Book review: Best Indian Poetry 2018, edited by Linda Ashok
Reviewed by Devika Basu
Title: Best Indian Poetry 2018
Editor: Linda Ashok
Publisher: RLFPA Editions
Page: 180 (Paperback)
Price: INR 475 | USD 15
‘This entire pursuit is only a goodwill initiative for the poets of my country and Diaspora—an organized activity that keeps me in the know of poetry as it evolves in its private space,’ says Linda Ashok in the introduction to the Best Indian Poetry (BIP) 2018. As the series editor, she has worked through a wide arena of our culture, linguistic subtleties and poetic forms, and what she has brought out is a rare gem, with beads of pearls interwoven in poetic texture.
The hiatus between English poetry and poetry from India, or more distinctly, between foreign writers writing in English and Indian writers trying the same, has been a debatable topic and will remain unfathomable for years to come. This anthology is an earnest endeavour to bridge the gap and ‘bring the tectonic plates of the west and the east closer than ever… heralding a borderless celebration of poetry across colours, languages and cultural quirks.’
‘Painting is silent poetry, poetry is eloquent painting.’ Tagore’s words sound prophetic as poets try to create an alternative reality with subtle strokes and try to incorporate it in a culture-specific poetic spectrum.
The Best Indian Poetry has tried to bring together myriad shades of life within a single canvas, cutting across diverse cultural ethos. The poets hail from different socio-linguistic backgrounds and their poems certainly add a different flavour to this collection. ‘You cannot tie me/to any one religion, to any one relationship,/ to any one post, don’t put a noose around my neck.’ And ‘accept me the way I am. I am not a goat,/ you will not be able to tie me to a post…’ These self-revelatory lines from Abha Iyenger’s poem “You Cannot Tie Me” (p 20) unobtrusively pinpoint the defiance of a woman in a male-dominated, patriarchal society where women are enslaved, tied to societal norms, meant only to subdue, in the name of religion or age-old customs, and treat them as a sacrificial beast to appease men. Her pen has virtually challenged this myopic vision. Her poems appeal to our intellect and build up an alternative reality in terms of poetic texture. As Mary Wollstonecraft says, ‘I love my man as my fellow, but his scepter, real or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage, and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.’
The poems of Srividya Sivakumar unequivocally delineate the themes of love and lust with a strikingly post-modern imagery, ranging from Jackson Pollock, a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement and an exponent of drip painting, to Italian Jewish painter and sculptor Modigliani, making readers engrossed in the poetic venture, and at the same time deliberately breaking away from the definition of poetry as ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. Her poetry is definitely an intellectual pursuit where love is a ‘strong coffee and no sugar’ (“Impressionist” p157). In her poem love and sensuality are equally vibrant with an ironic twist at the end: ‘Give me a kiss, he tells her/… Let’s touch so my colours bleed into you and your spices mix into me// A painting walks out. A Modigliani nude, it hangs askew in a brown study.’ The consummation of love subsequently gives way to a sense of repulsion, in keeping with the existential crisis in the post World-war poetry.
The Best Indian Poetry bears a unique position, especially the different locale it has incorporated into a single poetic frame. Kiriti Sengupta’s poem “From Being Late in Calcutta” (p 71) is a brilliant portrait of the political turmoil and upheavals that compel the pedestrians, office-goers and commuters to arrive ‘late’ and implore a plethora of concocted tales. Kollolini Kolkata, the city of joy, has undergone a lot of transformation down the ages and Sengupta’s repugnance comes out quite unambiguously: ‘I’d tell you trains run late,/ signals are laggy between stations./ I won’t forget to mention how/ a sudden protest/ makes the train stand still for hours.’ The poetic anguish tries to find respite in the final confession, ‘“I’ll explore other issues,/the next time I reach late.’ While going through Sengupta’s poem, readers stretch their hands in search of that gifted child who wants to have the entire world in his grip. The child stumbles, his limbs cross the world. It reminds me of “Kolkatar Jishu” (“Jesus in Calcutta”) by legendary Bengali poet, Nirendranath Chakraborty: ‘Samogro biswoke tumi peye jao/ hater muthoy/ jeno tai/ talmatal paye tumi / prithibir ek kinar theke onyo kinare cholechho’ (‘You have the entire world/in your grip/as if/with staggering legs/you walk from one corner of the world to another’)
‘For me poetry is not a “signature of the wind”… my poems have no stable poetic forms and often migrate in unpredictable and whimsical ways,’ says Ashwani Kumar, and his poem “Mumbai 2017: A Literary Poem” unmistakably reveals the poet’s search for roots in the city of Mumbai that is now ‘buried in the colonnades of ancient minarets in the sky’ (p 42). The poem touches on a nostalgic note while talking about the poet’s birthplace and history builds a bridge between the present and the past, at the same time making us aware of a sense of annihilation which is the natural outcome of any urban civilization: ‘I was born in the cart of red ants/pulled by two dogs—the Present and the Past.’ The city of Mumbai also highlights a sense of nihilism embedded in prophetic zeal: ‘There is no letter—/ only the timetable for a Monday./ Drowned in a pool of blood…’
Indian poets writing in English often face a sense of alienation and their poetic journey is, without doubt, a search for roots, language being a powerful instrument: ‘I used to wear it on my head like a crown/When we went to my father’s ancestral home/on some Sundays…’ (“English,” Debarshi Mitra, p 48). The lilting flow of mother tongue is somehow missing in any other language and the head lies uneasy even if it wears a golden crown. The images of ancestral home, diabetic aunt (now dead) definitely add to the poet’s longing to return to roots and a sense of guilt permeates the poem where English plays the role of an alien, ‘…she looked directly/ at me and asked, “What do you call this/ in English?”’
