LITERATURE “These My Words”, an anthology of poetry from the Vedas to the present day, illumines the various traditions of Indian poetry
The introduction to These My Words , an anthology of Indian poetry edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, begins with an epigraph that compares a poet to an archer and a poem to an arrow. If it doesn’t cut through your heart or jolt your head, it’s not an arrow, it’s not a poem, says Nanne Coda, a 12th century Telugu poet.
The sense of sharpness that he prescribes for a poem is also a criterion that the editors kept in mind while working on this anthology. “We have sought for a collection which tries to represent the breadth and diversity of Indian poetry – we wanted poems that surprised and delighted, poems that illuminated, and inspired further reading…” they write in their introduction.
The book, which covers a dizzyingly broad expanse of time, contains poems, folk songs and oral narratives from “almost 30 languages and dialects, all translated into the English, except of course those poems written in English”.
The book came into being over five years ago, when Ravi Singh of Penguin (now with Aleph) asked Eunice to do an anthology of Indian poetry from the Vedas to the present day. “He had earlier asked Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, but Arvind said no. I promptly said yes,” Eunice says. Subsequently, Melanie Silgardo joined as a co-editor. Incidentally, Melanie, who lives in London and has worked in the publishing industry in India and UK, was once a student of Eunice. Poems by both the editors appear in the anthology.
Being practicing poets themselves, Eunice and Melanie were familiar with quite a lot of the poetry that is featured in the book. But dealing, as they were, with a habit that is a few millennia old, the book proved to be a journey of discovery. One such discovery, Eunice recalls, was encountering saint poets with nearly 20,000 poems attributed to them. To their great fortune, however, not all of them had been translated.
In its scope, the anthology is similar to the Norton Anthology of Poetry , which describes the journey of English poetry from Beowulf to the present day. But the editors have eschewed Norton’s chronological organisation in favour of a thematic one. “We have hundreds of poems talking about the same thing over a long period of time. The poets all speak to each other,” says Eunice. “We felt that a chronological organisation was too predictable, too banal.”
In the thematic arrangement, “Languages offset each other, while poets from antiquity sit alongside their modern counterparts, and those writing in English alongside those writing in regional languages.” As a result, the book is able to illuminate not one, but several traditions of poetry being engaged with over centuries.
For instance, in the third section of poems, titled ‘Are you looking for a god?’, Guru Nanak says “The Lord, my Master is away” and Arun Kolatkar asks “Are you looking for a god?/ I know a good one./ His name is Yeshwant Rao/ and he’s one of the best,/ look him up/ when you are in Jejuri next.”
While one would expect an anthology of this nature and scope to take time, Eunice says it took as long as it did because of a combination of factors. “Getting permissions was a terrible problem. In the case of poets who have died, we had to chase their estates and translators and some of them were untraceable,” she says.
“We had to make a lot of changes at the last minute because the prices were too high,” she adds. The book opens with a poem by Arun Kamble called “Which Language Should I Speak?”— taken from a 1992 publication by Orient Blackswan (formerly Orient Longman) called Poisoned Bread . The editors had identified a few more writings from the same book, but had to drop them ultimately because of the asking price of the publishers.
They were also hamstrung by the fact that they could not commission translations, as Penguin hadn’t budgeted the costs into their calculations, but were helped out in some cases when poets and translators agreed to translate free of cost.
These limitations notwithstanding, the book emerges a formidable compendium of the concerns of poets over thousands of years. But the editors acknowledge that Indian poetry is an unfinished project. “This volume is crying out for a second one, but help us lord if we agree to do it,” they write.