Nicholas Birns Reviews Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians

By | 26 May 2020

A significant number of the India-based poets hold university teaching positions, which speaks well both for support of creative careers and—something these days often questioned elsewhere in the English-speaking world—the continuing viability of humanities academia as a career path. Others, like Rasti Aghohitri, work in the media. Her poem “Language” serves as a strikingly incisive manifesto. “No apologies, no mythic retelling/Every day is history…” (43) language is an infinitesimally ordinary part of life, but in a way gains unimportance and magnitude through being cut down to size. That the poet is known for her verse in Hindi as well as English adds another layer of implication here. The poet-diplomat Abhay K. presents a different sort of internationalism, having served as Indian Ambassador to Brazil and Madagascar. The poet’s own proximity to power renders his implied abjuration of politics in “Humayun’s Tomb” all the more eloquent.

a lonely tree
a flock of birds
sky punctured with domes
a shriek
tombs in eternal sleep

There is no mention we are at the tomb of a powerful, famous ruler, as the poem makes it unnecessary. This winning contradiction, of nearness to cultural power but refraining from exercising that power. The collection is published by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of letters, but it does not seem official or state-prompted. It is urgent in this nationalism-beset time that poets of Muslim background are included. Indeed, Shalim M. Hussain is part of the population most threatened by Hindu nationalism in India today—Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam. Hussain is a leading figure in the “Miyah” movement of anti-racist protest poetry, and Sen’s inclusion of him in this anthology bespeaks a powerfully anti-majoritarian, anti-organicist message, buttressed by the two poems included here not being at all polemical but witnessing to the daily necessities of food, clothes culture as that which can be taken away by external force at any minute—“white stains on spoon/And sweet cream on tongue” (153), “Haraam marched through arum, madar, datura, mud.” (154). But there is no one with an obviously Sikh name, although Rohinton Daruwala’s name is Parsi, Shivani Sivaguranathan’s Tamil. Rohan Chhetri is of Nepali background, Tenzin Tsundue and Tenzin Dickie are of Tibetan origin, Rochelle Potkar is Goan, Jaydeep Sarangi has written copiously on Dalit literature and criticizes “a caste-ridden, stratified discourse” (214). But the anthology is dominated by Northern poets of a Hindi cultural background. Bean-counting and communal partitioning obviously can be as bad as good in these sorts of situations, and as an American of non-Indian descent I am hardly a ‘situated’ judge. But an awareness of India as a country of many heritages and backgrounds, especially in these nationalism driven times, is still salutary. As a general principle, it should be recognized that India is as multicultural a country as the United States or Australia, even if diversity means something different in India than in the Europe-derived former settler colonies, and even if restricting one’s purview, as Sen does, to poetry in English is also inherently limiting. Too often critics on the Left assume a diverse polity in the West, but insist that the global South adhere to outdated notions of a unitary Third World nationalism. This collection begins to sketch an India that sees around nationalism while still not gainsaying India’s nationhood.

Sen generously includes poets in the diaspora as well as within India, and indeed the US-based reader will be very familiar with the work of Dhuga or Amit Majmudar extensively in the US. Indeed, the anthology has a double aim: to introduce Indian poets internationally, and to introduce international poets of Indian background within India. This double periscope works well for the book, helping it be a decolonizing agent that does not just construct India as producer and the developed West as consumer.

I am torn here between wanting maximum inclusiveness on demographic and identity terms, and yearning for the poetry anthologies which, unlike this one, make frankly polemical arguments and explicitly renounce on who are the major poets, what is the canon in the area concerned. Sen highlights some poets in his introduction, but his choices do present any rationale as to why they were selected for this discussion. The most famous anthologies have not been afraid to make mistakes or to lean too much on an aesthetic. Ulli Beier’s anthology of modern African poetry, Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets, Motion’s and Morrison’s of contemporary British verse in the 1980s, the dueling anthologies of Don Allen and Donald Hall in the US of the early 1960s, John Tranter’s 1979 The New Australian Poetry, both argued for a certain canon and, inversely, drew attention to what they excluded, so that, when read against the body of responses and polemics they provided, they ended up including more by excluding than they would have by stretching their umbrella of exclusion slightly further. I also wonder if Sen could perhaps make a move like Motion and Morrison did when they put Seamus Heaney into their book, even though he was not a British poet, because he was both necessary to and expansive of the conversation they wanted to initiate; the Bangladeshi-American Hassanal Abdullah and the Nepalese Yuyutsu Sharma might have been good analogues here.

As it stands, Sen’s anthology is a showcase for Indian poetry, but it is neither a full forum nor makes any argument for why certain poets or approaches to poetry matter more than others. Thus there is a danger of falling into a passive, though certainly not exclusive, consensus. I sometimes feel it is better for an anthology to have a sense of poetic priority even if it means leaving people out, both to show where the anthologist’s aesthetic heart is and as the argument about who is left out of an anthology are almost the most fun part of readings a work.

Sen (who does not include his own poetry here) was born in 1964, so the reader assumes that, as in so many cases, ’younger’ in the title of the book means younger than him. The introduction further constricts the qualification for being in one’s forties or younger at the time of publication, meaning three poets born in the mid to late-1960s who obviously otherwise should have been in—Jerry Pinto, Ranjit Hoskote, and Bhisham Bherwani—are nowhere to be found. There is no historical justification given for cutting off the age qualifications here merely a sense that you cannot present a poet over fifty as young, and that to get an appreciable body of work, you have to go over forty. But that criterion does splay the poets included here between Generation Xers and Millennials, with the emphasis still on the Generation X side (to which generation the editor himself belongs). Another anthology of this sort produced in ten years’ time will have a drastically different feel, and, it is to be hoped, both more of a sense of poetic priority even more inclusive orientation.

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