Reviewed by Devika Basu

The Best Indian Poetry

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.’

By Jonaki Ray

At the core of Rohan Chhetri’s poems are memories: his own and of moments—based in history or moments turning into history rooted within the intricacies and details of mundane daily lives–that transform into memories.

Reading these poems also strike a chord about the universality of death intertwined with the ways one tries to come to terms with it; of love that, even in its transience, creates something permanent, and of the impermanence of all the things that one wants to be permanent: family, home, country, and finally life.

“Every Thing for Me Is Something Else”, for instance, starts with the wind howling through the night, the tap-tap of it like ‘dragging its dirty fingernails’. The autumn light is gradually fading, ‘shortening like a deer’s eye dimming inside the red cave of a python’s belly…’. The light catches the ordinary scene of an urban landscape, ‘The night windows in city apartments overlooking the flyovers and that one silhouette, backlit by a mustard glow.’ Through the rest of the poem, the typical scenes of a day in a city—a couple arguing, a girl begging at the street-light corners through the rain—are described in a dazzling combinations of words, ‘Rainwater awning over her eyelashes, her hair plastered on her skull, & lips trying to spell something inconsolable’. The poem ends with a sudden, almost violent flashback to a scene from the poet’s childhood:

My mother rushing in through the smoke and the cindering floorboards.
Her screaming as she opens the window
& the cold wind howling in the voice of her firstborn, my stillborn brother.

Reviewed by Paresh Tiwari

book of prayers front and back

Title: Book of Prayers for the nonbeliever
Author: Dibyajyoti Sarma
Publisher: Red River (2018)
Pages: 128 (Paperback)
Price: INR 400

To read Dibyajyoti Sarma’s, Book of Prayers, is to see — in one’s own lifetime — the birth of a modern mongrel mythology, rendered skilfully on every page. Dibyajyoti’s poetry deftly fuses together bits from Mahabharata, ancient Assamese lore, and his own story. The terrain is one of love, loss and longing, and that in itself isn’t something new or particularly unique. What, however is, is his voice. Dibyajyoti’s poems are travellers. Brimming with symbolist images, the poems move deftly from deeply personal experiences to mysticism and fables, relentless in their pursuit of the self.

Dibyajyoti opens the book with a warning where he candidly owns the reader, when he says – this book is about you, and me. In this one sentence, so seemingly innocent, he establishes a tone of confession – almost as if he and the reader are lovers – and it is this tone of confession that roots the book in a pursuit of truth. With this one line, which isn’t even a poem but a precursor relegated to a page before you dig your teeth into his work, he joins the pantheon of Walt Whitman, striking an intimate relationship with his reader. And we gladly hold his hand.

Book of Prayers is divided into five sections, the first four named after an element each and the last titled ‘An Unfinished Yantra for an Unnamed Personal God’. In each of these sections, Dibyajyoti shines a light on humanity, in all its messy, heartbreaking, soaring glory. He gets down into the soil of his roots, digging with his bare hands. His poetry deftly navigates the history of an entire community, touching briefly yet deeply, myriad subjects and themes – love, lust, longing, pain, memories, to name but a few. And he juxtaposes them with mythology known and unexplored, which reminds us that the universality of human emotion is not even a factor of time, and in this timeless saga, life germinates over the pages one ink blossom at a time.

Reviewed by Vineetha Mekkoth

TheWhoAmIBird_print_02

Title: The Who-am-I Bird
Author: Anuradha Vijayakrishnan
Publisher: Bombaykala Books (2018)
Pages: 70
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As you read them, these poems by Anuradha Vijayakrishnan appear oddly familiar. Familiar like half-forgotten dreams, sometimes nightmares that tug at you from within as your eyelids flutter open. Lyrical and richly allegorical, Anuradha’s poems are diverse – they are poems of sisterhood, of coming of age, of warnings, of celebrating womanhood and freedom, of woman to woman sharing, of the vulnerability of being a woman/girl, of love and adventure, of temptation, passion, of family, of tender love, of death, of violence and more death, of life and minutely vivid observations on her journey as a poet. In Anuradha’s poems you will find the whole gamut of life as a woman.

A poem which first caught my attention was “Listen”. In this, the poet leaves unsaid the fears and warnings that rise unbidden when we see a girl unfettered, unaware of the dangers around her and of the choices she faces and her identity, as adolescence creeps upon her. Anuradha concludes the poem by freeing her own fear and repressions, thus giving and finding freedom.

 

Listen, listen. Or even better find your way, your unique gender,
your loosened tongue, your anger, your flawless game on the field,
streets, of the country you choose to be yours, not the other
way around. Forget we ever met
or that I tried to stop you. I did not.

