Poems that sting, sing, laugh and bite.
Poets hide like seeds/only to return in new forms/At least now their breed is in no danger of extinction. ‘Poets’ by Rituraj. From These My Words
Eunice De Souza and Melanie Silgardo bring to life Indian poet-seeds culled from across centuries in their painstakingly researched book, These My Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry. The breathtaking range of the book sets it apart from the poetry anthologies that have been published in India over the last few months.
In their introduction, De Souza and Silgardo say that their collection seeks to represent the breadth and diversity of Indian poetry: “We wanted poems that surprised and delighted, poems that illuminated, and inspired further reading — a book for readers, not scholars and academics.” These poems, translated from languages as varied as Pali, Konkani, Telugu, Khasi, Gujarati, Malayalam and English, to name a few, truly make the book a reader’s delight.
The editors’ introduction — as introductions should — arouse the reader’s interest in what will follow: The different retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, love poetry from classical Tamil literature, Bhakti poetry, devotional poems bordering on the erotic, playful poems on gender politics, Urdu and Vedic poems.
Reading the book is like visiting an artfully curated museum of poetry from the Vedas to the present, except that the editors break logic and clichés of time, placing Kalidasa next to Nissim Ezekiel or Auvaiyar next to Ayyappa Paniker. Instead of choosing a chronological or alphabetical order, the editors arrange the poems thematically across 10 sections. Throughout, we see not only the poets’ genius, but also the translators’. Translating verse from one language to another, from one century to another, from one milieu to another, is often a complicated and unrequited act of love.
Each of these sections — the titles of which are taken from the different poems — calls out to you, one way or the other. But I particularly like ‘What then shall poetry be about’, ‘Are you looking for a God’, ‘The broom’s the limit’, ‘River of Blood’ and ‘Sleep on your left side’.
The book begins with the self-explanatory section, ‘What then shall poetry be about’. Besides the fact that reading this section put me into several existential spins about poetry, it was an entertaining discovery about the lies poets have been telling through the centuries (which we believe anyway, as Bharthari said circa 400 CE) the expectations from a poet, the what and how it should be, and so on.
The arrogance and fierce possessiveness of a poet comes through in “If anyone faults my poetry, even my teacher,/even God himself, I’ll fight back/and win.” The poem is ‘I was born for poetry’ by Chellapilla Venkata Sastri and translated from the Telugu by Velchuru Narayana Rao.
Nara’s ‘White Paper’, Nanne Coda’s ‘On Poetry in Telugu’, Bharthari’s ‘Her Face Is Not The Moon, Nor Are Her Eyes’, the extract from Ezhuthacchan’s ‘Adhyatma Ramayana’, Mona Zote’s ‘What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril’ were delightful discoveries.
There are also poems I like reading from time to time, like Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazal, ‘In Arabic’ or Hemant Divate’s ‘The Average Temperature of a Word Required for it to be Used in a Line of Poetry’ translated from the Marathi by Dilip Chitre.
‘Are You Looking for a God’ is devoted entirely to devotional poetry and we read poems following different poetic conventions of the periods they belonged to: God as saviour, God as lover, God as playmate. I thoroughly enjoyed the playfulness of Janabai’s ‘God My Darling’ (translated from the Marathi by Arun Kolatkar) in which the poet asks God to kill her in-laws so that she and God can be together: “God my darling/ do me a favour and kill my mother-in-law/I will feel lonely when she is gone/but you will be a good god won’t you/and kill my father-in-law/… let them drop dead says jani/then we will be left alone/just you and me.”
There is Andal, Purandara Das, Subramania Bharati, Tukaram, Mohammed Iqbal and Mirabai, all rendered in translation, of course. And there is also a beautifully ironic poem in Malayalam by S. Joseph, ‘My Sister’s Bible’ (translated by K. Satchidanandan) in which we see a Bible, which has everything from a ration book to money to notices of feasts; everything, except the preface, the Old and New Testaments, maps or the red cover.
The section, ‘The Broom’s the limit’ has some poems which address sexual politics. Cantirakanti’s ‘Wanted: A Broom’ (translated from the Tamil by Martha Ann Selby and K. Paramasivan) is a refreshing take on marriage: “The broom’s the limit… /so I can sweep you from my heart/and toss you in the trash/paying a life-subscription/just to get a male hooker/what am I/half-crazy/or a total fool”
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra succinctly translates feminine boldness of a Prakrit poem ‘Let Faithful Wives’: “Let faithful wives/Say what they like,/I don’t sleep with my husband/Even when I do.”
More such haunting poems breathe together in ‘River of Blood’. Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘Gaddi Aa Gayi’ and Khadar Mohiuddin’s ‘A Certain Fiction Bit Me’ (translated from the Telugu by Velcheru Narayana Rao) are chilling poems. This section also brings to us a rare excerpt from an oral political narrative in Kannada, ‘The Bedas of Haligali’ from the late 19th century, translated by C. N. Ramachandran and Padma Sharma.
The last section I will talk about here is ‘Sleep on your left side’. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s ‘Bhojpuri Descant’ lists a series of thought-provoking images – superstitions or beliefs, perhaps: “A brown she-elephant,/A bald wife,/Rain in winter:/Signs of luck.”
The Indian landscape grows more ironic in Gopal Honnagere’s ‘How to Tame a Pair of New Chappals’: “don’t take them to your temple/they may at once come to know you are weak/your god is false and start biting you/” he says, in his list of instructions for us.
These are but a few instances of poetry that stings, sings, laughs and bites. “You can only learn about poetry from one who knows,” says Nanne Coda (From ‘On Poetry in Telugu’). This is a poetry anthology that knows. Read it.
These My Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry; Eds. Eunice De Souza and Melanie Silgardo, Penguin, Rs.499.
Keywords: These My Words