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Contemporary Indian poetry in English.

Regular readers of World Literature Today will have noticed the infrequency with which Indian books from one of the twenty or so major regional languages are reviewed; only occasionally do reviews appear of work translated from those major, though multiply fragmented, Indian cultural resources. Instead, India is represented here, as elsewhere abroad, almost solely by Indian English writing. Unlike Caribbean or African literatures, however, those flourishing in India are not consistently written in some postcolonial language, some form or other of Arabic, English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese. Given that publications in Indian English account for less than half the total print production and that Hindi dominates the centrally controlled radio and television, criticism from abroad, as indeed in India, deals at best sketchily with the full range of contemporary Indian literary and oral culture. Accurate, if not full, representation would require a minimal sampling of fiction, poetry, and belles lettres in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Urdu. Fullness would require sampling also Punjabi, Oriya, Assamese, Sanskrit, and several other Hindi-related tongues like Bhojpuri or Maithili, together with some indication of work done in the major tribal languages, especially from the Northeast, for at least thirty-three indigenous languages are each used by over a million of the now nearly one billion Indians. Though probably sixty percent of Indians are unable to read any of the dozen or so different alphabets, ignorance of poetry is mitigated by frequent oral recitations, not merely at regional-language educational and religious festivals but at ordinary political and social events as well. The bimonthly journal of the national literary academy, Indian Literature, still attempts annually a critical survey in Indian English of the year's work in the twenty or so major languages; a double issue in 1980, entitled "Indian Poetry Today," included English-translated poems from nineteen regional languages plus an "Indo-English" selection. WLT surely cannot aspire to such full reviewing, but at least in treating Indian English, it can indicate for interested but uninformed readers the peculiar circumstances for that narrowly selective part of Indian literary production.

Though the percentages are several times higher in the largest cosmopolitan centers--Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad--perhaps only three or four percent of Indians (close to twenty-five million persons concentrated in the larger urban centers) speak English with some fluency. Over ninety-five percent of that group use it as a second language, preponderantly for practical professional purposes: in science, the law, engineering and higher technology, international or interstate commerce, academe. Since eight percent of Indian youth now seek higher education, where English is commonly the medium of instruction, that academic use looms especially large in the culture, and more and more children of the upper classes (say, the fifteen percent of households which pay income tax) go at an early age to English-medium schools. Thus, when Indian English is used for literary purposes, particularly for poetry, the writer is generally not writing in a language spoken in the kitchen, nursery, or bedroom, certainly not at the temple or on the street or in the fields. Thus, unlike a poet in English-dominant cultures, an Indian English poet is stretching his or her linguistic resources (and those of his indigenous readers) far beyond what is enlisted in their common everday life; in America the reading of Shakespeare by nonspecialists makes comparable demands.

It was, therefore, crucial historically that almost all the postcolonial Indian English poets who first achieved some recognition in India live in the two or three major metropolitan centers. There, amid a cosmopolitan melange of people and tongues, a large coterie--usually academic or otherwise professional, many in advertising, publicity, or mass-media work--speaks Indian English regularly outside the home and is available to support poetry writing and societies. Through extensive stays in Britain or, especially in the two more recent decades, in America (the U.S. or Canada), a large proportion of the best-known poets have undergone supplemental saturation experiences with English where it is the surrounding culture's common language. It is also a significant fact that, unlike most published poets in America, the professional work of Indian English poets does not involve teaching contemporary poetry and poetry writing, and if they are teachers in college or university English departments, as several are, the prescribed syllabus of British and American poetry is slight; Indian English poetry only very recently was admitted as good enough and, indeed, uniquely useful for advanced linguistic and cultural study. Even for a postgraduate (M.A.) degree in English literature--still considered almost a requisite preparation for passing exams for prestigious Indian administrative positions--students read in poetry only the major anthology pieces by the top twenty or so British and American poets. For example, Advanced College Poems (Oxford University Press, 1989), designed for those studying English as a language through the B.A. or B.Comm. courses, includes sixteen poems; an even more traditional list of twenty poems, from Shakespeare's "All the World's a Stage" and Gray's "Elegy..." to Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," was published by Orient Longman the year before, also "specially prepared for undergraduate general English comes . . . with detailed explanatory notes and an exhaustive vocabulary geared to the students' linguistic ability." One result of the marginality of Indian English poetry in its own culture (and much more so abroad) is that realistically or practically there is little opportunity or motivation to be very productive. Only a few poets write or publish regularly, and only quite recently have three or four new, well-edited, and selective poetry journals and chapbook series appeared to supplement the seventeen-year-old New Poetry in India series sponsored by Oxford University Press. Several other, usually irregularly issued indigenous poetry journals and publishers' (or independent poets') series are now mostly defunct, suffering from general failures of distribution and the failure of occasional readers or libraries to subscribe or purchase.

A more qualitative consequence of this situation is the critical cliche that Indian English verses quite often "smell of the lamp." That is to say, an academic and exaggeratedly intraliterary, often imitative or derivative, quality constitutes a distinct hazard avoided by only the most accomplished Indian English poets. Narrowly trained in English poetry, both writers and readers enjoy, accept, and expect that Indian English poetry sound recognizably like the little that they have already experienced. Furthermore, critics and even the poets themselves have repeatedly complained that Indian English poetry is thematically isolated, alienated from the cultural mainstream, written from an "ivory tower" that is politically and socially irresponsive, if not irresponsible. Again, part of the reason is a tradition-bound expectation that poetry be removed from daily life and reach for sublime feelings and truths. In addition, everyday critics and reviewers still assume, correctly for the many lesser practitioners, that fundamental linguistic difficulties--lexical, syntactic, rhythmic, even grammatical--need to be overcome by all those trying to write authentically Indian poetry in English. Especially "nativist" critics, those dedicated to regional-language literary cultures, still characterize the clearly Indian form of English as "the enemy's tongue," as if it were unchanged from the language inherited from and impregnated with British colonial oppression or, in more recent nativist analyses, with American or Eurocentric neo-imperialist values. Thus, Indian English is supposedly incapable of authentically representing Indian experience, except perhaps that of a tiny, alienated Anglophilic minority. Meanwhile, most present-day regional-language poetry tends to be conservative, employing traditional patterns and themes and formulaic diction with hardly perceivable contemporary touches, or else it strains toward a violent modernism, for few have achieved postmodern colloquial easiness with free verse.

