Book Review: Santosh Bakaya’s ‘Only in darkness can you see the stars: Martin Luther King Jr.’

only in darkness

By Chaitali Sengupta 

In her preface to Only in darkness can you see the stars: Martin Luther King Jr., Santosh Bakaya, the eminent author, poet and academician writes: “…after the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attack… I sat alone in my classroom…with Martin Luther King Jr.’s words persistently ringing in my ears –‘We still have a choice today, nonviolent co-existence or violent co-annihilation.’” As I finished reading this well-researched, beautifully penned, and inspiring biography on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I simply paused for long as the chilling truth in those timeless words dawned slowly upon me. In a fractured world, with worsening political polarizations, inequality and social intolerance, Dr. King’s words are more critical for us today than at any point in the recent past.

Only in Darkness can you see the stars is an enthralling read where Bakaya captures the formative years of Dr. Martin Luther King, the highs and the lows of his life, the uphill battles and the excruciating struggles he faced fighting for the civil rights movement in America.

The first thing that catches your attention in this remarkable book is Bakaya’s vivid style of writing. Her prose runs smoothly on paper, her words find life, as we move through the descriptive passages, she engages us with. “The house was filled with Mama’s presence, but she was physically absent. The pain of death had slashed its way into his young life. Too young to comprehend the fragility of the thing that the elders called ‘life’, his world had fallen apart, broken at the seams. Would it ever be set right?” (Page 24 Kindle edition) She describes situations so well that the readers feel being there themselves. One such example are these lines on page 42: “In the beautiful environs of the seminary campus, he also tried to strengthen his spiritual life through communion with Nature. In bounteous nature – the stars, the sun, the moon, the birds, the leaves, and the rippling waves – he found the reflection of God.”

Some are of the view that biographies are painfully dull. Although this too is a biography, it is mostly due to the brilliance of Bakaya’s language that the book does not come over as dull or boring. The book naturally has the feel of history, but that should not be seen as its demerit at all. The words used are as crisp, focusing on accuracy, as is the hallmark of history, but she laces them with immense sensitivity. As a result, the readers go through the astounding life-story of Dr. King, learning about his beginning crusade, his connection with India and the influence of Gandhi’s thoughts upon him. Non-violence was for King a way of life, just as it was for the Mahatma. While we savor the nuggets of these details, Bakaya does not lose sight of the history. We relive the moments of American history and the Vietnam War and Dr. King’s avowed opposing viewpoint on it.

For me, personally, the episodes in this book that deal with Dr. King’s India visit (“to other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”) in 1959 are the most interesting. I learned a lot in these pages that I was not aware of before. Dr. King was a young man of thirty, when he visited India and the land had “one of the most concentrated and eye-opening experiences of his life.” Dr. King was accompanied by his wife Coretta King and Lawrence Reddick in this trip, and Bakaya mentions later in the book, “This four-week pilgrimage to India left an indelible impression on their minds, imbuing them with the spirit of Gandhi, which would greatly influence them in the years to come.” His India trip brought him a greater understanding of the principle of non-violence.

This book has memorable pictures from the famous March on Washington, Civil unrest in Birmingham Alabama to the passage of Civil Rights Bill and these add to her masterful storytelling. The author has also used several speeches and letters by Dr. King. It is a treat to go through the fascinating words of the great leader that resonates still today. I remember one particularly, delivered on the evening of 4 April 196, at the Riverside Church in New York, under the auspices of clergy and laymen, which concerned with the Vietnam War (P. 195 Kindle edition).

I was moved by the power of this book. The book has been published by the New Delhi based Vitasta Publishers. It is a wonderfully informative book, a spellbinding tale depicting a very different time, with abundance of information. I hope reading it will further encourage people, especially youngsters, to explore more about Dr. King. His influence continues to be relevant even in these times; reading Bakaya’s book Only in Darkness can you see the stars helps us to understand why.

Chaitali Sengupta
is a writer and a poet by passion, a financial analyst and a language teacher by profession. She’s a translator and volunteer journalist, based in the Netherlands. Other than her two translated works (from Bengali to English) Quiet whispers of our heart & A thousand words of heart, her debut collection of prose-poems Cross Stitched Words has been recently published by SETU publications, USA. Her works appear regularly in print and international online journals. You may read more on her here.


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