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We Live in the Newness of Small Differences: The making and unmaking of form in Sohini Basak’s poetry

Editor's note: Writer's Room is a new books column, curated by Krupa Ge along with 15 writers across India. The column seeks to introduce new works as well as allow a peek into the writer's studio, accompanied by recordings of book readings.


We Live in the Newness of Small Differences is a new collection of poetry, with work written over a period of eight years, by Sohini Basak. Winner of the inaugural Beverly Prize from the London-based small press, Eyewear Publishing, in 2017, it is “largely concerned with being bilingual, storytelling, family, translation, vanishing animals, trapped birds”, among other things. Basak works in publishing in Delhi and appreciation has been forthcoming in the form of awards for a while now. (She was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury Continuation Grant for Poetry and the Toto Funds the Arts Prize.)

In this 100-odd page book, she draws us into her world, and shows us how to look. In Lightning Never Strikes in Straight Lines, she writes:

However, the way to view spilt milk with dry eyes
is to see the spillover as clouds on the floor,
to let a cat in and watch her lap up the sky

 We Live in the Newness of Small Differences: The making and unmaking of form in Sohini Basak’s poetry

We Live in the Newness of Small Differences, by Sohini Basak

She shows us how to remember. In the poem, Pickling, we realise, with her, that while she may not know how to pickle mangoes she sure can pickle words and preserve those for long, along with the memories they evoke.

Even as she pickles mangoes, grandmother
tells me stories. When she was little, she stole
from piles and piles of mangoes that were left
to dry in the courtyard of her village home.
Embalming mangoes in mulled mustard oil, she tells
me the best of the season must live longer
And how to wait.

Or in Dim Light, where she invokes a charming old object, a childhood staple, during power cuts, that today has been turned into an object of kitsch. A kerosene lantern. And the hands that brought the lamp to her in darkness.

What is remarkable is not how, if a storm
hits the electric poles, I will automatically recall
the dim light’s perfect curvature, but that I cannot
simply remember where it was stored – behind
which cupboard door that dim light stood when
not in use, where it waited wireless for a darkness;

Or how to wait. In How to Breed Lilacs, she says:

Afterwards, wash your fingernails clean, return
to the kitchen, make yourself a cup of tea…
…Cup in hand, sit down by the window, you will see the seeds
bursting out, the roots travelling in tunnels deeper than your reach.

Basak's work is filled with details, details that all add up together in the end. And work together. Of termites that suck on the spines of books and silverfish that desperately want to be legible words on books, but end up as mere splats. Birds, flowers, wasps, things, memories, language… all form a delightful, serene ecosystem, a symphony, that brings alive a way of seeing. (In Plot, she writes of a mongoose’s afternoon, “she digs up the ghosts of flowers with her charcoal feet, renames each weed, each unloved root with her nose”). Her work is at once full of rhythm and chaos.

There is also the political. In Future Library: Some Anxieties, she invokes the image of Aylan Kurdi (“stories will be buried like children found dead face down on a beach”), threats to internal security, pellet wounds that blind people and dandakaranya... She follows this up with two more poems, Future Library: A Footnote and Future Library: Alternate Ending. In the Notes, at the end of the book, Basak writes: “The ‘Future Library’ poems were triggered by Katie Paterson’s astonishing public art project (of the same name; ‘Framitidsbiblioteket’, in the Norwegian), which involves tending to 1,000 spruce trees that were planted in 2014, somewhere outside Oslo, to create and curate a library for the future. For the next 100 years, one writer will be contributing a text to the library every year, and these unread manuscripts will be held in secrecy, until the year 2114, when they will be printed with paper supplied by the spruce forest. Flagged off by Margaret Atwood handing over her text ‘Scribbler Moon’, Paterson’s artwork is an experiment to see if text produced in the present will find receptive readers in the unknown future. In the 'Future Library' poems, there is also an acknowledgement of Mark Fisher’s nod to Franco Berardi’s ‘cancellation of the future’ in Fisher’s book Ghosts of My Life.”

And Other Stories is an annexure almost to the book, a second book that plays with form and words, birds and memories… which the author refers to as a “surprise in the end” speaking to me over the phone. Basak tells me, her work did not begin as a book or a collection but just as work she’s been involved with for a better part of the last decade.

Sohini Basak

Sohini Basak

What about poetry drew her in, to begin with? “The spacing… the visual element of poetry in a printed text,” she says. “You can do so much with the page, and play with the form. You can talk about anything but you can decide its form, make changes to traditional forms, thereby subverting it or creating your own form. The rule making and rule breaking...”

Basak grew up around lots of Bengali books, Bengali translations of Russian literature and poetry, the quirky themes and animals, the beautiful illustrations have all shaped her. Even poetry she says, from the beginning came to her in translation, even though back then she did not realise the importance of translation. A lot of this influence is seen in her book across various poems, especially in the And Other Stories section. She acknowledges these infleunces in the book too. “Some of the content in this series of poems has been inspired by two Bangla children’s classics, recounting animal folklore and fairy tales: Tuntunir Boi (1910) by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury and Thakumar Jhuli (1907) compiled by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar. The tailorbird (tuntuni) is the protagonist of many of the stories in Tun-tunir Boi (The Tailorbird’s Book) in which he outwits cats, tigers and kings,” she writes.

“I didn’t know for about 24 years of my life that my father wrote poetry,” Basak says. She writes about this in the collection in a poem titled Why did you stop writing?

Imagine my shock. At twenty-one,
he was writing poetry. I’m trying to translate them,
at twenty-five, or more accurately: I’m trying to talk
to this young person, my father before he was a father.

Apart from her father, Sohini also credits her peers and classmates in Delhi where she went to college, “Urvashi Bahuguna in particular”, as big reasons for taking up poetry seriously.

What next from her? “Hopefully longer narrative poetry and the shattering of form,” comes the answer. Is there anything she’d like to tell people wanting to enter the publishing space, I ask. “It’s good to expand tastes.”

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Updated Date: Nov 22, 2018 16:07:54 IST

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