Indian Poetry in English: Turn-of-the-Century Signposts (Part 4) [Archives:2004/701/Education]

January 8 2004

By Dr. Murari Prasad
Sana'a University

Like Ezekiel in Bombay, Jayanta Mahapatra, too, seems to have nurtured and influenced a small band of new voices including Rabindra K. Swain, Prabhanjan K. Mishra and Niranjan Mohanty. Swain's A Tapestry of Steps (1999) has poems such as ' Need of Rain', 'The Music of rain', 'Last Night the rain', which contain beautiful flashes and unusual images, but sometimes grammatical liberties taken by the poet are awkward and obtrusive.Mishra and Mohanty too try to line up behind Mahapatra's stylistic manifesto with occasional success.
These small regional groups apart, there have been no schools, literary movements in Indian poetry in English. Its history is discontinuous and scattered with multiplicity of constituencies and voices. They do not constitute a tradition. It is healthy in one sense: the emergence of strong and original styles. Notable among a handful of poets who have the promise to make their mark in the upcoming years are Bibhu Padhi, Hoshang Merchant, Gerson da Cunha, Makarand Paranjape, Sanjukta Dasgupta and Vijay Nambisan. Padhi has published four anthologies of poems including Painting the House (1999). Influenced by modern American Poetry, Padhi uses spare language to evoke local Oriya ambience and, as Jayanta Mahapatra puts it, 'feelings that question his culture's and his own links with nature. In many of these poems he cogitates about philosophy, religion, pain and the “truth of things, behind things”. In his forthcoming volume, tentatively titled Meditations on Being, each of the series of poems is based on a single Upanishadic sloka. Hoshang Merchant has nine books of poems to his credit. The dominant flavour of his verse is his candid and unabashed celebration of homosexual love. Besides, he can reside on different terrains with gay abandon. Gerson da Cunha's travel poems in So Far (2000) evoke the thrill of his diverse range of experiences in Uganda, Kenya, New York and Berlin. With these technically accomplished unostentatious poems Gerson da Cunha is among HarperCollins' contenders in the new-comer stakes. The mainstay of Makarand Paranjape's early poems is modern love with varied manifestations. In his latest collection of poems Used Book (2001), he has tried his hand at satirical poems. Paranjape is capable of well-made phrases, but his lines lack resonance and suggestiveness.
Sanjukta Dasgupta's latest volume Dilemma (2002) is her second book of poems. Her debut collection Snapshots (1996) was published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta. Sanjukta is one of the notable new voices in the English-language Indian poetry.She has an interestingly individual sensibility, and she constructs her lines around an intricate filigree of moods and perceptions. For once the blurb, which speaks of the poet's engagement with “the micropolitics of daily experience”, is exactly right. Besides, her sincere motivation for reclaiming women's experiences is another significant strand of her verse. In 'Shame' she writes:
Now enfolded,slowed,shackled in cloth
Lifelong imprisonment of shameful vulgar limbs
I hide and seek lifelong,
Saree shackled woman
Crippled but with limbs intact
Waits and waits and waits
For that midnight hour
Of metamorphosis)))
I am now stark dark Kali
With flying tresses unbound

Writing free verse, as someone has said somewhere, is like playing tennis with the net down. Sanjukta's poems show her signing up for the ground rules of the game and notching up scores. Unfortunately, she hasn't gone on fast track, probably on account of wearing different hats)) professional academic, short story writer, critic, prolific translator.
Finally, it is heartening to note that now so many poets on the English-language Indian poetry terrain do achieve publication. Penguin Books, Disha/Orient Longman, Yeti books)- an English publishing house mainly for poetry)-Rupa, Ravi Dayal, Indialog and many others are setting about the task with gusto alongside a range of little magazines, such as Chandrabhaga in its sophisticated and resuscitated avatar)-one of the best sources for new poetry in India)-edited by Jayanta Mahapatra, The Little Magazine edited by Antara Dev Sen, International Gallerie edited by Bina Sarkar Ellias, Indian Literature edited by K. Satchidanandan, and, of course, The New Miscellany, published by Writers workshop, Calcutta.
In the end, I should like to return to the point of worldliness and savvy commercialism in the quote from Jayanta Mahapatra at the head of this paper. It is true that poetry is not the staple of the high-profile publishers, grudging as they are in publishing poetry. Dom Moraes too shares this view: 'The bigger and more established publishers in India, if they touched poetry at all, seemed to do so under the duress; as if it would defile their delicate fingers, used to the feel of banknotes.' However, the available verse of recent vintage does not seem to be a shrinking patch against the novel. Perhaps aficionados feel, as Arthur N Sanderson has put it, that poetry alone can offer a window of relief from a stressful, information-soaked culture, 'a dazzling glimpse of snowy peaks above the murk of day to day existence'.