When you’ve written a 900-page novel that becomes the publishing event of the year, it’s difficult to insist that you’re really a poet who’s writing novels to earn a quick buck. But that’s precisely what the late, lamented Chilean author Roberto Bolaño insisted, right down to his very last interview. After his masterpiece 2666 was translated into English by Natasha Wimmer, the world sat up and paid attention to his earlier novel The Savage Detectives , which turned out to be every bit as good. Bolaño, sadly, did not live long enough to process his meteoric rise. All that was left for readers was his famous declaration: “The poems make me blush less”. A lot of Bolaño’s fiction (especially The Savage Detectives and its equally savage partner-in-comedy Nazi Literature in the Americas) is about poets: they drink, they whore around, they form and disband cliques, they embark on epic, foolhardy quests to find ‘lost’ poets and they seldom ever get down to writing poetry. In some of his poems, he even features the poet Nicanor Parra as a character.
It was rather appropriate, then, that the tables were recently turned on Bolaño: the introduction to Jeet Thayil’s Collected Poems begins with the author narrating a dream that featured Bolaño smoking smack with Billie Holiday “in a Parsi sanatorium on Bandra bandstand”.
“As Billie’s head finally touched the floor, Bolaño got to his feet and gathered his briefcase. He told me that the sun was high and soon it would be too hot to walk or work. ‘Only poetry is not shit’, he said. ‘Stop wasting so much time.’ Even in the dream I realized that this was a fairly accurate rendering of my writing career.”
In the last two years, there have been new releases by an impressively long list of major Indian poets. Ranjit Hoskote, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Subramaniam, Karthika Nair, Sudeep Sen, Sridala Swami, and Keki Daruwalla: and that’s just off the top of my head. There have also been handsome ‘Collected Poems’ editions for poets like Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Kamala Das, to say nothing of works in translation, like the incandescent You Are Neera by Sunil Gangopadhyay (translated into English by Arunava Sinha). Exciting new voices are knocking on the door with every passing month, it seems. Informal poetry clubs and collectives are spreading the word in colleges and cafes and moonlit terraces.
All of a sudden, we seem to have woken up to what the late Hindi writer Kamleshwar once said about poetry: “ Kavita hriday mein kanghi karti hai ” (Poetry is that which combs the heart).
The resurgence is manifested in publishers willing to send out more poetry books into the market: this despite the fact that the poetry editor is an endangered (possibly extinct?) beast at most of India's top publishing firms.
That ’70s show
There was an embarrassment of riches in Indian poetry as early as 1974, when Adil Jussawalla released his seminal anthology New Writing in India. Not only did that volume include Anglophones of the calibre of Dilip Chitre, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Lawrence Bantleman, it also gave us the best of Indian poetry in translation: Amrita Pritam (Punjabi), Arun Kolatkar (Marathi), Gieve Patel (Gujarati) and several other stalwarts.
Keki Daruwalla, one of India’s finest living poets, was first published in 1970. He has been published in every decade since, his most recent book being Fire Altar (2013, HarperCollins India). His memories of the 1970s are less than rosy: “Publishing poetry in the ’60s and ’70s was so negligible that it is hard to describe. Nissim Ezekiel published Gieve Patel in 1966. Nissim didn’t like my verse in 1964 (and rightly so) but in 1966, when I went to Bombay from Joshimath, he was ready to publish me and spend his own money doing so. Wisely I deferred till 1970, when P Lal asked me for three poems for his anthology and offered me a book. I jumped at the offer and wrote Under Orion in one year flat.”
Daruwalla, however, also recalls the emergence of literary magazines and independent journals around the same time. “Small journals like Pritish Nandy’s Dialogue were coming up. Century, a magazine by Lawrence Bantleman (who migrated to Canada), and Thought edited by Keshav Malik had also started. And Nissim started a poetry page in The Illustrated Weekly, with help from Khushwant Singh, the editor.”
Poet’s corner of the Web
More than four decades later, this functionality has been fulfilled by webzines: several online journals in India publish a mixture of established and young poets. Webzines like The Bangalore Review, The Northeast Review, Vayavya, Coldnoon and Café Dissensus have published some very fine poetry in recent times. Complementing these efforts are poetry/spoken-word groups like Bring Back the Poets and Poets’ Collective. A few weeks ago, I attended an informal slam poetry event at Zu Tisch, a German-themed bar in New Delhi. Organised by The Bombay Review, it featured both the aforementioned groups, along with The Sunflower Collective, a new webzine. Delhi-based poet and activist Aditi Angiras, founder of Bring Back the Poets, was judging the event and she had some strong words for those quick to stereotype poets.
“Most people think that poets smoke cigarettes, drink a lot of whiskey, and get laid a lot (hopefully). And that politicians are hard men. They think that poetry is separate from politics. But I want to say to them: poetry is politics.”
True to Angiras’s words, the very first poem of that evening turned out to be a fiery, passionate slam called ‘Cinderella Syndrome’, written and performed by Shibani Das. The poem criticised classic pop-cultural gender tropes, especially ones feeding a young woman the idea that finding the perfect man is the raison d'être of her existence. I enjoyed watching this performance because the poet demonstrated a keen understanding of the spoken word format’s rhythms. Not every poet is an automatic candidate for a slam/spoken word appearance: the energy, vigour and theatrical flair associated with international slam stars like HM Naqvi or Kip Fulbeck can’t really be taught. You either have it or you don’t, and Das, on the evidence of ‘Cinderella Syndrome’, most definitely has it.
