Siddharth Dasgupta is a poet and novelist who lives in Poona. He answers to the daily ritual of Irani chai, and can be found in lost cafés of the city that bustle with the poetry of life. His fourth book, A Moveable East, has recently been published by Red River. In an exclusive interview with Poornima Laxmeshwar, Bengaluru Review’s Editor, Siddharth discusses his experiences and learnings as a poet and what poetry means to him.
PL: “Is a city a matter of soul or a matter of taste, the question hovers.” Are we all carriers of fleeting places? In such a scenario, where does poetry stem from? Is it out of a scare of a dying memory or an absence that we don’t want to let go of?
SD: We are nomads, some more than others; within our books and our bags and our hearts, we can’t help but carry places—places as ephemeral as a fickle season, places we’ve known only as home, and places that have marked themselves permanently on our maps. In that sense, we are carriers of fleeting places, yes, but also archivists of the roads, towns, cities, and continents that have allowed us to step within their folds time and time again.
Poetry’s place within all this is that of the troublemaker—at times instigating a memory to hold on, at times cherishing an absence and kissing it with a halo. Its birthplace then is an unnamed continent between these two worlds—a world scared lest its memories die out and a world entirely given to the absence of place, and thus, that very memory. Poetry tends to tango between these two continents with alarming frequency.
PL: There are various references to food in your poetry. What specifically is it about food that draws you to capture it in your words?
SD: Food is your instant passport to the soul and heart of a city, especially a city unknown to you. Within an old café or consumed by a meal of stunning truthfulness, you’re made privy to a given quarter’s provenances and fragrant secrets. Such fertile ground for a poet, no? Besides, the life culinary further allows you to dip into words like relish, piquancy, and marination—hurrah for that.
PL: There is a certain attempt to trace culture through food—of bygone eras and the remnants. Is that what you strongly feel about? (Here, I am assuming this is your voice. Please correct me, if I am wrong)
SD: In some of these poems of mine, food, in many ways, is the actual physical remainder of a culture’s temperaments and provocations. It tells a story. It delves into a place where maps and history books aren’t allowed. It imbues things like ancestry and legacy with the lip-smacking charisma of something that can be tasted, but perhaps more crucially, felt. In that sense, food certainly does become the constant conservationist—a thing through which you can traverse departed eras and that enigmatic “once up a time”.
PL: Impermanence is constant. But does that make you restless? Is it hard to accept impermanence? Do you think that if you had made peace with it, would you still be writing poetry?
SD: Poetry and impermanence have a time-honoured relationship, in the fact that each feeds off the other, but also in that each borrows its essence from the other—poetry revels in its shimmering, dancing evanescence; impermanence, for its part, always feels elegiac, a song about the question unanswered. Impermanence leaves me restless frequently, but also compels me to appreciate the sheer giddy majesty of life. In validation of how I began this answer, I could say much the same about poetry.
PL: What is important for you when you write poetry? What are the key elements that you seek—like a thought, a memory, an incident or accident, whatever?
SD: What’s important for me when I write poetry is to not have an agenda. I find that fairly detrimental to the very art and existence of verse. Having an agenda or a structure also denies a poem that glorious alchemy in which it ought to revel—life, the world, a fragrance, a street, a conversation, and you, the poet—everything coming together and sleight-of-hand-like, the birth of something vital. I suppose the act of movement, a sense of place, the archiving of nostalgia, and the gratification of desire have announced themselves as recurring motifs in my work. But these are landscapes and continents, within and outside which what’s imperative for me as the writer and the poet is to dance with abandon.
PL: “Riot is indivisible.” Aren’t we all riots in a way—divided between our beliefs, realities and writing? Do you think poetry is a part of this riot?
SD: Well, the “riot” in this poem is the very real, physical riot, which remains indivisible, because hate is indivisible. As to the personal, human riot—sure, it’s meant to be a potpourri of who you are and where you’ve been and what you’ve seen and to which truths you subscribe. And then there’s poetry, whose place within this riot is, appropriately enough, to kindle.
PL: There’s so much longing in your writing. Does longing make it all interesting? Is persistence of longing good because that yields you to write more?
SD: I think all poets, much of poetry anyway, carry longing within them to some measure. It’s the elixir that sweetens a relationship and lengthens an ending; it’s the beat your heart skips and the seasons through which your body flutters. This longing requires consummation on occasion; habitually, the longing itself is both journey and destination. The persistence of it certainly flavours the poetry with a certain human throb and an existential beauty—as long as you can articulate the longing well, else it’s just whining.
PL: “John Coltrane lays down a hook for Ghalib”—if you were a part of such a mehfil, what would you want to do? Listen to Coltrane or Ghalib?
SD: I’m going to cheat quite happily on this one, replying ‘both’ and adding a third for pleasure’s sake. Coltrane laying down a hook, Ghalib scripting the ghazal and entering with a chosen word on two on dramatic occasion, with Nina Simone’s voice bringing it all together in the sort of cosmic, silken-voiced deliriousness that only she could evoke.
PL: If you pick between these and write a poem, which one would you choose—desire, rain, pain, regret?
SD: Desire, I suppose, carries all of these within its arms—the slow-burn yearning of rain, the insistent charisma of pain, the poetic parchments of regret, and the pleasurable prelude to desire itself.
PL: Which is one book of poems you think every poet must read?
SD: “Must read” is too didactic. Given the time, moment, and willingness, what you, the poet, might take great pleasure in reading is Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven. And Tishani Doshi’s Everything Begins Elsewhere. And Ranjit Hoskote’s translation/reimagining of the vakhs of Lal Ded. I see now that this was a trick question