Book Review: Gopal Lahiri’s ‘Alleys are Filled with Future Alphabets’

Gopal

By Nishi Pulugurtha

Alleys are Filled with Future Alphabets is a collection of 102 poems by poet Gopal Lahiri. Divided into sections with sub-titles like ‘Voyages In’, ‘Voyages Out’, ‘Cityscape Silhouettes’, ‘Macrocosm’, ‘Haiku Series and Micro Poems’, ‘Travel Diaries’, ‘Pandemic and Resilience’, the poems in the volume reveal experiments with style, form, techniques, images, and metaphors. Lahiri’s poetic oeuvre is vast and varied as the poems in this volume and his other volumes of poetry attest to. The world around him, sense impressions, the physical, the spiritual and the emotional – these are part of his poems that speak to the reader at various levels. It is interesting to note his training as a geologist that influences his work. As the poet Sharmila Ray writes in her Preamble to the book, the poems “bring out the spirit and patience of the poet and the precision of the scientist to verse composition.” The poems in this volume have been written over a period of four years and that time span works well to reveal his growth as a poet.

Bolstered by a keen sense of observation, questioning, and trying to make sense of the world around, the poems speak of the vagaries of life with an intensity that lingers. The section ‘Travel Diaries’ has ten poems that bring together his experiences as a traveller, bring in tales, myth and history. In a world that is restricted, as the pandemic in its second wave makes things even more difficult and travel an impossibility, the poems in this section evocatively describe places that stay on. In “Galle # A Fortified City”, he writes of the place with a keenly observant eye, describing not just a place but the hardships, the calamities that have affected the locals, of lived life. Along with the beauty and charm of the place, the cries of the helpless haunt us:

yet, I could not do without
following the tear trails,
found in a rare spectrum,
the mourning stars perhaps
shone a little low, perhaps
pleading the tall waves to subside

This looking beyond the obvious, to something that troubles and haunts is seen in many poems in this section. In poems such as “Hikkaduwa”, he speaks of “On the roadside shacks, a sliver of dislodged faces -/ injustice and inequality at every turn.” “Sunderbans” has both the tourist gaze looking out and taking in the sights while at the same time speaking of the lives of the locals for whom each day is a struggle.

locals suffering from
hunger and thirst,
as they say, crocodile in the water
and tiger on the land, the twin terror,
ignoring the lurking danger,
and hiding the details,
I could see
words in lips adding with a
flicker of a smile.

This use of a Bengali saying in its English translation in the poem when he refers to the “crocodile in the water” and the “tiger on the land’ recalls Lahiri’s work in the area of translation as well with the idiom aptly bringing out the difficulties of those whose lives are an everyday battle for survival and far removed from the exoticness that one usually associates with the place.

Lahiri is a poet who has been prolific in writing Haiku (he has a volume of Haiku as well) and this volume has a section – ‘Haiku Series and Micro Poems’. This is a form that he uses with great felicity, weaving form and content to create these pithy lines:

the mist departs
perfect sunbeams
prattle of birdsongs

This section includes limericks, fragments, and vignettes as well, that speak of the times, of life in general and the human experience.

The sections ‘Voyaging In’ and ‘Voyaging Out’ suggest a zooming in and moving out tracing a journey, a discovery of the self, of the poet as teller of tales that need to be told, in a language that is characterized by a lucidity and felicity of thought and expression. In ‘Raindrops’, he writes,

We remain there, listening to rain
falling from the tall trees,
draw images of silent words –
the lights we dislocate long back start to fill up our palms

All night the raindrops weave love and light.

“Colours of Tulip” brings out the pain and pathos of life in a troubled place with an urgency, an anguish that pulls at the heartstrings.

Blood is mute, autistic and seared
blood on the dark night, on the stillness
its edges blur with cries, a kind of moan.
this calmness, this silence,
the cruel and blasphemous are marking
an uneasy path; we can’t erase.

Living in these strange, trying times, it is but natural that a poet will respond to it. The last section in the volume, ‘Pandemic and Resilience’ voices stories of the human spirit, rising amid all the chaos, all the suffering, of disease and pain, of mental health, of the cries and visuals of the struggle. In the “Alchemy of Anguish”, he writes:

Tonight, stars are moaning overhead,
silent are those chanting mantras.

Scribbling farewell on the sky,
the night birds carry the hidden flags,

Everyone is grieving, holding one another,
skies change backdrop in the sense of solidarity.

It is interesting to note how Lahiri does not use capitals in the second lines here, something that he does in many poems in the volume., suggesting an immediacy of response, an aching that needs to be conveyed, the pain that needs to be given a voice.

What comes out clearly through the poems in the volume is a keen eye, of being able to look beyond the obvious, of reaching out into the known and the unknown. Mounted in a hardback format and modestly priced, the cover of the volume is a painting by academic and poet Jharna Sanyal titled ‘Uncanny’ that is expressive of the world that we live in, with the colours creating a sense of alleys of the mind that entwine, meander, at times lead out and lead in as well, much liked the poems that Lahiri includes in the volume.

Bio:
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café DissensusColdnoonQueen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine“Special commemorative issue: 100 years of Satyajit Ray – the indefinable genius”, edited by Roshni Sengupta, Jagiellonian University Krakow, Poland.

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