This Summer and That Summer: Poems by Sanjeev Sethi, Bloomsbury: New Delhi, 2015, ISBN: 978-93-85436-70-3, pp 53, Rs. 199/-
Summers can be uncomfortable in the tropics. Body slows down and lot of perspiration due to the oppressive heat. Climate change has made the summer worst months of the year. Not an ideal season for work and best for escape plans for exotic places for holidaying. But some creative folks like Sanjeev Sethi - a Mumbai-based poet writing in Indian English and much admired for his linguistic/lyrical skills - the hot season becomes an appropriate occasion to meditate on the existential nature of summer itself. It provides a philosophical context for an alert mind to interrogate and introspect the human condition in lyrical form that tells us a great deal about the state of contemporary society and culture.
Every serious writer takes up a vantage point, a certain theoretical position and then probes the maladies afflicting the culture they are historically born into. Art becomes the mode of questioning the prevalent value system and its dismantling as well. The volume of poetry under review validates this role of the artist as the serious analyst. After a long hiatus, Sanjeev Sethi has come up with a thoughtful literary adventure that clearly maps out the moral and physical contours, and, the very meaning of being human in a conflicted world. His varied reflections on a range of issues from sublime to everyday form a beautiful book of poetry called This Summer and That Summer---a verbal delight for his innumerable fans. Reading these poems is like a long reverie on a moonlit river in a boat. The gentle sounds; the floating images and the recharged words carry the reader into a landscape familiar, yet strange; the seen and the unseen; the ordinary and the beyond!
It is an intoxicating cocktail.
The combined effect of visual and auditory can lull you into smugness and then startle with equal force. The everyday becomes the subjects for heightened poetic musings by this important voice of Indian Poetry in English.
For example, a common pigeon is made a worthy theme in this philosophical inquiry into citified lifestyle:
Pigeons have no tenancy laws.
She placed her squabs on my sill.
When I protested, she gazed at me
with looks which were a hybrid
of hesitancy and hostility.
At night, the pigeons cooed.
Throughout the day,
the exhalation of their excreta
wafted across the apartment.
During feed-time, their twitter
was louder than church bells
annunciating crisis. But I was helpless…
Soon I decided - to be kind to myself,
I had to be cruel.
I opted to evict them.
But there are no courts for this.
No legal machinery.
Feelings have always failed me.
The concluding statement truthfully captures the general apathy and dearth of fellow feelings among the citizens poignantly. Through the everyday image of a pigeon - rendered homeless by human settlements and intensive expansion of city sprawls by razing the tree cover and hills, and, thus, forced to nest in the narrow window-sills of the costly high-rises - Sanjeev bares the urban soul in its basic ugliness. The loss of feelings is a great loss but as a collective, we have stopped caring for both the feathery and human beings or for that matter, other issues affecting the planet and its population. Such a resultant moral paralysis can be fatal for the growth of humans.
In another poem, dealing with the grim realities of the so-called civilizational progress and advancement, Sanjeev says, in chilling tones:
Shells of silence underneath my skin
burst in a rash of run-ons.
Clear as mud, carp the critics.
But I soldier on like an infantryman
bulwarking his nation’s border,
hoping to be helpful
in an era of nuclear warfare
or bombardments from the Net.
In my growing years I wished to be famous.
Parents gave value to visibility.
It was reassuring for them
to have others accept their issue.
When their pressure ended
I am best in my booth.
Without strain of the perfect gargle
or granules of pitch
I sing sweetest for myself.
Skills of a soloist
I have not gathered.
I thrive when my skin trills for itself.
The lines above point out a world of individualism heading towards nuclear catastrophe and nihilism of a different kind. The way he swings from one image to another, creating a taut poetic universe, gliding from one word to another in a inspired frenzy and juxtaposing nuclear warfare, net-bombardment with the music of a soloist and ethos of individualism in this creative mélange is -well, just breathtaking!
The collection has many such poems with a deep depth. They start innocuously and then take us in an unexpected direction by the dexterity of a mind in search of metaphors that can define the post-modern existence and its continual pessimism and overall angst. Nothing is beneath the scrutiny of the wandering poetic gaze, including the trifling nightly acts that end with a surprising query:
After I switch off the lights,
crawl out of closets.
They waltz on walls
choke my conscience.
For insects, various repellents
But is there a pesticide
for the past?
The above lines deliberately mix the roach, other insects, repellents and the past in a curious manner, producing a ludicrous effect on the recipient’s consciousness by the strangeness of this writing device. A pesticide for the past? Why is it needed? Why to obliterate the past? Will a time come when humans, like insects, will be killed by an insecticide? Are not bombs enough already for annihilation? Is tech anti-human?
Well, simple poem full of many reading possibilities and radical interpretations.
Then sample this one:
There is no lesion.
I was trying to test
your skill in nursing.
Some wounds require
healing of the hurt.
I was terrified of the negativity
in your nerves. I tossed and turned
pondering how to be a palliator.
The third turn introduced me to my
incisions. Instinct, drove me to scratch
the scab, and sanitize the skin.
Life’s lesson: it is best
to purge one’s own pus.
Well, the poem is the best reminder of toxic times we live in. A pathological desire for the creation of the perpetual Other; the subliminal violence in us; the hatred and strife of a media society - it is scary scenario for all. The poet becomes a prophet here: Unless we purge our own pus, we will not remain healthy participants in the developing human drama around and cannot prevent it from turning into an epic-level tragedy. Be it Paris, Beirut or Mumbai, the reality of mindless violence, the consequent inflicted emotional and physical wounds and bloody mayhem have all become a recurring nightmare, with a sickening regularity. A healing touch is needed urgently in such a mad world. Artists like Sanjeev Sethi provide that touch of sanity through theraptic art. This Summer and that Summer is a journey into the darkness - and finding redemption through voluntary acts of well-meaning activists-citizens-artists.
A must read for those who believe in art and good poetry as media of change.