A Moving Mindscape: An interview by Mehvash Amin
Pune-based poet Siddharth Dasgupta sent The Aleph Review two gorgeous poems (published in Volume 5) last year. This year, he sent me his book, A Moveable East. Caught in the daily grind, I couldn’t find time to read it till we had a conversation on the phone, which made me rush to it. I inhaled it in a long drawn out breath, finding many areas of similitude, yet much else that informed a life differently lived—as well a mind that has enmeshed the smells and tastes of a café, the thrill of travel, the electricity of love, the philosophical and political ponderings of a questioning mind, the feel of neighbourhoods known and unknown, the static of music escaping vinyl to tease the mind and hold it captive, and so much more—into a feast for the consciousness. All who love life must get this book, published by Red River in India.
Read my dialogue with this stunning poet below.
Siddharth, since starting to read your beautiful book, A Moveable East, I have written four longish poems. So one of my triggers for writing poetry is reading good poetry… What is yours? Is your mind always brimming with words, and do you reach for a pen every day? What is your poetic trigger?
Mehvash, the triggers as such are profuse, and as the word might suggest, often sudden. You’ll come across a word, a stanza from a stirring collection, a fragrance in the air, or the renewed rush of a past journey with its ensuing encounters, and are left with no choice but to write something down. The insistent thing with these triggers is that they frequently arrive with accompanying emotional anchors—aroma arriving with desire; the past arriving with nostalgia; cafés disembarking with texture and whimsy; bazaars appearing with bustle and joy; a song on vinyl arriving with the touch of a prior love; a lyric dancing you into the path of remembrance; a city arriving with a mien of sensuality you’ve known… So in that sense, yes—these sensorial pleasure and pain points are always rife within the mind. And you’re always in conversation with words, if that makes any sense. Heightened states like passion and the thrill of the new are where these sparks tend to flourish, sure. But they reside just as persuasively within the majesty of the everyday.
Let’s go to your last poem in the book, Contrails. You describe your childhood thus:
When I was a child, I thought our verandah was as wide as that thing called the Himalayas, its penumbra embracing laughter, sorrow, hope, time, uncles, aunties, chatter, dreams, and the trails of curiosity left by Father’s cigarette smoke.
A young love or two, left simmering on the edges of yearning and other imaginations and such.
This could be a description of my own childhood. But I find books missing from it, though later you describe how your father was immersed in them. I also know you started writing poetry much later, after an illness. In your early days, I am curious, was there no burgeoning feeling of wanting to find expression in writing? What was your creative outlet? What books did you read?
In Contrails, the world of books and the act of reading are embedded throughout, if not always outwardly visible. Books were probably the most defining motif of my childhood—the Classics, the adventure sagas, those delightful Russian folklores from Mir & Raduga Publishers, the worlds of de Saint-Exupéry and Narayan, Hergé and Dickens… It’s just that Contrails chooses to whisper this truth in the air, leaving the reader to discover the pages.
My father remains the most voracious reader I know, and this has been a crucial imprint from an early age as well—this truth of seeing him always surrounded by books, often reading two-to-three concurrently; discussing authors and books with Ma; dipping into his almirah of books lost and love gained…
You’re a touch erroneous about the timelines. I’ve always been writing, from a precariously early age. It’s probably the only thing I’ve really been somewhat good at. But yes, the health adventure you’ve mentioned did make me keenly aware of the fact that I would have to commit to a serious, long-term relationship with writing, a life in writing, as it were. Words had become too crucial, too life-affirming. And you’re right too in that this acceptance of poetry within my life as a writer was cemented from that point onwards—leading to this landscape of fiction, poetry, and that strange, insistent elsewhere in between.
Oh, I am sorry I didn’t pick up on the fact that you have written since a very young age in our conversation.
Going on, I felt a feeling of such kinship when you describe the Rue Moufettard in A Latin Quarter Hunger, because I lived just off the road, at the Foyer Concordia, when I was a student at the Sorbonne:
In morning’s bronzed calm
Rue Moufettard rises, idly
Its opulent opera of boulangeries,
fromageries, and patisseries
Disgorging a litany
of literary tendencies
Then you write these lines in Seasons of Flesh
That spring, I swam to
scratch an old wolf’s itch
(Baudelaire, you bitch.)
I fell into
the arms of sleep,
on a writhing bed
In his ruined garden,
futile this, this
quest for spleen.
