A problem that has teased me since long has probably teased a number of people before me, namely the problem of commencement. What comes first, language or thought? Character or Plot? Form or Content?
The human mind is a storehouse of weirdly mystifying activity. It is too deep to be fathomed and too abstract to be given shape. It churns out mysterious questions that defy clear-cut answers. Yet the writer must try to attend to some of these. I would love to get the views of readers on these, on my blog.
SANYASI Part 1
The sound of the temple bells could still be heard and the incense of the hawan samagri that was burned during the early morning prayers was felt in the atmosphere all around. Out of the group of the seven Hindu sages that walked down the temple hill two were young. One of these two was fair, with curly black hair, broad shoulders and deep starry eyes. He looked straight ahead of him as though nothing around him could distract. He was so focused that no joke, comment, slander or insult could disturb him. He seemed to have taken on the quality of rocks, and stones, and trees. Ajitesh was quite extraordinary, quite different to Amitab, the other young sanyasi of this group. Ajitesh was not restless to know about the mysteries of this world, often wondering why Amitab wanted to know everything even before he had made a serious attempt to carry out his search and research. The older sanyasis were wrapped in saffron coloured cloths, one each on the shoulders and one round the waist. Ajitesh and Amitab, in contrast, were wrapped in white cloths. The saffron and white on the bodies of the men provided a fine contrast to the greens all around the hill. Each of the seven men had his own world to consider, though each was a part of the group. It was like being so much a part of the world that each was making an effort to rise above.
The head of this group, Swami Muktananda, was both proud and envious of Ajitesh because he saw in his disciple’s life what he had desired to see in his own. The beautiful youngster was beating him at his own game and that without any obvious effort to do so. He had managed to live away from the traps of a worldly existence like the lotus flower that remains away from the slush and silt in spite of its emergence from it. Ajitesh was practicing what Muktananda merely preached. Muktananda often privately noticed that the body of this youngster was slender like a lotus stem at the waist and broad like a lotus flower above the waist. There seemed to be some divine imagination at work in his making. This was the man with a future.
‘Keep with the group, you two’, said Muktananda with his eyes on Ajitesh, as the youngsters straggled away like two sheep that would not remain with the shepherd and the flock. ‘And don’t walk too fast when you go down a hill. This is not plane land; walking too fast can lead to a fall.
Right or wrong, a guru is a guru. Ajitesh knew this and was prepared to let Muktananda instruct him. He knew that it was faith that was the most crucial thing in the learning process called life. The mind had limitations and therefore the guru had to be allowed to have his way. He never forgot the strange rhythmic speech that Muktanand had delivered to him on the very first day in the ashram. Muktananda had said that he had felt something deeply and had put that into lines that, for the lack of a better word, could be called a poem. He entitled the poem, ‘What I have felt’:
What I have felt
What I have felt is no small thing, what I have felt.
The Lord above brings us to the brink; brings to the brink.
To the brink of where success will lie, success will lie.
We must allow Him to lead us on, to lead us on.
When we use our minds to question Him, to question Him,
We lose whatever He plans for us, He plans for us.
In a particular family we are born, yes, we are born.
That family is just right for us, just right for us.
To a place of learning we are sent, yes, we are sent.
That place must seem right to us, quite right to us.
He has chosen that place for us, that place for us.
He believes we belong to Him, belong to Him.
But we don’t know that we are His, that we are His.
We question His plans and agents too, His agents too.
We want to have things our way, all things our way.
This makes the Lord to have His way, to have His way.
What He had planned is lost by us, is lost by us.
Therefore don’t ever make a fuss, don’t make a fuss.
Always give Him the upper hand, the upper hand.
And then with bliss you will land, with bliss you’ll land.
Ajitesh had the good sense to understand what his guru wanted to make him belief. Whatever we are driven towards in life, whether painful or enjoyable, is to be taken as a gift of the Creator; the painful must be welcomed just as much as the pleasurable because it is the painful which teaches and leads towards progress. Whatever comes our way comes from Him and must help in our advancement.
The group reached the bottom of the hill where Swami Muktananda’s ashram was the only human habitation beside the stream of clear water that flowed through the forest where wild animals were sometimes spotted coming to quench their thirst a little away from where humans did the same. At an hour’s walk away from the ashram was the village of Chilbila where life in all its colours could be seen and from where simple folk came sometimes to partake of Swami Muktananda’s wisdom. In Chilbila lived a Brahmin named Sitaram who had two young daughters. Sukanya the older daughter was contemplative and dreamy.
Sukanya was always lost in her thoughts and when her father told her to live in the real world and acquire some sense she merely looked at him and smiled her dreamy smile. Sitaram was worried for her as his wife had died and he had to settle Sukanya’s marriage all by himself. He had neither the means nor the ability to hook up a suitable match for his daughter. This gave him much worry. He decided he would go to Swami Muktananda to ask him for his advice and help in getting Sukanya married. He took his daughter to the guru also in the hope that she would learn something from the knowledgeable man. Father and daughter woke up early long before sunrise to travel in the cool hour before dawn to the ashram.
