In the summer of 2012, in Bangalore, cup of tea in hand, I flipped through the Sunday paper and came across an article on Indian poetry, which in itself was a rarity. As soon as I read the first lines, my jaw dropped. One of India’s most eminent poets, known for being blunt, was essentially saying his life’s work would end up being recycled. “What happens to my drafts, my manuscripts, after my death?” asked Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. “They will be kept in boxes and sold by the kilo to the raddiwallah (scrap dealer) is what.”
The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective was born out of the desire to bring new poetic voices from India to the forefront, to create a global dialogue on poetry while honouring India’s rich poetic past. While India has a poetic history that is more than 5000 years old, Indian poetry in English dates back barely a century. Additionally, because English was a language that came into India via colonial rule, it was often regarded as a ‘bastard language’ of sorts; a language that many believed could not aptly capture the trials and tribulations of India and its people. With 1700 documented languages and more than 122 major languages in India, the logic seemed to be why do we need English to tell us how we live and dream?
After India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, the Indian government refused to declare one national language. Instead, it chose to take a bilingual stance, with English being one of the two official languages it would conduct business in. It’s interesting to see how this multilingualism exists everywhere in India and has created a polyglot consciousness, especially in Indian poetry in English, where poets draw from different tongues and its literary traditions (Ghazals, Panktis, etc.) to create an Indian poetry in English that is unique yet very real — a spectacular vernacular, if you will. In fact, India’s only Nobel laureate in literature (1913), Rabindranath Tagore, won the prestigious prize primarily for his collection of spiritual poems, ‘Gitanjali’, which was first written in his mother tongue, Bengali, and then translated into English by Tagore himself. Sixty years later, poets like Arun Kolatkar, who wrote in both Marathi and English, would create an altogether new type of Indian English poem, culled from European and Sanskrit traditions, along with the blues, urban Indian slang and more; what Salman Rushdie would later (speaking about Indian fiction) term ‘chutneyfied’. Yes, the polyglot precedent in Indian English literature was first set by the poets, their cross-cultural, multilingual poems pulsing loud and clear.
Fast forward forty more years, and a canon of Indian poetry in English ‘does’ exist—a bright, messy, scattered, multifarious one—which can be glimpsed through two landmark anthologies dedicated to Indian poetry in English, both published in the past decade: ‘The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets’ (2008) edited by Jeet Thayil and ‘The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry’ (2012) edited by Sudeep Sen. In Thayil’s anthology, the first of its kind to bring so many Indian English poets together under one roof, the work of 70+ Indian poets is presented, spanning 55 years not by chronology, but in what Thayil terms ‘verticality.’ Poetry stalwarts such as Nissim Ezekiel are placed next to diaspora poets such as Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Thayil leaves it up to the reader to figure out what exactly this verticality is, but one senses that it has something to do with the fractured, symbiotic way in which the genre has developed. Classics such as Dom Moraes’s ‘At Seven O’clock’ appear alongside the work of Gopal Honnalgere, who despite having published six books (all now out of print), is relatively unknown. Honnalgere’s poem ‘How To Tame A Pair of Chappals’, a wry take on the caste system, is one of The Collective’s favorite poems to teach in workshops and is available to all, thanks to Thayil’s groundbreaking work.
In Sen’s anthology, all the poets are born after Indian independence and the work showcased is mostly new. Poets are published alphabetically according to their first name, creating a sense of community where everyone is on a first name basis. From 85 poets and 400 poems emerges a vast, young, multilingual poetic landscape traversing multiple geographies, cultures, and experiences. If anyone suspects that Indian English poetry might be dead, they are only to open this 500 page tome and partake in its glorious polyphony.
If the two anthologies mentioned above are any indication of an Indian English canon, so too are the following twelve poems and our two roundtable discussions, which are a mix of established and emerging voices, and of poetry and process. Two of the featured poets, while not Indian by ethnicity, have a strong and compelling association, which represents the very spirit of The (Great) Indian Poetry collective as a transnational one.
So, then, what does it mean to be an Indian poet? “It means you’re a bit of an oddball…in terms of publishers, readership, money, visibility, fame, you name it”, says Arundhathi Subramaniam in our candid roundtable conversation. In the same conversation, Indo-American poet Meena Alexander shares how being an Indian poet means that “one searches for a way of being in language, a true way.” Priya Sarukkai Chabria, on the other hand, declares, “I write in the English bhasha, with echoes of the Tamil that I ache for, Bambaiya street Hindi, a rough and ready Marathi, heard Sanskrit, two tightly clutched handfuls of Sindhi, and somewhat less from the Malayalam and Parsi Gujarati.” We are honored to bring together three of India’s finest women poets in conversation, perhaps the first of its kind, to explore contemporary critical issues in Indian poetry.
In our other roundtable, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective delves into what exactly being a collective means and why it is an ideal model for nurturing talent and creating community in India and the diaspora. As co-founder Minal Hajratwala says, “We are poets telling a new story: that poetry is a way to connect on a meaningful, intimate, important level, not in some adversarial relationship of producers vs. consumers, but as human beings delighting in the shared tools of language and story and music.”
And what would Indian poetry be without an exploration of the spiritual? In Arundhathi Subramaniam’s ‘Benares’ and Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s translation from Andal’s ‘Nacciyar Tirumoli’, you see a juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient, where faith in the 21st century is urbanized and compartmentalized into “lebals” (levels) coaching class style, with the expectation of some sort of nirvana at the end, while Andal, mystic poet of the 9th century, moves through level after level of longing and ecstasy for Lord Vishnu, the preserver. We end with Minal Hajratwala’s poem, ‘Dialogue of the Lady Monsters’, where Cassandra of Troy and Lady Gaga are goddesses engaged in a postmodern, metaphysical exchange of advice, mutual admiration and the invitation to commit extispicy together.
In a recent article, poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (yes, him again!), on being asked what advice to give young poets, said “In most cases, poetry is like a virus that works its way through the body and dies a natural death, like the common cold. So, the young need not worry about seeking advice.” Again, his comment rattled me, made me think about how in this day and age, we seek instant gratification, how we don’t have the patience to sustain any interest for too long. How the practice of poetry can be a very solitary and isolating one. I thought of all the books that had gone out of print, I imagined the scrap dealer taking his rusty lady-of-justice style scales and measuring the weight of faded manuscripts. We, at The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, promise to not let this happen. Our hope is that through these poems and conversations, you will see the warp and weft of a billion people — that, instead of a virus, poetry will be that vaccine that saves our lives. We hope you will, like all of us at The Collective, come to the conclusion that poetry permeates borders, defies categorization, brings its light into the darkest of corners and belongs to each and everyone.
Shikha Malaviya is the co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.