I gave in to Paris,
taste, and the
finality of words.
Also, French literature has seeped into my cells. Baudelaire, of course; Camus, Pierre de Ronsard, Guillevic and Gérard de Nerval, amongst others. I think of the latter every day when I squeeze a lemon in a glass of warm water with my teeth; teeth, because every last drop then goes into the glass—or perhaps I squeeze the lemon that way because of these lines:
Et les citrons amers
Où s’imprimaient tes dents (the bitter limes/in which your teeth are imprinted)
I want to know, at what age did you discover Paris? How long did you stay there? Did the East move with you to that city, or were you seduced enough to want Paris to stay in you when you left it? Because I was seduced, I cried when I left it after my studies, and it resides in me still.
I first discovered Paris in my late twenties/early thirties. So our stories traverse different timelines. I won’t claim to know Paris in the least, but how can you know any city really? I mean, I wouldn’t even assume to “know” my hometown, given how sprawling and unfathomable these creatures are. It’s in the Latin Quarter, skipping away from the more peopled gullies and thoroughfares, that I was able to discover, feel, and relish some of Paris’ most enduring hedonisms.
What I have found in Paris has been enough to last me a lifetime, though I pray that Paris and I have many happenstances yet to come along on this life’s winding journey. I’ve found pleasure in the dalliances and bouquets of her beautiful flesh and her lost addresses. I’ve found salvation in her old bookshops with their old pages and even older myths. I’ve found forever in the blossoming of her magnolias come early spring. I’ve known sadness of a certain vintage in some of her forgotten hotel rooms. I’ve traced the cartography of bodies and maps. I’ve relinquished time in some of her gardens and art galleries. And I’ve unearthed the fact that desire has a central role to play in my life, come what may.
I guess I carry the East with me—this sense of being Indian, this sense of coming from somewhere while heading elsewhere, these anchors that globally triangulate me to a place known as home—wherever I go. But increasingly, an east and a home that is transferable and moveable, a sense of India that moves like a Sufi and is entirely comfortable with the nomadic arc, an east that often enough nurses the tragedies of what our lands have become. An east that, synchronously, allows for the proliferation of beauty and the fierce pull of hope. In the end, an east eastern enough to allow the seductions and desires of other lands to infiltrate its pores—as in the case of Paris and this writer.
Our intimate relationship with Paris, including how Nerval has literally seeped into your morning regime, is something I feel we ought to discuss at length over chai (and perhaps, madeleines).
Or coffee and madeleines, to send us on a Proustian journey! I felt another kinship with your poetry through the songs and singers that you mention. I love Leonard Cohen’s songs; in fact I just published a prose-poem on his music recently. So when you write in Broken Vinyl:
The casual immortality of so long,
the Greek isle of Hydra, smitten
by spines. The ravenous immediacy
of everybody knowing that you really
loved me... everybody knowing that you
really do/everybody knowing that you'd
been faithful, give or take a night or two,
in crumpled hours heaving beneath
the weight and the breakability of hope.
I feel it, and when you go on in Illicit Rhapsody:
Begum Farida Khanum rises in rasp and the royalty of silk; this is not a dream
It takes me back to the time when she used to perform late into the night in the drawing-rooms of Lahore. I suppose I want to know if you also listen to music every day, like I do; whether it induces trance or inspiration; whether it moves you as much as travel clearly does.
Yeah, music’s that sort of mischief-maker in the continuum that allows for time travel. You know, it’s that whole sleight-of-hand thing—you’re whisked away to the ardours of an old relationship or deposited into the wisps of an age that isn’t even yours. I do end up listening to music, in some form, every day. It could be Mohammed Rafi on the radio. Or Nina Simone on vinyl. Or Pearl Jam will come onto shuffle. Farida Khanum will seduce from the folds of time. Fairuz will do likewise. Peter Cat Recording Company on the airwaves. Dean Martin, left lingering in the air. It induces all sorts of things—euphoria, melancholy, truthfulness—at its most beautiful, provocative and yes, transcendent.