As they approached the ashram the sanyasis were climbing up the temple hill to offer prayers. Sitaram and Sukanya saw them and began to follow them. The younger two Sanyasis noticed the father and daughter and got curious to know who the two were. Amitabh, particularly, got interested in the girl. Ajitesh did see her but tried not to pay much heed to her presence. Muktananda would give a glimpse towards the new arrivals and then look at his young disciples anxiously. The slightest indiscretion on the part of the youngsters could be the end of all his instructions on asceticism to the disciples. But he said nothing as the group moved ahead towards the temple.
Sitaram walked faster to catch up with Muktananda. Sukanya could not keep pace with her father and so she climbed slower, getting left behind. Amitabh noticed her slowing and made an effort to persuade Ajitesh to slow down as well. He seemed keen to get a closer view of the woman. His training at the ashram was only making him keener to experience what the sanyasis were trying to renounce. Ajitesh knew little about what was passing through Amitabh’s mind. Unmindfully he allowed Amitabh to pull him towards the direction where Sukanya was making a desperate effort to pull herself up the hill. When they reached close to her Amitabh began to speak to her:
‘Tired? Why don’t you sit down on this cliff and get your breath back?’
‘Thanks,’ she said sitting down and noticed the other man with Amitabh. He seemed to be lost in his own thoughts hardly conscious of the woman sitting close to them. Amitabh was keen to talk to her.
‘Where have you come from?’
‘From the village of Chilbila.’
‘Is that your father?’
‘What brings you here?’
‘I don’t know. Ask Babu.’
Muktananda looked backward and was disturbed to see the young men standing near the woman.
‘Ajitesh!’ he yelled out. ‘Why are you both not coming with us? The time for the prayers is fixed. We cannot change it for any reason.’
‘Yes, Guruji,’ he replied in a voice that made Sukanya look even more attentively at him. He seemed like a beautiful young god to her.
‘Come walk with us to the temple,’ said Amitabh quite aware that Ajitesh would not approve of the suggestion.
‘Yes,’ she replied and got up to walk on.
Ajitesh was between two worlds. He didn’t know whether it was right for a sanyasi to walk close to a young woman after he had joined the ascetic order. But leaving a tired woman alone to climb the steep path didn’t seem to appeal to him either. Besides, leaving her alone to the care of his male companion didn’t seem very appropriate in any case. He decided to listen to his inner voice, the voice of the heart. It said that he ought to accompany the other two. The three walked together in silence, the woman between the two men – a few inches ahead of them. Walking on the mountainous climb, with slippery patches was no easy task. Sukanya’s feet were not used to this difficult path. She tried to avoid the moss on the stones, trying her best to miss the sinister slippery portions. Her tender, dainty, feet had never experienced such a dicey terrain on the skin of her delicate soles. In spite of her best efforts to walk stably, there came a point when she dropped a bangle and tried to bend to pick it up. Amitabh dived to pick it up before her, but the bangle began to roll down the hill forcing him to go after it. In the process she twisted her ankle, lost her balance and was about to fall when Ajitesh acted swiftly, held her tight round the waist, just in time to save her from falling. As he left her she began to fall again; she had lost her balance and confidence. He had to hold her for some time now as she was in a daze. He had never come this close to anyone of the opposite sex before. He knew that something wrong had happened in those few seconds but he was trying to tell himself that nothing had happened. He had neither found her skin soft, nor sensually inviting. He was too determined a sanyasi to be affected by a few seconds of a woman’s tactile sensation. He let her stand on her feet more steadfastly and waited to see if she was alright.
‘I am alright now.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. Thank you.’
There was a strange sound and when the two looked down they found Amitabh rolling down in the attempt to chase the rolling bangle. He stood up at length, his face black with the moss on the stones.
‘O dear!’ she said. ‘He must be hurt.’
‘Don’t worry. We are used to this path. He has often fallen on it. He’ll be alright soon. Come.’
The two walked in silence. Amitabh had to return to wash up whatever his body had gathered from the fall.
Everything is Nothing
Everything is nothing ultimately. It shapes out that way in the end.
The magnificent dress in the showcase turns out a disappointment.
The job one craves for becomes the reason for suffering and lament.
The one you loved beyond everything is hell-bent to teach you a lesson.
The fame you always aspired for leads you toward depression.
The hero you did admire looks old and haggard before long.
The one who kept pledging loyalty, is seen doing that to an enemy.
The knife that was sharp blunts itself cutting everything, then nothing.
Favourite pickles waste away without savouring sufficiently.
Cakes taste like pickles if they remain longer than the ‘best before’.
If everything is nothing, then nothing must be everything.
Meditation takes you towards a blank in the mind; to dwell on nothing.
