Saturday, May 21, 2005

Somini Sengupta, the New York Times in house poet

Earlier this week, community member P.J. asked that we note Somini Sengupta, a "reporter" for the Times. (Sengupta was the reporter Usha alluded to when she noted that a Westernized view was being imposed on India coverage via pop-cultural refs and a Westernize lens.) As noted before at this site, P.J. has disclosed working for the Washington Post. So anyone who wants to defend Sengupta can feel free to dismiss the criticism as being invalid since it comes from someone working at a competing paper.

On Tuesday the Times ran "Dispute Tears at Mumbai: House the Rich, or the Poor?" -- an article by Sengupta. P.J. e-mailed that there was laughter at the Washington Post over Sengupta's latest "tone poem."

Consider it prose poetry when it runs in the paper, and it certainly is "stylish" -- one might even feel it's "ornate." But since the byline doesn't read "Doris Lessing" and since it's supposed to be reporting, hard news reporting, perhaps it's time that someone reigned in Sengupta's flourishes?

Here's the first paragraph (in poetry form):

In the belly of this island city,
The textile mills are overrun by weeds
And their chimneys point at the sky
Like so many sooty elephant snoots.
A glassy new high-rise
Glistens incongrously nearby.
A construction crane
Peers over a giant crater
Where a mill has been demolished
To make way
For four
Luxury apartment towers.

That's only the first paragraph. We'll note another section:

Will it
Remain a magnent
For strivers from the countryside?
Will it
Be able to draw
Foreign investment?
Will it
Stand out
As India's global city?

What logically follows that? "Here's what she said to me/ Que Sera Sera . . ." (Note: The song "Que Sera Sera" was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.)

Does Sengupta's writing not resemble the half-baked poetry of Diane Keaton's Luna in Sleeper?

Or should that read:

Does Sengupta's writing
Not resemble
The half-baked poetry
Of Diane Keaton's Luna
In Sleeper?

Today, Somini Sengupat has a co-poet assisting, Slaman Masood. Together they create the tone poem that is "Guantanamo Comes to Define U.S. to Muslims." From the tone poem:

In one of Pakistan's
Most exclusive private schools for boys,
The annual play
This year
Was "Guantanamo,"
A docu-drama
Based on testimonies of prisoners
In Gunatnamo Bay,
The United States naval base
In Cuba.

The cast was made up
Of students between
16 and 18 years old,
Each playing the role
Of a prisoner
Being held on
Suspicion of terrorism.
To deepen their understanding
Of their characters,
The boys pored
Through articles in Pakistani newspapers,
Studied the international press
And surfed Web sites,
Including one
That described itself
As a nonsecretarian
Human rights portal
And is called

We touched on Segumpta's fondness for tone poems in "Clubbing With The New York Times:"

Moving on. You realize you've hit the frou-frou, chi-chi, upscale club scene as you hear Somini Sengupta work in the word "ennui" while doing a poor job of concealing a self-satisfied smirk. (The headline writer merely apes her lead with "Fear, Ennui and Doubt Underlie Calm in Nepal's Capital").
Sengupta, baby, stick to the art galleries when trying to score with impressive vocab, okay? Striving for tome poem, but coming off like fourth rate Cole Porter ["Come to the Supermarket (In Old Peking)"], Sengupta offers such passages as:
On a recent Sunday afternoon,
as the market women
sat on their haunches hawking cabbages,
and the riot police
milled about
with eyes darting this way and that,
Nepalis revolting
against their king's emergency rule decree
straggled up the narrow alleys
in ones and twos.
Walk on. Walk

As an essayist, she might (or might not) have talent. As someone that's supposed to delivering the hard news, her stylistic flourishes are detracting from the subject of the supposed report.

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