Poems that cut to the core of being human. - Zerin AnklEsaria

Cultural loss, deracination, anomie, these are the dominant themes in this study of the contemporary Indian poetic scene, not an overview but a collection of 15 essays that have appeared in literary journals and critical anthologies on 6 poets. In this random format there is inevitably some overlapping and imbalance, with 6 essays devoted to Nissim Ezekiel and only two between 3 women poets. The author, scholarly and well-read, uses a wide range of references covering interviews given by his subjects at various times and their critical writings if any. This inclusive approach is one of the best things about the book.

Another is the author's sympathetic attitude and his tolerance of views opposed to his own. Where praise is due it is generously given, while censure is muted. The overall tone is one of smooth urbanity. Sometimes one wishes it was less even, a shade more acerbic. Take Germaine Greer or Christopher Hitchens. One reads them compulsively because their pens are dipped in vitriol. A book lights up when the sparks fly!

Among the significant issues discussed is that of Ezekiel's Jewishness. Pandey shows that it was balanced by a total lack of bigotry, for here was a man of wide interests well-versed in the esoteric---Zen Buddhism, Christian Mysticism, Sufism, Cabala. Was he isolated from the Indian milieu? The poet himself spoke of the conflicts between his Jewish racial soul and his Indian choices, and made conscious attempts to integrate, for instance by translating poetry from Marathi into English, and repeatedly asserting that he could never live anywhere except in Bombay, his “backward place”. Ezekiel's stance is never prophetic or reformist. Though he accepts suffering and failure as intrinsic to the human condition he is not nihilistic as Philip Larkin is. Hope, courage, the honesty to face up to one's shortcomings, these are the values projected in the body of his work.

As for the well-worn accusation made by M.K. Naik and others that the ‘Very Indian Poems in Indian English' evidence an offensive sense of superiority, Pandey finds this view unduly harsh. Genial, never condescending, Nissim was incapable of arrogance as those who knew him personally will testify.

Between worlds

A.K. Ramanujan described himself as the perpetual “hyphen in Indian-English”, living between two or more languages, two countries, two disciplines. Like Ezekiel, his translation built bridges, kept him in touch with his roots. The Vacanas which he rendered from Kannada into English are poems of revolt against the religious practices of the time which anticipated his own dissatisfaction with his petrified Brahminical heritage. His creed can be summed up in the words of Basavanna: “Things standing shall fall/ but the moving ever shall stay”.

Angst, self-doubt, the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, are the themes of the early poems, 3 of which are considered in detail as “programme-poems,” charting out the course of the poet's development. The imagery is lucid and striking: “I resemble everyone/ but myself, and sometimes see/ in shop-windows,/ despite the well-known laws/ of optics,/ the portrait of a stranger,/ date unknown…” Pandey shows that they were written before Ramanujan left India, not after he settled in America as is generally assumed, and to argue that his creativity flowered as a result of his direct exposure to Western culture is a fallacy.

Ironic

Dom Moraes's rootlessness was “a willed alienation”, not something that grew out of external conditions. Unlike Ezekiel and Ramanujan he made a conscious decision to leave India, seeing it as “a defeated dream/ Hiding itself in prayers…”, yet in England he was not much happier, for he dreamt “of hawks,/ Of doelike girls, the sun's endless delay,…And I grow homesick for an Indian day.” Nostalgia, melancholy are the dominant moods of a poet who took himself too seriously and, more culpably, looked down his nose at all things Indian, a point well-documented by Pandey. Technically Ramanujan's equal, as responsive to natural landscapes as Jayanta Mahapatra, his urban imagery is as evocative as that of Ezekiel without the latter's self-deprecating irony.

The women poets, neither alienated nor expatriate, stand apart. Kamala Das's last poems are seen as attempts to re-evaluate her past, but should she be taken so seriously? A compulsive attention-seeker she often used her considerable talent for self-publicity, and here also she tom-toms from the house-tops her geriatric liaison with a man young enough to be her son (or maybe grandson?), and her conversion to Islam. The other two poets are motivated by feminist concerns. Mamta Kalia wages her personal war with patriarchy through satire and self-irony, while Imtiaz Dharker protests against social institutions such as purdah in memorable tropes: “The cloth fans out against the skin/ much like the earth that falls/ on coffins after they put the dead men in.”

Allusive and conscientiously researched, these essays are a worthwhile addition to current scholarship. Sadly, their value is diminished by typos exceeding an acceptable number, erratic punctuation, a perplexing reference to a woman's ‘sixth finger' being chopped off, and so on. Meticulous editing is a tiresome chore, but essential to make a book reader-friendly.

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