Revisiting 'Indian' poetry


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Revisiting 'Indian' poetry

Gargi Gupta / New Delhi September 26, 2008, 0:40 IST

Anthologies are important things. They are the first step in forming a “canon”, the process of sifting the good-but-not-greats from the true greats who will be read by people a hundred years from now. Which is one reason why Jeet Thayil’s 60 Indian Poets is so welcome (the only other exercise of this nature is the Vinay Dharwadker and A K Ramanujan-edited The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry, 1995).

Anthologies are especially important when it comes to emergent literatures where the process of selection becomes a way of forming identity. Not that Indian poetry in English is exactly an emergent category, whatever Thayil may say about English still being looked upon as “a vestigial implement of India’s colonial legacy”. Even if one doesn’t hark back to Toru Dutt and Rabindranath Tagore in the late 1900s, there’s still Nissim Ezekiel whose first, and most path-breaking, efforts date back to the 1950s, and Dom Moraes, writing in the 1960s. But even a good century of literary tradition does not amount to much because unlike prose fiction, which has flowered into some diversity and maturity on the backs of fat pre-publication advances and growing readership, not too many Indians have taken to writing poetry in English.

Which brings me to the second, more important, reason why Thayil’s anthology is so commendable. To wit, that it’s no mean achievement putting together between the covers of a single volume sixty poets — not just much-anthologised masters like Ezekiel, Moraes, Adil Jussawala and Arun Kolatkar, but also younger poets like Tishani Doshi and Aimee Nezhukumatathil with only one or a few published works against their names. Further, Thayil must be complimented for hunting out copyright holders and reprinting many poems, even well-known ones which have long been out of print and can only be found on the shelves of university libraries. It’s sad, in this regard, that Thayil had to leave out Aga Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri poet who wrote cryingly beautiful about a lost paradise from his self-exile in New York.

Anthologies are also a great way to resurrect forgotten talent. Thayil includes a few of these in his roster, most notably, Gopal Honnalgere (1942-2003), an enigmatic figure whose trenchant wit still shines through “How to Tame a New Pair of Chappals” — “don’t leave them together/ don’t allow them to talk to each other/ they may form a trade union...” — and Lawrence Bantleman (1942-1995), who published four books of poetry before he was 30 and then “emigrated to Canada and vanished so effectively that none of his acquaintances knew what became of him”.

Thayil does not restrict himself to Indian nationals alone, but throws open his net to include all those born in India, or to Indian parents or grandparents, and now living in Denmark, France, China, Canada, Australia, the US and UK. “Indian poetry, wherever its writers are based, should really be seen as one body of work,” Thayil argues in his preface, which he aptly titles, “One Language, Separated by the Sea”.

In the process, Thayil brings to light some really exciting voices among this, mostly younger, lot. Srikanth Reddy, 35, is one such. Born to Andhra doctor parents who emigrated to the US, and now “Moody Poet-in-Residence” at the University of Chicago, he seems to have broken out of the post-modernist, quasi-Eliotesque, very urban mode that characterised the “Bombay poets” who followed Ezekiel in favour of a language that is more spare and an imagination that draws upon a “strange array of imagined source materials, outdated school books, whimsical instruction manuals, stray pages from sacred texts”. “Fundamentals of Esperato”, Reddy’s long poem, is a good example of his curious verses, which seem to defy most accepted norms of prosody: “The grammatical rules of his language can be learned in one sitting./ Nounds have no gender & end in — o; the plural terminates in — oj (pronounced — oy) & the accusative, — on (plural — ojn)….” And so on…

Which brings one to the vexed question: Is there something intrinsically Indian about this poetry? Thayil doesn’t really answer the question, except for making one, very important point: that poets like Henry Louis Derozio, and after him Ezekiel and Kolatkar, were forging a new language, drawn from the way they heard people around them talk, the kind that goes:

“I am standing for peace and non-violence/ Why world is fighting fighting/ Why all people of world/ Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,/ I am simply nor understanding….” (“The Patriot”, Ezekiel)

But is that definition enough?


Edited By Jeet Thayil

Rs 499; Pages 414



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