‘We are imprisoned in our landlocked conceptions of history’

Ranjit Hoskote on how Mumbai is historically cosmopolitan and how its unique geographical location shapes its heritage and art

June 12, 2018 08:16 pm | Updated 08:42 pm IST

Jonahwhale is poet, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote’s sixth collection of poems. He tells The Hindu how the poems draw on the transcultural histories of the oceans, of people and languages that migrate and re-invent themselves.

How do you feel about Mumbai and its coastal position being a muse for your work? The access to the sea creates opportunities for trade and cultural exchange (or it did before globalisation and the Internet overwhelmed this ability), and you’ve used it both literally in your work, as well as a way to travel out onto the waters, changing the location of your poetry.

What I prize most about Bombay/ Mumbai — I use this dual name consciously, for the city of my birth — is its polyglot weave of languages, the resilience with which its historic cosmopolitan attitude resists monocultural nativism, its openness to impulses that come overland and from over the sea. This — is its heritage. As a harbour city, it was part of the Indian Ocean trade network for centuries. It was pivotal to the global cotton, silk and opium trades, and — deplorably, and largely unknown to its present citizens — also associated [heavily] with the slave trade.

To me, our city’s coastal location is an invitation to re-imagine the atlas, to consider the histories of the sea, the stories of mariners and navigators, the littoral and shipboard languages created in contact zones where people from different continents met and worked together.

We tend to become imprisoned in our landlocked conceptions of the atlas and history. Let me offer you an example. Consider how fixated many of us are on Mahmud Ghori’s land-based attack on Somnath in 1025 A.D., which is supposed to have inaugurated India’s subjugation. In the same year, Rajendra Chola’s imperial fleet left the Tamil coast, arrived in South-East Asia, and established India’s enduring presence there. If we focus on the Chola maritime account, instead of the Somnath land-based story, we might find our cherished victimology misplaced.

Could you name a central inspiration for Jonahwhale as a whole collection? Each poem will have its own personal story and inspiration, but was there a driving force behind all of those individualised stories?

Jonahwhale, for me, is centrally inspired by the figure of the survivor battling the forces of history, the forces of nature, as well as the forces of a nature whose cycles have been distorted by accelerated human intervention. This is our common predicament, and the book is driven by a profound anxiety about our planetary future. The survivor in Jonahwhale could be the 18th century jahaazi or lascar, displaced from land to ocean, speaking many tongues, at large yet subaltern. Or the 21st century refugee, dishoused by epic forced migrations. Or, more collectively, traditional fisherpeople whose livelihood is threatened by factory ships. Or sailors whose way of life has been rendered extinct by the container cargo system.

Jonahwhale is a project in anamnesia, the refusal to let forgetfulness overtake forms of imagination and sociality, endangered languages, plural identities, hybrid narratives. The book owes something of its drive to one of my heroes, the photographer, writer and filmmaker Allan Sekula (1951-2013), especially his multi-platform [illustrated book], Fish Story (1989-1995), and his film, The Forgotten Space (with Noël Burch, 2010).

When the speaker becomes the ocean itself, there is a sudden influx of natural elements, as compared to the urban and city elements other poems had (‘Ocean’ versus ‘The Churchgate Gazette’, for example). What is your decision for not separating entirely, but limiting natural or man-made elements into separate poems? There are both natural and man-made elements in your poems, but each poem seems to focus on one more than the other.

That is a very interesting observation! My focus, actually, is on the way in which the natural world and the world of the human-made now blur into each other. I map this in poems like ‘Highway Prayer’, where the tropical politics of tele-buffoons and snake-oil saviours plays out to the tune of cyclones and burning tyres, or ‘The Oracle Tree’, in which the protagonist is an inter-species figure, tied up with ‘holy threads’ with roots burning through his shoes. This nature-technology blur recurs in my poetry, as well as in my work as a curator, especially in the context of the encyclopaedic museum — I have recently been appointed as Academic Consultant to the CSMVS, Bombay. As you know, the encyclopaedic museum is classically conceived as a spectrum extending between naturalia , objects drawn from the natural world, and artificialia , the domain of human-made artefacts on the other.

How does this 16th century definition hold up in the early 21st? Given the blurring of frontiers and definitions, the emergence of nano-technologies, genetically modified crops, augmented reality, and virtual prosthetics, we may well have to rethink it, less as an absolute polarity and more as an unpredictable interplay of opposites.

Think of the ocean itself! It is no longer nature’s exclusive preserve. A floating island-continent of plastic swirls in the Pacific, a tribute to our ecological irresponsibility, which has damaged the ozone layer and the polar ice caps, introduced dissonance into weather patterns and injected polymers into the food chain.

Poetry in the City, a discussion between Ranjit Hoskote, Udayan Thakkar, Sampurna Chattarji, Chintan Ruparel and Bachi Karkaria will take place this evening at 6 p.m. at NGMA, Fort; RSVP: avidlearning@essarservices.co.in/ www.avidlearning.in/ 9769937710

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