A nonspecialist foreign critic possessed of a little basic information and writing about Indian English poetry, say, for the TLS or, if it were ever to occur, the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books, all too easily begins with elementary questions of the Indian English poet's linguistic competence. Most Indian critics support this perspective of supposed outside experts in English and, like them, go on to focus almost exclusively on issues of authenticity and thematics, ultimately seeking an undefinable "Indianness" of content and attitude. Critical reviews rarely examine a poet's personal techniques, such as skill in bending the ordinarily quite bureaucratized Indian English language. Indeed, individual styles, including distinctive influences from each poet's surrounding cultural environment of regional-language literature or from classical Indian traditions, are scarcely discernible except among a very few poets. Again, a vexed relationship between tradition and individual talent, including considerable confusion introduced by academic reverence for T. S. Eliot's theory, impinges on Indian English critics and poets alike, resulting in their valorizing tradition, myth, and legend, while minimizing individuality, creativity, and a personal rather than a group consciousness.

In consequence, considerable importance and often intense controversy have over the years surrounded the selection of the top-ranking Indian English poets for national anthologies, usually edited by one of the poets themselves and destined for academic use or at least read largely from an academic perspective. An amusing, if media-hyped report by Sunaina Lowe of supposedly vindictive poet-editors' anthology choices and their targets' ripostes appeared with cartoon caricatures of the pugilistic combatants in the August 1982 Imprint. Four recent anthologies, however--by Vilas Sarang for Orient Longman (1989), by K. Ayyappa Paniker for the Sahitya Akademi (1991), by Arvind Mehrotra for Oxford University Press (1992), and by Makarand Paranjape for Macmillan (1993)--have generally avoided similar slanderings by following, on the whole, now well-established lines with only one or two eccentric omissions and unconventional new choices. Examining anthologies by provincially based poets which heavily emphasize obscure minor poets of a particular region(1) reveals that, indeed, the second rank of performance is distinctly inferior, with much of the work being nearly worthless. Thus, exactly as provincial poets have long complained, the poetry publishing scene in India has been not only highly centralized in Bombay, with New Delhi and Calcutta recently gaining stronger importance, but it is also very narrowly limited, sharply hierarchical, prone to self-publication, and liable to exceedingly poor national distribution and biased selectivity. Still, that the Indian English literary scene is supportive of only a dozen or so mostly cosmopolitan, well-anthologized poets seems more critically justifiable than if, for instance, such an evaluative situation eliminated all but a few of the hundreds of highly skilled, sometimes well-individuated, contemporary American academic poets.

Given this cultural, literary, and linguistic context as well as widely deplored critical failures of responsibility, sensitivity, and judgment, what criteria would be appropriate and just for judging contemporary Indian English poetry? Should the criteria exhibit the perspective of the operative indigenous cultural context? That is, should criticism be concerned with the geographically if not socially varied, preeminently multiculturally mixed Indian English interpretive community in which this poetry must ordinarily succeed or fail? Without a doubt, the better Indian English poets have attempted to break out of the parochial, elitist, and academic boxes created by their hypereducated high-class audiences and by their own ordinarily also narrow experience. Rather than pursue the conventional kinds of esthetically and emotionally esoteric poetry long revered in Indian traditions, they have espoused, for the most part, a modern poetics, but not necessarily one committed to other Western values, like individualism or progressivism. Perhaps the most influential of all these poets, Nissim Ezekiel, has fairly directly addressed imminent civic and moral and personal concerns, on the somewhat abstract model of British "Movement" poets of the 1950s, only occasionally with an identifiably Indian or postcolonial perspective.(2) Perhaps the most unreservedly British-seeming of these poets, however, is Dom Moraes, until middle age a U.K. resident and youthful prizewinner, but after returning to Bombay and later to a looser form of poetry, he essayed, besides his usual Eurocentric mythologies, those of Sri Lanka and other poems with distinct national, regional, or Bombay concerns.(3) A number of self-exiled or expatriate Indian English poets have lived mainly in the United States: e.g., off and on, Shiv K. Kumar;(4) or the late A. K. Ramanujan(5) for thirty years; or, more recently, R. Parthasarathy, the first widely successful anthologist;(6) and, fairly briefly, Dilip Chitre and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (who have also, as translators, mined medieval Marathi and ancient Prakrit poets respectively);(7) as well as two somewhat younger emigres, Meena Alexander and Aga Shahid Ali.(8) Each of the latter two, as well as several other emigres with lesser talents, like Darius Cooper, Uma Parameswaran, or the older G. S. Sharat Chandra, has explored his or her particular Indian cultural and family background and alienated psyche using traditionally concrete modernist techniques and a distinctly "international" (i.e., American) perspective.

