Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, Edited by Jeet Thayil

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil, includes an eclectic, exciting and incredible anthology of poems by seventy-two poets from India and Indian diaspora. These voices that span the last fifty-five years includes works by all the major poets, (more familiar names) of Indian English including Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Agha Shahid Ali, AK Ramanujan, Arvind Krishan Mehrotra, Adil Jussawala, Keki Daruwala, Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamla Das and R. Parthasarthy. The collection also includes many younger poets and and many upcoming voices including Vikram Seth, Jeet Thayil, Ravi Shankar, Meena Alexander, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Kazim Ali, Daljit Nagra, among others.

The voices bring forth influences and feelings excavated, collected, cultivated, imported, ingrained or extracted from a rich and varied landscape of Indian heritage, culture, philosophy, religion and echoing the daily chaos and beauty of Indian existence. Diversity in temperament and tastes, rich colors and varied textures, aroma of spices, shingle of bangles, Hindu and sufi mysticism, Kamasutra or censored sexuality, chutnified or dignified English, free verse and sonnets, and a grand tour of modern and ancient world is served in this collection. Voices that are of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians, Indians, Americans, Britishers, and World citizens versify such that each poem both represents the local, particular idioms, icons and ideas and transcends these in creating literature that is human, universal, eternal.

Adil Jussawalla, perhaps speaks for every Indian writer, who spend his lifetime pursuing poetry in a country, where there is little reward for bards writing in this 'phoren' language, and whose English poets, are yet to be welcomed in international circuits, where a bad translation from another language gets more audience, than original writing in English from a poet born in India/non-Western countries:
"Bright sparks /
 on the international back-slapping circuit /
 are picking up prizes like static. //
 He's for the dark."

Arundhati Subramaniam, in a poem titled "To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn't Find Me Identifiably Indian" provides a succinct portrayal of both Western prejudice about who they consider is Indian and what is not, and the frustration of an Indian writer seeking to speak in this language about his or her complex existence that is not bound by what textbook definition proclaims to be his or her territory or ideology. The anthology also includes essays by Jeet Thayil, Bruce King and Arvind Krishan Melhotra. These essays provide insight into the life and work of few of the famous poets as well as the state of/ regard for English poetry writing in India. Similarly there are poetic tributes to the likes of Nissim Ezekiel and Agha Shahid Ali by poets touched and transformed by their work, and other poems that stake claim on English as language of expression, exile, migration, longing, learning and spirituality.

"Considerthefemalebodyyourmost /

suggests Rukmini Bhaya Nair, whereas

"You are no plagiarist of dusk. /
 Nothing in the sky equals itself."

writes Kazim Ali. At once, homage to a thirty century old tradition of Sanskrit verse form, shalokas, is made and in another poem, the limitlessness of possibilities is hinted at. The collection contains a large number of quotable lines, and startling sentences, each embedded in nicely sculpted lines and word images. Moreover, the collection includes works by poets who deserve way more attention than we have given them. Not many of us know of the poems by G. S. Sharat Chandra, who was once nominated for Pulitzer Prize. He writes:
'My good shoe has run away /
 with the tacks /
 of its slutty twin.'

Similarly Agha Shahid Ali is quite unknown in India. He, like G. S. Sharat Chandra has a prize named after him (by University of Utah). Shahid was a Kashmiri-American poet, best known for his Ghazals in English. He was devoted to the cause, and taught many Americans that this form of verse is not merely about rhyming couplets, but about rendering a lament that stretches the personal grief, till it becomes an umbrella over everyone who reads the poems.The collection does not contain any of his Ghazals, but his accessibility and depth is reflected in these lines I often quote from 'Stationery',
"The world is full of paper. /
 Write to me."

Works by Mamta Kalia, Leela Gandhi, Eunice de Souza, Kamla Das and others have an edge to them, a revolt against the Kaushalya-Sita-Sati-Savitri (ideal mother/housewife) image of Indian women, a celebration of contemporary movements in celebration of right and freedom of women. Eunice de Souza has lines like:
"'O Universal Lover /
 in a state of perpetual erection! /
 Let me too enter into /
 communion with the world /
 through thee.' "

and others like:
'It pays to be a poet. /
You don't have to pay prostitutes.'

Leela says:
"Our desire wanting we tried our love /
 and found it good enough without /
 this sex thing, this hip and lip thing. /
 Let other lovers sweat and grind, /
 our love's refined, raising virtues from necessity."

In a poem titled Brat, Mamta Kalia, has a daughter say:
"You, perhaps, were hardly proud /
 Of your creativity -- /
 Except for the comfort /
 That I looked like Papa /
 And not like the neighbour /
 Who shared our bathroom."

While Vivek Narayanan celebrates the vamp from silver screen in "Three Elegies for Silk Smitha", Arun Kolatkar picks an "Ogress" from a poverty-striken street and describes her
"has always been a kind /
 of an auxiliary mother, /
 semi-official nanny //
 and baby-bather-in-chief /
 to a whole chain of children /
 born to this street".

Reading the poems included in this collection helps us arrive at answers to our own quest in poetry, as well as in life. Jayanta Mahapatra, who is another pillar of Indian writing, usually keeps irony to minimum, but in a poem titled "The Quest" he says:
"Even computers begin to understand our castes and prejudices. /
 The voluptuous figures of women in stone  /
 only wish to save our feelings of love and freedom;"

While Nagra and Ezekiel provide glimpses of Indian English, countless lines, similes, metaphors and allusions scattered throughout the book emphasize the "Indian" (in English). Indian poets writing in English have had a few guiding lights in the subcontinent. The inimitable Nissim Ezekiel as a mentor, and the tireless P. Lal (Writers Workshop , Calcutta) as a publisher are two significant pillars. The anthology is a tribute to the lifelong struggles of these and other poets. Jeet has done a commendable job in compiling biographies, digging out unpublished and published poems from known and obscure sources and highlighting how poetry defies the artificial constraints and bounds of time, space, age, location and traditions. Philip Nikolayev, the editor of Fulcrum, who inspired the project, and everyone else who contributed to its completion deserve the gratitude of every Indian (especially of the poets). Other anthologies that deserve our gratitude include collections edited and/ or translated by AK Ramanujan and R. Parthasarthy.

I highly recommend this Bloodaxe anthology for its reach and range, and for a comprehensive and erudite introduction to Indian poetry in English. It includes most of the important poets born before 1975 (or as I jokingly tell myself, all poets older than me!), and provides exemplary poems about every imaginable theme and subject that poets and readers will remember and relish in years to come. I have often returned to the poems included there, and I have learned more about Indian poetry in English language from this book than most others.  I think the anthology should on the shelf of every Indian poet, irrespective of the language they write in. I will close this review with another set of memorable lines from Ranjit Hoskote, who in a poem titled "Ghalib in the Winter of the Great Revolt" writes:
"The friend, with a spy at his shoulder, writes back: /
 When did you become a poet of adjectives /
 roosting in the rafters of a broken house? /
 Ghalib, the owl must hide in the tamarind for now, /
 but the genie of havoc will go on furlough soon. /
 You say your ink-well is empty, but your dry quill /
 still claws at the fibers of the heart."

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