Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

The Secret Sorrow of Sparrows

Title: The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows — A Collection of Lives
Author: Siddhartha Dasgupta
Publisher: Kitaab, 2017
Pages: 316
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.

By Pervin Saket

Siddharth Dasgupta
Siddharth Dasgupta

Siddharth Dasgupta is an Indian poet, novelist, and travel journalist. His words have appeared in global literary journals such as Litro, Entropy, Cha, Punch, The Bombay Literary Review, Coldnoon, and Burning House, included. He also undertakes cultural immersions with the likes of Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveller, and Harper’s Bazaar. He has three books to his name thus far; the short-story collection The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows and the poetry collection The Wanderlust Conspiracy emerged in 2017. Siddharth is currently looking to secure an adequately courageous publisher for his next literary release – a new collection of poetry. He writes at https://citizenbliss.squarespace.com | @citizen.bliss

 

Pervin: You’ve worked with the long-form and the short-form of fiction, as well as with various kinds of verses. What are your reflections on the processes behind all of these? In what ways are all three distinctly demanding and fulfilling?

Siddharth: The most compelling thrill for me in all of this is not knowing what comes next, and not knowing how exactly to control or demarcate ‘the process’ once it finally does arrive. In that sense, I treat each form the same – as an arrival with whom a courtship needs to be formed over time. Whether this leads to a relationship that is thrillingly brief or a drawn-out epic, sometimes manifesting itself over years, the frame of mind doesn’t actually alter itself all that much. You simply go in with the knowledge that with some journeys you’re going to have to buckle in for the long ride, while with some it’s more of a ‘wham-bam-Amsterdam’ time frame. Novels and stories will test time, patience, friendships, and perceived ideas of sanity. Poetry will test line lengths, dance forms, the heart, and an almirah of desires. The sense of fulfilment from both is proportionate, and dare I say it, contagious.

Pervin: Your work is very firmly anchored in various geographies, whether remembered or imagined or explored, and yet, there is rootlessness, a wandering, a yearning that characterizes your narratives. Where does this absorption with nostalgia and voyaging come from? And do you use place to actually talk about time?

Siddharth: I find this shared habitat between lastingness and rootlessness to be an entirely natural one. It speaks to our human existence as a motley crew of nomads, refugees, and wanderers. A sense of movement has always been integral to my life; it’s only natural that this state of being would extend to my life as a writer as well. It’s often been second nature to find myself at home, or at least something resembling home, at different places in the world. Concurrently though, I’ve found that you can very well be in a specific place at a specific point in time, and yet find yourself longing for it. You’re right: I think nostalgia lies at the heart of it. Some of us were assembled in that manner, I suppose, with a deep ache for another time and other horizons resident as permanent companion in our lives, nestled peacefully beside this to-and-fro between finding home in different longitudinal addresses and fleeing. In my literature, place is often the strongest indicator of time, even more so than character. A place doesn’t have to speak or gesticulate or enter into lengthy monologues; a place simply conveys.

The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows_05.12(1)IN SYMPHONIES WE FLOW

Life, in all its red-blooded bliss of ache, skin, soul, and sky is brief; wouldn’t you know…

And tonight, the night refuses to be anything but brutally young. Photographs keep washing on to the shore, and dreams keep playing truant with the light within your eyes.

As pupils blossom and in seeps the ocean’s silent sonata, you see an ancient wooden home by the waves, keeping time to the rebellious tides. You sense three stilled notes of pure, amazing grace. You uncover atonement in knowing that someone, somewhere is thinking of you at a café by the sea; wanting to be held in your arms, wanting your shoulder to rest her head on, wanting your lyrics to make up her song. That’s all there is. And you try and figure out the dots and the lines that lead to something resembling a picture; an image filtered through the rapidness of time, tide, man, and myth.

Were you destined to play the rebel to karma’s near-perfect script? Was it decreed that for this act, you be the joker of the pack; a Capricorn dissident wreaking disorder with the beautifully aged tarot cards? You cast such aspersions aside as you drink some wine and you smoke some moonlight and you try and keep innocence alive. It’s nothing. It’s everything. The ocean saves its best for last.

Beyond me, like an ancient sacred snake, winds the mighty Bosphorus. It is early morning now, and a soft layer of mist rises above the water. No life here in Istanbul is left untouched by the maiden’s majestic sweep. These are two different halves of the world, being unified by a cadence that sometimes flows in shades of pure blue, as it is doing now, or in billowing clouds of ink black, or, as when dusk is at its doorstep, in striking palettes of golden red, or, most thrillingly, as when the night is thick and filled with the moon’s romantic essence, in streaks of giddy silver.

I step on to Galata Bridge, taking the lower passage, and walk, keeping step with the shores as they flank different customs, different communities, different relationships, and even, as it feels at times, different eras. Beneath the onslaught, there are boats coming in with the day’s first catch and small ferries waiting to transport an anxious working-class horde to any of the city’s distant villages and tourist hotspots.

As the fishermen dock their precariously tiny vessels, one of them offers me a smoke. I accept gladly, and inhale the dark essence of dawn, nicotine, and rancidness. My senses are alive to every heartbeat. My ears are privy to every secret. Small makeshift cafés have already begun grilling the fish and handing them out in hastily wrapped paper.

Siddharth11Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

What started off life as an enjoyable interest before stepping up to becoming an engaging addiction before slowly metamorphosing into an all-consuming passion has now reached that state of potent urgency where ‘why do I write?’ and ‘why do I breathe?’ appear to be conjoined twins of sorts.

Tell us about your most recent book. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My novel Letters from an Indian Summer tells the story of an Indian photographer and a French artist caught in a tidal wave of romance, repentance, destiny… and serendipity. It spreads itself across a global canvas of cities and epiphanies, with the nearly extinct art of letters forming important focal points to the journey. What was I trying to achieve with it… well, would Nirvana suffice? I suppose in the littlest of ways I was trying to impart a sense of bohemian bliss and a light sprinkling of lyrical cadence onto a world increasingly bereft of such. I was also attracted to an India not mired in cliché but instead, unafraid of diving often and rebelliously into pools of pleasure.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Due to the words and the people and the imagery and the memories I’ve grown up with, much of my writing, irrespective of medium, technique or genre, has a poetic and somewhat rhythmic cadence to it. While this aesthetic lends itself well to tales dripping with wanderlust and sensuality, I’ve found that it lends itself especially well to sorrow and to characters drowning under the weight of very human failings.