In his introduction to The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1997), Arvind Krishna Mehrotra wrote: “To edit an anthology is an opportunity to revise the literary map, bring neglected works back in circulation, and shift the emphasis from certain poets to others.”
Over the last decade or so, there have been half a dozen anthologies focusing on modern Indian poetry, mostly in English. The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry has sought to redraw the map, and perhaps, broaden the sweep of the net. Editor Sudeep Sen writes in his foreword: “There are not enough discerning anthologies of contemporary Indian poetry published in India and even less abroad — and the few that exist have tended to be rather narrow, inward-looking, and unsatisfactory.”
Has the book succeeded in broadening the pantheon? Has it revised the literary map? Well, there are definitely a couple of new voices, such as Aditi Machado. However, one of the joys of anthologies is discovering the editor’s tastes and his engagement with the themes explored by the writers. Of what do our young poets sing? And how different are their voices from the voices we heard before?
In his introductory essay, Mehrotra dismissed Sarojini Naidu’s work outright, but also winced at how he’d compared anthologies to graveyards. He acknowledged the ongoing tussle between “the language we licked off our mothers’ teats” and English. Subsequently, in an introduction to The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets , editor Jeet Thayil contended that English is no longer the ‘outside’ language. It is all around. Sen takes the argument no further. He simply sidesteps the issue by saying that an including translated poems would make the book too voluminous.
The Bloodaxe anthology had 73 poets, many of whom lived outside India. The book was not such a long way off from Fulcrum’s Give the Sea Change, and It Shall Change: Fifty Six Indian Poets , also edited by Thayil, and Penguin India’s 60 Indian Poets . Many of them, if they were born after 1950, find room in the Harper Collins book. All these anthologies were published just a couple of years apart. Therefore the question begs to be asked: What changed? How different is the Harper Collins book from its cousins?
There is also the question of cohesion. Sen has arranged the 85 poets alphabetically. He chooses not to dwell on how old each poet is and when they began writing, so we get no sense of how Indian poetry has changed over the last few decades. Newness here seems a facet of age rather than sensibility. The poets are united by an Indian ancestry and the fact that they’re born after 1950. This means that contemporary poets like Adil Jussawala are not part of the ‘new’, even though his new book of poems was published recently.
Besides, there are thousands of young Indians who write poetry in English today, and hundreds who write quite well. If you add the Diaspora, the number is staggering.
Sen believes the poems speak for themselves. And there is no doubt that each poet adds a new note to the program. On the question of language itself, in Tamil, Sharmila Voorakkara writes: “ I hacked down a jungle/of a tongue from myself ”. Priscilla Uppal’s ‘Identity Crisis’ is so unexpected in its avoidance of cliché that she forces the reader to think about the cliché of identity itself. Priya Sarukkai Chabria conducts flagrant experiments like footnoting poetry.
But for an anthology to bear his imprimatur, the editor must speak for the poems too. Does Amitava Kumar’s prose-leaning ‘Forty Takes’ converse with the crystal form of Anand Thakore’s ‘Ghazal’? Do the Caribbean-influences in David Dabydeen’s ‘Slave Song’ correspond with Daljit Nagra’s ‘Phallacy’? Is the politics of Rabindra K. Swain, Amitava Kumar and Monica Mody the same colour as Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s ‘The Terrible Calamity’?
To be included in this sort of anthology is to be seen as part of a generational narrative. So the question remains: what’s the story?