Sudeep Sen

Sudeep Sen read English Literature at the University of Delhi & as an Inlaks Scholar received an MS from the Journalism School at Columbia University (New York). His awards, fellowships & residencies include: Hawthornden Fellowship, Pushcart Prize nomination , BreadLoaf, Pleiades, nlpvf Dutch Foundation for Literature, Ledig House, Wolfsberg UBS Pro Helvetia (Switzerland), Sanskriti (New Delhi), and Tyrone Guthrie Centre (Ireland). He was international writer-in-residence at the Scottish Poetry Library (Edinburgh) & visiting scholar at Harvard University. Sen’s dozen books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Distracted Geographies, Rain, Aria (A K Ramanujan Translation Award), Letters of Glass, and Blue Nude: Poems & Translations 1977-2012 (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Award) is forthcoming. He has also edited several important anthologies, including: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Indians, The Literary Review Indian Poetry, World Literature Today Writing from Modern India, Midnight’s Grandchildren: Post-Independence English Poetry from India, and others. His poems, translated into over twenty-five languages, have featured in international anthologies by Penguin, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, Routledge, Norton, Knopf, Everyman, Random House, Macmillan, and Granta. His poetry and literary prose have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Financial Times, London Magazine, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Telegraph, Hindu, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on bbc, cnn-ibn, ndtv & air. Sen’s recent work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta) and Language for a New Century (Norton). He is the editorial director of Aark Arts and editor of Atlas [].



Ten years on, I came searching for
                           war signs of the past
expecting remnants—magazine debris,
unexploded shells,
that mark bomb wounds.

I came looking for
people past, skeletons charred,
that once housed them.

I could only find whispers—
                           whispers among the clamour
of a small town outpost
                                       in full throttle—
everyday chores
                          sketching outward signs
             of normality and life.

In that bustle
              I spot war-lines of a decade ago
though the storylines
                            are kept buried, wrapped
in old newsprint.

There is order amid uneasiness—
                                          the muezzin’s cry,
the monk’s chant—
                            merging in their separateness.

At the bus station
                          black coughs of exhaust
smoke-screens everything.
                                           The roads meet
and after the crossroad ritual
skating along the undotted lines
                                        of control.
A porous garland
                          with cracked beads
adorns Tiger Hill.
                          Beyond the mountains
                                           are dark memories,
and beyond them
                           no one knows,
                                                      and beyond them
no one wants to know.

Even the flight of birds
                                       that wing over their crests
don’t know which feathers to down.
they fly,     tracing perfect parabolas.

I look up
              and calculate their exact arc
and find instead,                                             a flawed theorem.


Zoji La Pass

                               at 12,000 feet
slopes steeply.             Hard snow
                               cut into two
by winding tarmac—
                               a severe cold-slice
freezing to a stand-still.

A car shrinks
            through this open-air tunnel—
ice walls on either side—
                               a geometric strait
the warmth of diesel’s grey metal.

Two yaks on the lower slopes
                               look up for colour
in this blinding white.
Their horns storing clues,
the mood
              of changing temperatures.

In this rarefied air
                                              lungs shrink—
breathtaking breathlessness—
              clarified oxygen is sparse here—
high-tone octane echo in the stark terrain.


for Bina

In Japanese, Yuki is snow—
     unmelted and poised.

She sits askance
     in front of a wine-tinged door

whose paint flakes
     to expose its wood-raw skin—

pale, seemingly snow-flecked.
     Her hair rambles all over

her face, eyes, and neck,
     as she stares shyly—

sideways into the distance.
     There are secrets locked,

bolted securely
     in a shut non-descript studio

in Mumbai,
     tucked away somewhere

in Prabha Devi—
     as the industrial estate

temporarily quietens
     at the allusive

thought of snow herself.
     Fantasy instils in

factory-workers, passion—
     just as for me—

peeling curls of paint,
     a circular chromium lock,

a rusted dis-used bolt,
     and breeze that affects

a woman’s hair and lashes,
     inspires visions

of snow—
     thaw, compassion, desire.

[inspired by a photo by Rafeeq Ellias]




A bright red boat
Yellow capsicums

Blue fishing nets
Ochre fort walls


Sahar’s silk blouse
gold and sheer

Her dark black
-lined lashes


A street child’s
brown fists

holding the rainbow
in his small grasp


My lost memory
white and frozen

now melts colour
ready to refract



drawing a breath between each
                sentence, trailing closely every word.

