Looking In, Looking Out

Image of book cover for title Dreams That Spell The Light
Headland Publications, UK; 2005
ISBN Number
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Looking In, Looking Out is Shanta Acharya’s third collection of poems, representing work over a decade, deal with the elasticity of perception. From her various worlds arises poems about consciousness, of a sense of self; of ways in which identity is perceived in language that is lyrical, playful, ironical, meditative, mystical, moving – sometimes, all at the same time. The open-endedness of reality is explored, celebrated, mocked in poems that cover a wide range of subjects, from works of art to our notions of justice. 

Select Poems

At the Edge of the World
(After Anish Kapoor’s ‘Creations’ at the Hayward Gallery)

The queue outside is stretching
like an alley cat, waiting
to prowl inside the crowded gallery,
explore the plugged-holes at the centre
of walls and ceilings. Not enough time,
space for all to experience ways of defining It,
of lending shape, colour, sound, meaning.

Once inside, the world is turned upside down,
inside out, disoriented through double mirrors,
emptied of space funnelling into arupa,
untitled, leaving us newly-born, fearful of oblivion.

In the beginning (or is it the end?)
securing myself a discrete position,
I get sucked into my mother’s womb,
peering at deep, dark shrines of
my body, her body; our bodies
moving in rhythm to creations
at the vortex, doubly-inverted images,
when I become pregnant, making the world many.

We exchange according to our measure
the open-endedness of things; configuring
a nose, a breast, a man posing in his briefs?
Or something new waiting to be seen.

Imagination turns earth and stone into sky.
In the dark, polished hollow of a marble mummy,
a fleeting spirit appears. A twisting column of light,
I flicker before giving up the ghost
The Hour Glass
I lean out of your attic window,
a not-so-lithe gymnast in life's circus,
my legs balance on an unsteady ladder,
sometimes on your head and shoulder.

It was me who offered to count the missing tiles
on your roof; dealing with insurance claims
can make anyone feel lost. Floating in mid-air,
I am a pillar of strength as you mentally lean on me.
You suffer from vertigo; I have no fear of flying.

The velux window see-saws, reflects your face in
the clouds; you stand on edge, streamlined as a stalagmite,
on the spiralling staircase, steadying me with your touch.

This can't be love? I ask myself as I perch on your roof
surveying the texture of weather-beaten tiles with a field-glass.
I catch cats, birds, clouds, all independent creatures,
in my crystal cage instead of monkeys, peacocks, eagles,
and brightly coloured washing waving to the sun with
stranded paper kites stretched like bats on coconut trees.

I remember swinging in a garden on a roof-top in Orissa,
undulating as the green fields of rice; the concave blue sky,
divine hour glass, changing its features as I floated by.

Here we stand like soul-twins, houses semi-detached,
cemented in the middle by a wall of glass;
your hands connected to my feet as our glances cross over.
I climb down the ladder into the magnetic field of arms,
remove you further through the eyes of a binocular.
What You Don't Know
As a child you instinctively know
that there are things you don’t know;
you also know that you know of things
that the adults think you don’t know.

Growing up is a process of knowing,
of knowing that you don’t know;
acknowledging that others might know,
though they don’t know that you don’t know.

Wisdom comes when you can forget what you know,
when you know that parents, friends, lovers, well-wishers,
even your enemies, your best teachers, don’t know;
for what is worth knowing is what you don’t know.

Some people are born plain lucky;
they sail through life without knowing
that they don’t know, and not knowing
they don’t know what is worth knowing
protects them from a lifetime of unknowing.

For most of us there is a price to be paid,
most of us get damaged, more or less, in the process
and end up knowing what is not worth knowing.
Batchelors Soup
I arrived here improvised, hesitant.
This is my life but I’m ignorant of the part.

I remain unaware of the script, unsure what the style is –
tragedy, comedy, miracle-play or puppetry?
It is poorly directed, difficult to decipher.
I make things up as I go along, being prompted
incorrectly to pull off stunts at the last minute.

I live in ignorance as I live in my skin,
there is none to question or to clarify the meaning.
I do my best under the circumstances.

I have to act without thinking, be eternally ready,
not unlike the trees outside my window, looking as if they
could do anything; put their hidden feet down, like flamingos
and take off to distant lands, green messengers of hope.

Inheriting forgiveness, the gift of forgetting, I emulate living
instinctively like any beast, bird or creeping, crawling thing.
I came here programmed with my karmic DNA.

I try not to lose the day through sorrow or apprehension,
or find myself in contemplation of what is not to be.
I empty the contents of life’s sachet into this fleeting present,
add passion to taste and a perfect cup of life is ready for me.
Dear Tech Support
Last year I upgraded Boyfriend 5.0 to Husband 1.0
and noticed a distinct slowdown in the performance
of the flower, jewellery and other network applications
that had operated flawlessly in the Boyfriend system.

Husband 1.0 has un-installed valuable programmes,
such as Romance 9.0, Night-out 6.0, Real Passion 10.0,
and automatically installed many undesirable programmes –
Cricket 5.0, Football 8.0 and News Eternal 9.0.
The Conversation programme no longer runs as before,
and House cleaning 4.0 simply crashes the system.

I’ve tried running the latest Nagging software,
adding a new welcome screen to our favourite settings;
examined all my folders, searched his documents
for evidence of infected files or commands
corrupting the Passion programme,
creative play centres and other functions.

The Husband 1.0 system has acquired a mind of its own.
It changes font colour when I paste kisses on it, where as
the Boyfriend system had positively puffed with satisfaction.
The outlook for messenger services has deteriorated,
access to weekly live-updates no longer excel
in their power and are never to the point.