Indian Poetry in English: Revelations
(Marginalized: Indian Poetry in English, Edited Smita Agarwal, Published: Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2014 )
Review by Lakshmi Raj Sharma
It is a pity that some of the best scholarship on Indian Writing in English has never been quite equal in class to the Indian Writing in English itself. This is particularly true of the scholarship available on Indian English Poetry. It is therefore a matter to rejoice that there is a new anthology on Indian Poetry that fills a gap that has remained rather long. The critical pieces included in this anthology contain that balance which is necessary for seeing Indian English poetry as it actually is. This balance seems to result from the fact that virtually every contributor is an established author or critic and each has done genuine research before sitting down to write. The anthology under focus is the book edited by Smita Agarwal, entitled, Marginalized: Indian Poetry in English. This is no ordinary collection of critical essays; it is a volume that may remain at the top for decades unless it sets the trend for a similar thoroughness among future editors of critical anthologies that discuss Indian poetry in English. The reasons why this book is unlike other anthologies are the following: First, it is a book which took six years of hard work. Secondly, Smita Agarwal is a gifted poet herself and one endowed with several talents other than poetry (she is an accomplished musician and actor) and her book can be considered a work of sound scholarship in combination with sound aesthetic sense. T. S. Eliot once said that the best critic of poetry is the poet. This seems an apt opinion when seen against the achievements of this book. The book is a labour of love. Thirdly, and most importantly, the choice of essays included is wisely made spanning across the subcontinent and further; what is left out is as significant as what is included. Editing is like creating a symphony. It can be even more difficult than authoring a book because the editor is working with a number of minds that are being brought together to complete a picture rather than a single artist working alone to make a point.
I would recommend that anyone wanting to work on Indian poetry in English should begin by reading Smita Agarwal’s introduction to this anthology, “Introduction: Subaltern Discourse?” It will be difficult to find a better introduction on the subject. If there is something one can question about the introduction it is the author’s anxiety regarding why Indian fiction receives more attention than Indian poetry. To me the answer to this seems simple enough. Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea and fiction is the form of literature that the world has woken up to in a bigger way. The author, however, gives us a different reason for the popularity of Indian fiction, one supplied by Ved Mehta, that Indian fiction, unlike poetry, has been able to bring about a change in the way that the world looks at India. Indian fiction has made it possible for people to see that India is not merely a land of snake charmers and rope climbers. I would add to this Bakhtin’s theory that the language of fiction contains dialogism because of which the reader gets a much clearer perception of the society it foregrounds. Besides, poetry lacks in this dimension and therefore does not provide the literary tourism which fiction does. Be that as it may, the introduction is as thorough as it can be. I am particularly fascinated by an observation that is made by the author about the nature of poetry, an observation which she can make only because she is a musician apart from being a poet:
Like all classical arts, poetry too expresses a moment of concentration. Once this moment of concentration is revealed to the reader, the poem brings an excitement, enjoyment, equilibrium and, perhaps, peace, and the same joy that the rasik [the enthralled listener] experiences when she hears the musician produce a pure note.(3)
Touching a pure note in poetry involves the concentration of music. At the level of concentration it is one with music. From the above it is easy to see that Smita Agarwal does not have the same views on the nature of poetry as certain poets of today do, poets who seem to have remained untouched by the force of music and who feel that real poetry begins with the modernist poet when poetry sheds its lust for rhythmic effect and becomes a different ball game altogether. Agarwal does not clearly limit poetry to consider one category of it, exclusively, either right or wrong.
The good thing about this introduction is that ends on a rather positive note regarding Indian poetry in English:
There is neither a dearth of talent nor a lack of opportunity that makes poetry in English in India take a back seat to the fiction in English. In the main, it seems, the preference of mainstream multinational publishing houses in India have changed because poetry is not commercially viable. (24)
Poets have rarely had it good; few poets have been known to be financially well off or read by the masses because publishers have been wary, or should I say suspicious, people. They think several times before publishing anything, verse or prose, that will be difficult to sell. It is magazines and journals that have helped poets to be known and it is for this reason that poets have had to be strategists to create platforms from which they could become visible and entice the odd publisher to take interest in their verse. The fiction writer has had to do the same with regard to his prose, unless he is notoriously well known.
The first critical piece in this anthology appropriately brings under focus Henry Derozio due to the historical significance of this poet. The scholar of this piece is Sheshalata Reddy. Reddy makes the piece rather contemporary by introducing the questions of race and “Indianness” in relation to Derozio. The moment you try to locate an author like Derozio by pinpointing his culture and origins you are on the threshold of an East-West politics that the academic of today is drenched in. Reddy’s insight into this kind of academic polemic is evident from a passage such as the following:
Derozio places India within a linear history that is nevertheless decontextualized in so far as it refers not to the specific events that have supposedly led to India’s present state but instead to the general condition that characterizes it. The sentiments voiced by this poem draw from the common formulation in the nineteenth century that the glorious civilization of ancient India had, by contemporary times, fallen into a state of degradation and degeneration. India’s legendary status may have once been immortalized in song, but the current lack of such status has become the motivation for this particular song. Epic has become elegy. (29)
The contemporary, postcolonial approach continues through Reddy’s essay, showing Derozio a child of his times: “ ‘The Fakeer of Jungheera’ is an Orientalist romance both literally and generically.” (31) The inclusion of this piece seems to be on the ground that it has a clear framework through which it proceeds, making it meaningful in a contemporary way, rather than being just another essay on Derozio’s poetry. This piece is not merely an East-West response; it also shows Derozio following literary conventions of the period, for instance referring to himself in the third person or the young teacher-poet (he died at twenty-one) addressing his young students with “tenderness and narcissism.” (49) Reddy works out the romance contained in Derozio’s biography, making the piece a rather complete response to the poet.
