A review of The Music of Eternity by Ketaki Datta

Reviewed by Deepa Agarwal

The Music of Eternity
by Ketaki Datta
Jan 2022, 67 pages, Rs. 250,

The Music of Eternity is an apt title for this remarkable collection of fifty-one poems by novelist, critic and academic Ketaki Datta. The overarching theme of time, timelessness, the connection between the past, present, and future binds the poems, even as the poet covers a range of ideas and emotions, displaying a unique vision. Datta ponders over the human condition, drawing on everyday happenings to soar into philosophical and sometimes mystical musings, though at times her commentary turns acerbic while reflecting on human foibles. 

Reading some of these poems one is reminded of T.S. Eliot’s immortal lines from Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past/Are both present in time future/And time future contained in time past./ If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.” 

Thus, the ever-moving pendulum of time finds eloquent expression in poems like “A Swing Sways On…” 

The Swing rocks to and fro, 
The swing oscillates on and on— 
The past, the future 
Fall in its trajectory 
Though it skims past 
The present, inadvertently! 
Past to Future, 
Future to Past, 
With Present intervening 
Like an interlude of a medieval play! 

In the following poem, cryptically titled “A Tale of Walking in and Leaving”, she talks of night slipping… 

Through the wobbly steps 
Of diurnal pirouette, 
About to drop off 
Into the litter-bin of Eternity! 

It is the division of eras in time that is being contemplated here, with the birth of the Christ child who “Annulling a stretch named B.C.E…stands as a dividing line Between the Time—nascent,/ And the Time—going, going, gone!” 

In verses like these Datta effectively fulfills the goal of all good poetry by illuminating well known facts and events with an unexpected insight. 

The poet’s gaze is sharp and perceptive when she turns it on the sundry facets of man-woman relationships. There is a stark, almost sardonic note in some of her love poems, as in “Love or no Love”. 

Do you love me? 
How can I? 
But I am dying to love you 
I too am. 
So what stops you? 
The shackles of the society 
I am tied in. 

These crisp, staccato lines seem to mock the vacillation of lovers who are attracted by the idea of love but too cautious to surrender to it completely, to commit themselves to a risky relationship. She comments again on the same lack of commitment and the transitory nature of love in “A Post Modern Love Poem”, which begins with the comparison of a satiated lover with a hissing reptile and goes on to state: 

Togetherness annuls itself on satiety, 
Gratification totters on the brink of 
A promise that is not to be kept. 
In the end, she proclaims that: 
Love is now a bubble in a bucket, 
Where soap-suds mingle, woven are dreams. 

At the same time, she softens this statement by finally alluding to love as “an unknown flower in a thicket/ Where new ideas thrive, impinged by sunbeams.” Her deep compassion for those bound in often troubled man-woman relationships is apparent in poems like “Caught in Between Mirror Images”, where she refuses to take sides and maintains a balance between the two sexes. 

Cages of domineering womanhood, 
Threats of thwarting patriarchy, 
Cages of marring his free mood, 
Snares of attraction followed by anarchy! 

The last stanza of the poem, with its forgiving note, sums up the sentiment effectively: 

A woman needs a man, are you sure? 
Does woman entice him, for her love-need’s cure? 
A man is used up or uses woman, for sure, 
No surmises, man-woman, both souls are pure! 

“Days of Togetherness” examines another kind of inevitability when romance is consumed by the ennui of domestic life. Sexual attraction and desire hit a roadblock too in “Desire, Isolation and Proximity”, when the dread of Covid infection forces lovers to maintain a distance, while burning inwardly. “To stay hungry till they die, perhaps…” 

The Covid-19 experience is relived in several other poems, probed from different angles—whether it is “A Quiet Diwali” for little Pumpu, the optimism of “Corona Isolation, Yet a Hope!” the “Loneliness inside the room…” in the poem “Dreaming of Post-Covid World in Times of Corona” or the intriguing “Post Covid Roads in Conversation”. 

Datta possesses the knack of extorting meaning from the mundane and giving expression to secret longings that are often overlooked, as in the attraction between two strangers in “Going Down the Elevator”. While her poetic impulse explores numerous and varied aspects of human existence, ranging from nostalgia, materialism, women empowerment to the plight of the oppressed as in the poignant “I am a Dalit Girl”, it is her vibrant and powerful imagery that haunts the reader. From the first poem “A Dog, Two Hands and a Man” to the last one, “From Here to Eternity”, her verses seem to be imbued with a sense of constant motion, whether in quotidian and seemingly meaningless moments or the entire span of an individual’s life. She bypasses commonly used phrases to create astonishing visual effects like in “Celebrating the Purest Emotion” in which the lovelorn girl, forcibly separated from her lover, “sobbed and got to her toe,” not “her foot”, and you can picture the girl precariously poised on her toe, mirroring her fragile state of mind. This image, expressing the transient nature of mortal existence, where one can go “Sailing from Being into Nada” in an instance, repeats itself in the longest poem “From Here to Eternity”: 

The woman slipped on her big toe, 
Pirouetted, came to an abrupt halt, 
Looked in front and yelled in joy, 
“Heigh-ho, you know 
I dance to facilitate 
The gliding of time 
Into the smooth tiptoe 
Down to Eternity!” 

Whether it is the poignance of the poet’s sense of personal loss in “A Song for my Mom and Dad”, which leaves her feeling like “a left-out kitten beneath a car”, or the universality of the inexorable pendulum of time, these whirling, pirouetting, deeply felt poems carry us through a gamut of emotion and enrich us with rare, startling insights. An outstanding collection of poems that must be read to be fully savoured! 

About the reviewer: Deepa Agarwal writes fiction and poetry for both children and adults and translates from Hindi into English. She has over sixty books published in English and Hindi including mystery and adventure novels, ghost stories, stories of everyday life, picture books and biographies, retold folk tales and myths, and compiled textbooks. Her work has been published by leading publishers like Penguin India, Scholastic India, Hachette India, HarperCollins India, Children’s Book Trust, National Book Trust, Rupa & Co., Frank Educational Aids and Ratnasagar Publishers.