Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene —Cinematic, Powerful, Elegant: An Urgent, Timely Ode to the Planet

Sudeep Sen, Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolation Pippa Rann Books & Media UK Pages: 176. Rs. 599 | ISBN:978-1-913738-38-9 [hardback] | 978-1-913738-36-5 [e-book] Amazon India: | Amazon USA & Worldwide: | UK:

By Barnali Ray Shukla

Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene: Climate Change, Contagion, Consolationis a unique and timely multi-genre book of poetry, prose and photography. Its various elements paint an honest fabric ofour timesin a language that is a rich tapestry ofacute observations and images—lending a texture that is taut with an underlying pathos for the world we have bruised as a race.

In aseamlessly choreographedcyclorama of images, metaphors, impressions and frames — the auteur invests us with an immediacy of concerns.He echoes Akira Kurosawa’s observation:“the role of the artist is not to look away”, instead Sen lends us his eyes as he invokes the suspension of habitual disbelief which so many of us have braided into our lives. His empathy for this shared onslaught is reassuring. The image-shards he picks up with his words are subtle, precise and understated—“a lone swimmer dives / into the pristine sheet of water —without overstepping liquid graph.”

The ease with which the essence and issues evolve, the reader feels the vulnerability through the lattice of Sen’s finely-chosen words which breathe and sing. Sen’s preoccupation with elements of nature in all its forms, and the dialogue with his hometown of Delhi are evident throughout the book. So whether it is the neem tree outside his study, or Mirza Ghalib’s home in Chandi Chowk’s Ballimaran, or the evening light in Humayun’s Tomb, or even the ‘Asphyxia’ of the dangerous pollution levels of the capital city — he uses specificities of his own environment, as larger motifs to show the effects of climate change.

So Sen’s micro model plan allows him to effectively comment on the world at large. This can be in the Castries by the Saint Lucian shores in ‘Driftwood’ (dedicated to his mentor, the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott), where he reminisces: “The driftwood is now out of sight — / part of his house donated to the sea — // in gratitude the sea sings a raucous song”. Or closer home, in the ‘Burning Ghats, Varanasi’, his words are like an orchestral score: “At Manikarnika Ghat, a mixture of sanctity and stench / rises from silted sands and wooden armatures — / fire-aided decomposition of human flesh — / the offerings swiftly lapped up by roaming animals” where “…. Amid so much noise, / the business of death being transacted / carries on, without any emotion or fuss. // …. // In the super-heated pyre, I hear another ritual pot break, / another skull crack, another soul take flight. / I see some shore-temples slow-sink / into the swallowing river — / effects of unpredictable tides and climate change / taking with them, both the mortal and the immortal —/ Holocene’s carbon-footprint — its death text, unceasing. / Ashes to ashes, dust to dust —/ water to heavy water, life to after-life.”

In ‘Disembodied’,he draws us to the capital city’s pollution, wider issues of contamination and imbalance that has crept into nature:“My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air / echo asthmatic sounds, a new vinyl dub-remix. /Our universe — where radiation germinates from human follies, /where contamination persists from mistrust, /where pleasures of sex are merely a sport — /where everything is ambition, / everything is desire, everything is nothing. / Nothing and everything.”

Trees, birds, sound, art, film, camera are elements that are hard to miss in Sudeep Sen’s world—his muse across his wider poetry, Banalata, casts a cameo here. For readers who have followed his work closely, this feels like homecoming.The jugalbandi of nostalgia woven with the futureis where hesteers us, displaying a shared brokenness with affection, wherenothingis airbrushed— “My bones don’t fit together correctly as they should”. Even the beautifully vivid laburnum in the heat of Delhi becomes visceral in ‘Amaltas’ as it

drips ochre at 48°C, drenched yolky heat.

Hotter it is, more incandescent its colour —

sparking laburnums to ignite, incinerate.