Still, there are many Indian English poets who, usually without being intimately confessional, seem committed to drawing their poetry from distinctly nonalienated Indian sources. They have often forged their verse from Indian history, legend, and myth; besides the two translators just mentioned, several others stand out as most successful. Though a heritage Parsi, a role he explores in only two or three poems, Keki Daruwalla has drawn heavily on the harsh geography and the often violent Muslim and Mughal past and rituals of North India, where he was long stationed in the Indian police forces.(9) Less brilliantly, but with sharp details and convincing emotion, Man Mohan Singh has mined his Punjabi childhood village experiences to good poetic effect.(10) From his Cuttack home Jayanta Mahapatra draws on not only his Orissan landscape, culture, and family background but also ancient Indian myths and legends, for example, confabulating his second long poem, Relationship,(11) with the nearby thirteenth-century Sun Temple at Konarka. In 1981 the Sahitya Akademi for the first time awarded its annual prize in Indian English literature to a poet, convinced at last by this poem of Mahapatra's that authentically Indian work could be done in that once-alien medium. Gieve Patel, another avowed heritage Parsi, is also recognizably Indian English, at least in his many specific poems that use the autobiographical perspective of a physician working in the Bombay slums.(12) Both Kamala Das and Imtiaz Dharker, as well as still younger feminist poets like Charmayne D'Souza and some other women noted below, clearly reveal their particular indigenous circumstances in dealing with the peculiar oppressions of women in India, whether among Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, or supposed secular sophisticates.(13) Totally satisfactory results are predictably rare when poets try to comment directly on current Indian events: the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, the Bhopal chemical-cloud tragedy, even the endemic horrors of destitution, as Jayanta Mahapatra, generally a highly personal meditative poet, has attempted in Dispossessed Nests: The 1984 Poems; he was more successful, as also less journalistic, in his lengthy Temple, drawing on an impoverished octogenarian woman's suicide, and in many poems from his latest collection, The Whiteness of Bone.(14) Only Arun Kolatkar, a bilingual poet in Marathi, has written a long poem (really a sequence of short lyrics) that could conceivably be called popular within the limited potential readership; first published almost twenty years ago and at least twice reprinted, it traces a modernized youth's ironic pilgrimage to a famous Hindu temple at Jejuri in the mountains near Bombay.(15)

Seeking current relevance and modernistic liveliness, Kolatkar famously attempted to put Bombay criminal argot into a few of his Indian English poems (possibly translated from his Marathi poems), and others less talented than Salman Rushdie--e.g., Makarand Paranjape--or more obscurely difficult--e.g., the earlier Adil Jussawalla(16)--have experimented in poetry with urban or collegiate slang. Nevertheless, the kind of colloquial ease which marks later twentieth-century American poetry should perhaps not be demanded in order to admire what is most distinctive of contemporary Indian English poetry. For one thing, the general Indian esthetic continues to expect poetry to use a special high register of language and feeling, subject and expression, even when it is "modernistic"--that is, very internal and symbolic-imagistic--so that it often comes across initially, especially to outsiders, as "romantic" or even sentimental, rather exaggerated in technique and tone, as is readily apparent in Mahapatra's early work. Notwithstanding this caution, most of the Indian English poetry one sees nowadays has a natural-seeming, everyday poise, from Vikram Seth's joking-poking rhymes(17) and the prosaic-ironic self-and-society castigations of other young or youngish poets like Menka Shivdasani,(18) Tara Patel,(19) or Saleem Peeradina,(20) to the perhaps more complex work of the older generation of poets like Eunice de Souza(21) and the others mentioned above.

Similarly, the common Western critics' demand that each poet demonstrate an individual voice may also need to be modified for the Indian writer and reader, in part because, again, their society generally does not value or even define individuality in the West European way. It is difficult to overemphasize the pressure of tradition in Indian culture, so much so that a poet is frequently enjoyed more for imitating a recognizable style or conventional thought than for the wit, imagination, and/or originality of the writing. However, just because "anxiety of influence" has rarely troubled these writers in a Western way, critics should not therefore helplessly approve the crudely derivative pastiches regularly heard in second-rate Indian English poetry, echoing T. S. Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, Frost, or any other supposedly authoritative poet from Shakespeare and Milton to Allen Ginsberg, or even, quite recently, their own countrymen, Jayanta Mahapatra and Nissim Ezekiel!

Rather than a personal voice, in reading an Indian English poem one may dimly sense and want to understand better a whole literary world lying behind it, or at least it may seem that some special poetic style or other is being used, but not necessarily one recognized outside India. Yet the requisite knowledge--for example, of how India's many, relatively conservative regional-language literary traditions may now be operating in contemporary poetry--cannot readily be assumed among either poets or critics, whether using Indian English or not. The consequence is, as so astute a foreign observer as Syd. C. Harrex has noted, that readers--I would emphasize whether Indian or foreign--may "detect a special Indian nuance when it isn't there or miss one when it is."(22) For example, though the figure appears repeatedly in two long poems by Jayanta Mahapatra, I have found no Indian critic able to identify "the golden deer," which, among other, more narrowly localized possibilities, may draw on Buddhist doctrine (the fire sermon was delivered in a deer park) or, with quite different and ambiguous meanings, on the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, where Sita is seduced from her charmed protective circle by golden deer.

Most foreign critics and many foreign-trained Indian ones tend to ignore these issues concerning the cultural context of contemporary Indian English poetry and to impose or assume Western literary values irrelevant to the authorship or the predominant readership of this body of work. Using an internationally based medium that is more flexible, one that has a developed modern tradition and is more widely read (in India as well as abroad) than poetry in their mother tongue, Indian English poets have composed a diverse body of work, but is the effectiveness of any piece to be determined only by so-called international terms? Harrex's caution cannot be ignored, as, for example, when one reads the Browningesque dramatic poems of Keki Daruwalla and wonders whether his many hawk poems and motifs should be related to Hopkins's "Windhover," Ted Hughes's "Hawks Roosting," or (and?) the Mughal and later maharajas' traditional sport of falconry. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of Indian English poetry readers reside, after all, in India, not abroad; even though scattered throughout the many multicultural states, they do not represent demographically the nation as a whole, and certainly do not constitute a single idealized interpretive community with a unified esthetic perspective. The highly specialized Indian audience for Indian English poetry, for the most part, is academically but narrowly trained in the language and related literatures and comes from a politically dominating cultural elite that is also undeniably isolated socially, complacently overprivileged, and willing to exploit its neocolonialist power for consumerist values not sharable with eighty percent of the people, the poverty-impacted agricultural majority living in small villages.