The second essay in the anthology, “The English Tagore Restoring a Legacy”, by Sonjoy Dutta-Roy, makes several significant points about Tagore as Dutta-Roy is a seasoned Tagore scholar. He is, like so many other contributors to the anthology, a poet as well. He begins by making a very significant point, namely, that “Tagore entered very late into the canons of Indian poetry in English.” (43) The tendency to keep Tagore out of the canon still persists and it is surprising that in spite of the adulation Tagore has received in Bengal as well as outside, this lacuna should have persisted. Dutta-Roy speaks in the first person singular, in a voice of authority and confidence that is often missing in Indian English literary scholarship. Here are samples of this confidence:
The true legacy of the English Gitanjali for Indian poetry in English still needs to be evaluated. I feel Indian poetry in English would have been richer and vaster . . . if the Modernists driven-by-haste had only genuinely evaluated this legacy. I will try to reach into the depths of this legacy to analyse what lessons were lost to Modernist and postmodernist Poetry in English in India. . . .Indian Poetry in English, unfortunately, has always been seen as an offshoot of the history of English Poetry in the wider global context. (44)
As a result of this confidence Dutta-Roy is able to make a substantial case for a reinterpretation of the literary heritage of Indian English poetry, with Tagore as a part of it. This, I may add, is a singularly important function of the literary historian or critic with a historical sense.
Dutta-Roy shows how even G. N. Devy is guilty of having missed out on Tagore who indeed needs much attention considering that he was the only Indian poet to have received the highest honours that a poet could have received by getting the Nobel Prize. Dutta-Roy stands up against Devy for his limited understanding of the situation of Indian poetry in English. It is because of such daring points made by the contributors of this anthology that this book stands out in its genre. Unlike a great many books of Indian scholarship this book is not merely a work of scissors and paste; the anthology turns out to be a book of real substance.
Dutta-Roy’s essay does much for the English Gitanjali and for Indian poetry in English generally. It shows that far from being poetry with “the debilitating motif of alienation” Indian poetry has rich Gramin and Dalit roots and has in its background the deepest Upanishadic, Vaishnava and Buddhist traditions. All this is coupled with “a yearning that seeks to realize and blend the sensual, sexual and spiritual into a continuum.” (45) With the Gitanjali as his central text, Dutta-Roy shows how if a poet is true to his deepest roots and cultural moorings it becomes possible to “strike the chords of harmony across cultures” while maintaining one’s own originality. This essay reveals a rare thoroughness in showing how the Gitanjali in particular and Tagore in general have remained misunderstood and misinterpreted and how so many critics, including W. B. Yeats, have only added to the confusion. Anyone desirous of getting to know about Tagore should read this critical piece seriously.
If the Tagore essay shows how Tagore is misunderstood or represented with special reference to the Gitanjali, the essay on Sri Aurobindo, “Sri Aurobindo: A Critical Study” by Goutam Ghosal shows us how Sri Aurobindo has not been given justice by some critics. The significance of this piece lies in the fact that it divides the poet’s work both in temporal and spatial segments seeing the effect of the various places the poet lived in at various points of time. This essay follows a more conventional approach. It is definitely one of the best pieces on Aurobindo available for anyone who would like to know about the poet. It leaves out no aspect of his poetry, stressing on the poet’s development from his early neglected phase to the final one in which Savitri becomes possible. In between there is a straggling of the poet towards Shakespeare, Kalidas and Wordsworth. But in Savitri the poet’s final achievement comes to the fore. The inclusion of this piece enriches the anthology because Sri Aurobindo’s is no simple poetry and his forays into mantra and his newer ways of expressing himself are not easy to come to terms with and Ghosal has tried to simplify a difficult task. One can see how thoroughly Ghosal has read Aurobindo.
One of the most delightful and useful pieces of this anthology come from Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, a scholar who displays a marked kind of sanity in the way she treats of Sarojini Naidu in “Sarojini Naidu – Nightingale of India”. We are in need of this kind of responses to Indian poetry if we want to prevent the cut and dried, half emaciated, Modernist Indian scholar (sometimes practicing poet in addition) from trying to kill the reputation of a poet such as Naidu to keep his own scarecrow of an image alive. Says Neela Bhattacharya Saxena:
In the wake of Modernists styles and their heady excitement, Sarojini Naidu was dismissed by many as a sentimentalist and a mere imitator of Victorian ways, and not relevant to poetry. In addition, as my experience showed, very few younger people today even know about the poetry of her extraordinary life as a freedom fighter and a national leader. But the wheel of time moves and perspectives change. At this point of time, when critical modes have been enjoying their romance with postmodernism, postcolonialism, and a global feminism maturing further every day, we may look at her with fresh eyes to recognize the contribution this woman made to the development of Indian poetry in English and to the Indian freedom movement, as well as women’s rights. While some of the criticism of her verses may have been valid, to consign Naidu to the list of discarded poets is to ignore the achievements of a remarkable woman as pioneer. (76-77)
In a forthright manner the author is able to point out the blindness of an approach which would not see the historical position and the reason for Naidu to write the way she needed to write. She “spoke in a voice that belonged at once to an ancient land and to its new emergent identity.” (77) If she did not write like Eliot or Ezra Pound she was doing what the Indian of that time ought to have done. She played her role in working hard to make Indian English a language of her own and one that the Indian writer would make his own after her.
