Notes from the underground

Poets from India and the diaspora create the ‘Indian’ experience in the London tube

Published - September 02, 2017 05:21 pm IST

Poems on the tube.

Poems on the tube.

We plan to put up poems on the London tube to mark the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. Any suggestions?” asked old friend Judith Chernaik, an American who launched the Poems on the Underground movement in London (1986), together with British poets Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert. Chernaik continues to select an eclectic variety of verses from across the globe, now with poets George Szirtes and Imtiaz Dharker.

When Judith mailed me I was reviving Dark Horse , my play about that eccentric genius, Arun Kolatkar. I sent his “The Butterfly”. Another selector suggested the same gem, and Kolatkar’s little yellow butterfly, “a pun on the present”, now beats its wings in cavernous London. On a parallel track, Kolatkar’s friend Arvind Krishna Mehrotra stares at his face on an unwiped mirror, rippling with triple layers of past, present and future in “Approaching Fifty”. And time becomes a double-edged metaphor of the then-and-now contrast in Eunice de Souza’s “Pilgrim” .

Struggling with the demands of his Kashmiri Muslim Indian heritage in an alien land, Agha Shahid Ali’s “Stationery” reaches out with a cry: “The world is full of paper./ Write to me.” In “This Morning” Mona Arshi finds her identity in the string drawn from the bloodline, “There’s a beginning/ of a thread/ like the saffron strands/ on my mother’s / hands...”

Never alone

Sujata Bhatt, an Ahmedabad-born north American migrant, now living in Germany, reassures herself with the thought, “How can you be in exile when /you live with the one you love?”

Paradoxically, the three selectors too live far from their homeland. Judith is an American rooted in London. Szirtes’ parents survived concentration camps in Hungary to migrate to England. Dharker, born in Lahore to Pakistani parents, raised in Glasgow, calls herself “a Scottish Muslim Calvinist, adopted by India and married into Wales”.

In this 70th year of India’s independent existence, at a time when post-colonial markers have faded to sepia memories, and post Brexit Britain looks to India for investment, the three selectors looked at poets from India and the diaspora, living and dead, to create the ‘Indian’ experience in a different hemisphere. After much discussion via email, they sat down with their shortlists and wishlists, and, over a home-cooked lunch (fish soup, cheese and melon, coffee and apple crumble provided by Chernaik), they picked six poems, now displayed on 3,500 posters on the tube for four weeks (mid August to mid-September) next to the usual advertisements.

Copies go to The Poetry Society, The British Council, London Transport Museum, libraries and art centres. Digital copies are posted on several official and individual websites, and free leaflets distributed to the public at random stations.

Chernaik discloses that the balance of gender, and of poets living in India and abroad “just happened”. Some posters have visuals from India, British illustrator David Gentleman’s classic, to suggest the strong cultural and artistic ties between India and the U.K., “despite all the strains of past history.” She adds, “The public always responds well to a broad range of poems which amuse and entertain even as they trigger reflection, and surely the six Indian Poems on the Underground will meet with interest and enthusiasm.” Surprisingly though, no translated verse from the land of a myriad tongues finds a place in the series.

Dharker explains, “When we read the poems around the table, the only thing we were thinking of was the poem itself, not who had written it. Some poems immediately sing out — poems which we think will speak to all kinds of people travelling on the Underground, young or old, rushing to work or tired after a long day. When they catch sight of a poem, it can be a rare moment of stillness and recognition.”

Chernaik sees the Indian series as an attempt to highlight the continuing cultural bonds between poets and artists in India and in the U.K. “Ideally, the arts thrive in an open society, with a free press, respect for human rights and universal literacy.

‘But in fact the arts often serve their most important function when they are forced underground, distributed secretly, with poets often living in exile. This was true of Ovid, writing in Latin, the Chinese ‘Tang’ poets, Brecht, Russian poets like Mandelstam and Akhmatova... Free of censorship and the ‘rewriting’ of history, the arts serve as witness to their times; as voices of protest, truth-telling.”

Gowri Ramnarayan is a playwright, theatre director, journalist, musician and translator, whose latest book is Dark Horse & Other Plays .

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