Let’s come to cafés then, another point of empathy, for me, with your poetry. I know that your book, A Moveable East, was inspired in part by Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I know that he also dwelt on cafés and eating-places. So I want to actually quote some of your poetry that emanates from cafés from different parts of the world. I love the almost tangible sense of aroma, taste and ambiance that comes through in these snippets:
Café Yezdan— Poona
Brun-maska dances on the nuanced temerity
of butter, dough. Glass-veiled masala
chai nips at the air with teeth bared a
Those lingering echoes
of butter, lush, and shortbread, flaked,
with the semolina sigh of soft as silk
mawa cake within Kayani’s age-old
Breakfast on Hafiz Street— Isfahan
Each of their sorrows brought to awaken
On the time-tested, flame-aroused profundity
Of a kiln mired in darkness thick, and human
Hands wallowing in obsession whole
Once Upon an Irani Café
What the mind refuses to
hold on to, though, is the
operatic clatter of rusted green
chairs and childless tables being
replaced, one day, with the cruel
synthetic paralysis of a fucking
Barista, all perfect orange disarray.
The mellifluous swirl
Of freshwater prawn
Bathing in the saltwater kiss
Of a curry married
To coconut’s myths.
Delhi, With a Hint of Turmeric
Gali Paranthe Wali they call it, they could just as well christen
it Paradise road. Its rowdy visage, that roguish charm of a
handsome film villain, is a deep-fried collage of taste and myth.
Istanbul Unto Ephemera II
I sit here sipping Çay, with my heart resonating to an
Asian heartbeat, its double-kettle proliferation of tea
leaves, lightly tossed, fresh water, coarsely boiled, and
singular aroma, piquantly brewed, reminding me of home
What is man when held up against the saffron-scented denouement
of rich, rousing romance—of vessel and flame; of repartee, sharp,
and marinade, thick; of this city tinged with finely-seasoned bliss...
Are cafés somehow a lynchpin for your poetry, that you ‘intrude upon’, as you mention in Portrait of a Lover (As a City), where the past acts as both/An anchor and an involuntary escapee/Before treading bridges, conversations, and flirtations anew? Expand on your love for these ubiquitous eating-places that are part of the DNA of every city, tell us which city’s cafés you love the most.
Thank you, Mehvash. Well the title of this collection is a love letter to Hemingway’s Paris memoir, more than anything. And the address known as the café is where many of our cumulative episodes, encounters, epiphanies, and fragments play out. Born in the city of Poona, considering Bombay to be another home of sorts, I’ve grown up wearing the café as a second, aromatic skin. The Irani café culture in these two cities has been one of life’s abiding poetries really, where moments of flirtation, hours of conversation (with strangers and known souls alike), and the actual writing of poetry have all flourished like wildfire.
In the arms of a foreign or new city, I’ve found the café to be something of a passport into the heart and soul of whatever constitutes ‘place’. Here I’m not talking of any old café, but a café of age and character. A café that has witness the epic and nourished the everyday. A café where love and a sense of being lost both lie in wait. It’s but natural that such an address, the air and episodes inherent within such an address, would then find its way into my poetry.
As to which city’s cafés I love the most—I’m going to flat out cheat with this one and namecheck Bombay, Isfahan, and Poona. Poet to poet, I feel you’ll allow me this much. Bombay with its plethora of the old and the art deco-ed, dancing with the cosmopolitan and the sensual. Isfahan for those chaikhanas where poetry and politics walk arm-in-arm. And Poona—well because there’s so much that belongs only to home.
So now we come to travel. In Lines Thrown out of a Moving Car’s Window, you say:
Homelands are made of earth and rain; foreign lands, of rush and rouse }
All these cities
All this departure
Mapped out on
Parchment of skin
Fed by directions—Northern star
Soliloquys—They speak of
You told me that an illness was the gateway to both your traveling and your poetry, but there is not a single word in this book about it. Please tell our readers a bit more of this and how it led to this flowering of words, of going to new places, which seem to be so interconnected in your case.
Not a single word blatantly, but there’s much in the collection which has been fed by that time, and conversely, much of those days that these poems contain, if only furtively. I was diagnosed with a brain tumour in July of 2011. An exhaustive, 8-hour brain surgery was followed by a couple of months of radiation therapy. It took me a good couple of years to fully arise from that phase—time spent regaining my physical and spiritual self, replenishing my creative directions, and rejuvenating my adoration for life. Touchwood, I’ve been able to emerge from that, into health and this floating world.
I believe words and a sense of movement have always been part of my story. That whole episode only helped me understand the crucial place that the two held in my life, reaffirming my directions thereafter. This act of journeying—the movement intrinsic therein, the pleasure quarters sprinkled throughout—and the blossoming of poetry almost seem like confidantes, each nudging the other, each playing with notions of time and chronology.