Saxena’s essay is academically very sound and shows her outspokenness in supporting a poet who it has become fashionable to pull down. She shows an in-depth knowledge of new theories and adeptly reveals how these can be put to good use while the author under focus is not pushed into the margins as the theories are applied to her work. Saxena’s piece blends well with responses that come towards the end of this anthology, particularly Tabish Khair’s, to free Naidu from the clutches of a group of Indian scholars with obvious vested interests.
The piece on Nissim Ezekiel, “Recalling Nissim Ezekiel”, by Nilufer E. Bharucha, is written in a lighter vein as a reminiscence of the author’s meetings with the poet in the last phase of his life, a phase when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. This piece is yet quite rewarding as it tells us how sharp Ezekiel’s mind was even in its damaged state. The essay divides the poems under study as poems of the mind and heart. Like other critics of Ezekiel, Bharucha dwells largely on the poet as modernist, with irony and self-mockery playing a major role in a majority of his poems. Having dealt with the form and content of certain poems, she concludes by “focusing on Nissim the public figure, the political man and his penchant for fence-sitting”. (115)
One of the most interesting essays in the anthology, “Jayanta Mahapatra”, by Sachidananda Mohanty, again relies on his personal meetings and associations with the poet. Mohanty is able to demonstrate the power of biographical criticism (even though the piece is not entirely that) in times when there has been so much talk of the death of the author and trusting the tale rather than the teller. Pain, we are told has been Mahapatra’s lot from childhood. He quotes a passage which reveals that Mahapatra “did not share a close affinity with his mother”, a fact that seems to have affected his mind. There was loneliness in his life coupled with his experience of the pain he saw his cousin experience due to her drunken husband. Mohanty returns to the fact that Mahapatra missed the bond of love which could have given him solace. (119) We are told that Mahapatra found comfort and refuge in “great literature”, particularly of the romantic kind. (119-120) Much importance is accorded to the poet’s grandfather’s diary:
For Mahapatra, the grandfather’s diary, “torn and moth-eaten” remained a prized possession. It was history, memory and communication all in one. As a “scroll of despair” it prompted him to write a poem, entitled “Grandfather”, (121)
Mohanty’s essay is rather scholarly and shows research of the highest order. He goes to the extent of pointing out the Western journals that first published Mahapatra’s poems, some of these very prestigious ones published in America and England. I would give the editor of this anthology credit for including this piece because it provides a great resource for someone working on Mahapatra or simply for one who would like to know about the man and his poetry. The life of the poet seems to lead him on to a Modernist sensibility like the one we are told about in Bharucha’s piece on Ezekiel. Here is a typical passage of revealing biographical scholarship that one encounters in Mohanty’s essay:
As in the case of other Modernists, Mahapatra’s poetry is based on irony, detachment and a wry humour. His identity is a fractured one, rooted in his Hindu ancestry and inherited Christianity; the self, defined by doubt, dilemma and ambivalence. There is attraction to mainstream Hindu society and culture. At the same time, many of his poetic personae feel repelled by sectarian or creedal Hinduism. In particular, the underdog, the dispossessed, the infirm, the diseased that throng Hindu temples everywhere, produce in him a profound irony seen though a detached eye. (122)
Another very insightful essay, “A. K. Ramanujan’s Poetry” by Anjali Nerlekar comes after the one on Mahapatra. This piece has a psychological as well as biographical angle as it gives so much significance to the absent mother in Ramanujan’s poetry (written in America after he left her behind in India). She chooses to talk about the suitcase which Ramanujan carried to America, one that needed to be tied with a rope on one side to keep it from spilling out its contents. The suitcase could express the poet’s financial condition at that time but Nerlekar finds this suitcase suitable for a different purpose. She finds in it a metaphor for Ramanujan’s poetry: “Ramanujan’s poetry is somewhat like that: The lyric voice holds together a bunch of selves and experiences sourcing themselves to a disappearing mother . . .” (128) Much in the poet, according Nerlekar, results from a sense of failure:
A.K. Ramanujan’s poetry is one of self-proclaimed failures – of the failure to find the mother, the lover, the perfect translation, the past, the nation/home, the self. But it is also poetry of luminous success, of finding a home in language practices and in translation, of creating a resting place in them when none is available outside – of creating on the space of the page what is lost in the irretrievable past of his life. The theme of failure/success is inextricably connected with the complex imaging of his mother, who is present in her absence throughout Ramanujan’s poetry. By representing the voiceless in their myriad forms in Ramanujan’s life, the mother becomes the epitome of the subaltern – and, despite the persistent efforts of the poet in his work, neither Ramanujan nor the reader can hear this subaltern woman speak. This question of source and origin (and hence of parentage) haunt all these poetic concerns and animate the most seemingly unconnected images in his work. (128)
This scholar then finds four criteria with the help of which she studies Ramanujan’s poetry: biography, the role of English, regional languages in his English poetry, and the question of gender. This fourfold division is a fine measure adopted by Nerlekar to study the entire body of Ramanujan’s poetry. The reader of this anthology is likely to find this fourfold division extremely useful in analyzing this poet’s work.
