60 Indian Poets

Edited by Jeet Thayil
Penguin India 2008
Reviewed by Michael Scharf

10 stars

“Anyway, bye-bye, Mumsie.”

60 indian poets cover

Modern Indian poetry in English has a generally agreed-upon starting point: Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004). As Jeet Thayil writes in the introduction to his landmark anthology, “[u]ntil Ezekiel, Indian poetry in English was a nineteenth-century product that had survived well into the twentieth,” full of archaism, under-motivated rhymes, and fantastical themes. When he began publishing poems in the early 1950s, Ezekiel aimed to displace “the amateurism and windy, shapeless, overblown spiritualist epics prevalent when he began to write,” as critic Bruce King puts it.

Thayil’s anthology has been published in India as 60 Indian Poets, and in the UK as The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. The latter edition, published “in association with Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics,” has 12 more poets, and U.S. distribution. Fulcrum itself published a somewhat shorter version of the anthology as a section of a prior issue, in 2005.

Thayil begins with Ezekiel, placing his “Night of the Scorpion” second in the book. The poem is often taught and anthologized in India, but, as with certain Robert Frost poems, its actual content often gets lost in the process. Indeed, it’s a monologue as deviously simple as Frost’s best. “Night of the Scorpion” records an adult’s recollection of a childhood incident, the night the speaker’s mother lays in agony after being bitten, “flash/ of diabolic tail in the dark room.” In the hours that followed,

The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the Name of God a hundred times
to paralyze the Evil One.
With candles and with lanterns
throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the sun-baked walls
they searched for him: he was not found.
They clicked their tongues.
With every movement the scorpion made
his poison moved in mother’s blood, they said.
May he sit still, they said.
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said….
May the poison purify your flesh
of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
they said, and they sat around
on the floor with my mother at the centre,
the peace of understanding on each face.

The speaker goes on to contrast the thinly veiled schadenfreude of the “peasants” with the responses of his father, a “rationalist, skeptic” (who nonetheless deploys various bogus home remedies over the course of the night), and with rites performed by a “holy man” (who gets two perfunctory lines). After the mother has been “twisted through and through/ groaning on a mat,” bearing both the scorpion’s poison and what Marx called “the idiocy of rural life,” Ezekiel finishes off with an exquisite anti-climax.  

Bruce King, who contributes an essay to the anthology, argues in Modern Indian Poetry in English that Ezekiel, part of the now-vanished Marathi-speaking Bene Israel Jewish community of Bombay, “represents the opposite of the Hindiizing, peasant-idealizing, Soviet-sympathizing nationalist cultural assertion of the government and many intellectuals” in post-Independence India. “Night of the Scorpion” is a textbook parody of the rural glorification verse prevalent in India’s 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s – one from which the ironies are often stripped when it is read in real textbooks. In another monologue Thayil includes, “The Patriot,” Ezekiel works in withering dialect to similar effect:

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 not understanding.

The poem continues, merciless with the speaker’s pompously rehearsed received opinions, and his lack of power. His “standing” in the world is deeply circumscribed, a position from which persistent violence is explained away with mis-repeated stock phrases – “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, I am saying (to myself)/ Lend me the ears” – or by reference to the “funny habits” of other groups. That sort of standing is something that hadn’t been articulated in poetry when Ezekiel started to write, though it may have had its ultimate expression in G.V. Desani’s magisterial picaresque All About H. Hatterr, which appeared in England in 1948, right as Ezekiel arrived there for a near four-year stay. The poet Daljit Nagra, born in 1966 in West London and also included by Thayil, is currently garnering attention in the UK with dialect parodies of the aspirational diaspora. The title of Nagra’s first book is Look We Have Coming to Dover!

Other Ezekiel poems center on conflicts within and surrounding sex, and on a rapidly metropolizing, Mumbaiizing Bombay. Though he remains largely unknown in the U.S.,  Ezekiel played a crucial, contentious role in building a literature from within the Bombay scene he helped found (amid notorious personal scandal), as is evident in Amit Chaudhuri’s “Nissim Ezekiel”:

This man, in a room full of papers
in the Theosophy building,
still young at fifty-five,
the centre of his small universe,
told me, for fifteen minutes,
that my poems were ‘derived’.
I was seventeen.
I listened only to the precision
of his Bombay accent, juxtaposed
in my mind with the syllables of his name.
In some ways, he did not disappoint.