Individual members of that audience may have adopted or are sympathetic with an ethos that transcends their class psychology, bias, and interests, but few can be expected to live as self-sacrificing social reformers. India, as a so-called "developing nation," is nevertheless straining intermittently and erratically toward economic and democratic institutions that give voice and power to all sections of society; the most visible struggles are those to accommodate oppressed minorities--women, Muslims, Sikhs, tribals, and outcastes--within an overwhelmingly caste-Hindu, male-dominated culture. By developing its capacities for cultural criticism, Indian literature, even poetry, which fortunately is still commonly revered in the general culture, must serve a primarily social, even political function. It is and must be more than an entertaining diversion or interesting social and personal revelations, must go beyond conserving cultural values, building a national consciousness or offering visionary alternatives, for a crucially important function is to provide concrete cultural critiques for a society undergoing rapid changes that threaten both its diversity and its unity.

Still, an esthetic emphasizing social responsibility runs exactly counter to the long-standing, widely revered Indian literary and critical tradition, which emphasizes, in conventional Hindu religious terms, the transcendental quality of poetry, its capacity to express or induce the nine classically defined esthetic emotions and, at its best, to achieve a supreme mystical state of bliss, overarching and generally ignoring everyday concerns. Thus, despite general parallels, the estheticism of most twentieth-century Western critical perspectives--current theory and varieties of deconstruction, structuralism, mythicism, and New Criticism, but not the Marxian, the feminist, the ethnocentrist, and the neohistoricist--accords only very slightly with the mainstream classical Indian critical tradition and not at all with the contemporary cultural and social situation. A recent revivalist bent among Indian critics, allied, however reluctantly, with the current Hindu nationalist fanaticism, has also sought principled sustenance in regional literary traditions. Yet current research reveals that critical theories have for centuries been largely absent from regional literatures, even classical Sanskritic roots being forgotten or ignored there.(23) "Nativism," the accepted term for a regionally based cultural bias that might in theory seem critically promising, thus has in fact little to build upon beyond recent, admittedly splintered and diminished literary practice in the regional languages, or else rather irrelevant ancient Sanskritic or Western modernist/postmodern criticism.

In this critically disintegrated and democratically threatened cultural context, what is required, it seems, is a flexible and inclusive perspective, particularly with regard to potentially powerful, nationally privileged Indian English literary products. Even though contemporary poetry may appear a minor cultural genre in the West, where television and other print media eclipse its ancient oral influence, in India, still a largely nonliterate, perhaps soon a postliterate, civilization, poetry still has an authoritative place as an instrument of cultural expression. Even though that status does not regularly accrue to Indian English poetry by virtue of its demographically limited readership and the preponderantly elitist, alienated attitudes of its practitioners, still something of the traditional reverential attitude remains for these recent linguistic products composed in the single tongue learned and practiced throughout the socially dominating classes of the nation. It behooves those concerned about this nation, straggling toward democratic liberalism and soon to be the most populous country on earth, to attend to the poetry of its ruling elite insofar as it reveals a variety of perspectives on the current and future course of Indian society.

Having already listed a wide selection of the presently most valued Indian English poets, this survey can best demonstrate their interest and worth by focusing finally on three or four preeminent practitioners. Judging only from the attention they have received in their own country and abroad, one would immediately cite Nissim Ezekiel and Jayanta Mahapatra, adding possibly Professor P. Lal, an effective publicist, publisher, and translator (he would say "transcreator") of epic classics. However, to most contemporary tastes, Lal is a rather sentimental poet whose imagery and themes are exceedingly conservative, expressing, it may be said in his defense, the highly emotional esthetic of most Indian readers.(24) A heroic speech the poet himself selected from his 1975 long poem, The Man of Dharma & the Rasa of Silence, should suffice as illustration of a mode of Indian English writing widely practiced but not highly valued by the major Indian anthologists or journal editors.

"Born of the sun, my radiant child, Wrapped in yoga in the sun-tinted Shades of the cowdust hour near Kuruksetra, Armour-skinned son, dearest fruit of the Pleasures of virginal concupiscence, I am your mother, look at me. Fruit of the spear of the sun, Do not forsake me now, my eldest son."

(From "Karna and Kunti," Collected Poems, 161)

In the place of Professor Lal, one could set a more interesting, tough-minded poet of Indian life like Keki Daruwalla, mentioned before, or a more sophisticated, somewhat alienated one like A. K. Ramanujan. The latter spent most of his adult life as a professor of South Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago and was discovered and given a "genius grant" by the MacArthur Foundation in 1983; so his work has, no doubt, benefited greatly from the affluent resources of our English-dominant culture. Like many Indian expatriates, throughout his career he periodically returned to his home base in the Mysore area, and in 1976 he was awarded the Padma Shri by the government of India for his dedicated and delicate translations and folklore studies. Though his family language (and alphabet) was Tamil--and he has translated both ancient and medieval sacred (Vaisnavite) and erotic classics from that left-branching, agglutinative, punctuationless language--the regional language of his home in Mysore (Karnataka State) is Kannada. And though Kannada is also a pre-Sanskritic Dravidian tongue with its own alphabet, he has also translated poetry from this language copiously, most notably the tenth-to-twelfth-century Kannada free-verse vacanas to the god Siva.(25) Two examples, predictably, do not suggest the wide range of feelings and situations that these fine translations recapture, the first playing with Vaisnavite metaphysics, the second with erotic strangenesses, in order to revel in worldly plenitude.

It's true even I am you

even the unbearable hell of this world is you:

this being so what's the difference?

One may go to paradise and reach perfect joy

or go the other way and fall into hell

yet I being I even when I remember I am you I still fear hell:

lord in perpetual paradise let me be at your feet.