There are the mother-daughter poems that resonate in you. Both, “The Woman Who Once Loved Me” and “What My Dark Mother Meant”, speak of the connect between the poet and her mother, of the love and of the prejudices faced. “Daughter” too belongs to this class of poems and is lyrical in its quality.

But remember, you were born of a woman.
Her love is the secret
you carry.
“Notes On Visiting Your Mother’s Grave” is a poignant poem. Remembrances that

She liked good things, handmade soap,
cowhide bags gifted by admirers, expensive
footwear. Her last pair was simple cotton
her skin could bear, but before that

Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh

I Sing the Glory of this Land - Front Cover

Title: I Sing the Glory of this Land
Author: Bharathiyar, Translated by M. Rajaram
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (2018)
Pages: 240 (Hardcover)

Subramania Bharati first came to me in the arguably less-than-inspiring pages of my history- and-civics textbook in middle and high school. Though not exactly a footnote, without the presence of his poetry or the context of his scholarship and vision, his was merely another name to remember as part of the annals of India’s freedom movement. Such is the unfortunate, even exanimate nature of our education system. When his name reappeared in a series of interviews I did with former students of Tamil schools in Delhi in relation to a current non-fiction project, Bharati came across as a towering figure who continues to serve as the spiritual and linguistic compass for Tamil children similar to what Tagore does for their Bengali counterparts. Reading through I Sing the Glory of this Land, M. Rajaram’s recent book of translations of Bharati’s verses, I could see why.

While I’m disadvantaged by my lack of Tamil to appreciate the cadence and music of the original, the clear-eyed directness of Bharati’s (popularly known as Bharathiyar) verses didn’t fail to strike me. As did the expanse of his poetic canvas. The eleven sections of the book – including God, Freedom, Bharath, Women and Children and Nature – bear out this multiplicity of themes even as they trace their intersections. Kneading them together is Bharati’s unwavering accent on liberty, equality and fraternity — the three pillars of the French Revolution — as he envisioned them in British-ruled India.

Human dignity is one of Bharati’s preoccupations and manifests itself in poems like “Labour” with exuberance. In the scope of that single poem, he places workers, farmers and creative artists on the same plane — each group celebrated for its contributions to mankind.

Reviewed by Shikhandin

A Clock in the Far Past

Title: A Clock in the Far Past – Poems
Author: Sarabjeet Garcha
Publisher: Dhauli Books
Price: INR Rs 250/ $14/£ 11

Human bodies are heavy, slaves of Earth’s gravity. Human hearts, on the other hand, weighing little more than sparrows, are still strong enough to pull the weight of memory. Perhaps this is where poetry is born.

Sarabjeet Garcha’s book of poems, A Clock in the Far Past, leaves one immersed in a certain feeling. Something more like residue, or a whiff of a sensation, almost like distant memory, or the memory of a memory, ticking away for the sake of what is here and now.

As the titular poem of the volume says:

It wasn’t 10:10, as images of clocks

are fond of showing, but some hour
that’s been swallowed by some windy
darkness of a tunnel, now extinct.
But what you can’t figure out now

Is the sudden urge to make
That stopped clock tick again-
As if a few tweaks to it
in the far past would set at least
something in your present right.

The clock’s hands move. Sarabjeet Garcha’s poems ferry the reader across like a time machine, albeit an astral one. This can be, and is already, disconcerting. These memories do not belong to the reader; and at times they seem not to belong to the poet. Then why this recurring sense of turning back the hands of one’s own clock? Is it because Garcha has made

a handful of lines
out of a lifetime’s work
shine…

These lines speak to me of Garcha’s humility before his muse. And this too – when he recognises with thanks that

seated
figure of some rare unknown
reader of his paltry work, he wants

to snoop on the underscores
and thank her for doing
what was almost
undoable for him…

(From “Radium”, the last poem in the volume)

‘Like Earth to Stars’: Forthcoming from Poetrywala, Mumbai

Heracleion and the City of Shiva Prakash

Thank you, archaeologists, for excavating
the great ancient city
of Heracleion,
hidden in the depths of the Mediterranean
for one thousand and two hundred years.

Our stone children,
gods and goddesses,
still lie there
dreamy-eyed and smiling
though heads and limbs are broken
and eroded by sea salt.

Why did this city drown?
Experts reason:
It stood on the foundation of sand
that could not bear and support
its ever increasing weight of buildings
and statues of gods and people,
poor sand gave way…

But a lot of the city’s glory still survives poignantly
hidden in water and surrounded by unmindful fish
waiting to be discovered and admired…

My heart too is a city
bursting with palaces, temples and gardens
I built for you.

