Indian Poetry in English: Turn-of-the-Century Signposts (Part 2) [Archives:2003/695/Education]

December 18 2003

By Dr. Murari Prasad
Sana'a University

A. K. Mehrotra's recent collection The Transfiguring Places (1998) ushers in a style of refreshing versatility. His earlier verse was somewhat marred by over-insistent, sometimes bizarre, imagery but the later poems are chiseled and tidy with plenty of arresting images and commendable control over craft. The fleeting passage of time and inevitable evanescence of youth weave through many of these poems. Mehrotra can voice valid concerns and evoke a sharp and palpable ambience for a good measure. Sure enough, these poems do have a certain roundedness.
Among relatively young poets who have made impressive running Vikram Seth prominently stands out. The Golden Gate (1986), Seth's spectacular work, is the glittering tiara of the English-language poetry from India although there is nothing Indian about it. The poet's inspiration for this verse in novel was Sir Charles Johnston's translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin which “he stumbled into a book store” and found unputdownable. Feroza Jussawalla has accused Seth of being a
totally assimilated yuppie [with] no hint of Indianness except the name and the language of Anglo-Indian education expressed in his various intellectual references.
Of course, Seth's verse novel is thankfully free of all Indian connections, and he makes no bones about it being Indian but in all fairness his astonishing experiment in handling a long sonnet sequence with sustained competence and innovative technical devices deserves full marks. In agreeable vindication of its virtuosity the book bagged the Commonwealth Poetry Prize as well as the Sahitya Akademi Award in India. Seth's follow-ups to his best-selling The Golden Gate were All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990) and Beastly Tales from Here and There (1992). In the former, the scene shifts from America to China while the latter is a retelling of animal fables from India, China, Russia and Greece. In the succeeding years Seth has produced substantial fiction but poetry is arguably one of his deepest passions, and he has the energy to put the English-language poetry in India at the forefront in coming years.
A postcolonial constellation of Indian Poetry in English has emerged prominently, proliferating around expatriate voices such as Agha Shahid Ali (died in 2001), Amitava Kumar and Tabish Khair. Shahid's poetic answers to postcolonial questions, namely diasporic angst, divided consciousness lodged in immigrant imagination, cultural crossover etc. inform his collections such as The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), A Nostalgist's Map of America (1992), The Country Without a Post Office (1997) and Rooms are Never Finished (Posthumously published in 2002). The poet's pronounced migrant dislocation is caught alive in the 'Knotted and tensile fabric' of postcolonial poetry as he seeks to reclaim indigenous landscapes and to constitute 'imagined communities' while driving from Pennsylvania to Arizona:
“When on Route 80 in Ohio
I came across an exit
to Calcutta
the temptation to write a poem
led me past the exit
so I could say
India always exists
off the turnpikes
of America
so I could say
I did take the exit
and crossed Howrah.”

The images of India and America in split perception do lend to explorations of the figurative dimensions of postcolonial aesthetics. Equally, the memory of Kashmir (the poet's native place) feeds into the memory of his mother in the Lenox Hill Hospital in Massachusetts. In the poem 'Lenox Hill' (included in Rooms are Never Finished), which Shahid wrote about the last days of his mother, the sirens of the hospital are compared to the image of Mihiragula's screaming elements (Mihiragula is believed to be the Hun who invaded Kashmir in the 6th century A.D.). Multiple passions get melded in these lines:
“O destroyer let her return there, if
just to die.
Save the right she gave its earth to
cover her, Kashmir
Has no rights. When the windows
close on Kashmir,
I see the blizzard-fall of ghost-
To be continued