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Sudeep Sen | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 23, 2016
For the love of poetry: The organising team behind the 2016 Bengaluru Poetry Festival

For the love of poetry: The organising team behind the 2016 Bengaluru Poetry Festival   -  The Hindu Archives

A modern master: Adil Jussawalla, who won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 2016, has published three collections in the last five years.

A modern master: Adil Jussawalla, who won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 2016, has published three collections in the last five years.   -  The Hindu Archives

Trailblazer: Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions is one of the best recent Indian poetry titles. Photo: S Mahinsha

Trailblazer: Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions is one of the best recent Indian poetry titles. Photo: S Mahinsha   -  The Hindu

2016 was another great year for Indian poetry, with accolades, international recognition and some memorable debuts

In the The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (by Indians), which I had edited and curated in 2012, I had stated in the introduction that the best of English-language poetry by Indians is far superior to the vast amounts of average English-language fiction that is being published regularly. That anthology, spread over a mammoth 550 demi-sized pages, contained 85 poets born after 1950.

An exuberant new anthology of young poets, 40 under 40 (Poetrywala), published this year, is one of the many proofs validating my statement of four years ago. This volume updates and enhances the map of contemporary English-language poetry by Indians. The scene is now truly vibrant and full of the energy that poetry demands and thrives upon. India has now reached a critical mass where high-quality English-language Indian poetry is readily available to anyone who wishes to find it.

When Imtiaz Dharker wins the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, Vijay Seshadri wins the Pulitzer or Vahni Capildeo wins the Forward Prize (UK) or when Karthika Nair wins Book of the Year at the Tata Literature Festival in Mumbai — all this must indicate something genuinely positive and uplifting for Indian poetry, nationally and internationally.

Recently, poet Adil Jussawalla rightly won the Sahitya Akademi Award for literature. In the span of the last few years, he published Trying to Say Goodbye (Almost Island), The Right Kind of Dog (Duckbill), Maps for a Mortal Moon (Aleph), and I Dreamt a Horse Fell from the Sky (Hachette). After reading these, one would see that Jussawalla is not only an extraordinary modernist poet, but also an excellent writer of children’s verse, literary fiction and non-fiction. From his vantage point in ‘Cuffe Parade’ (a new poem), he notes that “There’s a flat eye in the sea / goes this way and that / according to the hand of the tiller.”

Jayanta Mahapatra’s new book, Hesitant Light (AuthorsPress/AP) is classy and tightly wrought, underpinned by a haunting lyric quality: “It is not easy for us to solely live for ourselves. / Our shadows reach out their arms toward us” (‘Departure’). Incredibly, this is a poet who has published over 30 books, whose work has appeared in the prestigious Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, World Literature Today and others. Sadly, no Indian mainstream publisher has come forward to publish his ‘collected edition’ — a poet who is not only at the peak of his powers, but is also among the best of his generation.

Eunice de Souza’s Learn from the Autumn Leaf (Poetrywala) is a very slim new volume of short poems.

Normally her poems are marked by an acerbic use of irony and grittiness. But the new eponymous title poem shows another side of her style, that of Zen-like moments and evanescence: “Learn from the almond leaf / which flames as it falls. / The ground is burning. / The earth is burning. / Flamboyance / is all.” For readers willing to taste her earlier work, I would recommend A Necklace of Skulls: Collected Poems (Penguin, 2009).

K Satchidanandan recently published a new, gargantuan 650-pager — The Missing Rib: Collected Poems 1973-2015 (Poetrywala). He is a rare bilingual poet who has the unflagging energy to consistently produce good work, edit literary anthologies, speak at conferences, and travel to read at literary festivals. His poetry is simultaneously political and deep-rooted in the Indian milieu, has a fine ear for sound, and is witty and Dadaistic. Here is a poem, ‘Head’: “The trunk is buried in the sand; / only the head sticks out / trying to find a way / to save the earth from extinction.” One gets some inkling of his ars poetica from the book’s opening epigraph by Pablo Neruda (from ‘Do Not Ask Me’): “I have a pact of love with beauty / I have a pact of blood with my people.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg. In 2016, the following younger poets with new books have caught my eye.

Amit Majumdar’s outstanding new volume, Dothead (Knopf) “is an exploration of selfhood both intense and exhilarating,” as he sensitively deconstructs the bipolar notion of being an American and a foreigner (“my dark unshaven brothers / whose names overlap with the crazies and God fiends”). He is particularly skilled at the ‘long-poem form’ — such as the wonderfully constructed ‘Abecedarian’ poem “about Adam and Eve and the discovery of oral sex”; the 14-part ‘Logomachia’; ‘James Bond Suite’ and others.

His poems are very clever — “Ab ovo / or from supernova. / we’re less de novo than // abracadabra, ….” (‘From the Egg’), as well as exact — which is unsurprising; he is also a diagnostic nuclear radiologist by profession.

