An anthology that reveals a different shade each time you open a page.
There is no story behind it./It is split like a second./It hinges around itself./It has no future./It is pinned down to no past./It’s a pun on the present./It’s a little yellow butterfly./It has taken these wretched hills/under its wings./Just a pinch of yellow,/it opens before it closes/and closes before it o/where is it
(‘The Butterfly’, Arun Kolatkar)
It is lines like these that make poetry what it is to me — unpredictable, wildly simple and beautiful. And it is anthologies like Another Country: An Anthology of Post-Independence Indian Poetry in English that keep me going back to poetry. Yes, this is the age of the Indian poetry anthology — there is one being published almost every other month. And so at first glance, it may seem that there is nothing that differentiates this anthology from the rest. Add to it my mild discomfiture with the “post-Independence” label, which, in my opinion, seems as limiting as “post-modern” or “modern”.
But read the collection more carefully and, like Kolatkar’s butterfly, it reveals a different shade each time you open a page. For, the poets and poems are arranged in such a delightfully random order that you can begin the book from anywhere. Edited skilfully by Arundhathi Subramaniam, this collection from Sahitya Akademi brings together some well-known poets and others not so well-known yet. As she explains in the foreword, the selection includes “some poets whose work has its readership, but has not yet made its way into many anthologies. There are also younger voices that deserve a wider hearing.”
So, with A. K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Keki Daruwalla or Dom Moraes, we have Mona Zote, Suniti Namjoshi, Saleem Peeradina and Karthika Nair. ‘What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril’ is one of my favourites from Mona Zote, a poet whose work I have only recently discovered. The poem about what poetry should mean to a woman in the hills cuts and bruises, but does not leave you bleeding: “...The rustle of Ernestina’s skirt will not reveal the sinful vine/or the cicada crumbling to a pair of wings at her feet./She will smile and say: I like a land where babies/are ripped out of their graves, where the church/leads to practical results like illegitimate children and bad marriages/quite out of proportion to the current population, and your neighbour/is kidnapped by demons and the young wither without complaint...”
Equally moving but more gently is Tenzin Tsundue’s ‘The Tibetan in Mumbai’, about someone who, like the countless immigrants, is alone in the monster city: “...The Tibetan in Mumbai/abuses in Bambaya Hindi,/with a slight Tibetan accent/and during vocabulary emergencies/he naturally runs into Tibetan./That’s when the Parsis laugh...The Tibetan in Mumbai/is now tired,/wants some sleep and a dream./On the 11 pm Virar Fast,/he goes to the Himalayas./The 8.05 am Fast Local/brings him back to Churchgate/into the Metro: a New Empire.”
Along with such fresh voices, the anthology also brings some old favourites that many poetry lovers may recognise from other collections. Jerry Pinto’s ‘Window’ opens into a simple, yet powerful thought that makes you want to stare at every window in your house and painfully agree with him: “What can you do with a window?/It will always remain four-cornered/Always be a savagery to the sky/Always offer enough room for only head/Or one cloud./There’s nothing open about a window.”
Then, there is the inimitable Agha Shahid Ali’s much-anthologised ‘Ghazal’ or ‘A Lost Memory of Delhi’. Reading him always makes me wish the poet had lived longer. The collection also reminds me what a pleasure it is to revisit classics like Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’; Kamala Das’s ‘The Looking Glass’; Dom Moraes’s ‘Absences’; and A.K. Ramanujan’s ‘Obituary’. “To watch the rarer birds, you have to go/Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow...And there the women slowly turn around,/Not only flesh and bone but myths of light/With darkness at the core, and sense is found/By poets lost in crooked, restless flight,/The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.” (from Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’)
That sums up Another Country for me; a collection that travels new and deserted lanes for the surprise and pleasure of poetry.