           — James Hoch, ‘Draft’ in Miscreants


some things, I knew,
                 were beyond choosing:

                                               under cancer’s terminus care.

mama’s mysterious disappearance—
                                               ventilator vibrating, severed
silently, in the hospital’s unkempt dark.

an old friend’s biting silence—unexplained—
                 promised loyalties melting for profit
                                               abandoning long familial presences of trust.

devi’s jealous heart      misreading emails
                                               hacked carefully under cover,
her fingernails ripping                 
unformed poems, bloodied, scarred—
my diary pages weeping wordlessly—
my children aborted, breathless forever.


these are acts that enact themselves, regardless—
               helpless, as i am,
torn asunder permanently, drugged, numbed.

strange love, this is—                                    a salving:
                                                                          what medics and nurses do.

i live buddha-like, unblinking, a painted vacant smile—
                            one that stores pain and painlessness—
someone else’s nirvana thrust upon me.

some things I once believed in
                                                                      are beyond my choosing—
choosing is a choice unavailable to me.



Birds fly across the pale blue sky
cross-stitching a matrix in Pali—

a tongue now beautifully classical
like temple-toned Bharatanatyam.

Dialogues in the other garden
happen not just in springtime. Yet

you stare askance talking poetry
in silence, an angularity of stance

like a shot in a film-noir narrative
yet to be edited down to a whole.

What is a whole? Is it not a sum
of distilled parts, parts one chooses

to expose carefully like raw stock—
controlling patterns in the red light

of dark, a dark that dutifully dissolves.
There emerges at the end,

nests for imaginative flights to rest,
to weave our own stories braving

winds, currents, and the elements
of disguise. Fireflies in the grove

do not belong to numbered generation
they only light up because line-breaks

like varnam keep purity alive—
enigmatic, disciplined, spontaneous.

Let the birds fly tracing angular paths,
let the dancer dance unbridled,

let the poet write unrestrained—
natural as breathing itself.

Matrix woven can be unwoven—
enjambments like invisible pauses

weave us back into algebraic patterns
that only heart and imagination can.

She walks porcupines—as you do—and
listens to the sound of the sea in a conch.



she has no english;
             her lips round / in a moan ….
calligraphy of veins ….
Merlinda Bobis, ‘first night’

My syntax, tightly-wrought
   I struggle to let go,
to let go of its formality,
   of my wishbone
desiring juice its deep marrow,
   muscle, and skin.

The sentence finally pronounced

   I am greedy for long drawn-
out vowels
, for consonants that
   desire lust, tissue, grey-cells.
I am hungry for love,
   for pleasure, for flight,

for a story essaying endlesslywords.
   A comma decides to pr[e]oposition
a full-stop … ellipses pause, to reflect
   a phrase decides not to reveal
her thoughts after allellipses and
   semi-colons are strange bed-fellows.

Calligraphy of veins and words
   require ink, the ink of breath,
of bloodcorpuscles speeding
   faster than the loop of serifs …
the unresolved story of our lives
   in a fast train without terminals.

I long only for italicised ellipses …
   my english is the other, the other
is really english she has no english;
   her lips round / in a moan ….

her narrative grammar-drenched,
   silent, rich, etched letters of glass.


Eating Guavas Outside Taj Mahal

The heavy drunken aroma
     of fresh guavas

is too sweet for me to bear.

Instead, I drink its nectar
     not as liquid-pulp
but as raw unsmooth fruit.

I bite its light-green rough skin
     the way I used to
approach a sugarcane stalk

as a child
     crunching every fibre
to extract their juice.

There are memories—
     memories attached to food
and their consumption.

There are memories
     about the rituals of intake—
how certain foods

are allowed or disallowed
     depending on God’s stance
and their place

in the lofty hierarchies
     they create.
How misplaced these stations

are—God, Emperor, Man
     all mistaken—proud errors
of selfhood, status, and ego.

Even under prayer’s veil,
     there is something about
eating guavas with unwashed

hands, tasting its taste before
lemon and rock-salt
turn them into sprightly salad—

seed’s bone-crack intentions
     slip, cloaked—
buried before they fruit.



As winter secrets

with the purple

what is revealed
   is electric

notes tune
   unknown scales,

syntax alters

terracotta melts

banyan ribbons
   into armatures

as branch-roots
   twist, meeting

soil in a circle.

   under cloth


for a calligrapher’s

   in invisible ink,

letters never

   map, uncharted

as phrases fold
   so do veils