Rohan Chettri and Rohinton Daruwala are my top debut picks of the year. For a first book, Chettri’s Slow Startle (The Great Indian Poetry Collective/TGIPC) is remarkably assured and tightly-controlled. He knows exactly how and when to break a line, when to resort to understatement and irony, and he does this in a language that is finely cadenced — ‘Afghan Refugee’: “From her shoulder blade the background softens, / where her scarf, once-draped over her head, vanishes / into a green eel of silence.” Daruwala’s unusual book title, The Sand Libraries of Timbuktu (Speaking Tiger), will draw any reader to pick it up and leaf through. The eponymous poem opens remarkably with: “What does a book that’s been / silent for seven hundred years / say when you open it?” His poems reveal themselves gently — slow, astringent and evocative; deliberate and thoughtful.

No Waiting Like Departure by Debashish Lahiri (AP), Four Degrees of Separation by Rochelle Potkar (Poetrywala), and Rachna Joshi’s Travel Tapestry (Yatra Books), in their own ways, have a lot to do with travelling (both external and internal) and their consequent note-taking. Lahiri has a sharp eye for detail, Potkar’s world is womanhood and Mumbai, and Joshi has a compassionate view of the quotidian.

Minal Hajratwala’s Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment (TGIPC); Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books, USA); Complicated Lives by Malachi Edwin Vethamani (Maya Press, Malaysia); The Third Glass of Wine (Writers Workshop/WW) by Dipika Mukherjee; An Ember from her Pyre by Shelly Bhoil (WW); Night Between the Stars by Usha Kishore (Cyberwit); and Maya Chowdhury’s Fossil (Peepal Tree, UK) — though stylistically extremely varied, are books that deal, one way or the other, with the tension of being an Indian abroad or a foreigner in India — but there is, of course, much more. Some salient aspects of their poetry — Vethamani explores the complication and fractures of longing, heartbreak and sexuality in a Malay-Tamil society. Hajratwala plays wonderfully with forms like prose poems, theatrical dialogue, and spoken word. Mohabir deals with childhood, memory, exile, colonisation, a “fierce love — animal, erotic, obliterating — the hard and soft always bruising and baffling each other.” Mukherjee’s undertones are Bengali and world-travelled in nature. In Bhoil and Kishore’s poems, apart from mythology and India, provenance tends to be Brazil and the Isle of Mann, respectively.

Chowdhury explores the urgent issue of “anthropogenic climate change” in a language that is both playful and serious.

Other notable volumes include: A Stranger Lurks in My Brain by Bob D’Costa (AP); Hyphenated by Mihir Chitre (Sahitya Akademi); The Sunset Sonata by Rati Agnihotri (Sahitya Akademi); The Broken Boat by Nitin Soni (AP); This Summer and That Summer by Sanjeev Sethi (Bloomsbury India); and He is Honey, Salt and the Most Perfect Grammar by Kala Krishnan Ramesh (HarperCollins India).

Finally, I await Jennifer Robertson’s forthcoming debut volume, Folie à Deux (GIPC). She is an intelligent and thoughtful poet possessing an urgent passion for language. She is particularly concerned with ideas of ekphrasis, cinematic tropes, colour and surrealism — as we partly see in the poem ‘Pip’s Prologue’: “Bolaño says, / all poets, even the most avant-garde // need a father. He says / that poets are orphans by vocation. // So, I wait by the window / for a sparrow to arrive, while I rehearse my lines: // Dad, here’s your coat.”

Last year, India Today carried an eight-page spread on the resurgence of English poetry in India — a kind of coverage unheard of in their publication history. BLink ran a special issue on the rise and breadth of contemporary Indian poetry. Similar features have appeared in Open, Scroll, AntiSerious and elsewhere. Indian Quarterly, Gallerie, The Caravan, Kindle, and Muse India regularly carry new poetry.

Mainstream literary festivals apart, dedicated poetry festivals — Prakriti (Chennai), Kritya (Thiruvananthapuram), Anuvad (Silchar), Chandrabhaga (Konark), others in Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai and elsewhere — have played an important part in furthering the cause of contemporary Indian poetry. There is a flourishing scene of stand-up, slam, and performance poetry groups countrywide.

Among small presses, Poetrywala, Aark Arts, Yeti Books, Monsoon Editions, TGIPC, Writers Workshop, AuthorsPress, Sahitya Akademi, Copper Coin, Almost Island and others, continue to spearhead the poetry publishing scene in the country.

Mainstream publishers like HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Bloomsbury, Aleph, Speaking Tiger and others have played their part too. But they could do a lot more, given their financial power — and their nationwide distribution muscle.

Bloomsbury’s blazing new international anthology titled Capitals (which includes Derek Walcott, Mahmoud Darwish, Mark Strand, George Szirtes, Kwame Dawes and others) contains many top Indian poets; edited by Abhay K, it is due out soon. Indian Literature will soon launch a special issue showcasing the best of ‘21st Century Indian Poetry in English’, edited by AJ Thomas, early next year. Also, Himal and Sahitya Akademi are slated to publish comprehensive editions of Contemporary South Asian Poetry and New Indian Poetry respectively.

English-language Indian poetry (not to mention the hugely vibrant non-English scene in India’s many diverse languages) is now a cause for great joy. So let us celebrate the poems and poets in these various anthologies — and let this wonderful journey continue, onward and forward. As Vahni Capildeo writes: “Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. It is ineluctable, variegated and muscular.”

Sudeep Sen is the author, most recently, of EroText (Vintage/Penguin Random House)

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Published on December 23, 2016
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