Updated: July 14, 2010 17:21 IST

Bold new voices

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An issue on Indian poetry attempts to redress the shortfall of Indian poetry anthologies in the U.S.

A pink panther created by New Delhi-based artist Bharti Kher adorns the cover of the spring 2009 issue of The Literary Review. The bindi-adorned panther, ‘Rinky Dink' signifies many things for me: Supreme confidence, boldness, experimentation, playfulness, irony. In a sense, the panther is like this issue on Indian poetry guest-edited by Sudeep Sen. And, though late, I hope this review tells you why.

The poems featured in this collection, “Unmapped: The Indian Poetry Issue” are written by Indian poets living in India and around the world. Many of them are refreshing, new and bold voices. As Sen's foreword explains, this collection is an attempt to redress the shortfall of Indian poetry anthologies in the United States. Unlike fiction or short fiction from India, very little is known about contemporary Indian poetry written in English out there, he says.

Sen also quickly adds that he has left out some poets who regularly appear in some anthologies or can be accessed on the Internet.

However, there are many names that have been included in some recent, international anthologies like Sixty Indian Poets or the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry (both edited by Jeet Thayil). But I'm not complaining: it's always a pleasure to re-read young Indian international poets who are yet to become familiar names in India.

Poetic landscapes

Still, I'd like to focus on some poets I discovered and enjoyed, thanks to this collection.

In “Tamil”, Sharmila Voorakkara looks at Tamil as “a crumbling house inside my mother's house”, at a language “that looks like/knit purl knit purl/knot knot knot”, at how she “hacked down a jungle/of a tongue from myself”. Arresting play of images and words.

Reading her ‘Coca-Cola Goa' was good fun too:“Here I learn you don't come to marry Holland woman then run antique business then own guest house in Goa by scrubbing toilets…You do not do that. Holland woman mummy daddy die – leave Holland woman ALL their money…”

While Voorakkara's work seems personal, Canada-based H. Masud Taj who calls himself a “print shy post-oral poet” revels in irony and philosophy of the animal world as seen in his three poems, “Goat”, “Panther” and “Tiger”.

“I feel/Therefore I am./I eroticize/I do not reason…That is the way it will always be;/I remain aroused indiscriminately./Though dumb,/Bodies continue to have tongues.” (from ‘Goat') Who would've thought that a goat could philosophise à la Rene Descartes!

The poetic landscape stretches from Descartes to Raj Kapoor when entering Summi Kaipa's poems. Taking two legendary films from Bollywood, Kaipa - who lives in California - captures some strong emotions. In “Bobby”, she describes someone who's “always smiling like a ventriloquist's dummy.” Though written in prose, the hint of melancholy in the last lines is gracefully subtle: “The loss of your mother's hand on your cheek and your father's fail-safe business is enough to break you. You will see, then, that we don't dance alone. And I'm only a public school girl.”

“Mera Naam Joker” recreates the famous scene from the Kapoor film and stands out for a single image: “The red glass heart, as big as a candy box, belongs to no one.”

An equally simple, yet arresting image is found in Rishma Dunlop's “Bathing Day” that describes, very simply, a bathing day: “Festive pilgrims like waterfowls/Meandering upslope/Shrilled our sunset/Birds we mistook/For fishermen's pegs/Flew like pins to a magnet.” The sheer simplicity of this poem makes it special.

Searing honesty

While the anthology has many other such poems notable for their craft, it also includes some poets who have ventured into bold images that surprised me through seething honesty and irony. R. Raj Rao's “The Boys I Love” is a striking example. Look at these lines: “The boys I love/Are scarecrows without Salman Khan's biceps...The boys I love/have hard-ons only when they're hard-up/...The boys I love/Can't talk Foucault before or after f**king...”

The same irony effortlessly comes through in his “Female Eunuch”: “The female eunuch/Exports her castrated part/To America.”

Besides some of these voices that appealed to me, the collection has a gamut of established poets based in India, whose work appears in most major anthologies or at popular festivals. Priya Sarukkai Chabria, known for her experimental styles, impresses yet again with her “Everyday Things in My Life”, a seven-stanza poem heavily laden with footnotes. Reading it, I realised even routine could be rapturous: Ironing clothes, cutting fruits, answering questionnaires, answering door bells.

The last lines are the most fulfilling: “I return to the dream that I/constantly dream these days, that dream whose meaning I know but can/not share because my words are also only of this world.”

The guest editor Sudeep Sen's “Lily Pads” is an interesting experiment in style and technique, playing with the reader's eye, scattering text all over the pages. But I liked “Winter” better, especially when he concludes it: “...Heavy, translucent, vaporous,/split red by mother tongues--/winter's breath is pink.”

The well-designed and tastefully produced anthology sets out what it's meant to: Introduce the countless Indian poetic voices to the U.S.; the fertile Indian imagination that has sprouted home and abroad. “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth...I have been eating poetry,” aptly signs off Sen in his foreword, quoting Mark Strand.

After reading this collection, you will say the same....

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