Each poem in the Penguin Book of Indian Poets is a recorded story in its own language
In a narrow-minded world that pulverizes feelings, writing poetry is an act of grace. Poems offer coherence, bring comfort, restore dignity and suggest that beauty exists, if only by metaphor. Read The Penguin Book of Indian Poets now, in a numb environment, it is to feel a new lexicon stir the blood. It is to find, if not salvation, at least a congregation of soul mates, with whom one could discover the rhythm of pain or the scope of a moment or the syllables of a city. This anthology, edited by Jeet Thayilis a collection of 94 poets — 49 women and 45 men from India and the Indian diaspora — who observe and define, verse after verse, a broken era.
There are many ways to read this anthology of poems, written in English, a language freed from its colonial past to wander freely in imagination and memory. The poets appear neither in alphabetical order nor in chronological order. “The arrangement of these pages circumvents these systems for the pleasures of verticality”, writes Thayil, in his foreword, titled “Extinction Violin”. We could decide to start at all beginning, with Nissim Ezekiel, and find the modernists of the Bombay school — Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar. We could linger on old favorites like Kamala Das’ Summer in Kolkata. One might choose not to read the biographical notes that feature each poet and get pleasant misconceptions about a poet’s age.
For example, reading Yamini Krishnan’s book Vulgar is to mistakenly believe that his maturity is the gift of years of worldliness. The tenor of her lines – anger, softened by a playful subversiveness – could only be achieved by experiencing life and navigating it with sharp feminist attention:”I love watching women swear, / profanity roll out of their tongues / like eternities of silence / fall out of their systems…“Yamini is one of the youngest contributors to the anthology. To read KVK Murthy’s Bookmark is to imagine the dissipation of the young passion: “This is, I suppose, what endures: / The strange encounter as a sign. / This lock of hair must be yours: / It’s way too long to be mine.”
KVK Murthyreveals the biography, was born in 1950, and his first book of poems will be released this year.
One can misread a poem, or read none at all, to begin with. Madhu Kapparath’s black and white photographs of some of the poets (a very bohemian Eunice de Souza on the cover, cigarette between her fingers, parrot perched on her head, utensils on a shelf in the background) are quite entertaining when one holds the book, feels its texture and, quite literally, the weight of its ambition. One might arrive, by accident or design, at Bruce King’s essay, “A Cultural Monument,” located in the middle of the book, flanked by AK Ramanujan and Moraes. One might choose to read this essay for its lucid historical contextualization of Indian poetry In English. We can then enter new imaged worlds, or revisit the old ones.
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The Penguin Book of Indian Poets is an updated version of previous anthologies, also edited by Thayil. These include a 2005 anthology for Pivot magazine, Give the sea change and It Will Change: Fifty-six Indian Poetsas good as The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, published in 2008. In his preface to the new anthology, he mentions the compelling reasons for its existence, scope and variety: pressing considerations were now at play. world of its own, a feeling of catastrophic atmospheric changes…” The overtly political verses of the poet who uses the pseudonym Hamraaz, or the sudden violence of the verses of Shalim M Hussain create microcosms. torn by random cruelties: in I loved youShalim offers a wild mood change: “I loved you behind a notary public’s desk in Guwahati High Court / Before an explosion threw a hammer at my ribcage.”
The anthology is a catalog of towns, streets, familiar and strange, overcrowded and bare rooms. You could find yourself in Hounslow High Street in 1979, passing through Brentford Nylons, or in anonymous hotel rooms and morgues. One could discover a basement café on Prince Street in Glasgow, or arrive at the Britannia Café in Bombay and sit between Simon Rhys Powell and Kolatkar. One could observe a madman posting a letter to the sky in Laitumkhrah. Each poem is a personalized map, locating an old garden or a familiar smell or tracing the shape of a myth or tracing the distance between here and home. In his afterword, Thayil describes the many condemnations to which Indians who write in English are vulnerable. Their authenticity is questioned, their lack of roots is criticized. One might choose to read this afterword only to become intensely aware that each poem in the anthology is a story written with talent and devotion, in a language that is indelibly its own.
Radhika Oberoi is the author of Stillborn Season, a novel set amid the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.