("Waxing and Waning," 3)(26)

Good woman, your waist is higher than your head, your face a stork, plucked and skinned, with a dagger for a beak, listen to me. If I take you in the front, your hump juts into my chest; if from the back it'll tickle me in odd places. So I'll not even try it. But come close anyway and let's touch side to side.

Chi, you're wicked. Get lost! You half-man! As creepers hang on only to the crook of a tree there are men who would love to hold this hunch of a body close, though nothing fits. Yet, you lecher, you ask for us sideways. What's so wrong with us, you ball, you bush of a man? Is a gentle hunchback type far worse than a cake of black beans?

(From "The Hunchback and the Dwarf: A Dialogue," st. 5-6)(27)

Ramanujan's own poems deal with negatings, often of previous selves: e.g., "Highway Stripper," "Moulting," or "Chicago Zen," which ends, "and watch / for the last / step that's never there." Those lines and their lineation suggest Ramanujan's urbane wit that marks these and other poems from Second Sight (1986), while earlier poems from The Striders and Relations achieve their more intense effects with precise imagery, compound verbal ambiguities, and especially with richly nostalgic memories of family life and lore in India, which by no means should be interpreted as uncritical of Hindu traditions and attitudes.

And who can say I do not bear, as I do his name, the spirit

of Great Grandfather, that still man, untimely witness, timeless eye,

perpetual outsider, watching as only husbands will

a suspense of nets vibrate under wife and enemy

with every move of hand or thigh: watching, watching, like some

spider-lover a pair of his Borneo specimens mate

in murder, make love with hate, or simply stalk a local fly.

(End of "The Hindoo: He Doesn't Hurt a Fly or a Spider Either")(28)

Tearing away from these addictive poems, we can recognize the greater historical importance of a more overtly moralistic poet, Nissim Ezekiel, a Bene Israel Jew educated with Muslims, Parsis, Christians, and Hindus in Bombay English-medium schools and now unable adequately to translate, much less compose, poems in the Marathi language that they all spoke and speak at home. After polishing his poetic craft in England for several years, Ezekiel returned to Bombay in the early 1950s, where he wrote:

The Indian landscape sears my eyes. I have become part of it To be observed by foreigners. They say that I am singular. Their letters overstate the case.

I have made my commitments now. This is one: to stay where I am, As others choose to give themselves In some remote and backward place. My backward place is where I am.

(Conclusion of "Background Casually")

Though stressing for semantic differentiation--the basis for English metricality--is quite alien to Indian languages, including, often confusingly, much Indian English, Ezekiel's incisive lines and thinking for two decades were generally, indeed rather abstractly, expressed within exceedingly strict metrical limits. This practice, however, offered a model of restraint and craftsmanship, an even-tempered poise of moral seriousness and good-humored sanity, for at least a generation of younger Bombay writers, who might otherwise have fallen into the exaggerations of attitude, feeling, and technique which commonly mar inept Indian English poetry. In a continuing line of love poems Ezekiel rarely, as Vilas Sarang has remarked, achieves insightful details, intense emotion, or uncliched thought, but many scenes of love and lust can be devastatingly effective if placed among his several kinds of social satire: "She gave me / six good reasons / for saying No, / and then / for no reason at all / dropped all her reasons / with her clothes" ("Passion Poems, IV: On Giving Reasons"). Evidently Ezekiel looks to sexual encounters to measure the limits of the liberal rationalism he reveres, just as he has written a number of hymns and prayers, again by no means always mocking.

I don't mind singing, though, thanksgiving and all that. It saves time to worship One [rather] than many.

To tempt God and seek to prove him is sheer folly. If that's what our fathers did, I'm sorry for them. I suspect they merely voiced a doubt or two, which our Psalmist exaggerates, as usual.

(Second half of "Latter Day Psalms, VII")

From poetry of statement like Ezekiel's--reprised most closely by Manohar Shetty(29)--we can shift radically to the darkly evocative meditative poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra. Coming to write Indian English poems only at age forty, Mahapatra has moved from the purposely obscure romantic mode of Swayamvara and Close the Sky, Ten by Ten (both 1970) through a long phase where ambiguously complex syntax, surreally linked imagery, and a fairly simple diction wove interior landscapes of weary confusion and unfocused yearning, sometimes associated with an idealized feminine presence (or, more probably, absence) that approaches ghostly or ghastly spirituality. Along the way, though a heritage Christian, he has caught burning moments and provocative images of the Hindu manners, thought, and ritual that flourish and decay around him. An oft-quoted example is unaccountably entitled "Taste for Tomorrow":

At Puri, the crows. The one wide street lolls out like a giant tongue.

Five faceless lepers move aside as a priest passes by.

And at the street's end the crowds thronging the temple door:

a huge holy flower swaying in the wind of great reasons.

Less visualizable scenes of thoughtful combat among evanescent feelings dominate his later work, with confusing evocations as in "Dust," which concludes:

This dust is the good eye which teaches its visions: the time when there's nobody home when you return, and museums are unable to see further than tomorrow, when the poor will float at the edges of the spirited sea-- as awakening outside my own life I watch the dust go down on its knees to clean my wasted house, to let me see where the light had wandered, among ashes, desk tops and sad trouser pockets, in the shadows on my son's lips and brow, inside the nets which had never made a catch, and back to darkness where the dust does not show those things that fumble still among our forgotten desires.

Despite characteristic questionings, "Harvest" seems less uncertain of itself, beginning: "What does my world say? / I follow the substance of my shadow / in the procession of light on the leaves; / and I watch myself, standing in shadow, / afraid to step out of it. / But then the sun comes down on me. // And I sit all alone, waiting / for my joys to come back. / Ah, the monarchy of the morning lily, / its eye narrow with love!" In especially the later poems from A Whiteness of Bone (1992) a more direct, confident, and economical voice rises from the usually oppressive, perhaps neurotically self-effacing, self-pitying, self-destructive situations, winning through lately to a new clarity and consequent strength without compromising the bleak vision. Various levels of social relevance are distinguishable as the poems work to become less obsessively self-absorbed, as assuredly in "Shadows," which needs to be seen whole.