‘All my paranoia seeps into my poetry. My poems find route in all the events of my childhood. If certain incidents had not happened, poetry probably would not have happened,’ says Manjiri Indurkar, and her poetry is steeped in personal touches, health problems in her family resulting to the poet’s delusion. She weaves a tale with myriad threads and the apparent anecdotes become a poignant expression of parental affection written in an easy-going blank verse: ‘If you ever look at pictures/ of those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis/ you will find the bones parting ways from each other./ Ma’s bones haven’t begun that journey yet…’ (“Diabetes At A Birthday Party,” p 75). Her poems bear a strong undercurrent of passion; the images hail from mythology, literature and domestic cuisine with an alarming conviction at the end: ‘He claims to have reached the place/ only Yudhistir could, but came back/ because he isn’t fond of dogs/ because I was eating Maggi and waiting for him/… Ma’s life is a cautionary tale.’
Hoshang Merchant, ‘the merchant of poetry,’ is one of the Anglophone poets, who ‘seeks the queer in each of us’. Poetry, according to him, is ‘a subterfuge in an era of proscription.’ To him, almost everything and everyone appears ‘gay’ and he explicitly states that all literature is sexual; poetry is about love and loss. The androgynous identity at times verges on to a rebellion with the poetic or artistic self, when, ‘rebellion ends… the artist becomes reconciled to life.’ While decoding Hoshang’s poem, “The Lotophagi” (p 61), readers get mesmerized. The poet is quite revolutionary in terms of overt sexual references; going to the extent of alluding to Greek mythology figuratively. His verse often becomes an expression of libidinal desire and where body is in flames and the mythical island of ‘Lotophagoi’ figuratively turns out to be a lotus eater who spends life indulging in pleasure and luxury: ‘We’re all one/ in seeking light/ Even the men who like ostriches come from eggs/ And go looking for light between their legs.’
Indian English Poetry, being the oldest form of Indian English literature, tries to Indianize English in order to open windows for Indian readers and have touches of typical Indian situations where poetry becomes identity. Ranging from Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, Sri Aurobindo, Sarojini Naidu, Madhusudan Dutt, Toru Dutt to Nissim Ezekiel, A.K Ramanujan, Gieve Patel, Kamala Das, among other poets, Indian English Poetry has delved into an eternal quest for identity and to come out from the labyrinth of alienation in the colonial and post-colonial era. The themes of poetry revolve around multiple domestic spaces, often ending on a deeper connotative jerk. Best Indian Poetry too, deals with manifold themes, and the series editor, Linda Ashok, has put in painstaking effort to bring together multiple dimensions of Indian poetry, highlighting the importance of English language as an important tool to break walls of ‘cultural immigration.’ This anthology incorporates poems of different States, adding a cosmopolitan poetic fervour within a single frame, with poets coming from diverse socio-cultural background. Poets like Annie Zaidi, Medha Singh, Nabina Das, Poornima Laxmeshwar, Sriram Sivaramkrishnan, Preeti Vangani touch our heart, we feel the subtle nuances and undergo a cathartic transformation, manifest in our response to a particular poem. If literature wants to articulate, poetry is perhaps one of the most viable modes where poets can create an alternative reality with tenuous strokes. As Matthew Arnold says, ‘Poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive and widely effective mode of saying things.’
Best Indian Poetry 2018 is undoubtedly one of the rare collections where poetry becomes an expression of life, cutting across any fixed socio-linguistic paradigm and stimulating readers to look upon poetry as the most effective medium to unite, to bring together strings of life like a connoisseur, leaving them to appreciate the work of art built in poetic tapestry.
Devika Basu is a high-school English teacher, and much known for critiquing poetry at several international venues.