Which isn’t to say that at events like these, the performative trumps the written word. As Angiras put it: “For me any spoken-word performance must be about poetry first and then performance. I see so many performances in the city and on YouTube and feel that somehow it’s becoming more about the ‘how’ than the ‘what’. We need to go back to reading more and writing more; otherwise we’ll go down the same lane as popular trash music. I still believe that we can do more than follow the US slam culture, and imagine and create beyond it.”
Everybody’s verse now
Collectives like Bring Back the Poets are the sort of egalitarian boost that poetry in India — trapped far too long in an elitist image-exercise — needs desperately. Moreover, they act as much-needed safe spaces where young poets can test the waters and benefit from constructive critique. Angiras said: “We’re not a closed group like most poetry clubs in India, but a fluid collective of artists and activists across the globe. Spoken-word poets from Word Warriors Nepal, from Malaysia and from USA have performed with us. We host as many as two to three events most months, including the Extremely Queerious Poetry event during Pride month (November).”
Two young poets, both of whom turned 30 recently, made their publishing debuts in 2015, although this writer has been following their words and their exploits on the Internet for years. Aditi Rao’s The Fingers Remember (Yoda Press) and Akhil Katyal’s Night Charge Extra (Writer’s Workshop) are books that bode well for the future of Indian poetry. Both poets were nominated for the Muse India-Satish Verma Young Writer Award 2015: Rao won.
What is most impressive about The Fingers Remember is that it never confuses sentimentality with true-blue emotion. Rao is a seasoned traveller who knows that wide-eyed, unfettered dreamscapes hit home all the better when balanced with strategic infusions of hard-nosed pragmatism. At the end of the poem ‘Not being a man, I bleed like this’, she says,
“On the highway, sitting ghoda-taang on the motorcycle/ behind the man I love — no one to notice. Closer/ to the village, side saddle. A woman you can trust/ to educate your daughters. I will live in between.”
On the eve of the book’s release, Rao’s publisher, Arpita Das (founder of Yoda Press), described the discovery of this rising star: “Aditi sent us her manuscript early in 2013. I remember I was on the verge of taking that final decision about closing Yodakin (my bookstore) and was down in the dumps, and happened to unwrap this magical manuscript, which lifted my spirits immediately. Her poetry is haunting, imbued by such a deep sense of loss and anguish (and you just know that she has felt every bit of it) — and yet so reassuring, just to know that such anguish is felt by others and can be so exquisitely expressed.”
Katyal’s is an altogether different voice. His weapons are quicksilver wit, an exceptional sense of rhythm and the ability to assimilate disparate poetic elements, sometimes in the same poem. Here, for instance, are his electric lines about the controversial Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
“Girl, when you / blow your boy, / or boy, when / you go down / on her, or when / both of you use / a toy, and all the / world’s a blur,
I know it feels / like heaven, you / too violate 377.”
Less than two weeks ago, a short poem he wrote about Farida Khanum went viral on the Internet, finding its way into the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, among other places.
“When Farida Khanum
she does not hide the age
in her voice,
she wraps it in paisleys,
and for a moment
holds it in both of her hands,
she drowns it in our sky.
When she sings now,
that at the end of that note
when her voice breaks
like a wishbone,
he will stay.”
Katyal, who teaches English literature at Shiv Nadar University, is also an accomplished translator — from English to Hindi and vice versa. On his blog, you’ll find poems-in-translation by a wildly diverse set of people: they include Langston Hughes, Wiszlawa Szymborska, Vikram Seth, Dorothy Parker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ashok Vajpeyi, Munawwar Rana and, most recently, Ravish Kumar. Best of all, Katyal has a large body of work available free of cost, on his blog as well as on his Facebook timeline.
Towards the end of the introduction to Thayil’s Collected Poems, the author tells us that he won’t be writing poems any more. Ironically, the moment of his departure feels like the precipice of opportunity for Indian poetry. It feels like a beginning. And there’s cosmic evidence for this hypothesis.
Consider this strange coincidence: Thayil’s first collection, Gemini, was published in 1992, and it was a two-poet volume, the other contributor being Vijay Nambisan, also a debutant back then. And in 2015, the year that spelt curtains for Thayil’s own poetic career, Nambisan has returned from exile with First Infinities (Poetrywala), a sensational collection and undoubtedly one of the books of the year. In the foreword, Nambisan confesses that for a long time, he took his cues from Auden and felt that poetry did not matter. He then says: “I don’t know exactly why, but some years ago I veered to the opposite view: Poetry is the only thing that matters. I have no justification for that; it’s all in the mind.”
Where one poet said ‘no more’, another was shaken out of his ennui, moved to break a self-imposed exile. Where one ended, the other began anew. So too, it seems, the fate of Indian poetry: at every cynical moment where it is written off, there will arise Atlases to bear the poet’s burden. And we will read them; in good times or bad, aloud or in grateful silence, alone or in the company of fellow-dreamers, and we will say: thank god for poetry.