Ash-white mists of mornings will soon turn dark against the heat. Peace. The earth-odour is a burden which one cannot lay down because there is no one to pick it up again. This longing for darkness, resenting its need that holds, like a frightened hare seeking the refuge of the woods. Yet the beating of the heart makes one impatient, one becomes a little child who is hurt not only by a word, but even by a short pause of indecision. Shadows will soon reach over and stroke the skin under the eyes. And opportunities are hampered by the hour, by fate. Warm dust rises. Even in sleep to recognize defeat, to let the arms do their useless tasks they have been doing, to refuse to lie to one's heart and call it peace.

(From A Whiteness of Bone, 14)

In that last line Mahapatra encapsulates perhaps the core motivation for his often rambling, complaining meditations. For comparison, Ezekiel decides, "All I want now / is the recognition of dilemma / and the quickest means of resolving it / within my limits" ("Transparently," CP, 150). Mahapatra too goes on experiencing pain, failure, futility, but resists resolution, asks rhetorically, "Which is the wisdom I could use?" ("A Death," Whiteness, 18), and draws out his poems, moods, moments, not seeking meaning or reason or light.

Just another morning, and my neighbor's wave of greeting is a gift, entering my body without reason or belief.

Love: let me not try to defend myself. If this love of mine is light, a grace, let it be unimportant and uninteresting to inspire me through the long way into nowhere, to tell them I am here.

(Ending of "Light," Whiteness, 20)

Like Ramanujan, Meena Alexander (b. 1951 in Allahabad) has spent most of her adult life outside her native India, which she has visited annually since adolescence. For the past dozen years she has lived in New York City, where she is now a professor of English literature (with a Ph.D. at twenty-one from Nottingham) in the City University graduate-studies program, occasionally teaching creative-writing classes. Unlike Mahapatra, therefore, she has enjoyed the many advantages of intensive and extensive experiences with English as the primary language around her and of advanced studies in the Amero-British poetic tradition, at least from Wordsworth to the present. However, among fellow Indian English poets, it is Mahapatra whom she recognizes as a major influence in her work, and she has written sensitively about his poetry, including poems to him and his wife. Unlike Ezekiel or Dom Moraes or Ramanujan and so many others wrestling with and absorbing the influences of Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Auden, Empson, and unlike Daruwalla, who, raised as the son of an English teacher, now contentedly harkens to still earlier British voices (and perhaps to Theodore Roethke), Mahapatra, taking cues, no doubt, wherever he could find them in his native Oriyan tradition, now, late in his career, seems to have incorporated into his intensely romantic outlook the cooler fruits of contemporary Amero-British poetic style from Wallace Stevens (with perhaps something of Yeats) forward. Of a distinctly younger, postmodern generation, Meena Alexander has almost from the start been able to explore the fertile possibilities for her poetry that are indicated not only by writers of international repute but also by her most successful Indian English precursors as well as by sophisticated contemporary criticism of postcolonialist writing, some of which she has written herself. Besides Mahapatra, Ezekiel early encouraged her, P. Lal first published her, and, no doubt, as a fellow expatriate in American academe, A. K. Ramanujan offered her a pattern, though he exploits his Hindu family heritage while she almost ignores her Syrian Christian roots. Familial and village mythologies similar to Ramanujan's underlie Alexander's two major poetic achievements: The Storm and Night-Scene, the Garden, poems evoking respectively the legend-laden life at her paternal and her maternal grandparents' ancestral homes in south-central Kerala.

It is almost as if in a meditation in a time of war we turned to pluck the strings of dusty lutes, the fallen harp surrendered its grace to our impenitent fingers, and the ancestral houses of our dead and these ceremonial motions of the damned healed us of ourselves, all exile ended, the faces in lamplight rejoicing.

(End of IV, "Returning Home," section 21, from Storm)

Beginning inevitably with modernistically obscure romantic self-imaginings, Alexander's manner has remained evocative, elusive, evolving, but a central principle in her work is the gift of place. As one of the most literally unhoused of postcolonial writers--or, one might say, multiply displaced and replaced--Alexander reveals throughout her mature work a repeated fixation on not only her two ancestral homes in Kerala but all manner of other spaces wherein human relationships can occur. Still, the gift of potential life within those spaces--wombs for human interaction, substantial bodies for inwardness, for imaginative consciousness--is never accepted without hesitation, reservation, for there seems always a holding back in consequence of feeling, and sometimes being, exiled from the source of light, from unqualified love, from limitless life. Some impetus for her at times breathless, breakneck frustrating pursuit of perception or insight, even of sheer phenomenological sensation, perhaps derives from Alexander's heady academic and writing career. It was begun in French among Arabic speakers, stalked into a nervous breakdown in a British university, brought to fruition at age twenty-six or so when, back for a few years teaching in India, she was interviewed as a promising poet in Mahapatra's literary journal, soon married an American Indologist and returned with him to Minneapolis, quickly settling in New York City. All along, while creating a bicultural family, she has thrown herself headlong into imaginative creative activity, amassing an impressively varied bibliography, including most recently a richly complex female immigrant artist's autobiography, Fault Lines, for the Feminist Press. In that book one recognizes how the revelation of intimate personal relationships is resisted not only because potentially distorting and oppressive of an intensely driven self, but also because they presumably could not express the hidden spirit seeking its own secret, if much broken, way.

