Uttaran Das Gupta’s Visceral Metropolis is relentless in its pursuit to look at a city through nostalgia, love, revulsion, progress, climate change, and through everything, hope.
Uttaran Das Gupta’s Visceral Metropolis opens to a photograph of a crumbling Delhi ruin and barbed wire, flanked by one of people eating in a restaurant, served by the liveried bearers of days long passed. Das Gupta’s words are confessional, conversational and seduce you into his mind, which sometimes is funny: “I always knew he was a little weird but I didn’t/ know he was such a pervert. When did he/ write ask this?”, sometimes thoughtful: “around here, the buses discard/ automatons in a hurry”, and always true to his roots: “How did she accomplish/ that ecstatic raga of mustard fish?”.
The book is peppered by black and white photographs – mostly of Delhi – that make you stop and ponder, as poetry should do. There is a sense of time slowing down, of wondering about our regal past amidst the decaying city.
Here, they’re always digging: gigantic cranes
turning up earth for baolis, the metro,
building foundations. (from ‘The Hills Come Home’)
Das Gupta often uses whimsical, unusual images, but does not leave the reader wondering; he makes his point, often, succinctly, and in no uncertain words: “Dusk comes too early;/ darkness obliterates out
ruins… nearly.” And so through this haunting elegy mostly for a Delhi crumbling, falling into a man made destruction, there is a sense of hope. And love, always love.
As Philip Nikolayev says in the Preface about Das Gupta’s work and love, “Without love, our art quickly becomes as dry as cremated bones”. Love is generously sprinkled through these beautiful pages, sometimes a couplet about loss, as ‘The Death Of A Poet’ – “Tonight, we’ll copulate/ near funeral pyres, wake up late”, sometimes regret:
I gave you whatever was left of me:
broken pens, cacti in pots, a dry sea;
and you gave me bright insects of the night,
tiny bulbs with wings, a jar full of light (from ‘Go!’)
Although on first glance, his poems seem to be written in free verse, in an easy, laconic style, you soon realise that most of his work rhymes and soon the wit, meter and the rhymes make you smile.
Visceral Metropolis is relentless in its pursuit to look at a city through many lens: nostalgia, love, revulsion, progress, climate change, and through everything, hope. Consider “There’s too much iron in the water at/ Malviya: it coats buckets, erodes taps”, and “we howl our sonnets/ at nocturnal trains, at tombs of sufis,/ and urchins who sell jasmines, rose garlands/ at a discount for assassin-poets”. Also, Das Gupta announces his obstinacy towards his craft when he says: “I’ve been hammering away so long at/ it, sweating blood like a slave at a/ pyramid construction site, that I don’t/ even have to try anymore: every/ word I touch metamorphoses into/ poetry.”
For Das Gupta, memory is held in a deer park, in the hot chilli of the momo sauce of Tibetan refugees, in the smog outside an auto, and what is always present in the memories of Delhi: yellow flowering amaltas. His anxious dissection into the very fabric of being alive in a decaying city is what makes these poems relatable, readable and very real. In his images of Chittaranjan Park and Constitution Club, Delhi comes alive and I can almost see and sometimes smell – a putrid odour of plastic waste and dead cows amidst the Delhi Sultanate ruins, skyscrapers, flyovers and strands of jasmine.
Despite these and sometimes because of these images, scents and tastes, there is a trembling grace that helps us question our very existence and what we are doing to the cities we inhabit through our existing. A facetious villanelle asks pertinent questions:
You’ve no problem waiting for food, films, wine;
so why this hullaballoo? India is great;
soldiers are dying. Don’t complain; all is fine.
Kashmir’s blind; Bastar burning. Yet you whine
for a fistful of rupees? Use plastic.
Get in line, people. Don’t panic; in line! (from ‘Get in Line’)
while air pollution features poignantly in ‘October in Delhi’:
This is a lost season of smog, despair:
a grey darkness – claustrophobia – strung
between falling balconies in Khirki,
and Baroque Raisina Hill domes. The air
of AC metro stations smells like dung
burning, suffocating medieval trees
in Jahapanah with particulate matter,
drowning all who can’t flee or scatter.
Visceral Metropolis is a cry from the city that can’t speak as it drowns; it is a love letter to his lost lover(s), to his lost cities; it is a war cry against profiteering; it is an eulogy to the many young women killed, raped lost in ‘Women, Carpets’: Public transport is inclement/ for women in this visceral/ city: autos belligerent,/ buses unsafe, the metro dull.
Reading, re-reading, contemplating this book, letting the verses roll around your tongue, you realise Das Gupta is successful in helping us see the cities we inhabit in a variety of ways. It is a call for arms for a city suffocating in its own waste. And it is a love letter amidst all the rage and angst.
Visceral Metropolis is published by a new independent publisher, i write imprint, headed by Dibyajyoti Sarna, himself an accomplished poet and translator. Sarna wants to specialise in poetry chapbooks and chooses each project with care. As he says, “we need more poetry”. Amen to that.
Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet and activist who runs Bhor Foundation in New Delhi. Connect with her at @jhilmilspirit on Twitter.