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100 Great Indian Poems — Editor’s Note and 8 poems

EDITOR’S NOTE

–Abhay K

100 Great Indian Poems

On 10 December 1950, William Faulkner began his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with these words, “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit…” As art transcends the artist, poetry transcends the poet. Faulkner further elaborated upon the importance of artwork over the artist in an interview with The Paris Review in 1956. Referring to the futility of conflict over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, he contends, “…what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.”

This is what I had in mind when I started editing 100 Great Indian Poems and its companion volume 100 More Great Indian Poems. The poetry anthologies I have come across have a clear emphasis on ‘the poets,’ illustrated in the titles such as Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, Twelve Modern Indian Poets, Nine Indian Women Poets or 60 Indian Poets. These My Words, edited by Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, which could be otherwise daunting and inaccessible to common people, may be an exception. These lines from De Souza’s poem ‘Meeting Poets’ are telling –

I am disconcerted sometimes
by the colour of their socks
the suspicion of a wig
the wasp in the voice
and an air, sometimes, of dankness.
Best to meet in poems:
cool speckled shells
in which one hears
a sad but distant sea

A general reader does not need to know which prizes a poet has won, how many books has s/he published or which festivals has s/he attended; the charm and force of an individual poem is sufficient to move the reader. Poetry survives the poets because of its timeless and intrinsic value. Therefore, I don’t understand the obsession of the 20th century anthologists of Indian poetry with the poets.

I was fascinated with Rashmirathi by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar while growing up as a child in Bihar. I chanced upon my father’s worn-out copy of this book at home when I was in class four. The magic that I had felt in the sound and energy of words in Rashmirathi stays with me till date. This Hindi epic tells the story of Karna, Krishna, Pandavas and Kauravas. It was my first lesson in literature as well as in politics and diplomacy. I memorised the third canto by heart as I often read it. I still do. I have unsuccessfully tried to translate this work into English. The magic of native words is lost in translation; and therefore, verses from Rashmirathi do not find a place in the anthology of great Indian poems. For the similar reason of untranslatability, several other great poems could not fit into this anthology.

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Charles Adès Fishman and Smita Sahay, editors of Veils, Halos & Shackles

By Shikhandin

16th December 2017 came and went. With barely a murmured remembrance. That’s five whole years since Nirbhaya, the name this brave girl, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was hailed by, the one who fought her attackers and then fought to survive in hospital. Ultimately she could not overcome her grievous injuries. So what happened? Why are we still not enraged? Have we slipped into our usual drugged sleep of forgetfulness?

Sometimes protest becomes still. We lose heart and start to despair. I like to believe that it is during times of stillness that protest gathers steam. During that still period, we need poetry. The poetry of protest. That is why I dare to visualise Veils Halos & Shackles in the hands of not just random or selective readers but anyone who wishes to become more conscious across societies, across the world. Even those who are not diehard fans of poetry; yes, even them. I visualise this book as reading material in classrooms, and not just for literature or liberal arts students. It is no longer enough to be outraged by newspaper and television reports. Poetry must outrage us. Oppression fears poetry. The winds of change feed on poetry. Hence the need for Veils Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, published by Kasva Press, 2016.

Here we get behind the scenes regarding the making of this volume and also try to get an understanding of what the editors – Smita Sahay and Charles Fishman – experienced.

Shikhandin: Tell us about the beginning, that little seedling from which this book grew, apart from the accounts of the horrific crimes that sowed the original seed. And why the name/inspiration behind it – Veils, Halos & Shackles?

Charles Fishman: Thank you for this opening question, Shikhandin, and for the others that follow. I’m delighted that Smita has agreed to respond to your questions, whenever possible; wrestling with complex issues effectively and persuasively is one of her many gifts as a poet and thinker.

Smita Sahay: Charles and I were in conversation about his last book of poetry, In the Path of Lightning, and I found sanity in his justice-demanding yet hope-and-love-filled verses in the days after Jyoti Singh Pandey was assaulted and later passed away. There was no way to come to terms with what had happened and I was mute within my fury and grief. The violence with which Jyoti’s life had been snuffed out had left Charles, thousands of miles away from India, as horrified. As we tried to find comfort in each other’s emails, our intent to give artistic expression to this fury led us to conceptualise Veils, Halos & Shackles. We first contemplated co-writing a book, but then we were convinced that there were multiple voices that needed to be united and decided to go ahead with an Indo-American anthology. This initial version of the anthology grew organically into the international volume of Veils, Halos & Shackles that eventually came out, and this expansion is proof that sexual violence is more universal than we admit, that survivors are caged unspeakably within their own suffering and that uniting in the face of sexual violence is possibly the only way to fight it.