The first of Alexander's poems ever chosen (by K. Ayyappa Paniker) for an Indian English anthology, "Sidi Syed's Architecture," appeared in House of a Thousand Doors (1988) and later in an Indian journal. The sixteenth-century architect brought to India to build palaces, mosques, and tombs for the great Mughal/Afghani emperors, Sidi Syed, is projected by Alexander as, like herself, "a man unhoused / yet architect of himself, / his genius still smouldering." Of the fifty-two lines, the opening and close will suggest Alexander's imaginative power, freedom, and circumstantiality. The poem begins with dissembling simplicity:

I sometimes wonder what he was like Sidi Syed, a small man come all the way from Abyssinia, his skin the colour of earth before the waters broke loose from the Sabarmati river. It was Ahmed's city then, in the year 1500. Loitering by the river he watched infants with blackened eyes swinging in their cradles, mothers with chapped hands laundering. He saw skins of cattle and deer laid out to dry on the sharp rocks; heard voices in them calling him, crying out as if home were nothing but this terrible hunger loosed between twin earths, one underfoot by the river bed, the other borne in the heart's hole.

[After becoming a successful architect--one guesses also the source for the architectural style that culminates in the Taj Mahal--Sidi Syed builds his own tomb.]

Was it for him this starry palm with vine on vine still tumbling, a tumult of delight struck from a stonecutter's hands? Fit elaboration of a man unhoused yet architect of himself, his genius still smouldering? The mosque was hollow though like a sungod's tomb; it tracked his hunger the madness of stretched skin still so close on those noisy river beds.

More than two earths offer their spaces to Meena Alexander's poetic architecture; so, as each opening constitutes a new consciousness of being, we can anticipate from her word-shaping imagination further starry "elaborations of a man unhoused."

Doubtless there will be still other poetries coming more directly from India as well. These too will continue reflecting the eclectic melange in every Indian English poet of his or her multiple cultural traditions, not merely the Greater and Lesser Hindu ones, so ancient and manifold, nor the other indigenous religious and cultural strains--Muslim, Sikh, Syrian Christian, Buddhist, Parsi with Mughal-Persian, Bene Israeli--but each of these religious heritages variously modified according to whatever the regional-language oral and literary traditions may do with them, together with the many powerful and varied, mostly secular, Western influences, which in turn are secularizing all those older indigenous forces working in their unique and often mysterious ways. Adhering to and adumbrating, re-creating and reinterpreting one another, these rich admixtures of thought and feeling, imaginative perception and mythic vision, will produce in the years ahead a confusing cacophony of voices with the many other Indian literatures in the other indigenous languages. Sorting out and selecting from these will remain a daunting task for concerned readers, especially without the critical construction of an appropriately discontinuous, dissonant critical understanding and multivalent appreciation of contemporary Indian poetries.


1 One of the better recent anthologies by a provincially based poet is Voices: Indian Poetry in English, collected largely from Orissan sources by a competent poet who has appeared in no other anthology, Niranjan Mohanty. Teaching English at Berhampur University in Orissa, Mohanty had earlier edited an overtly regional anthology, The Golden Voices: Poets from Orissa Writing in English (1986), and for almost two decades a biennial journal, Poetry, which is also quite uneven in its selections but measurably better than both Poetry Time and Poesie, issued irregularly from the same university. Another center for Indian English poets, though much of their stale, imitative, trivial production hardly qualifies as verse, has arisen at a provincial university in Amravati; there Professor O. P. Bhatnagar, another poet-editor-academic not highly respected outside his area, has emphasized culturally appropriate, nonelitist standards of clarity, humility, rationality, secularity, and sociopolitical relevance, apparently with little success, as his several mainly Hindi-belt anthologies, like Rising Columns: Some Indian Poets in English (1981), unfortunately indicate. One of the most egregious types of Indian English anthology issues from various world societies of poets, publishing otherwise unprintable writers from the U.S., the U.K., et cetera, to substantiate the pretentious claims of Indian versifiers; examples are East-West Winds (An International Anthology of Selected Poetry in English), edited by G. R. Krishna (Mangalore, 1982), and several by Krishna Srinivas, editor of Poet, a so-called "international" journal from Madras.

2 Nissim Ezekiel, Collected Poems 1952-1988, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989. Reviewed in WLT 64:2, p. 361.

3 Dom Moraes, Serendip, New Delhi, Viking, 1990 (reviewed in WLT 65:4, p. 769); see also Collected Poems 1957-1987, New Delhi, Penguin, 1987.

4 Shiv K. Kumar, Subterfuges, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1976; and Trapfalls in the Sky, Madras, Macmillan, 1986. See also the Kumar issue of the Journal of South Asian Literature, 25:2 (Summer-Fall 1990).

5 A. K. Ramanujan, Selected Poems, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1976; and Second Sight, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1986 (reviewed in WLT 61:2, p. 349).

6 R. Parthasarathy, Rough Passage, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1977; also Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, R. Parthasarathy, ed., New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1975/76.

7 Dilip Chitre, Traveling in a Cage, Bombay, Clearing House, 1976; and Says Tuka: Selected Poetry of Tukaram, New Delhi, Penguin, 1991. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Middle Earth, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1984 (includes selections from two earlier volumes); mad The Absent Traveler: Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satavahana Hala, New Delhi, Ravi Dayal, 1991. Since A. K. Ramanujan is among the best three or four Indian English poets, his celebrated translations from both Kannada and Tamil classics only diversify his reputation; less intensively, Jayanta Mahapatra has also translated considerable amounts of Oriya poetry, mainly contemporary, and has also lately ventured "into a strongly Oriya literary territory" with poems in his mother tongue.

8 Meena Alexander, House of a Thousand Doors, Washington, D.C., Three Continents, 1988 (reviewed in WLT 63:1, p. 163); The Storm, New York, Red Dust, 1989; and Night-Scene, the Garden, New York, Red Dust, 1992 (reviewed in WLT 67:2, p. 444). Agha Shahid Ali, The Half-Inch Himalayas, Middletown, Ct., Wesleyan University Press, 1987; and A Nostalgist's Map of America, New York, Norton, 1991.