The standard line of descent for modern Indian poetry in English generally records two or maybe three foundational poets from within the generation just slightly younger than Ezekiel: Dom Moraes (1938-2004), A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993), and Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004). (Rabindranath Tagore, for his part, doesn’t count as a predecessor: Gitanjali was written in Bengali and translated by Tagore into English.)

Thayil’s anthology preserves the standard lineage, but chops it up with inheritors, productive juxtapositions and coterie cohorts: Ezekiel, at the book’s beginning, is followed by American poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil (b. 1974), who seems to have been placed there to take the book as far from Ezekiel’s Bombay as possible. The anthology closes with Kolatkar, a Bombay poet who wrote in Marathi and in English; he is preceded by the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who ingeniously reads Kolatkar in “What Is an Indian Poem?,” an essay Thayil includes. At the center of the book are Dom Moraes, who had early success in the UK before also returning to Bombay, and A.K. Ramanujan, who left India for the U.S. at 31 for an academic career.

Of Ezekiel’s immediate inheritors and younger contemporaries, Moraes remains the best known in India. His first book won the Hawthornden Prize in 1957 while he was a student at Oxford, and he went on to lead an eventful London literary life for a decade or so. Work in journalism took him to New York, Israel, and elsewhere, before Indira Gandhi’s government forced his return to Bombay. Moraes’s verse is heavily anthologized in India, particularly his Audenesque early work:

Things happen here without my full consent.
And I accept them all. What is my choice?
I have few muscles; I must trust my voice.

Moraes has not, however, had continuing impact outside of India.  One reason may be that there is no properly pan-Anglophone 20th century canon in place yet. (Anthologies of “world literature” are a very different thing.) Another may be that Moraes worked in modes that are mostly out of fashion in the U.S., at least in academic circles.  

Thayil includes a number of Moraes’s very last 12 sonnets, written as Moraes knew he was dying, and singled out by King as “amazing.”  It is as someone who loves the flawed Robert Lowell of Notebook, The Dolphin, and For Lizzy and Harriet that I approach late Moraes, whose anguished self-examinations, including a childhood dominated by an abusive, mentally-ill mother, have a paradoxical rococo lightness and a vatic distance-in-intimacy that recalls Lowell.  Here is the opening sonnet from the sequence:

From a heavenly asylum, shriveled Mummy,
glare down like a gargoyle at your only son,
who now has white hair and can hardly walk.
I am he who was not I. It’s hot in this season
and the acrid reek of my body disturbs me
in a city where people die on pavements.
That I’m terminally ill hasn’t been much help.
There is no reason left for anything to exist.
Goodbye now. Don’t try and meddle with this.

Why does your bloated corpse cry out to me
that I took from the hospital, three days dead?
I’d have come before, if the doctors had said.
I couldn’t kiss you goodbye, you stank so much.
Or bear to touch you. Anyway, bye-bye, Mumsie.

I can hear lines like “There is no reason left for anything to exist” as comic, as an ironic comment on narcissism, but I can also hear them as an absolute despair. “Don’t try and meddle with this” refers as much to the actual poems (i.e. “don’t try to change these poems after my death”) as to the poet’s own resignation. The three days it takes to find and claim his mother reads less like oedipal payback than fear for what the poet’s own fate may be. It will be interesting to see what becomes of these poems as critical tastes swing back; Moraes could easily be taught as one of the stronger poets working in the wake of Lowell, Auden and Larkin. And there is no question that Moraes continues to influence Indian poetry in English, a point that Thayil underscores by placing his own work immediately following Moraes’s sonnets.

In the U.S., Ramanujan is a much more familiar poet. Born in Mysore, Ramanujan spent his career at the University of Chicago, where he held a joint appointment in the departments of Linguistics and of South Asian Languages and Civilizations.  He was a Sanskritist, a multilingual translator, and a member of the Committee on Social Thought. He wrote poems in English and in Kannada. In the U.S., Ramanujan is beginning to be read as one of the first poets of the diaspora, addressing “my confusions, my absent presence,/ faraway rivers amok in my continents.” He published three books of verse in English during his lifetime; Thayil has taken poems exclusively from The Black Hen, published two years after Ramanujan’s death. Here is the title poem:

It must come as leaves
to a tree
or not at all

yet it comes sometimes
as the black hen
with the red round eye

on the embroidery
stitch by stitch
dropped and found again

and when it’s all there
the black hen stares
with its round red eye

and you’re afraid.