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Book Review: Review in Perspective of Veils, Halos & Shackles

Five years ago, in January 2013, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay conceived of Veils, Halos & Shackles, dedicated to ‘Jyoti Singh Pandey, Nadia Anjuman and the uncountable number of other women and girls who have been victims of gender violence’. 

This is a two-part feature consisting of the book review and an interview with Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay. Today we carry the review to be followed by the interview tomorrow.

By Shikhandin

Veils, Halos & Shackles

 

Title: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women
Edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay
Publisher: Kasva Press, 2016
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On the night of 16th December 2012, in New Delhi, Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped and tortured – which included the removal of her intestines with a metal rod – in a moving bus, and thrown out. She and her friend lay on the road for a long time before anyone stopped to help. She died in Singapore a few days after. For those who would like to know the details, it is here in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Delhi_gang_rape.

New Delhi is a city notorious for its treatment of women, where assault of all kinds occur with alarming regularity, with percentages being somewhat more than in the rest of India. This time, there was such brutality involved that it shook a nation which is normally in a state of extreme torpor with regard to women’s dignity and safety. India erupted into nationwide protests and not just through marches and candle lit vigils. In the hearts of Indian women and sane Indian men, a single voice seemed to rise – ‘Enough!’ The world too, took note, with horror. That was five years ago.

Since then, newspapers, television channels and other media, including social, have regularly reported similar outrages meted out to women and children, both girls and boys. At times it seems like the number of incidents has increased, and that instead of a nation trying to become better, India has regressed into perversion and misogyny. A number of cases have been reported of foreign objects being inserted into girls as young as two. The crime rate seems to be spiking. Women and survivors from other genders braving social media with their protests and stories are being trolled regularly. Parents are still worried sick for their daughters when they come home late or are unreachable on their phones.

Did Nirbhaya die in vain?

The rumble went deeper than imagined. It created fissures at depths where visibility is near non-existent. Nirbhaya was the turning point.

Now people are increasingly open. They refuse to be intimidated into silence. We hear of more cases because more people are reporting them. There is greater support and understanding for survivors and victims not just in India, but across the world, for while India may have a terrible reputation with regard to all those who identify as women, the situation is far from good even in developed and apparently liberal societies.

Across the world, much needs to be done. In India, we are a long way away from being a safe and respectful society towards girls and women and gay men. The change, unfurling all around us, often so quietly we barely note its presence, is shaking the core of our society. However slowly, however timidly. There is protest through vigils and media outcries. Much of it is inner dissent. A lot of it is quiet. Some of it pours out in artistic expressions.

The shape of protest is protean. The colours of its pain and beauty are myriad. Protest’s life span is longer than that of placards, and the decibel level of its call is higher than that of individual angry voices. The storm brewing, gathering and collecting force has a language. One of the languages of this protest is poetry.

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Book Excerpt: An Unsuitable Woman by Shinie Antony

An Unsuitable Woman

 

BIRDSONG

Jahnavi Barua

So, what have you decided?’

Directly above her is a scarlet minivet; he is a striking bird, with his scarlet and black plumage, and is sitting patiently, as if presenting himself to her. She tries to find the best angle for the picture. The branches of the tree are bare—it is almost winter—and the bird is flamboyant against the stark skeleton.

‘Are you going to answer?’

Her foot snags on a jutting root as she presses on the button and the bird flies away, casually, as if judging that enough time has been given and now he must move on.

On the viewing screen, she is left with a red blur, the exact colour and ferocity of anger. His voice is tinged with that colour, now, and every so often.

Beyond the small waterhole, a scarlet flash in a jackfruit tree.

She makes her way swiftly to the foot of the tree. The bird is perched, motionless, above her, his long tail balancing him just so. She raises her head, peering through the viewfinder trying to position the bird.

Warm breath against her neck. ‘What the hell do you think you are playing at?’ He tugs at her shoulder; she loses her balance and throws an arm out, gripping the tree trunk. The bird flies away soundlessly.

‘Listen, you have to decide one way or the other.’ His voice is now jagged with fury.

She is keeping him from the cricket match on TV; even on a holiday, in the middle of the forest, he remains glued to the screen. But he too is keeping her from her birds. Her jaw assumes a stubborn set. She thinks of all the times he has remained wedded to the television: when she lay ill in bed with dengue fever, shivering and frightened; when she walked their newborn son to sleep at night, frantic with pain from the C-section incision and worry; when she wanted to watch the birds on a late night programme.

‘Excuse me,’ she says and pushes past him, to the steps at the base of the small hill. She runs up the steps easily. He follows—she can hear him cursing—as he pants his way up slowly.

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