So many pilgrims and merchants come here day and night
and most settle down
as they cannot say goodbye to a city so exquisite,
because of you and my art
but, alas, I have built all this
on the foundation of wet sands
of your ever dwindling faith in me.

So the City of Shiva Prakash too will collapse
due to a great error of the builder:
He never thought of the strength
of the foundation.

But,
once it goes under the sands of the ever-changing world
will someone discover its wonders
when neither of us will be around?

By Dr Kamalakar Bhat

H.S. Shiva Prakash

O my Kannada words
You became my companions
In far-off Peru
Thanks for keeping me company
From day dreams amidst clouds
To the heights of Machu Picchu
Where eagles circle
And from there
To the cities of the ocean-goddess
And of a god with thunder’s name
With bricks and stones stained with blood
And from there
To the depths of Caral the mother city
And you, voices from the Machu Picchu poem
By my elder brother Pablo
Beloved hearts of my dear readers
That befriended me on my lonely journey;
The fruit of our journey
Was not sand, stone or ancient Peru’s mother city
But these few proverbs I stole from primordial dreams:
Peace is inevitable; not war
Dying is inevitable; not killing
Worship is inevitable; not sacrifice
Mating is inevitable; not longing
Trade is inevitable; not cheating
Enchanting flowers, the dreams of rocks;
Beauteous forms, the dreams of deserts;
Exquisite cities, the dreams of void;
The joy of all, the longing of the soul
Write these down in the slips of paper
Of our dying worlds,
Tie them to the claws of dream doves,
Let them go flying
Into all times
Into all spaces
Into all worlds

— From “Heights of Machu Picchu, Depths of Caral” by H. S. Shiva Prakash

Poet, playwright and translator, H S Shiva Prakash (born 1954) is among the foremost living writers of India. He began as a poet and playwright writing in Kannada and eventually became a bilingual poet and a translator across multiple languages. He teaches English at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and has served as the Director of the Cultural Centre at Berlin, known as the Tagore Centre.

He has nine collections of poems, fifteen plays, and several other books to his credit in Kannada. He has also published a collection of poems in English and many of his plays are available in English translation. His works have been widely translated into French, Italian, Turkish, Spanish, German, Polish, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. His plays have been performed in Kannada, Hindi, Meitei, Rabha, Assamese, Bodo, Tamil and Malayalam. Shiva Prakash has also translated the Kannada vachana literature into English. His interests include Bhakti movements of India, and Sufi and other mystic traditions. He has to his credit many ‘best book’ prizes for his books of poems, plays and translations accorded to him by Sahitya Academy, Delhi, Sangeet Natak Academi, Delhi and Karnataka Sahitya Academy. He is also the recipient of many awards including the Rajyotsava Award given by the Karnataka government and the Kusumagraja Award given by YCMOU, Nashik. While he has been invited to read his poems or present talks in various countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and America, he was also invited to the International Writing Program in School of Letters, University of Iowa.

Shiva Prakash began his writing career when ‘navya’, the modernist literary movement was dominant in Kannada. No doubt influenced by some of the major modernist Kannada writers, when he began writing, Shiva Prakash, wrote out of the many memories housed in him through the years of his growing up. In so doing, in his initial output, he marked a distinct poetic manner – both in form and content – from the one that was then popular. By the time his second collection was published, this difference began to be celebrated by his readers.

Kamalakar Bhat: Your poems forsake the path of obscurity that much of the navya Kannada poetry had chosen though you began writing during the period. Was reaching out to the reader important to you? 

Shiva Prakash: When I first started writing, I thought that my business is to write without bothering about reach and accessibility. Because I was influenced by modernist poetics and thought that one writes for a discerning individual. That was my belief at that time. Later, I discovered that when I read my poems in person, well-read people expressed admiration but the common people were not feeling good.  Then I said no, I must write for these people, not for the scholars and critics. I decided I should make the simple style my model.

Looking at the whole tradition of Kannada poetry and what kind of relationship exists between the poet and the audience, I discovered that in the best of Kannada poetry, even in classical Kannada poetry, the most memorable lines are very simple and they are immediately communicable. Whether it is Pampa, Ranna, Raghavanka, Kumaravyasa, all are very simple.

See, once a poet establishes a kind of rapport with the audience, people remember him.
Because poetry is not a communication of meaning. It may be the discovery of meaning for the critic and the scholar, but for people poetry creates an impact. And nobody reads poetry for accessing meaning. I think I endorse the classical notion that poetry is about impact, not communication.