Two of Ramanujan’s contemporaries, G.S. Sharat Chandra (1935-2000) and Srinivas Rayaprol (1925-1998), are often left out of accounts of Indian poetry in English, but their inclusion in the anthology should help solidify their places in the founding canon. Their work is part of the anthology’s tacit running theme of an emerging diasporic imagination: Chandra, also originally from Mysore, emigrated to the U.S. and became an English professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City; Rayaprol, from Secunderabad, trained as an engineer in the U.S. and later returned to India and edited the transcontinental journal East/West.  Here is Chandra’s “Reasons for Staying”:

I am talking to the kitchen table
full of roses.
The language is my own,
I tell them
I own them.

There are roses because I say so,
the vase is mine,
so is the kitchen.
I like them red,
I pay for the water.

The chairs immediately respond,
the table,
the knives and plates,
the salt shaker,
join in.

Arun Kolatkar, who closes the book, published three books of poems in English (only Jejuri is available in the U.S.); a posthumous volume of uncollected work and translations, The Boatride & Other Poems, has recently appeared in India. In Marathi, Kolatkar is considered a major 20th century poet, having published more than 15 collections, including the nearly 400 page Bhijki Vahi, or Tear-stained Notebook. As Mehrotra describes it, Bhijki Vahi’s 25 poems are fugues on “[the] sorrowing woman – from Isis, Cassandra and the Virgin Mary to Nadezhda Mandelstam, Susan Sontag, and [Kolatkar’s] own sister, Rajani.” For anyone who has read Kolatkar’s work in English, also canonical in India, the Rabelaisian fusion of high and low, mythic and modern, serious and playful that Mehrotra’s description promises seems very familiar.

Kolatkar was born in Kolhapur, but his work and reputation are inseparable from Bombay in general, and Kala Ghoda in particular. Kala Ghoda is a Bombay district that’s a little like Paris’s Marais: once sleepy, shabby, and brimming with past history; now commercially gentrified while retaining glimmers of its aura. “Pi-dog,” a longish serial poem included nearly in its entirety, opens on a Kala Ghoda traffic island. From there, the poem effortlessly combines Bombay’s myriad inheritances (ancient, colonial, modern and everything in between) and tweaks multiple sensibilities in channeling the title mutt, who lingers with crossed paws in the middle of the island – the city writ small. (Bombay was originally seven discrete islands.) I don’t want to spoil all the small shocks of reading the poem for the first time by saying anything more about it, but “Pi-dog” makes the city’s glorious, endless self-renewal come to life, and the poem belongs in anyone’s emerging Anglophone canon. Kolatkar’s back-and-forth between Marathi and English has some precedents in poets who have worked in English and other languages, but not in a way that has begun to be critically metabolized. In terms of his work in English, the poet Kolatkar recalls most is Jack Spicer.

Kolatkar’s generation includes Dilip Chitre (1938-2009) who also has complete oeuvres in Marathi and in English. In the latter language, Chitre is equal parts phenomenologist and noirish beat. Keki Daruwalla, born a year earlier, is always tagged with his service for his service to the Indian intelligence agency (he’s a former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee); his work pursues rhyming forms and Hellenic preoccupations through to pessimistic takes on big questions. Kamala Das (1934-2009), is famous in India for a tell-all autobiography (which she all but disavowed) and for frank poems on marriage and infidelity, all of which shocked readers in India on a scale that exceeded Anne Sexton’s impact in the U.S.

That Das’s work isn’t nearly as graphic as Sexton’s points up one of the main difficulties in reading the anthology, which includes work from poets working from roughly 1950 to 2005 in multiple contexts (urban, rural, academic) and on multiple continents. I found myself constantly correcting for differences in composition contexts – in what was permissible or expected where and at what time; in what books were available in which places at what points; in what daily life involved, or involves, generally. In Das’s case, private life has not been turned inside out in India in the same way as it has elsewhere, so even her most “revelatory” poems can seem tame. Other Das poems are much more straightforward, but here is the crushingly Ledaen “The Maggots”:

At sunset on the riverbank, Krishna
loved her for the last time and left.
That night in her husband’s arms, Radha felt
so dead that he asked, what is wrong,
do you mind my kisses love, and she said
no, not at all, but thought, what is
it to the corpse if the maggots nip?

