A Brief History of Silence: The Womb of Optimism

Book Review by Aditya Shankar

2. A Brief History of Silence -image of front cover

Title: A Brief History of Silence

Author: Manu Dash

Publisher: Dhauli Books, India. First Edition, 2019


Manu Dash is a poet, editor, translator, cultural activist and director of OALF (Odisha Art & Literature Festival). He writes in Odia and in English. In 1974, he joined Anam – a literary movement by a group of writers – engaged in searching the socio-cultural roots of the land where he lives. His works include two collections of poems and short stories and four collections of essays. He edited Wings Over the Mahanadi, an anthology of eight Odia poets writing in English (Poetrywala, Mumbai). He edits The Dhauli Review (www.dhaulireview.com), a tri-quarterly of Indian writing, and runs the reputed publishing house, Dhauli Books(www.dhaulibooks.com).

Manu Dash’s poetry collection, A Brief History of Silence, speaks from the warmth and intimacy of the womb—the womb of ideas, the womb of words, the womb of corridors in isolated cancer wards. With womb as the pedestal of speech, the choice of silence and meditation becomes a natural choice of language for these verses. Without a choice, Buddha is an obsession for the inward-looking verse. Songs from the womb must sing about beginnings (‘Zero’, ‘Rain’) and ends (No Rain’, ‘Obituary’). These poems cannot help but be obsessed about the shape of formations, the evolution of outcomes (‘Hellhole homes’, ‘Headlines’), and about each step forward.

The emphasis in this discourse is on the words — ‘organic’ and ‘silence’. Quite unknowingly, these verses break the stereotype of the poetic template of response and resistance in vogue in Indian English poetry that parades tropes and substitutes in-depth poetic insight and concerns with trends. Dash ensures that the gravity of essential silence outlives the noise of superficial presence. The response poet becomes an automated machine responsible for handling the problem of ‘stylised text generation’ in a multi-news setup.

We say stylised superficial text, because the societal issues are manifold and multi-centric. Hence, we turn into a globalised poetic system structured around a hierarchy of multiplicity of poetry and response, with almost everyone responding to issues and mistaking their response for poetry. They try to hard sell their relevant instant response to news as verse and garner response.

The poetic activity in this scenario is akin to a Long short-term memory (LSTM) in an artificial recurrent neural network architecture. For instance, contemporary poetry leverages LSTM principles such as time series anomaly detection used in the field of deep learning, in which the anomalies found in a data set and the pattern and cause of their occurrence are analysed.

The modern poetic eye tracks and responds to social trends and atrocities of governance and fascism with a similar eye. In this strange scenario, the poet who is supposed to be a corrective force against the fading short term memory loss of the society, falls victim to the forces s/he is fighting. Within this poetic environment of instant response and gratification driven by social media, can we anymore afford greater, genuine poetry that requires its own space to ripen? Yes, if we appreciate and accept the fact that such poems mirror the life of literary fiction banished to a slow death. As it has always been, such writing needs investment and effort from the reader.

On the contrary, there is no doubt that poetic resistance is key. It would be wrong to judge the poetic value of a piece based on  ‘authoring time’ and ‘dwell time’. The history of poetic resistance has many shining jewels that were intense, heartfelt and instant.  Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laabi, for instance, wrote about the death of the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout at the hands of fanatics. The poem was written on the day of his burial, in 1993:

The earth opens

and welcomes you

Why these cries, these tears

these prayers

What have they lost

What are they looking for

those who trouble

your refound peace?


The earth opens

and welcomes you


you will converse without witnesses

O you have things to tell each other

and you’ll have eternity to do so

Yesterday’s words tarnished by the tumult

will one by one engrave themselves on silence


The earth opens

and welcomes you

She alone has desired you

without you making any advances

She has waited for you with Penelopian ruses.

Her patience was but goodness…

As poets, the key is to ensure that beyond the relevance of the immediate response, what we leave behind after an issue dies down is sheer poetry. As a poet, the challenge of our era is to stay informed, intelligent, timely and in-depth at once. Dash aspires to be a writer in this genre of heartfelt and sincere poetry.

Dash’s verse treats the lost hope and the new-found hope with equality. It lives among people (Budhia Singh, Dana Majhi, Deba Patnaik, Irom Sharmila, Kabir, Maneckshaw, Elizabeth Hurley, Shweta Prasad Basu) and inhabits its own zone of place, time and tongue (Konark, Puri, Odia, Bhopal, Bhubaneswar). It takes flight with the cranes, munches plastic with cows, camouflages with the caterpillars and weaves a nest for words with flapping wings. It tears away masks, debates with its gods and weeps for the departed artist with unfinished lines and incomplete brush strokes.

The soft-spoken protest and the inherent sadness of awareness strings together, the verses in this collection. It metamorphoses into a pulsing organic being pregnant with optimism. The kind we need to outlive the bad times. It waits in a conch shell to deliver the pearl, a goodness bomb. Amongst the diverse poetic worlds of contemporary Indian English poetry, Dash’s is a unique voice of poetic sincerity and promise.

‘Optimism is a conch shell which needs blowing into.’ – Manu Dash


 Aditya Shankar is a bilingual poet, flash fiction author and translator. He writes in English and Malayalam. His poetry collections include After Seeing (2006), Party Poopers (2014), and XXL (Dhauli Books, 2018). He edited Tiny Judges Shall Arrive (AHRC, Hong Kong), a selection of  KG Sankara Pillai’s poems translated into English. His short films have participated in International Film Festivals and been nominated for awards. He lives in Bangalore, India.


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