Sweet Shop: New and Collected Poems, 1985–2023 by Amit Chaudhuri

Author:  Amit Chaudhuri

The cover to Sweet Shop: New and Collected Poems, 1985–2023 by Amit ChaudhuriNew York. NYRB Poets. 2023. 184 pages.

It is quite possible that with the title Sweet Shop, the Western reader may visualize Amit Chaudhuri luring them into a Western candy shop with the bell chiming or buzzing at the entrance. In fact, he leads you to his past and present, and to the landscape of nostalgia through the doors of mithaiwala, who sell rich, colorfully scandalous Indian sweets with an enticing smell wafting from vendors’ stores. Throughout the collection, sweets and food are Chaudhuri’s handles to reflect in all manners of contexts and layers, invoking political, cultural, and religious aspects. For example, of petha (a translucent, soft Indian candy), he has this to say:

What you are is a scandal:
the corpse of some chalkumro
turned anaemic and crystalline
as princess’s breast
and imbued with rose-water.

However, not all poems are set in the poet’s kitchen, extended to cultural deliberations to extract something meaningful out of the discernible. Instead, he is held hostage to the reminiscence. In his poem “Kitchen,” he declares:

These memories are melodies
you sing to yourself when you choose. 
. . . . . . . . . . .
And the old homelovingness
of light falling and touching the black
utensils; the bee-buzz of love,
part song, part nature’s reverie.

While this collection offers a journey enlaced with colorful and sensual aesthetics, it is also peopled with mother, father, Ramanujan (the mathematician), Keith Jarrett, Adil Jussawalla and Nissim Ezekiel (the poets), and a few others. His embrace of life includes the canvas of Cambridge, Oxford, and other places, including a tunnel and a cathedral. The scope undertaken by this collection is vast but turns into something universal. 

I suppose that is why there is also a temptation toward experimentation in this book (an experiment the result of which I remain unconvinced). It appears before the last selection of poems, a self-indulgent Q&A section where the poet imagines the questions and answers them playfully!

Q. What is poetry?
A. A form of subtraction where words are viewed as impediments.

Having said that, it should not put you off, as the rest of the collection is entrancing. An acclaimed novelist, Chaudhuri knows the power of narrative and explores its potential, diving into storytelling’s currents of meanings. Not only does he scoop up smells, sounds, and tastes in the process but also re-creates places and people vividly.

Mahesh would cycle or simply stride
to the Broad Street Wimpy’s
to get himself a beanburger.
With a wisdom not expected
of a Tamil Brahmin from Delhi
he claimed it would suffice.

As with his sweets from sandesh molds, when you finish reading this collection, you will be left with these lines to ruminate: Are you finished, or about to begin?

Yogesh Patel

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