More difficult to place is the generation born around the time of Indian Independence: it includes K. Satchidanandan, whose recitations of his poems in Malayalam are astonishing (he’s known in Kerala as “the Neruda of Kottayam”), but whose poems in the anthology don’t hit similar sonic highs; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, the great critic of his generation (he recently stood for election as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry), whose poems in the anthology tread ironically on Iron John territory; and Eunice de Souza, whose sharp, unsparing book, Fix, published in 1979, deserves a full critical reevaluation, but whose more voice-driven poems don’t sit well in the anthology.

Gopal Honnalgere (1942-2003) is, with Sharat Chandra and Rayaprol, among Thayil’s most intriguing finds. I can’t stop re-reading Honnalgere’s “The City,” a longish poem of married love that’s unlike any other. I am again reluctant to quote it, since its effects depend on nursery-rhyme-like repetitions that get very close to lovers’ play, and its intense, real-time tableaux can suddenly pull back into commentary: hard, yet full longing. Parts make me think of Joseph Ceravolo’s poems, and of Bernadette Mayer’s great Midwinter Day. One hopes that Thayil’s superb detective work will spur the republication and reconsideration of Honnalgere’s six long-vanished Indian small press titles. The work of Lawrence Bantleman (1942-1995), only slightly less obscure, and also included by Thayil, deserves similar treatment.

The generation born in the 1950s is clearer cut: it includes Vikram Seth, more famous in the U.S. for his memoir Two Lives and for the novels A Suitable Boy and An Equal Music than for his agile formalist verse; and Vijay Seshadri and Agha Shahid Ali, both of whom are well-known (and very different) American (or hyphenated-American) poets. Meena Alexander’s elegy to Allen Ginsberg asks this “Engine of flesh, hot sunflower of Mathura” to “teach us to glide into life,/ teach us when not to flee.” A discovery for some readers will be Manohar Shetty, whose lyricism in his poems of the 1980s recalls that of Theodore Roethke. Here is Shetty’s “The Hyenas”:

My asthmatic child coughs – her throat
Is emery paper. Her tiny
Hands are wet
Petals in my hand. Hyenas cackle
From the Governor’s banquet grounds.

Eyes glint as a fencer’s
Mask, I stare them down. I whisper,
They’ve gone, dearest child, sleep;
They laugh with the Governor’s gang
Of kingmakers, fatcats, gold-toting ogres.

She sleeps, her temples damp.
To the carrion call the drooling
Packs converge: amidst red

Laughter, claws tear
At gizzard, sweating pigling,
Roe, soft brain, and lamb.

From there, things are as scattered, various and unsettled as they are elsewhere in poetry for the generations born in the 1960s and 1970s. Mukta Sambrani experiments with a forceful personae-based lyric. Mani Rao intriguingly updates assertive identity politics. (See work by Rao in Almost Island.) Anjum Hasan recalls “agonized deputations to the sitting room” that preserve a childhood stasis; Sampurna Chattarji, writing of an unnamed elsewhere, finds “She understands nothing of this place,/ and so it moves her.”  An art critic and curator, Ranjit Hoskote is an intellectual mentor of the current Bombay scene, and its most accomplished poet: “graphite smudges to mark/ where cloud-hidden peaks will rise.”

The younger poets based in the UK seem less touched by modernism and its aftereffects. The younger poets based in the U.S. are more broadly represented in the recently released Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry. My favorite selections from among the younger writers are from poets living in Missoula and Chennai, respectively: Prageeta Sharma’s beautiful and unclassifiable love poems, and Vivek Narayanan’s bildungsdictungs, profuse with the confusions of early adulthood:

Thus with the darkly dreaming town colluding
I iced my post-adolescent angst in a heartbeat.

In his introduction, Thayil says that he hopes the anthology serves as an “introduction to undeservedly little-known literature.” Twentieth century Indian poetry in English stands alongside 20th century poetry from the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and other nations with Anglophone populations. When a proper U.S. edition finally appears, Thayil’s anthology will be very difficult to supersede, and impossible to displace in terms of its role in continuing debates about language and canonicity (debates that I discuss in depth here).  In the coming Anglophone canon, the book will take its place beside books like Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960 as an enduring benchmark, map, and source of inspiration.