Now love. There are some beautiful lines that you have used to talk about love, like from A Date, an Address, and Little Else:
Stop sending me postcards from cities
where we made love. Time-stamped. Time
stamps. Everything reduces beneath gloss
—the quietude to a forgotten piazza;
the sad, old men of Damascus; the cafés
where a day lingers as prelude and etude
—everything made shiny, with the kiss
of age all but burnished away.
And in What if, and Especially so
Say we’ve just made love } our bodies, our breaths, rising and swaying
to the music in the consonants that fill the spaces in human beings.
And in A Flirtation or Two
I know now why I love you; I know now why I ache
It’s as clear to me as the bartender pretending to be Russian
Professing that Grey Goose and Stolichnaya behave just the same
Your love-poetry ranges from the deep pathos of true love, if any such thing exists, to the light banter of flirtation. I wonder if you will share with us the circumstances of your life: are you married? If not, was there some great love in your life?
Thanks for putting me on the spot, Mehvash. Ha! I’m not married. There have been some wonderful women in my life, across youth, young manhood, and this somewhat silver-haired manhood, to twist Fitzgerald’s words gently. What I’ve discovered to be true, though, is that something as brief and urgent as a single night sometimes holds as much potency and poetry as many years of love. That something as ephemeral as a summer romance spent tasting and exchanging life stories with a compelling woman has proven to be as treasurable as anything that has lingered over many seasons.
I’ve tended to accumulate these through life, not by way of some trivial numbers game, but via this persistence of memory. Things remain. Names remain. Aromas and conversations remain. So do secrets and promises, long broken. I think we go through life wanting to own or keep so much; perhaps there’s a kind of Buddhist wisdom in the aware, empathetic detachment—to love, body and soul entirely involved, in the moment, but then to also allow time and destiny to move both humans along on their way.
To not have any of this in my poetry as I walk through life—the intricacy of relationships, the lasting nature of a kiss, the vulnerability to a city, the ephemeral perfection to a café, the simplicity and possibility in the roads and journeys and relationships that lie ahead—would be fairly unthinkable.
Another point of similitude: your political writing, some of which I quote below:
And yet, here we are, our arms flailing
for the slightest semblance of self, holding
on to these concepts of name, place, city, longing.
To Walk the Earth
I keep stepping towards and stepping
around the prophecies that are quoted verbatim,
even as my land hails its nuclear precision
and America hails its gun-toting hallways.
Why have the Arabs not raised their voices,
and why do my neighbors practice impotence?
Why has the crudeness of oil become
the lifafa within which life stammers on its course.
The Buddhists aver mindfulness, the Hindus
intone destiny, the Muslims defer to jannat,
while the Christians reminisce the Crusades,
each cocooned within the steeple-d, spire-d,
staple-d opera of devotion’s rabid allegory.
And in this very moment, riot, as it turns
out, is divisible. It is the confluence of rise
with the aural inquisition of alight.
The Drunkard of Pattinson Rd
Love is this land’s rich lineage, ink and mythos,
blood, an autumnal empire of things being
beautiful, if only to burn, and some day,
in the lap of auroras, be born again.
All that you have talked about strikes a chord with me too. Then I turn to the writings of Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, to remind myself that these great writers feel the same as I do about these subjects. Who are your heroes in the field of activist writing?
The Chilean poet-activist Raúl Zurita has been an enduring lighthouse in this regard. His words, his creations are such simple, striking acts of resistance, they still you in your everyday tracks. Arundhati Roy, of course, has been this dervish for our generation, both in the strength of her courage as well as the fluidity of her personal narratives. The South American poets, Borges in particular, I turn and return to often.
Of course, activism has many dimensions—identity, as lived by Zeina Hashem Beck, Naomi Shihab Nye, and others; gender—which the likes of Kaveh Akbar and Kazim Ali do so well; cartographies of time and body—where Jeet Thayil and Tishani Doshi are rarely less than thrilling to the ear; and too many other aspects and poets to mention, really.
I’m also aware of the fact that I am not that. I remain aware, human, and that awareness habitually erupts in words. But the core of my activism, if I could put it that way, has always been a search for and an immersion into beauty, considering beauty and art as being the antidote to whatever darkness there exists. I believe strongly in this truth. It holds true enough for me, anyhow.
