of servitude. “A Letter to a Black Friend” expresses empathy by describing the difficulty of empathising: a distance that will ever keep the Black man in the realm of the anonymous. Richard is not the poet’s word, dream or sorrow.

Teller of stark truths

It takes a real truth-teller to say how hard it is to identify with the suffering, while a pretender can easily put up a show of sympathy and protest. This racial question returns to the poet in a poem like “Black and White”, where a big black man with stones on his mangled breast cries out that his wife is White, thus shattering the whole logic of colour.

“The Face is Hidden by the Hoardings” is a sharp critique of our time when commerce rules over us and the hoardings on the road hide even the lover from the beloved. The market’s dry logic enters even the most intimate of our feelings; the face is concealed by the advertisement while the mask alone hangs from the hoarding.

In a discreet sense, “The Funeral Pyre” does the same. Onlookers want the pyre to be lit quickly, so that they can retire to their old complacent selves while the dead wants the Chandal to show him his ash-ridden dance, his tandav on the banks of the Ganga. In “Dharma” it is the unknown necklace of skulls the Void wears that drops Dharma on the dead man’s cold body.

The funeral pyre comes back in a later poem, “The Lotus-Heart”, which seems to have gained a new relevance today as people praise the light rather than see the fire in the funeral pyre which our country has become. We seldom realise the darkness in the rhythm; we carry corpses around and what we see before us is not just a piece of our own mirror, but the sharp shards of glass that have pierced many bodies.

Society goes on drawing circles around individuals, and the circles get smaller and smaller every time they are redrawn (“So Much Darkness in Rhythm”). Shankha Ghosh preferred natural symbols – fire, water, earth, animals, trees – as we have already seen. That is also the case with “The Frog”, where in a house where everything is in place and things look fine on the surface, a frog dances in the hearts of the couple occupying it.

In “Blood Defect” the poet points to an India that has earned some esteem floating on the map and keeping alive the source of all light, but if a man has still to live on rice scattered on the road, it must be because he has no English in his blood. The satire here is quite subdued, and yet sharp enough to reveal the colonial mindset that we still carry as the source of all our privileges.

Shankha Ghosh’s concept of poetry is mostly revealed through the poems themselves, but at times he addresses it directly, as in “A Poem’s Make-up”:

On most days
the features remain unseen
under the cover of the garrulous face.

back in the room after a bath,
I suddenly see
you in striking make-up.

A poet’s vision often sees a poem remotely and vaguely; only in certain moments of sudden inspiration is it able to capture it in its vivid features. The poem is always there within the poet, but it mostly remains partly veiled or fully concealed.

Irony and paradox

Connecting the pooja house with the memory of adultery may seem heretical to a believer, but to a lover who wishes to build a bridge to travel to his beloved above the waters of time (note the usual water-time association), her forgetting his village and its pooja house with its drum beating without rhythm – like an ischemic heart – gets associated naturally with the thought of a third who comes in between them, leaving the bridge ever incomplete (transgression). The twilight glow of blood in the body as the poet sits in front of the mirror could well be the ominous feeling of imminent death that creeps unconsciously into the sceptic’s mind (body).

Good, if it is; no matter if it is not.
Thus indeed,
take life (being).

This may seem like the calm resignation of a person caught between being and nothingness; but there is more to the poem, as it also advises the brooding man to learn something from the calm protest in the eyes of the naked beggar-woman left stranded.

“What Next” is a poem of anxiety that finally leads to an awareness of the meaninglessness of hopes and of existence itself. It is like trying to reach the non-existent core of an onion by going on peeling it. Maybe the meaning we seek itself is but an illusion.

“Foolish, Not Social” expresses an issue we all confront: Our cleverness makes us appear intelligent and great on a platform or in company, but once back at home in your solitude you feel like peeling off the face-paint and confronting your solitary, unsocial, stupid self. The boy riding the cow and claiming he is the city’s shepherd when people think he is drunk and want to tie him and down pour cold water on his head reverses the city’s logic to re-enact the rural in the urban space.

A similar irony also works beneath a poem like “Bet”, where the ascetic who renounces everything and wins the bet has nowhere to go since he has already cut off all his roots. There is a different dilemma in “Smash My Banner”, where before you have time to tell your confronter to shut up and go to hell, that he has no beginning nor end, that he is but water and salt without eyes and nerves, he smashes your banner—our confrontations with others, and even with our own selves, end even before they begin.

“A Beggar Boy’s Sentiment” mirrors the poet’s fragile position in the world: he is first asked to sing and then driven away. It is safer to fake it, to keep one’s distance, and imagine others care for you. “Waves within Emptiness” makes us realise that the mute body is the stoutest of languages and the way of the world, the longest of curtains. Emptiness is many-layered, as in the non-corporeal upsurge of the body after death and the long gaze that consumes the low-lying hibiscus by the water.

“The Tiger” is a poem of warning: keep even the paper-tiger on a leash as it is after all a tiger, even if made of paper. In a sense the poem speaks about the power of the pen and also suggests the reason why rulers of all hues are afraid of writers. In “Rehabilitation”, the poet works like a magician who cures a possessed person by nailing down every ghost that has possessed them: Predecessors, memories, things, fears, inhibitions, time:

Seated in dim light, the street beggar
Striking two stones of what was and what is
Against each other
Flashes on the everyday rehabilitation.

“Trimeter” is another poem of revelation where the poet and the reader together realise that the sequence of time is strung only on three meters; while others get drunk on liquor, the poet gets drunk on his own inspiration. “Game” points to the state of a man whose game is being keenly watched by all those who have made things difficult for him. The man suddenly feels drowsy between the whistling of the referee and the hoary bantering of the onlookers.

This man could well be you or me under the omnipresent gaze of society, or a poet whose stimulus goes dry when critics expect him to deliver more and better work. “What is due to Happen Keeps Happening” points to the futility of all our protestations, since the world goes its way impervious to our interventions.

Shankha Ghosh’s poetry beautifully manages to strike a balance between the personal and the social, often with tools drawn from nature and sticks to the essentially lyrical and the meditative modes even while narratives lie dormant within some of them in the form of suggested individual and social situations. This is poetry straight from the soul, poetry that charms and pains, provokes us into thoughts about the lives we live without ever being loud or shrill.