HIMANSU S. MOHAPATRA
These poems show the vibrancy and the diversity of the Indian poetic tradition.
Ninety-Nine Words, edited by Manu Dash, Panchabati Publications, 2006, p.190, Rs. 350.
ANYONE wanting to sample the pleasures of contemporary Indian English poetry will be glad they laid their eyes on the sleekly-produced Ninety-Nine Words. The editor has not clued his readers about the intriguing number, but the impressive listing of 139 poems by 29 poets shows the vibrancy and the diversity of this little Indian tradition which has made English its inalienable medium.The book brings together an interesting mix of poets, "fresh, veteran, male, female, native and diaspora". There are poems here about nature, cityscapes, home, memory, guilt, love, pain and sundry other subjects, displaying a freshness of perception (Bibhu Padhi, Rabi Swain) and a raciness of speech (Surendran, Thayil) typical of the young, and the sureness of touch characteristic of the seasoned players (Mahapatra, Daruwalla, Chitre). That creativity is indifferent to years is evidenced by the fact that some older poets in this volume come through as merely skilled, while some younger ones shine forth as truly gifted. And it sure beats one why the maximum cap of six poems per poet should have been raised to 10 in the case of one poet whose poems seem more contrived than crafted.
There is this other interesting pattern to consider, on another level. The male poets style themselves as healers of alienated states of mind. The female writers, writing through the body, set themselves up as healers, or, to use Jhumpa Lahiri's expression, interpreters of maladies.Surely, this is as it should be in a society where gender relations are still exploitative and hierarchical. Not tethered to petty domesticities and mundane chores in this unequal order, men are perhaps wont to wax philosophical about their angst and privileged loneliness. Women experience their world very differently, especially with the use of their bodies as a filter. "A Somnambulist's Walk" by Ananth gives it a representative, and yet, hauntingly poignant expression. The poem starts off by gathering the details of the so-called blessed married state: She moves
From cook-stove to
A hotter grove -
A room with the bed
For a brief or brutal bed creaks
A nonchalant repetition of act.
before exploding into its final revelatory comment:
Yet primitive institution holds
A tight-lipped resignation
revealing and unfolding
the monotonous process of
being a woman of a
male.Not that there is no floor crossing between the male and the female positions. A poem called "Family Portrait" seethes with an internal anger at the macho role that a provincial patriarchal culture fosters. Likewise, "Living Alone" by Arundhati Subramaniam "trespasses" into the privileged male domain of solitary contemplation, but only in order to stress the importance of the recovery of self from its dominion by others.
The book also participates in the contemporary moment by playing off a post-modern view of the poet as a dabbler in empty signs cut loose from their moorings (Hoskoté's "Interpreter", Pinto's "ALT-CTRL-DLT") against a pre-modern, and hence post-colonially usable, view of the poet as a sharer in the regenerative cycles of life and community (Ananth, Anita Nair, Subramaniam, K. Srilata, Manu Dash, Rajeevan). A fine volume overall, Ninety-Nine Words ushers in the healing time.