GOPI K. KOTTOOR
60 Indian Poets is an anthology marked by benevolence and fairness in its inclusion of near-forgotten and emerging poets.
We need more such objectivity and fairness to nurture Indian poetry in English…
Sixty Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil, Penguin India, 2008, p.424, Rs. 499.
Jeet Thayil gave lovers of Indian poetry in English the fine anthology Give the Sea Change, and It Shall Change: Fifty Six Indian Poets (1952-2005), in 2005. The book has now been enlarged and reissued by Bloodaxe books (U.K.) as The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008) with 73 poets. It has been reissued again by Penguin India as 60 Indian Poets (2008) after deleting 13 poets. The period between Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change (2005), and 60 Indian Poets (2008) also saw the passing away of poets Revathy Gopal, Santan Rodrigues, and Kersey Katrak. Both Bloodaxe and the Indian Penguin imprints of 2008 are dedicated to 13 Indian English poets who passed away between 1993 and 2007. Agha Shahid Ali, Ruth Vanita, Sujatha Bhatt, and Meena Alexander are among the 13 poets axed from the Bloodaxe anthology to make way for the Penguin edition. And, they are all among our finest poets. The Penguin logic of the deletions is therefore baffling.
Jeet’s wife Shakti Bhatt who worked alongside Jeet to make the anthologies happen, passed away too. The passing away of Shakti Thayil is the saddest part of the story of the three world editions of Contemporary Indian English poetry edited by Jeet Thayil.
Spanning the spectrum
Beginning with Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), the 60 poets end with the youngest ones Mukta Sambrani, Tishani Doshi, and Ravi Shankar (b.1975). Poems by Nissim, Jayanta Mahapatra, and Kamala Das are the often anthologised pieces. Daruwalla is on home ground with his usual laden sweeps that both mark and often mar his poetry. A.K. Ramanujan fascinates. Srinivas Rayaprol connects. With Dom Moraes, there is no doubt that his talent resurfaced along with his cancer. “My voice tells me this.... it’ll come to no great harm.... for the cathedral where its lodging is/ was built far off and should the world get worse/ two friends alone will find it: death and verse” (“Another Weather”). G.S. Sarat Chandra, once almost forgotten, still appears fresh. “My rule of possession is simple. Let each man claim the part of stone/ He throws into the river.” (“Possession”) or, “They need you as much/ When you wish they were away.” (“Friends”). R. Parthasarathy went into near oblivion too, after Rough Passage. His poetry can be intensely nostalgic, deeply South Indian, and replete with effects. “Aunt’s house near Kulittalai, for instance / It often gets its feet wet in the river / and coils of rain hiss and slither on the roof” (“Remembered Village”). New poets as Aimee Nezhukumatathil are interesting discoveries. Aimee can be sublimely erotic. “I knew you could not live without my scent, bought pink bottles for it..... one drop lasted all day” (“Small Murders”). Bibhu Padhi is a fine poet. His poetry is often heart-drenched, but always philosophically sublime. “During the first sluggish hours of every morning, a hope is quietly born-/ that I might live on to name/ your unborn son, hold his small voice in mine”(“Grandmother’s Soliloquy”). Vijay Nambisan’s poem “Madras Central” with the lines, “Terrifying to think we have such power to alter our states / order comings and goings ; know where we are not wanted / and carry our unwantedness somewhere else,” remains evergreen .
The “Mumbai poets” are all here. Menka Shivdasani’s “No Man’s Land”: “Which side of the border do you need to go/ how far are the red rivers beneath the sky.../ what do they share in that silent snare/ tucked away inside that leather shoe? or “Spring Cleaning”, “When I want to say hello, I’d rather/ walk up to the graveyard/ with a sweet-smelling bunch of flowers, / look sad and pretend / you are still below the earth” are temptations to indulge in. Ranjit Hoskote appears less obscure. Though represented with long poems as “Footage For A Trance” or “Passing a Ruined Mill”, Hoskote is certainly a lot more compelling in his shorter poems. Anand Thakore has melody in his verse. His poem “What I can get away with” has both tenderness and flow. The lines, “Though your arms have a way of making me small / And your eyes are adept at making me forget” bring in a memory of Ernest Downson. There is Vivek Narayan with his “Three Elegies For Silk Smita”: “She’s the slut/ among white hippies on the beach/ behind the campfire/ hot pants”. (sic). C.P. Surendran’s “Family Court” is a sharp sting. Sadly, some of the others remain just fillers. Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s “Genderole” comes with a headache. But she has quality and shine in poems such as “Usage”: “Before I did, you noticed new lines cut me up/ In the rough contours of an unfamiliar map. / Therefore these minefields are dangerous/ Memory may blow us up like enemies/ strangers”. Imtiaz Dharkar fills us with unexpected wine: “My blood turns round with his/ till we break through into the clearing of his heart and stop, amazed,/ struck by light/ the sight of tables laid, glasses he has filled/,making, dreaming, waking,/ to unexpected wine” (“Dreams”). Eunice De Souza’s poetry instantly binds with the reader. Her poem “She And I” unravels a poignant story with a few lines: “Suddenly at seventy-eight/ she tells me his jokes/ his stories, the names of / paintings he loved/ and of some forgotten place/ where blue flowers fell. / I am afraid/ for her, for myself, / but can say nothing.”
Prageeta Sharma’s “Birthday Poem” jolts us with the bizarre: “I tell my lover of one week, that there are museums drunk with people”. The poetic effects that we came across in Amit Chaudhuri’s Afternoon Raag pours in his poems. Take “Mid day” for example: “Like a film of dust that’s absorbed the seven colours, quietly the dragon fly, the cut grass, ..../ when I wake the lonely road crumbles before my eyes” or “Sunday”: “And no voice to be heard but the newspaper’s as it crackles peremptorily in an old man’s tangled fingers”. Amit tackles his poems with an accomplished sense of closure which is lacking in the poetry of many of our “established poets”. There is innate splendour in “Mamang Dai”: “If I sit very still/ I think I can join the big mountains/ in their speechless ardour” (“No Dreams”). Leela Gandhi is a worthy poet: “I’ll pay what rent I owe in kind, / behave, keep passion confined/ to small hours, / the darkened stair, / and what gets damaged, lover, I’ll repair” (“Noun”).
Poets such as Prabanjan Mishra, Niranjan Mohanty (who passed away recently), Pritish Nandy, Sunita Jain, or fair representations of the Northeast poets have not appeared in any of the three Jeet Thayil anthologies. One wishes that some of them were there too. The omissions, no doubt, are not on purpose. The Jeet Thayil anthology is notable, inter alia, for its benevolence to poets near forgotten as Lawrence Bantleman, or Gopal Honnalgere. And, Jeet Thayil has been enormously fair. We need more of his kind, and more such objectivity and fairness to nurture Indian poetry in English which is now gaining attention of poetry lovers the world over.
The editor deserves his medals.