I have viewed the automatic image utility function,
zooming in on dates and times of malfunctioning,
cross-referencing every word or programme
inserted, deleted; but cannot find any rhyme or reason.

What help can you provide, dear Tech Support, in restoring
Husband 1.0 to the default configuration of Boyfriend 5.0?
Dear Customer
Be realistic and not too critical, bear in mind
that Boyfriend 5.0 was an entertainment package
but Husband 1.0 is an operating system.
A whole new concept; they cannot be compared.

Try to enter the command C: I THOUGHT YOU LOVED ME
when you switch Husband 1.0 on next, then install Tears 6.6.
Husband 1.0 should automatically run the following applications:
Guilt 7.0, Flowers 5.0, Dinner-at-your-favourite-restaurant 3.0.
But remember, overuse of this application can cause Husband 1.0
to default to Grumpy Silence 2.0 or Happy Hour 4.0.

Note that Drinking Beer 6.0 is a disruptive programme,
generating Snoring Loudly files. DO NOT install
Mother-In-Law or another Boyfriend programme.
These are not supported applications and will crash Husband 1.0.
No amount of rebooting or repair can then restore the system.

It could also trigger Husband 1.0 to default to programme
Girlfriend 10.0 that runs dormant in the background.
It has been known to introduce potentially serious viruses
into the operating system. Husband 1.0 is a great programme,
but comes with limited memory; and has been known
to be rather slow in learning new applications.

You might consider buying additional software to enhance
system performance. Personally, I recommend Hot Food 4.0,
Single-Malt Scotch 5.0 supported by Black Satin Lingerie 6.0,
which have been credited with improved hardware performance.


Her growing mastery of idiom and an ability to express emotional states in images, which are not decorative, but convey a sense of touching vulnerability, is expressed in poems like “My Good Luck Home” where Shanta writes:  “Even Ganesha travels with me in my handbag, / to help me overcome obstacles in my adopted land.” Here Ganesha becomes a mascot, or something akin to a defensive pepper spray against muggers without his proverbial image as ‘remover of obstacles’ being desacralized.

Jaysinh Birjepatil, South Asian Review

The title of the book is both playful and serious. There is recurrent imagery throughout, underlying and enabling the themes of ‘looking in, looking out’: mirrors which reflect or distort, spectacles which can ‘correct’ vision, different kinds of light, windows. As one who was brought up on Tamil poetry, the title also reminds me of the two great categories fundamental to classical Sangam Tamil poetry: ‘akam’ and ‘puram’; the inner and the outer world of experience. Shanta Acharya has arranged the poems most artfully to reflect the themes of the inner and outer worlds.

Lakshmi Holmstrom, Kavya Bharati

It is not often that poems like these, deeply rooted in personal experience, become such a sharply observed and cohesive sequence of ‘meditations’, a poetry in which emotions are not merely recollected in tranquillity but are understood as part of an emerging pattern of perception about life’s journey. 

Dr Roger Pringle, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Shanta Acharya has an Upanishadic ability to see both sides of an issue and this is reflected in the title of her third collection, Looking In, Looking Out…. Windows are a recurring image in Acharya’s poetry. It is windows that allow one to ‘look in’ and to ‘look out’. The title poem, “Looking In, Looking Out,” ends with: “The mind’s windows are uniquely tainted. My thoughts/ dance feverishly on the stained-glass windows of my cathedral/ swooning like flies against walls that limit my explorations.”

Debjani Chatterjee, Confluence

The book begins with the tricky task of confronting pictures and objects d’art in galleries, and brings it off informatively: a Vermeer shows household implements on the table which, along with “The foot-warmer resting on the floor/ in one corner offer hints and guesses – nurture// with passion, a sensual aspect of her character. / Her attention is not lavished on the viewer.” (“The Milkmaid”)… She can be practical as in “The Art of Eating Fruits” which could go straight into a footie best-seller…

Michael Standen, Other Poetry

… there is a wide variety of poems in this collection that alternatively delight, move, or make you re-think as you absorb the complexity, sophistication and openness to experience in all its paradoxes and perplexity. … What you see and how you see, is something that the poet (and the person) turns inward, often with a healthy scepticism…. she is very conscious of veracity as something that could have multiple points because there can be different ways of looking at it.

Lakshmi Kannan, The Hindu


  1. South Asian Review (USA), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, 2006. By Jaysinh Birjepatil.
  2. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature (India) 2006. By Shyamala A Narayan.
  3. Samyukta (India), Vol VI, No 1, Jan 2006. “Assorted Delicacies.” By Dr Jayasree Ramakrishnan Nair.
  4. Envoi (UK), Number 144, 2006. By Rosemarie Bailey.
  5. Tears in the Fence (UK), Issue 43, 2006. By Ketaki Kushari Dyson.
  6. Other Poetry (UK), Series II, No 29, 2006. By Michael Standen.
  7. Wasafiri (UK), Vol. 21, No 1 March 2006. By Devon Campbell-Hall.
  8. The Hindu Literary Review (India), 5 Feb 2006. “Capturing life in all its hues.” By Lakshmi Kannan.
  9. The Book Review (India), January-February 2006. “Life as a Series of Windows.” By Usha Kishore.
  10. Kavya Bharati (India), Number 16, 2004. “The Inner And The Outer.” By Lakshmi Holmstrom.
  11. Confluence (UK), Vol 4, No 5, September- October 2005. “An Urban Poet, but with a wider international leaning.” By Debjani Chatterjee.
  12. Ambit (UK), Issue 182, Autumn 2005. By Judy Gahagan.