Shanta Acharya


The startling discovery always of the moment –

Keats lost himself in a sparrow,
Whitman found himself in a leaf of grass.

In time everything is transformed –
the deepest ocean floor becomes the roof of the world.

A desert dreaming of its past incarnations
recalls cradling an ancient civilization.

Nothing is, especially the illusion of permanence.
Nature is always in a state of becoming something else.

To know your true self, seekers of enlightenment
have said we must learn to step outside ourselves –

feel the grandeur of the universe,
experience the suffering of all creatures.

Adrift in my world, searching for myself,
I stepped inside myself, met my many selves –

persons I could’ve been under different circumstances,
accusing me for not creating my chances.

Yet all the time I have been true to myself,
my art a way of seeing without distorting lenses –

the startling discovery always of the moment.

From What Survives Is the Singing to be published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, UK; 2020.


A state of mind that grows irrevocably,
seeds of grief sown in a past life, unknowingly –

difficult to be precise of its birth or origin,
bursting into a sapling, sucking all my energy,

spilling out of my skin, putting down roots,
spreading its branches like an ancient banyan tree.

I have been sitting under its shade since,
contemplating the world – nothing is as it seems.

I’ve stopped wondering if I’m alive,
or merely think I am. Nor do I worry about the sky –

how it feels during that in-between time when my fears
come home before the stars appear playing their symphony.

I can no longer find the map of my dreams.
It used to comfort me, my chador now frayed at its seams.

Everywhere I grow I have to find a world elsewhere,
learn to believe in rebirth, in what life could be.

Living in shadows I learn not to despair
left with an empire of empty promises.

From What Survives Is the Singing to be published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, UK; 2020.

(In The British Museum)

Meandering like a river
among the exhibits I encounter
Shiva and Parvati engrossed in each other,
holding the universe between their eyes.

Startled to find an offering of flowers,
nestling at their feet where
Nandi, Shiva’s bull, and Parvati’s lion
gaze bashfully at each other,
this statue from Orissa, the place of my birth,
carved between AD 1100-1300
on gleaming black schist demands my attention.

I am in the presence of God
conceived as a couple, male and female,
on the point of becoming One.

Over two centuries have elapsed
since the divine pair –
dressed lavishly in decorated loin cloths,
their naked bodies adorned with ornaments
earrings, necklaces, headdresses, anklets –

were taken from their home in an ornate temple,
perhaps in Bhubaneswar, the abode of gods,
where worshippers thronged for a darshan
offering gifts and prayers,
holding conversations with gods that began in
the temple and were carried on every day, everywhere.

Here the gods sit silently contemplating the world
and each other, oblivious of a broken-hearted believer.
Have you forgotten your daughter, how long must I suffer
alone buffeted by life’s crosswinds before I find shelter?

From Imagine: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins, India; 2017).


The gecko’s progress across the ceiling,
its scaly limbs defying gravity,
eyes fixed on its prize, hypnotised,
is matched by the speckled moth’s nervous
fluttering against the fluorescent bar light.

I too watch mesmerised, waiting for a taxi
to take me to the Siddhi Vinayak Temple.

The wild life programme on TV
hones in on a cheetah chasing a gazelle,
the cheetah swiftly walks away with its kill.

A neighbour’s dog barks drunkenly
as I walk past the entrance to a consumptive car.

Dark, sunken, famished eyes peer at me
behind the closed, tinted window screens
each time the car slows at traffic lights –
long enough for mother and child to gesture
for alms, palms rising in salaam.

When I hand out ten rupees, my car is
mobbed with a hundred hungry eyes.

Across the road a life-sized poster sells dreams.
An actor gazes enchanted into the eyes
of his beloved, lips barely touching.

In the temple an emaciated devotee
crawls across the tarmac penitent for his sins –
a caterpillar crossing from leaf to leaf,
declaring eternal hunger for His love and mercy.

I join the evening queue for darshan,
my hands laden with flowers, earthen lamp, offerings.

It is Divine hunger, this Creation…
I overhear a conversation about Darwin and evolution,
dark matter, origin of the universe, religion,
Einstein, Hadron Collider and the Magician,
the meaning of life, Higgs Boson,
in answer to the question: What is maya, illusion?

From Imagine: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins, India; 2017).

Shanta Acharya was born and educated in Cuttack, India. She won a scholarship to Oxford, and was among the first batch of women admitted to Worcester College. A recipient of the Violet Vaughan Morgan Fellowship, she was awarded the Doctor of Philosophy for her work on Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English and American Literature and Languages at Harvard University before joining an American investment bank in London. Founder of Poetry in the House, Shanta hosted a series of monthly poetry readings at Lauderdale House, Highgate, London, from 1996-2015.

The author of eleven books, her publications range from poetry, literary criticism and fiction to finance. Her poems, articles and reviews have appeared in major publications including Poetry Review, PN Review, The Spectator, Guardian Poem of the Week, The New European, Oxford Today, Agenda, Acumen, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Philosophy Now, Stand, Asia Literary Review, HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, Fulcrum, and Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond. Her latest publication is Imagine: New and Selected Poems published by HarperCollins, India, 2017. A new collection, What Survives Is the Singing is due out in 2020.

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