9 See especially Keki N. Daruwalla, Crossing of Rivers, and The Keeper of the Dead (reissued together), New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1991; in the former book North Indian Hindu experience and narrative predominate.

10 Man Mohan Singh, Village Poems, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1982.

11 Jayanta Mahapatra, Relationship, Greenfield Center, N.Y., Greenfield Review, 1980; and Cuttack, Chandrabhaga, 1982. See also other works cited below.

12 Gieve Patel, How Do You Withstand, Body?, Bombay, Clearing House, 1976; and Mirrored, Mirroring, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1991.

13 Kamala Das, Collected Poems, vol. 1, Trivandrum, privately printed, 1984; Imtiaz Dharker, Purdah, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1988; and Charmayne D'Souza, A Spelling Guide to Woman, Hyderabad, Disha/Orient Longman, 1990.

14 Jayanta Mahapatra, Selected Poems, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1987 (drawing from six of me previous volumes; reviewed in WLT 62:2, p, 333); Dispossessed Nests: The 1984 Poems, Jaipur, Nirala, 1986 (reviewed in WLT 61:3, p. 491); Temple, Adelaide, Dangeroo, 1989 (reviewed in WLT 64:2, p. 362); and A Whiteness of Bone, New Delhi, Viking, 1992 (reviewed in WLT 67:2, p. 445).

15 Arun Kolatkar, Jejuri, Bombay, Clearing House, 1976 (reviewed in WLT 61:4, p. 680).

16 Adil Jussawalla, Missing Person, Bombay, Clearing House, 1976; Makarand Paranjape, The Serene Flame and Playing the Dark God, Calcutta, Rupa, 1991 and 1992 (reviewed respectively in WLT 65:4, p. 769, and 66:3, p. 588).

17 "Vikram Seth, The Humble Administrator's Garden, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1987 (London, Carcanet, 1985); and The Golden Gate, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1986 (New York, Random House, 1986), among others.

18 Menka Shivdasani, Nirvana at Ten Rupees, Bombay, Praxis, 1990 (reviewed in WLT 66:3, p. 581).

19 Tara Patel, Single Woman, Calcutta, Rupa, 1991 (reviewed in WLT 66:2, p. 404).

20 Saleem Peeradina, Group Portrait, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1992 (reviewed in WLT 67:2, p. 448); and First Offence, Bombay, Newground, 1980.

21 Eunice de Souza, Fix, Bombay, Newground, 1979; and Woman in Dutch Painting, Bombay, Praxis, 1988.

22 Syd. C. Harrex, "Small-Scale Reflections on Indian English-Language Poetry," Journal of Indian Writing in English (Gulbarga), 8:1-2 (1980), pp. 137-38 (verb forms adjusted).

23 See G. N. Devy, After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Tradition, Bombay, Orient Longman, 1992.

24 P. Lal, The Collected Poems, Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1977; and editor of the influential and fulsome Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo, Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1969 and (rev. exp. ed.) 1971.

25 A. K. Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva (Kannada vacanas), Baltimore, Penguin, 1973; Hymns for the Drowning: [Tamil] Poems for Visnu by Nammalvar, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1981; and Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, New York, Columbia University Press, 1985.

26 A. K. Ramanujan, tr. & ed., Hymns for the Drowning, p. 39; (8.1.9 of Nammalvar's Tiruvaymoli).

27 A. K. Ramanujan, tr. & ed., Poems of Love and War, p. 209.

28 Ramanujan, Selected Poems, p. 24.

29 Manohar Shetty, A Guarded Space, Bombay, Newground, 1981; and Borrowed Time, Bombay, Praxis, 1988.


Sweet Alyssum


'I am grateful' she said to me 'for the room a bomb makes when it falls'-- she said this sitting straight under a tree what tree, I have forgotten now.

She said she was your sister.

I listened to her, burying my head in my hands. She did likewise.

The olive root from your childhood its colour spent in dreams, an arrowhead from a bronzed hillside in Jerusalem terrible city of the deity where children pound fists against rocks coloured like cheap plastic balls,

crimson, phosphorus, ivory the ballast of desire you discovered so early, casting its gravity against the skeletal forms of love we bear within.

'Wen Beitak?' they asked 'Nad Evida?' 'Where is your home?' the child battling the fourgated wind hair blown back, crying into his own eyes in the schoolyard rough with golden mustard bloom at the edge of no man's land.

In your dream you came to Ellis Island, to a humpbacked apple tree right where the boats stop, it stoops over, casting its fruit into black water. The dream doubled up like a pregnancy you saw yourself a child again, at the gates of great Jerusalem.

'He has no home now, you know that, don't you?' She said turning towards me, the woman who claims to be your sister 'As for me, I am grateful for what I have.'

As she moved, digging her heels into rock I saw the left side of her face where skin had fused into bone

so deep the burning went

'Maria Nefeli who loves the cloud gatherer' I whispered 'or Draupadi born of fire surely you are she or Demeter even, poised at the bramble pit where love drove her or Sita clinging to stone

'Look here is flowering mustard he brought me from Bethlehem from the old schoolyard filled with children, before it fell. Sweet alyssum too.

Take it, please.'

JOHN OLIVER PERRY, an early retiree and Emeritus Professor of English at Tufts University in Medford-Boston, Massachusetts, has lived since 1989 in Seattle, Washington. A regular reviewer for WLT, he has taught and conducted research in India since 1971 and has been focusing on Indian English poetry and criticism since 1980. His most recent book, Absent Authority: Issues in Contemporary Indian English Criticism (New Delhi, Sterling, 1992), was preceded by Voices of Emergency: An All-India Anthology of Protest Poetry of the 1975-77 Emergency (Bombay, Popular Prakashan, 1983). Besides essays on Indian poetry, he is currently writing a novel about Indian fathers and sons studying in the USA in the 1960s and 1990s.
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Title Annotation:Indian Literatures: In the Fifth Decade of Independence
Author:Perry, John Oliver
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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