The next critical essay of the anthology is a very extensive and well planned account of Arun Kolatkar’s writings. It is called, “Arun Kolatkar’s Historical Imagination” by Vinay Dharwadker. This piece is remarkable for the two levels at which it operates. On the one hand, in the first part, it is written in a style so simple that it lays bare the entire corpus of Kolatkar’s work rather transparently. In the second half of this essay, Dharwadker changes his approach making the piece highly scholarly, theoretically rich and useful for anyone wanting to know about this particular poet. This piece is rather long but I would like to quote a single paragraph from this essay to tempt readers to read the whole piece:
Kolatkar’s most important accomplishment, however, is his critique of the Mahābhārata itself, specifically in Jaratkaru’s monologue and in the overall design of Sarpa Satra. For a growing community of modern readers, the epic’s core problem is its amoral politics of power, domination, militarism, and force, especially its multiple justifications of killing and slaughter, which come to a head in the metaphysical and theological arguments of the Bhagavad-gītā, embedded inside it. Traditionalist readings – sanctioned by Hindu revivalism as well as Euro-American Orientalism in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth – have dominated the international reception of the Gītā in colonial and postcolonial times, sanitizing its message as a high point of poetic and philosophical speculation in ancient India. In a Modernist reading, however, Lord Krishna’s comprehensive deconstruction of the karmic logic of what we now label as “murder” – a move that rhetorically dismantles the attribution of agency and moral-ethical responsibility to a subject who takes a life – amounts to a monstrous “aestheticization of politics” comparable to that which Walter Benjamin, for instance, imputed to mid-twentieth-century Italian and German Fascism. But rather than assault the Mahābhārata’s metaphysics of violence at its canonical core in the Gītā, Kolatkar chooses to attack it on the flanks: he astutely picks a relatively obscure point of vulnerability in the Book of Astīka, and leaves us with an uncompromising rejection of the “epic foundations of Hindu culture” as constructed by sanctimonious, self-style traditionalists. (162-163)
Like most other pieces of this anthology this one also becomes one of the best introductions to the poet under focus. As I admire the scholarship and critical insights of Dharwadker in analyzing Kolatkar’s work I also commend Smita Agarwal in choosing this particular piece instead of another. I particularly like the information and approach to certain neglected features of Jejuri specially the scholar’s use of another work of the poet, Sarpa Satra, to bring out the meaning of Jejuri.
Anisur Rahman’s “Contextualizing Kamala Das” is an attempt to show how response to Kamala Das’s poetry has tended to remain of a stock nature and how this has essentialized virtually everything about her, her poetry and criticism on her. He therefore chooses to see her in a context, which by presumption is a new way of approaching her. The intricacy with which Rahman analyses the poet is extraordinary. The main arguments that constitute this piece are impressive indeed but what I liked even more is the information one receives in the footnotes that the scholar provides. He lays at the reader’s door a wealth of scholarship of a varied nature and shows the multitasking his mind is constantly involved in.
Seeing Kamala Das’s personal confessional poetry as much more than personal, touching the divine, Rahman comes up with some very interesting statements:
In poems of this category there is an imagined sexual intervention by gods that ultimately helps the devotee to acquire a kind of super-consciousness. In seeking physical union with the divine, the poet confesses the suffering experienced in separation and imagines the bliss that might come with union. As such, this kind of poetry becomes a mode of a very personal kind of confession to one who is unseen but can well be imagined. (185-186)
Rahman can make big claims with a straight face. For instance he can say that every expression is basically an act of confession (186) and therefore a variety of literary traditions border on the confessional (186) and that poetry is more confessional than fiction (186). One may not agree with everything that Rahman says but one is struck by the intensity with which his deeply felt and thought-out statements come together. Even though Rahman still works on some of the basic principles on which Kamala Das has been assessed, he is able to infuse a new life, as it were, by putting these principles in a context. Reading this essay one has the added advantage of not losing track of what others had said, before Rahman, yet always being conscious of how what they said had limitations.
