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To a boy in The Shadow Lines

- Amitav Ghosh’s preface to teen poet’s posthumous book

A collection of poems by a Class XI student is ready for release. Only the boy who always wanted to be a published poet is no more.

Rhiju Basak’s favourite author Amitav Ghosh had said he would seek his autograph one day, little knowing that he would be penning the preface to a compilation of his poetry to be released posthumously on what would have been the boy’s 18th birthday this Wednesday.

“There is something about Rhiju Basak’s poetry that reminds me of the young protagonist of my novel The Shadow Lines. It is strange to think that the two of them had walked the same streets and sat in the same classrooms. But their commonalities extend beyond the shared experiences of a Kolkata adolescence. There is something similar also in the nature of their response to their surroundings,” Ghosh writes in the preface to A Bunch of Lies.

La Martiniere student Rhiju’s body was found floating in the Rabindra Sarovar on February 10, two days after he went missing.

Rhiju was obsessed with poetry. He would translate his innermost thoughts into lines of poetry scribbled on the inside cover of his notebooks, or on torn, yellow scraps of paper tucked between the pages.

In The Shadow Lines, Ghosh’s unnamed narrator is an ordinary Bengali boy, happy to be the wallflower than the centrepiece. It’s his imagination, his mind’s eye that makes him out of the ordinary. Thus long before he visits London, he knows the city by heart, gleaned from his conversations with his beloved Ila and built up in his head, carefully, meticulously.

Much like Rhiju.

Author Ghosh writes: “It is evident that Rhiju was acutely aware of the poverty and suffering that he witnessed every day. Thus these lines of his poem A Cold Man: I walk through the city/Right through the middle of a death parade/Electric guitar hanging from my shoulder/I stop at a corpse lying on the ground...”

Rhiju’s mother Mitra said that publishing A Bunch of Lies was a promise she had made to her son. “He always wanted to get his poems published and I had promised him that we would do so after he completed Class XII. His death has taken away the joy of the occasion,” she told Metro.

Author Sunil Gangopadhyay will release the book at Oxford Bookstore.

Rhiju had chosen the title of the book, a collection of 100 poems, photographs, illustrations and certificates he had won at Don Bosco, Park Circus, and, later, La Martiniere for Boys.

One of the poems included in the book, Smile, was scribbled on the back of a photograph of his mother.

Mitra had contacted Ghosh’s family in Calcutta in August to request his presence at the book release. “I was told that he is in New York and won’t be visiting India before December. So I requested that he write a line for Rhiju’s book.”

Mitra mailed Ghosh later, repeating her request. “He promptly replied. He agreed to write the preface and asked me to send him a few of Rhiju’s poems,” she recounted.

Rhiju had attended a promotional event for the second book in Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy at Starmark, South City Mall, in June 2011. “While getting his copy of River of Smoke signed, Rhiju told the author that he wrote poetry. Ghosh replied that he would take Rhiju’s autograph when his book was published,” Mitra recalled.

Rhiju asked his mother later: “Will I go that far?”

Ghosh regrets not being able to have a longer conversation with Rhiju. “After reading Rhiju’s poems I am saddened that we could not speak at greater length: I know that we would have had a lot to talk about…It is evident from these poems that he had great promise.”

The poems in A Bunch of Lies have elements of sadness, death and darkness in them, and some of the titles in the collection such as Blood on the Concrete point to a mind that delved deeper than the average teenager would.

“His teachers would often ask him: you are such a cheerful person but why are your poems so dark?’,” said father Kajal. “Is it possible to understand the poet from his poetry?” Rhiju would respond.

The lines by the poet Dylan Thomas that Rhiju had pasted on his cupboard is the page mark his parents have chosen for A Bunch of Lies. It says: “My poetry is, or should be, useful to me for one reason: it is the record of my individual struggle from darkness towards some measure of light...”