Prithvi Varatharajan Reviews Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

22 November 2017

This brings me to an article by Mehrotra on the subject of national characteristics for poetry, called ‘What is an Indian Poem?’ (2005). In this article he argues that the modern Indian poet habitually works across borders, dipping into many cultures. He makes this case by considering a poem and its self-translation by the wonderful twentieth-century Indian poet Arun Kolatkar, who wrote in both Marathi and English (you can listen to my 2014 radio documentary on Kolatkar’s Jejuri here; it features an illuminating interview with Mehrotra, the editor of Kolatkar’s Collected Poems in English). The poem, ‘Main manager ko bola,’ is written in a Bombay-Hindi patois, Mehrotra tells us, while the translation is in a cocky American English. The following passage reveals what Mehrotra considers as essential to modern Indian poetry:

Kolatkar created two very different bodies of work of equal distinction and importance in two languages. The achievement, I think, has few parallels in world literature. What has a parallel, at least in India, is that he drew, in his work, on a multiplicity of literary traditions. He drew on Marathi of course, and Sanskrit, which he knew; he drew on the English and American traditions, especially Black American music and speech (“cordin to my rules / listen baby / I get paid when I say so”); and he drew on the European tradition. He drew on a few others besides. As he said in an interview once, talking about poets, “Anything might swim into their ken.”

I have heard a version of that last line from a contemporary Australian fiction writer and poet; he was speaking to his students about how poets often create work – by sticking their paws in everywhere they can. Mehrotra presents this as being central to the way Indian poets, in particular, operate (the difference between these claims is, perhaps, that Indian poets work not only trans-nationally but trans-linguistically). Such a poetics is clearly an ideal for Mehrotra in his own work, and this plural poetic practice also encompasses translation.

Indeed, the final section of the Collected Poems includes Mehrotra’s published translations of ancient Prakrit love poetry (from a collection published in 1991) and from his Songs of Kabir (2011), as well as his uncollected translations of modern Indian poets. Reading his translations of Prakrit love poetry, I was reminded of the boldness of ancient Indian verse on the topics of sex and coupling (Prakrit is a linguistic classifier, and refers here to a number of Middle Indic languages from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD). It’s instructive to dip into such work, which is an antidote to the common, lazy idea that history is a progression from sexual conservatism to sexual liberation. While the Prakrit love poetry included in the Collected conveys that gender roles were fixed in the first- to second-century AD (no surprises there), there is a surprising boldness to these verses from the woman’s point of view:

He finds the missionary position
      Tiresome, and grows suspicious
If I suggest another. 
      Friend, what’s the way out? 
[…]
Let faithful wives
      Say what they like,
I don’t sleep with my husband
      Even when I do.

I went eagerly to Mehrotra’s translations of the songs of Kabir. In Hinduism, Bhakti means a mystical devotion to god, so Kabir’s Bhakti poetry is devotional poetry. As Mehrotra notes in his short introduction, ‘Of all north Indian poets, past or present, perhaps no one is more readily quoted than Kabir. His verses are sung from Bengal to Rajasthan, and as far south as the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh … A lifelong hater of sham, Kabir believed in a personal god and satirised both caste-marked temple-going Hindus and mosque-going Turks, his word for Muslims’. In Mehrotra’s translation, Kabir’s critiques of religious devotion have a wry charisma, as in this song:

Listen carefully,
Neither the Vedas
Nor the Qur’an

Will teach you this:
Put the bit in its mouth,

The saddle on its back,
Your foot in the stirrup,

And ride your wild runaway mind
All the way to heaven.

Mehrotra renders Kabir in a colloquial language speaking with clear-eyed conviction about personal rather than religiously dictated spirituality. Kabir’s voice shares the irreverence of the twentieth-century American poets Mehrotra revered in his youth.

The uncollected translations, which round out the Collected, hold a few more riches. Poems by early- to mid-twentieth century poet Nirala address class and caste in modern India; there are also a few beautiful poems about local environments (‘There was mist’, ‘By the roadside’). ‘Breaking Stones,’ written in 1937 about a poor labourer, is particularly moving:

Beside a road in Allahabad,
I saw her,
    breaking stones.
[…]
She brought down the heavy hammer
Again and again, as though it was
A weapon in her hand.
Across the road  – 
A row of trees, high walls,
The mansions of the rich.

The more recent poetry of Vinod Kumar Shukla explores environment in unusual ways, by playing with visual perspectives, and through repetition of phrasing. Mehrotra’s translations of Shakti Chattopadhyay and Pavankumar Jain are more conventionally lyrical than the other poets’ work, while Mangalesh Dabral’s are observational of exteriors, and include the only prose poems in the whole book (two on the final pages). I’m glossing over this compendium of modern Indian poets in Mehrotra’s translation as, with the exception of Nirala, the poetry chosen seemed less vital and startling to me than the translations of ancient and medieval Indian verse, as well as Mehrotra’s own poetry in the first three-quarters of the book. However, the addition of these poets in translation reinforces to the reader the range of Mehrotra’s interests and capabilities – as poet, critic, and polyglot.

While Mehrotra has long been regarded in India as an important poet and critic, he was relatively unknown abroad until recently, in 2009, when he was named as one of three poets to be considered for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. The Guardian article from that time was, disappointingly, titled: ‘Little-known Indian writer joins race for Oxford poetry professor’ (his presence in that prestigious shortlisting was, anyway, clouded by the media controversy around Ruth Padel and Derek Walcott). We can hope that this updated Australian edition from Giramondo – following Penguin India’s publication of his Collected Poems in 2014 – helps redress the lack of overseas attention, and aids in the recognition of Mehrotra’s work as accomplished in its multiplicity, worthy of a wide readership.

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