Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows — A Collection of Lives
Author: Siddhartha Dasgupta
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017
ISBN: 978-981-11- 4966-5
The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows is a collection of ten short stories by Siddhartha Dasgupta that seem to be created out of a gossamer web of words flung accidentally into the right place. The writer’s artistry and skill lies perhaps in recreating an aura of ephemerality and serendipity, the two elements that are part of the wonder of everyday existence.
The book is structured into a prelude and ten stories. In the prelude, the author explains, ‘…these aren’t particularly sad stories. At least they weren’t mean to be.’ Yet, there is often a lingering sadness – though not despondency – that strings together the stories in this collection. The sadness is tinged with hope and the stories build up to a crescendo leading to the exposition of the author’s worldview in the concluding story. The stories are best experienced if read in order though they can stand as independent vignettes of poetic prose.
The book starts with “The Baker from Kabul” and his reactions to his family, from whom he has been sundered by the Afghani unrest. Located in Dubai, the story gives an insight into the life and thoughts of a common baker who found refuge in this affluent city. “The Train Rolled through the Night” is a recap of two brothers who return home, where they had slept as children ‘to the sound of Indian local trains’, to uncover a murder mystery in their past and reach a surprise conclusion that scars them forever with a tinge of sorrow.
“Gulmohar Drive” delves into the grief of Shenaz Wadia. Shenaz returns to Pune to visit the home of her beloved dead grandmother. As she tries to come to terms with her loss, a brief, intense, incomplete romance evokes a sense of longing in the reader… a longing like Shenaz feels for the wet Gulmohur flowers. “Dawn’s Fatal Betrayal”, while glancing at life in traditional Lucknow, imparts a deeper sense of loss, except the mystery of death is left untouched. The reader is left wondering if this is done intentionally to emphasise the uncertainty and whimsicality of existence.
“Once Upon a Mystic Sky” is the story of the poignant reunion of a qawal, his childhood sweetheart and their child… a story par excellence, one of the best in the collection. It has pathos, love, tolerance and what could be seen as a satisfying ending, with mystic music and qawali ably highlighting the values within the narrative arc. “The Thousandth Bridge”, set in Isfahan, Iran, explores creativity beyond destruction. At the end of the story, though the bridges that are painted by the protagonist are destroyed in an earthquake, will the artist draw from the ‘light’ that glows within her to recreate what was? The ‘light’ within her in Isfahan is touched upon in the last story by the narrative of a Sufi dervish who whirls through the world peopled also by the characters from the book.
In, “Kleptosufi”, the concluding story set in Lebanon, the dervish dances through the lives of many people, including the characters from the earlier stories. The author confesses, ‘It became clear to me… that this was the story that would encompass all others, serving as a narrative lightning rod to the disparate journeys.’ At the end of the story, the dervish explains the title of the book to a mysterious woman, who wafts into the story out of the mists of words, ‘The more I think about it, I feel human beings are much like sparrows… we fly… try and find freedom, happiness, togetherness, love; and what are we at the end of it all but these insignificant specks…’
His spiritual mate and beloved responds by saying, ‘Sparrows have their place. Sorrows have their place. If anything, your journey is a testament to that…’
The journey is that of the Sufi dervish through the good and bad in the world. Some of the characters he glances upon are from earlier stories in the collection, stories that disappoint with their twists and turns.
“Reversal and its Residue”, “One Deep Sleep” and “In Symphony we Flow”, set in Bombay, Japan and Turkey respectively, while giving a superb description of the cities, have a sense of the mundane and weak plots. However, an unnecessary use of vulgar words in a couple of stories mars the excellence of Siddharth Dasgupta’s narrative skills.
Despite these minor scars, the writer takes us on a spiritual journey through a number of unique places, perhaps not very popular with average tourists, like Iran and Lebanon. He claims to have ‘lived, touched, and breathed nearly every city in the collection’.
Perhaps, being a journalist, a photographer and a writer with a few books under his belt has helped him view the world from an unusual perspective. In his stories, the reader has an immersive experience of poetic prose and haunting lyricism. His strength is in building up moods and capturing nuances. Siddharth Dasgupta is definitely an unusual read. He makes one wonder if he is building bridges with his work linking cultures, beliefs and nationalities. His narratives bring out the universality of human spirit, the same spirit that Omar Khayyam addressed when he wrote:
Look to the Rose that blows about us – “Lo,
Laughing,” she says, “into the World I blow:
At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw.”
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The Times of India, Pioneer, Statesman and Hindustan Times. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, In Reverie (2016) and An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English (1984). She has a book online, In the Land of Dragons (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333).
Mitali blogs at 432m.