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Review: Dreams that Spell the Light, by Shanta Acharya

Reviewing Acharya's new volume of poems for this journal raises the vexed question of what constitutes a postcolonial writer. As with her previous collections of poetry, Acharya's Indian origins are evident in a number of poems, but it would be erroneous to assume that the writer's ethnicity should necessarily invite a postcolonial reading. Indeed, the poems, which engage with a range of disparate themes - from the metaphysical (Black Swans) to the material (A Place of All Seasons), via the amusingly prosaic (Shaadi.com, ostensibly about the trials and pitfalls of Internet dating sites) - share a refreshingly universalist perspective as Acharya uses her distinctive poetic voice to interrogate life in the 21st century. This notwithstanding, her poems do address subjects which will be familiar to those involved in postcolonial debates. These subjects include travel between what was previously viewed as the colonial periphery and the metropolitan centre; the contemporary realities of migration; and a growing awareness of globalized and transnational formations.

Physical travel and journeys - be it from the Konarka temple to St Peter's (Italian Prayer), through the streets of Lahore (Mosque of Wazir Khan), or around the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans (The Sundarbans) - provide vivid settings for several poems. With acute attention to detail, Acharya depicts the various topographies and geographies of the outer world. The inner world and metaphysical journeys, through memory, dreams and emotions are, however, equally present. In Delayed Reaction, the memory of a childhood incident acts as the catalyst for an exploration of human emotions; the physical mass of a canyon, seemingly appearing and then disappearing in the mist (Bryce Canyon), provides an extended metaphor for the relationship between siblings which evolves over time: One moment appearing solid, unshakable / the next dissolving in the tenuous bond between brother and sister (14). In The Great Wall of China, a description of a tourist excursion stimulates a consideration of the intergenerational transmission of stories, the secrets [which] survive under the skin like viruses (18).

Collectively, the poems in the volume invite the reader to view the world from a fresh perspective - to see and to understand - and this is stressed by the two epigraphs, one by T.S. Eliot, the other by Marcel Proust. Notably, Midnight Stroll (In the Sabo Quarter of Ibadan), with its half-title for Jon H. Stallworthy, and Lives of Others (On the reading of the Bhagavad Gita) offer new insights as they rework and give a new poetic voice to existing texts. In other poems, specifically Aspects of Westonbirt Arboretum, with its obvious intertexts with Kipling's If ..., this is implicit. Yet it is in three poems which utilize contemporary events - Dispossessed, Kabul: 14th November 2001 (offering two perspectives, one male, one female, on the physical experience of the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan) and Beware (comprising a diptych of poems questioning how far the information revolution has actually increased knowledge) - that the reader is encouraged to see with Proustian new eyes the issues of the postcolonial world. In light of the recent Transatlantic Trends poll which revealed that 23% of Britons were anxious about immigration, the opening line of Dispossessed (We embarked on this pilgrimage / to the promised land beyond the treacherous seas [30]) is a timely plea for an understanding of the human stories behind the economic realities of migration.