A.J. Thomas’s essay is of a rather different nature. This delightful poet (Thomas is one of my favourites amongst the newer lot) has attempted to sketch a picture of five eminent poets – Moraes, Daruwalla, de Souza, Jussawalla and Patel and how Indian English poetry as a whole was shaped due to certain factors in which individuals like Nehru could to play a role. Thomas tells us that Indian English was written in the metropolitan cities and the “poetry of this period was largely individualistic, apolitical and almost private.” (201) Thomas does a relatively more difficult job than the other scholars of this anthology because he writes on five different poets in a single essay. Yet he is able to accomplish this very difficult task rather well and his essay is very helpful for an initiation into the work of the five that he talks about.
The essay by Tabish Khair, “Language in Indian Poetry in English”, is in a sense, one of the most sensitive pieces included in this anthology because it deals with the unusual and unique way in which language is employed in Indian English poetry. Khair is not merely a wonderful novelist, he is a perceptive critic as well because he can put his finger on an issue so pertinent to Indian English poetry, as the following:
This brings us to a matter central to Indian poetry in English, a matter that runs against its other transnational affinities. Indian poetry in English demands a special relationship between the written word and the spoken sound. That is so because: firstly, English in India is predominantly – but not only – a written and read language (like Sanskrit and Persian before it), English in India lives in a complex relationship with other Indian languages, none of which can be or have been reduced to or taken over by English to any significant extent. Unlike Caribbean creoles, for instance. (250)
Khair shows how Sarojini Naidu’s “Village Song”, a poem brilliantly analyzed by Khair, demonstrates these two points. Khair, like Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, does not follow the old dying voice of Indian scholars who would consider Naidu not good enough because she does not write like some Indian poets, Ezekiel for instance, who try to echo Modernist voices. Khair’s analysis of Derozio’s “The Harp of India” is equally impressive, showing how much the poet depends on his own independent response to come to terms with poetry. He is original to the core. He can speak freely against someone like Salman Rushdie almost as though he were using Rushdie against Rushdie himself: “Yes, the Indian English writer has a voice that is as ‘distinctive as the American or the Caribbean’ writer, but this voice cannot be picked off the ‘streets’ of India because English is not spoken on the streets of India and turned, with minimal art, into a ‘literary language’.” (254) If Kolatkar and Ramanujan are more impressive Indian poets their poems “need to be read on the page before and as they are spoken aloud.” (254)
One of the reasons for the great success of this anthology is that it has some very experienced and creative contributors. The anthology picks up the class that these classy contributors possess. One of the reasons why the anthology will remain a favourite with researchers in this field is that they will need the exhaustive bibliography that is provided at the end of the book. But let us not forget that this anthology also has its weak points. The chief of these is one of omission. It should have had something on a poet as significant as Agha Shahid Ali, and at least a mention of Meena Alexander. Perhaps.
Highs and Lows
This world is made of highs and lows
One finds this wherever one goes.
The highlands are high the lowlands low;
Uphill and down wherever we go.
The highs are what we all aspire;
The upward jump, the flame of fire.
But downward falls are never sought after.
They take away fun and all the laughter.
But without the low there would be no high
The value of smiles comes after you cry.
To reach the skies you would need to rise.
First be there below, then raise your eyes.
Without the day there would be no night.
Without debility who would know might?
The one who conquers, who wins, who gains,
Must know what pains are, and what are chains.
We are born to suffer
Yes, we are indeed born to suffer.
The marrow of my bones says that;
It’s not the Buddha’s sermon alone
That I echo. It’s a deeply felt view.
Whatever surrounds me will inflict pain;
What I accept and what reject.
Those, my friends, that see me outdo them,
Those that I compete with, those that I regret;
Will each add to my misery through jealousy,
Rivalry and for fun’s sake. Those that love me
Will make me most sad, those that hate will
Speak like my dad in criticism and condemnation.
But suffering it is that will do the trick; it is
This that will enhance my growth, my gains,
Fathom out my depths, break away my chains, till
I’ve reached that point where I am on the path
Of solitary advancement and hope. “The road to success is
Lonely” is as true and as trite as the adage “We’re born to suffer”.
When the vessel of trust is broken
When the vessel of trust is broken,
Its peace seeps out of it; the vacant space
Is never taken by any other fluid conduit.
The case becomes difficult; the face with
No relief on it. No cracked urn can hold on
To any life giving sea.
Writing the Other Gender in Fiction
Men and women are basically different, whether we talk about clothes, interests, pastimes or what have you. Even though there has been a tendency in recent times for both genders to do jobs traditionally associated with single genders, the division of labour between the two has been fairly consistent till now. Jobs traditionally done by men have been taken up, as though by challenge, by some women. Tasks generally associated with women have tended to be avoided by men, though here too the line cannot be always drawn too clearly. Mahesh Dattani, the Indian dramatist, has dwelt on this subject with some distinction. Self-respect and social convention have been behind the general tendency to segregate on the basis of gender.
