Never before in the history of Indian poetry in English has so much been happening. After the Jeet Thayil bonanza – an anthology that grew successively through three avatars taking in three continents – Sudeep Sen is planning one with HarperCollins and Bhisham Berwani is collecting material too. Recently Agnes Lim was in Mumbai and Delhi interviewing poets, and Bloodaxe has brought out two contemporary Indian poets: Arundhathi Subramaniam and Arun Kolatkar. Subramaniam also runs the India domain of the Poetry International Web. Only someone who has decided not to read other people’s poetry could declare that poetry is dead.
Indian publishing seems to have decided that poetry isn’t quite such a drug on the market either. At hand are several books hot off the presses. There’s Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy’s Tonight This Savage Rite (Harper Collins, R399), making Nandy the second man to co-publish with the dead poet. The first was Suresh Kohli with Closure: Some Poems and a Conversation, (Harper Collins, R299). Kamala Soraya must be having a grim chuckle. She has been out of print for several years now. DC Publishing, Kottayam, did poetry a great service when it brought out Only the Soul Knows How to Sing; Selections from Kamala Das in 1996, but then they let it go out of print. However Ravi DC says that they are planning to launch an e-version soon.
Manohar Shetty’s Personal Effects (Doosra Press, R250) was launched at the first Goa Arts and Literary Festival in December. It is marked by a genuine excitement about the language of English, a sly wit and a careful attention to what AS Byatt has called the thinginess of things. What would a strawberry say if it could speak? Or a rumour? How fare those idioms and phrases that Messrs Wren and Martin tried to instil into the heads of obdurate Indian schoolchildren? Here’s “The Guard Put in Harness”: Right as a trivet, he/Kept his powder dry for the/Fly in the ointment. Often you get the feeling that Shetty is working out a conceit, an elegant idea in the manner of the metaphysicals and the mannerists. Some of these work splendidly: there’s “Lice”, for instance with its splendid final couplet that transforms the poem. No, you’re going to have to read it for yourself.
Sampurna Chattarji’s second book of poems, Absent Muses (R250) has been published by Poetrywala, the English imprint of Hemant Divate’s Abhidhanantar, which has a somewhat idiosyncratic publishing history: both Dipalle Parmar and Vilas Sarang have had collections published here. Chattarji’s concerns range from the making of poetry to tatami mats. There is a new expansiveness here and the poems seem more ambitious than those of Sight May Strike You Blind.
Navayana, the Dalit publishing house run by S Anand, has several new poetry books that seem to take their design referents from Clearing House, the poets’ cooperative that threw up seven of the finest books of Indian poetry ever. Here’s Ms Militancy by Meena Kandasamy whose first book Touch (Peacock Books) had already marked her as a voice of power if not precision. Ms Militancy is a tough book to dislike even if one can sometimes be overwhelmed by the stridency of its tone. But a Dalit woman writing in English must probably face much more opposition from the Brahminical and nativist Indian discourse that always maintains that English poets don’t “get”India. And when she tells the self-proclaimed arbiters of morality and decency and religious practice where to get off in “Should You Take Offence…”, you want to stand up and cheer.
Because poetry doesn’t really need publishers. It needs listeners. A poet once told Arundhathi Subramaniam that he had stopped writing poetry once Nissim Ezekiel was claimed by Alzheimer’s disease. He said that he had lost his audience. That’s all poetry needs: an audience. Sometimes it is an audience of one; sometimes there are hundreds or thousands who read a poem. The books themselves crawl off the shelves, it is true, but that’s also because of the way poetry is force-fed to children in schools. That’s where poetry readings come in – a reminder of the bardic traditions in which this art was born, a time when it defined life itself; a moment of reconnection with the way the right words in the right order can rearrange the way in which we view our world. So 12 people sitting in a circle around a poem can mean a great deal of magic. Or at least a new lens with which to view the world.
By Jerry Pinto on February 04 2011 6.55am
Photos by GVK Nathan