The quiet powerof his poetic responses breathe with an elegance that transcends fatalism and futility—it is a prophetic vision thatmakes us recalibrate our lens andreimagine our point-of-view.In our times which increasingly find us boxed in more ways than one, Sen’s poetry show us ways of opening out, and instill hope. The wide canvas of imagination that he creates augurs possibilities for us in a wider time and space. Through the use of epigraphic italicised quotes from other poets and thinkers, which is deliberate and act as his signature artistic device —he invites the readers to rethink the definitions and intentions that shape the world and the windows through which we view them.

In Anthropocene,the flow of text is punctuated with Sen’s own photography. The section,‘Skyscapes’, contains eight photographs by the poet, accompanied by line-extracts from poems. All the photographs are painterly,taken against the late evening’s mellowed sky.Usinga controlled spectrum, the images are spartan and sophisticated —the visual and textual images simulataneously acting as an antithesis or counter-point.

The largesse of Sen as a poet and artist is apparent as the reader is drawn to this aesthetic alliance as a collaborator. As he decodes myths, he also insulates the reader with lush details that sensitizes without sentimentalising. The imagery is tactile, as in ‘Heat Sand’: “Heat outside is like filigreed sand on my skin — swift, sharp, pointed, deceptive, furnace hot ….”

Emotion’s topography and texture areaccessible to a reader—yet the limits with their overarching aura and allure, so akin to the unspoken language, remainsubtly unsaid. Here, for example, are some lines from‘Shiuli | Harasingara’: “October’s autumnal month / splashes white and orange / on the evergreens — // plant that replants / and transforms itself — / a nuptial hint for raw love.”

With his flash/micro-fiction, haiku and photography, the poet makesdirect eye contact with his readers. And he augments this further—from mere contact to actual connect —withdeft use offormal and free verse, prose poetry, and Sapphic prose-fragments. A section from ‘Speaking in Silence’ exemplifies this:

It was centuries ago, yet I know this place well —

we have walked together in this slurry and squelch.

In the coppice, I picked a driftwood piece —

sculpt-etched by wind-water — a palaeolithic

talisman I left on your rustic kitchen window. Perhaps

it lies there still — exactly there, on the sunlit sill.

Anthropoceneunfolds like a montage, almost cinematic with a certainty of vision — the casting of language is congenial, invoking new avatars that are reborn,more humane and evocative. Take for example the first section of ‘Language’:

My typewriter is multilingual,

its keys mysteriously calibrating

my bipolar, forked tongue.

Black-red silk ribbon spools, unwind

as the carriage moves right to left.

In cursive hand, I write from left to right.

My tongue was born promiscuous —

speaking in many languages.

My heart spoke another, my head

yet another — the translation, seamless.

Sudeep Sen takes on dystopia by the collar— and yet chooses to use it as a possibility from the point of view of an ally. The truth’s fulcrum and fact may not speak for themselves, until the poets and auteurs decide to do so:“The sun’s edges are dark, so are my heart’s. No amount of air will light them up.”

Without ever overstepping,Sen waltzes effortlessly through the realms of logic and scientific citizenship, never refusing to be bound by their hypotheses alone. “Listen to the stars — far, flung apart — elsewhere, / nowhere, everywhere. An aural orchestra — distant / pan-flute crackles echoing anti-gravity static, / space-dust murmurations, galactic-sighs, crests-troughs.” (from ‘Listen to the Stars’).This musicality encompasses the mood of his offerings, which he names after our times,one that has breached the notions of balance in every language.

As the earth heaves for breath, I hold Sudeep Sen’s new bookas an anthemnot just for its beautiful text and its ability to move even the most casual reader,but also to take notice of the sordid celebration of excess that must stop, the anguish of imbalance asking to be addressed and redressed. Anthropocene is an urgent and timely ode to the planet and the world-at-large: “Hope, heed, heal our song in present tense.”


Barnali Ray Shukla is a filmmaker and poet. She has one feature film to her credit as writer-director, two documentaries, two short films, and a debut collection of poems, Apostrophe (2016). Her writing have appeared in Out of Print, Kitaab, Madras Courier, Bengaluru Review, Indian Quarterly, Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi), The World That Belongs to Us (HarperCollins India), Side Effects of Living (Speaking Tiger / WomenUnlimited), and others. She lives in Mumbai.

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