You seem to feel deeply about mortality, death, continuity of the self through elements other than the corporal body. In Istanbul Unto Ephemera II, you write:
How do you retrospect fondly over the past when the past stretches
beyond the lines on your hands and the millions of nerves and sinews
pumping blood and bliss into your soul
Elsewhere, you write:
Proximity is what divorces us from the air that bounces off of galactic stars }
In You Haven’t, some of my favourite lines:
A century or so later, the words, having grown up to become sentences, stanzas, parables, and epics, give themselves to the freedom of evaporation, rising on the illicit pleasures of the wind and the fluttering emancipation of gathered clouds, bathing the land in sagas of that which was saved by the wet fortitude of braver tongues—of how mahogany and mahua came together to form barricades; of how tiger lilies, lotuses, dahlia, and temple magnolia dissolved previous sins in the riparian tides of rise and roar; of how heirlooms and artefacts and the insistent pull of photographic memory resuscitated breath and blood within the streaming canals of previously deceased lungs.
At one point, I was constantly haunted by death, by the thought of how temporary I am. Do you think a poet’s or a writer’s oeuvre salvages one somewhat from this ennui?
I feel poetry, writing in general, has always held that magic pill quality—the fact that your words are both an exploration of and deep-dive into the greater existential ennui, while proving to be your salvation from it. When I think of the writers I’ve carried in my heart for years now—Rushdie, Seth, Jack Gilbert, Tishani Doshi, Easterine Kire, Thayil, Calvino, Miller, Kerouac, Lahiri, Mary Oliver, Eunice de Souza, Pascal Quignard—I can only think of something vital having been saved, and beyond that, nourished.
I’ll happily accord the same redemptive qualities to my own writing—in that here the salvation and nourishment are a direct consequence, birthed from the vastness of a blank page. Writing, poetry more than fiction, is the daily meditation, the daily redemption.
The following, to me, is one of your most significant lines
… the lighthouse to the east, reminding me of home, of how almost everything lies east.
I would like to know a bit more, at end, of your relationship to the East and of why the east, in your eyes, is The Moveable East.
It’s a fluid, complex relationship, as you might imagine. There is this profound love for home—for India, the beauty of its landscape, the enigma of its cities with their individual histories, the flurry of street life, the sort of raw sensuality that lingers in its most special places. And that lives with this acceptance of the East being part of a world torn wildly at the seams. A world where the scary rapidity of climate change mingles with disease. Famine blends with excess. The futility of borders with their futile wars. The violence against women, surely one of our most pressing global pandemics.
The East further represents a canvas where spiritual thought, though exceedingly dwindling at times, holds greater virtue than anywhere else. It’s usually the love that wins through in this melee, but a more detached idea of love. A love that for me, birthed Indian and carrying India as a heart song, answers equally to the notion of being of no fixed address and no fixed nationhood. Perhaps a love that answers equally to Human. Son. Man. Poet. Lover. Wanderer. Archivist.
The sense of this being a moveable east arises from the transient, transferrable nature of home, the east, and life itself. I allude to this in the prelude to the collection—how the east is a physical address, true, but it’s also the bodies you inhabit, the desires you nurse, the poetries you gulp, the “books where lines and dialogues lie marked in all manner of ink, as though awaiting coronation” and “those cities where desire dances in wild lingua”. The prelude further delves into how “here, it’s home—wedded to the homelands, deltas, and intoxications of India, and thus, eastern—that is rendered moveable. Every step, journey, affair, and migration, and the east moves with you.”
What I would hope for is that through us—me being the writer; you being the reader—these poems, A Moveable East, and the songs that erupt as a consequence are led by the hand to different cities and different soundtracks, to the safe harbour of cherished bookshelves. Savoured. Memorised at times. And as we journey across life and continents, through us, moveable.
Siddharth Dasgupta is an Indian writer who crafts poetry and fiction from lost hometowns, cafés dappled in early morning light, and cities inflicted with an existential throb. His books traverse fictional landscapes, unpredictable verse, and that special somewhere in between. Siddharth’s fourth book, A Moveable East, has arrived in March 2021 via the independent publisher Red River. Siddharth's literature has appeared in Epiphany, Lunch Ticket, The Bosphorus Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Kyoto Journal, The Aleph Review and elsewhere, while he has read in places like Bombay, Istanbul, Isfahan, Lucknow, Mandalay, Galle, and Paris. He lives in the city of Poona, embraced by an always fickle muse and the quiet startle of nostalgia.
Follow the author on Instagram @citizen.bliss and via https://citizenbliss.squarespace.co