Writers, however, are a different ball game. They manage to write of the other almost like the other. Writers would not like to limit themselves to their own genders. To know about your own gender alone is to know about just half the world. The one who can enter into the other’s experience is the successful author. Thus whereas the non-writer can afford to be indifferent to the nature of the experience frequently encountered by the other gender, a writer cannot. A woman may have little interest in the various kinds of revolvers and pistols available but she would have to develop the interest if she wants to write a scene in a novel where men are discussing revolvers and pistols. Similarly men may not be interested in the best kinds of lipsticks, or the quality of dress materials used in the making of blouses and gowns but they would be required to know them if they are to show women discussing the material used in the clothes they are wearing in a particular scene.
The writer should be curious to know about secrets of life and living principles. A character in Shakespeare says: “In Nature’s scheme of secrecy a little I can read.” That is exactly what the writer should be doing – trying to go beyond surface appearance into areas on which life is secretly perched. The writer cannot ignore what the other gender secretly desires, on what motivation he or she will have the next moment. The writer’s imagination must help him to travel into the unknown and un-experienced domain, where the Creator has been quietly travelling ahead of him. Writers of fiction, if they are to make a mark, must have that godlike quality of including everything in their field of awareness. They need to be all-knowing as far as possible and all-seeing. The man who would be a successful author must not be shy of peeping into a woman’s bag, imaginatively if not actually. The bag is a euphemism, of course. They should be able to “see into the life of things”, where even people are included in the list of “things”.
The Seeds of Time
If life takes a turn toward the happy past,
Will I try to reconstruct it brick by brick?
The time that was, is gone, and may return at last,
May return only to canker all like a nasty trick.
Who knows what roots will sprout into what trees?
An honest teller of the future there never was.
Winds, storms and hurricanes begin as just a breeze.
Teeth that peep out of smiles change to sharky jaws.
To hope for justice in this life is foolishness.
Great things just come when they decide to come.
The mind cannot see; it must only digress.
The soul sees, yet must always be quite dumb.
Women writers and readers are sometimes piqued by the fact that women’s commercial fiction, women’s romance and chick lit are not given the same seriousness that stories written for men are. Women’s experience that is marked by exclusivity can have great merit for women. Men’s fiction written exclusively for men naturally has more interest for men. But, some women say that women take interest in men’s fiction but men do not show interest in their work in the same manner.
The reason seems to be that women are generally more inquisitive than men and live in a world that has been dominated by men for thousands and thousands of years. They have been shown the way by men to do so many things, outside the home. Inside the home it is they who tend to show the way. The home is a smaller area of space (sometimes with far reaching consequence); the outside world is a larger space with consequences of a different kind. When novels deal with homes and the outside world (in its serious dimensions) they get the attention of people because of their mature, serious and significant subject matter. But if novels contain frivolous stuff like the envy of a woman whose friend has hooked more men in a year than she has in a decade (or the story of how attractive one can be) the story will not involve men to the same extent. The same would be equally true of a male-centric story that touches upon a trivial matter.
Women’s fiction must have the potential to elevate womanhood or to make a woman feel good being a woman instead of feeling slighted in a man’s world. Just thinking about the skin, clothes, hairstyles and perfumes could never be equated with the heart, serious relationships, agonies and ecstasies. A story that tells of a home-making or home-breaking experience will always be more significant than one which deals with an affair of much less significance. Affairs may appeal to some men and women for some time but they will never impact them as much as novels that foreground more deep human experience.
I cannot speak for others with the same authority but I know that the women in The Tailor’s Needle deal with very deep emotions and experiences. There are lighter moments in the novel but these are only moments in the novel, not its basic fabric. Take for instance the woman-character, Jamuna. She has the smallest role. She is a second wife of a wealthy man who has lost his first wife and needs another woman to look after his children. He has little feeling for her and yet she must feel for him if she is to survive in the household. She will always be in that position. She marries him only because she is neither from a rich family nor is she good looking. Without marriage she will just wither away. The sadness of her story is touching in a serious way. Chick Lit is alright with women but must not strive to rope in too many men.
I sat alone, disenchanted, sullen,
With nothing to pride in, no cheer.
No lust remaining, no trust;
No music soothing, no narrative hook.
Then came a lightening insight, tearing
The dismal, the opaque dark.
Like a lark tweeting a spark of wisdom:
“The mind needs facts, give it them.
Unadorned facts is its need:
No embroidery no hem;
The thing reduced to the seed.”
Is that what I want, I wondered; not satisfied.
My need is different, not hard, dried and roasted facts.
Ideas are better, one like me wants them more.
But no ship of mine could sail on these too,
Without the wind to push it through.
A mast was needed, sail was crucial.
I needed a pushing oar,
That took me on ahead of others
Dispelling quite gloom and despair.
Then popped up from in me something;
A voice different in tone and scope;
I was arrested by its candour;
It did carry some conviction:
“What you need is to flap your soul;
To flutter it like a bird’s wings.
Notice in it the burning coal.
And do allow it to sing.”
My soul seemed too glum to stir up
Darkness did my light dispel.
Those are things long dead now for me.
Who can now flap up the wings?
Who can see glowing fresh coal?
And who can roll out the music,
That can stir up a hornet’s nest?
Where can I find the kindled candle
That will change darkness to light?