Poetry from India: Introduced by Arundhathi Subramaniam

The seven Indian poets in this edition are far from homogeneous.

Their geographical locations are varied, ranging from Delhi, Goa and Paris to Chennai, Rhode Island and Chandigarh. The languages they represent also varied: from English and Hindi to Punjabi and Tamil. 

Their sensibilities are wildly divergent. Nirupama Dutt sees herself as heir to a tradition of fiercely independent women in Punjabi literature. As self-described ‘successor of Manjit (Tiwana), and daughter of Amrita (Pritam),’ she aspires to write freely and fearlessly, confident that if writing emerges from integrity of experience, ‘the mainstream will come to you’. In these new poems, unremarkable objects—a blue muffler and mango blossoms—trigger a welter of associations, nostalgic, whimsical, tender and elegiac. Another poem trains its compassionate gaze on women who steal each other’s ‘sunshine’, acknowledging that what unites both burglar and burgled is a shared terror of the dark.

For EV Ramakrishnan (EVR), the abiding aspiration as a poet is to ‘articulate the sacred and the subaltern’ and to find ‘deviant ways of transcribing the banal’. Combining metaphor with moral concern, a poem about a Dutch cemetery in western India is an interrogation of those who cleanse histories, a lament for the eroding ‘vernaculars of the vanquished’, as well as an evocative portrait of a landscape of ‘traders,/ sailors, sufis, storytellers, the homeless’. As a bilingual poet (EVR works in English and Malayalam), it is not surprising that he is drawn to the work of another major bilingual Indian poet. His essay on the poetic legacy of Arun Kolatkar (1932 – 2004), a poet who wrote in English and Marathi, is also included in this edition.

Hindi poet Anamika’s work combines feminist and human rights preoccupations with thoughtful self-reflection. In a poem about tea, an innocuous beverage becomes the trigger for reflections, both personal and political—from intimate moments on a winter night in a north Indian dhaba to an insidious caste system with its pecking order and privileged ‘creamy layer’. It leaves the reader with lingering questions about the difference between the upper-shelf teacup and the fallen one, ‘with a crack in the heart’.

Ravi Shankar’s verse is intellectually restless, formally limber, eager to embrace a world of culture and politics, literature, myth and current affairs. His new poems yoke together references as varied as Hemingway, Ashberry and Browning, punctuated by searching questions, such as one about ‘a tech entrepreneur who owns Tesla/ [and] has a net worth greater than Pakistan’. In an interesting reworking of Robert Browning’s chilling dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’, we are offered a finely scathing portrait of the ‘last Duke’ by a liberated duchess: ‘Boozy/ With inheritance...showing off his bronze/ Neptune taming a seahorse and his stuffed swans...’

Karthika Nair’s verse is an exuberant engagement with the density and fluidity of language even as it seeks to carve out space for ‘little stories, giant histories, a few myths’. This selection includes her recent forays into visual poetry. Choreographed with thoughtful precision, the poems range from a spirited rejoinder to columnist Roger Cohen’s observations about an altered Paris to a heartfelt paean to the female activists of the Chipko movement (a non-violent response by women to deforestation in north India). This edition also includes her new work of short fiction that weaves a childhood world of wonder and magic where even medical conditions are viewed as the body’s ability to speak in host of iridescent dialects.

For Tamil feminist poet Kutti Revathi, metaphor is a resource ‘to loosen the fetters that have bound and shrunk a woman’s body’. She has written at length of how a patriarchal Tamil literary tradition, fearful of sharing the power of the written word, compelled women to inscribe narratives on their bodies. In her new poems, she offers searing images of archetypal lovers who run ‘with a tilt’, and of the female body as a harp, creating a language that is cosmos-churning ‘palm wine’.

Manohar Shetty’s recent poems carry his characteristic economy and incisiveness, imbued with the seasoned ironist’s ability to read the ‘fine print’. He relishes the joy and humour in the ‘cocktail’ of the inter-faith marriage, but is capable of seeing the potential for pain when ‘her gods [are] at war with his own’. He also observes with quiet dispassion the man who turns from a virtual world to a tactile world of Remington typewriters, notebooks and newspapers, making his point through imagistic succinctness rather than through any editorializing.

What holds these poets together is as elusive as that which holds an entire Indian cultural inheritance together—an ethos so indefinable that it is falsified as soon as it is articulated. It might have something to do with the casual cultural anomaly of a Dutch cemetery in western India. It might have something to do with ‘a windy auto-rickshaw ride/ on a cold winter’s night’. It might have something to do with the ‘palm wine’ of a language that recognizes ‘six seasons, the six periods of a day’.

And yet, as they swerve from the laconic to the luminous, these poets remind us of the sweep and surprise, the buoyancy and vitality of language. Above all, what unites them is their shared commitment to the craft of verbal distillation.

Arundhathi Subramaniam is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, most recently the poetry volume, Love Without a Story. Widely translated and anthologized, she is the winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award (conferred by the Indian apex literary institution), the Khushwant Singh Poetry Prize, the Il Ceppo Award in Italy, among several others. Her book When God is a Traveller, was the Season Choice of the Poetry Book Society, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.  She has worked over the years as curator, critic and poetry editor, and divides her time between Mumbai, Chennai and New York.