Books

Book Review: Manu Dash's Art of Chronicling Silence

The poet's debut volume 'A Brief History of Silence' feels like a mature work that is textured, rich and evocative.

Silence is not chronicled often and is given a go by as an interlude.

But Manu Dash’s A Brief History of Silence is an attempt to capture these moments and string them together, not chronologically or sequentially as in the history we are familiar with but around a mosaic of thematic representations. They are about people (‘Budhia Singh’, ‘Dara Singh’, ‘Irom Sharmila’, ‘Rajan’, ‘Buddha’ or ‘Kabir 2014’), cyclones (‘A Parable on Cyclone 2019’), cities with their smug weaknesses (‘Bhopal’, ‘Bhubneshwar Blues’), myriad human interactions (‘City of Doppelgangers’, ‘The Plagiarist’, ‘Guilt’, ‘Dust’, and ‘Conspiracy’) or about silence itself (‘A Brief History of Silence’, ‘Alphabet of Silence’).

These intervals are like ‘second’ – the smallest musical interval in western tonal music. They are something obviously tense and ready to dissolve or to strive for another state. They seem to necessitate one further step in the direction of great music. Seconds present problems, difficulty and challenges on one hand but point to the possibility of great music and provide a lifeline out of mediocrity and flat notes.

These poems are like that; turbulent, disturbing and tense but lurching forward to quiet and warm the possibility of a poetic voice transmuting the ugly, selfish and transactional underbelly of interaction. This bunch of 59 poems blends lyric with satire and doubts with depth. Dash often presents paradoxes with subtle irony in the variegated themes he treats. Technically a debut volume of English poetry of his by Dhauli Books, the volume impresses with freshness and depth.

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Manu Dash, A Brief History of Silence, Dhauli Books (2019)

Whether it is ‘Bhubneshwar Blues’ where he says: “The waterless Daya was once a river of blood./The mind is the lone carrier of songs of the dead” or in ‘Bhopal’, “Although I suffer from insomnia/Bhopal knows the art of deep slumber”.

The poet uses contradiction as the weapon of conviction, an all-powerful instrument to prove inadequacies. A caterpillar breaks into a butterfly. But it comes with “life turned risky but beautiful”.

Silence is an abiding theme in this volume understandably. It is also the product of absurdity of situation “when the number of speakers was half/ that of the listeners and when speakers clap /listeners sit in stony silence” or the priest did chant his hymns that challenged the audacity of the lord. It is as if the poet is emerging from shadow to bright luminosity to enter darkness again in a game of “catch me if you can”.

“Woodlice walk recklessly in the noggin/Till they make their final exit before the goodnight kiss.” ‘A Brief History of Silence’ invokes Levis Carolina’s fantasy; deep, enduring but troubling.

Understandably ‘Cyclone’ brings the irony, paradox and doublespeak of the world most tellingly.

It is not only his laconic comments like, “The relief trucks are no longer seen/ And the preparation/ To brave another catastrophe/ Is taking definite shape/ In the womb of time” (‘Super Cyclone’) but also those like “trending swarm of stories/ it settles in the hive of past” which points to the underlying cruelty and corruption of people at large (both establishment and beneficiaries), lack of compassion and the spinning of yarn which accompany a moment of tragedy.

“Cyclone which drops more often than the taciturn politicians do” is also windfall profit for some. “Cyclone buried a few but mothered more narratives”. But eventually, it is a “biopsy report on our society, a story of common cruelty”.

Poet’s approach to his home state Odisha is ambivalent. He loves his state. But he finds all exercises like his morning walkers’ assembly in the park with saplings in hand so that selfie is diligently taken so that it ‘attracts more likes and wows’ hollow. His conclusion is sad but viscerally mature.

“I am used to over the hill dawn/ that arrives with cloudy sunset.”  He is saddened by the realisation that either the body is missing or the soul is lost. Like in Buddha, his relationship leads to “I have cast the web of silence on the sea of loneliness to net fish bones of grief”.

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These are poems of depth and meditation. The temples located at the places where the “indecisive sighs turn into concrete opinion”.  The hell hole homes where “famished goats, threadbare clothes, random shelters and terminated dreams” are together.  But finally “the fires inside them/ still are burning along/ with ashes of their homes”.  There was no deliverance from hunger and deprivation.

Unlike the hunter in ‘Death of a Crane’, he does not carry the imaginary dead body of his enemy. He lives among his fictional enemies and suffers. That is the fate of a sensitive soul always, almost always. He lives in irony and it is almost a self-proclamation when he says:

“A suggestion to those
Who dislike living in irony,
They fail to fathom
The life is not as white as January sun.”

He is deeply involved from the contradictions of life which elude resolution but at the same time distant he spots them all the time. For him silence is both deterministic and a choice.  But while articulating it in poetry, his understanding is not limited by determinism at all.

Manu Dash has a long association with literature with two fictions, 3 volumes of poetry, about a dozen books in translations and more than four dozen quality books of literature as a publisher. No wonder his debut volume feels like a mature work that is textured, rich and evocative. For a person like him, poetry is not a genre of literature but a literary space and he has handled it evocatively with restraint, experimentation. Readers will be richer and fulfilled by getting to read A Brief History of Silence.

Satya Mohanty is a former education secretary, Government of India, an author and a poet.