What constitutes ‘Indian Literature’ is a much-debated issue and an interesting one in its own right. The only problem that emerges out of the various strands within the larger body of scholarship that debates ‘Indian Literature’ as a category, is, while it negates all the possible options and combinations, it does not quite give us any answer as to what it could possibly be: neti neti, not this, not this. One such attempt, The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry brings together poetry written in various Indian languages under the same umbrella and raises interesting questions in the canon it has formed.
I first delve into the different thematic concerns of this anthology before going into the politics of inclusion and exclusion. The timeframe that this anthology covers is about seventy-five years. What came across as pervasive ideas in this collection were the issues of the way urban spaces being shaped by people and the way people were in turn being shaped by them. The themes of despair and spiritual crises were also obvious. Familial relationships and women bound by female identity, traditions and religion also came to the fore. Diaspora and Dalit identity also made its voice heard. Let us now go deeper into these themes and their representation in the anthology.
The urban city life has not been pleasant as shown in most of the poems, especially the ones by A.K. Mehrotra and Sri Sri. They complain about the complacency of people, the indifference, the degenerating moral values and negligent humanity in the people residing in those cities: “These buildings grew and grew/ even as we shrank” (eds. Dharwadker 32). The daily routine has turned man into a machine, “Monday stands beside you, his hand on your shoulder. Soon people start moving about” (eds. Dharwadker 33). Urban spaces have led to the emergence of slums and ghettos, which finds ample expression in poems by Dilip Chitre and Jyoti Lanjewar. The indifference towards dead as well as living has been beautifully expressed in a touching poem by Jagannath Prasad Das where a corpse is lying on the street and the poet describes the reactions of passersby, “the people have all gone away...the corpse lies in the middle of the street” (eds. Dharwadker 163). With city-life, the issues of migration often arise in the poems by Adil Jussawalla and Vinay Dharwadker. Both talk about the way migration has become a feature of metropolitan cities like Delhi and Bombay and how people distance themselves from the sufferings of others. This hybridity also leads to a sense of alienation and marginalization amongst the native population: “the old have nowhere to go now, in this new city they haven’t built” (eds. Dharwadker 138).
Spiritual crisis is articulated by the sense of emptiness that the poets write about. Muktibodh, Khalil-ur-Rahman Azmi, Sadanand Rege and Ezekiel’s poem deal with the relationship between man and god and in various facets. While Muktibodh presents a grim view of a society where humans have been dehumanised, Azmi writes about the itching quest to realize the ultimate reality. Ezekiel’s insistence is on persistence of effort and Rege grasps the ultimate spiritual truth.
One also finds a reaction to political and historical events in the poem by Vikram Seth on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a theme which is also picked up by Agyey; there is also an indirect reference to Emergency in the poem by Vinay Dharwadker. Violence in its various manifestations seems to be a common thread among the political, spiritual, urban and family poems by various authors. Violence has entered not just the political or the public sphere but also the familial domain in the poems discussed above. Dalit identity and politics has been beautifully conveyed by the poems such as “I never saw you” by Jyoti Lanjewar, who talks about a daughter’s perception of her mother and deep admiration when she finds her fighting for the cause of Dalits: “I saw you..saying to your only son/ who’d martyred himself in a police firing/ you died for Bhima/your life became meaningful” (eds. Dharwadker 174). Amongst others, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena’s The Black Panther speaks about the past and present of Dalits. Language rivalries find but a small space in this collection in poems such as, “Our Hindi” and “On Bismillah Khan’s Shehnai”. The most beautiful representation comes in the form of two lines by Gnanakoothan: “Tamil, it’s true, is the breath of my life. But I won’t breathe it down my neighbour’s neck” (eds. Dharwadker 105). Communal strife that India is still dealing with finds expression in indirect forms in the poems of Akhtar-ul-Imam, Soubhagya Kumar Mishra and Shrikant Varma. Another poem that talks about the Indian obsession with the western accolades is titled, “Situation”. In this poem, the poet emphasizes how one needs the western recognition to know our own texts, and that we are well-versed with what the colonisers have taught us than in our own literature and cultural practices.
There are a variety of themes, which point towards modern existence as a common experience for most poets. The disillusionment caused by the disintegration of the Nehruvian ideal and consequent doubts about India as a nation find its voice in poems that deal with poverty, inflation, employment guarantee schemes and dried taps. Degenerated city life, the problems of slums, migrants, capitalism eating into people’s life, lack of spirituality and a reaction towards national and international politics make these poems modern. Not only the themes but experimentation with the form also makes these poems particularly modern. The poems talk about the rootlessness and alienation of an individual. Individual gets primacy here, each is talking about his own issues; communal, lingual, economic, sexual, gender or socially marginal.
Finally, a critical look at the anthology overall is necessary, one that especially deals with the tenuous category of modern Indian poetry. In the preface to the Anthology, Vinay Dharwadker and A.K.Ramanujan mention that the anthology “would question and change many common assumptions about modern Indian poetry” (eds. Dharwadker vii). However, what those assumptions are, or in what way this anthology would question them, are not mentioned. After a few lines they write “we did not ask if a poem we liked was ‘the best’ or ‘the most representative’ of a poet, a style, a movement, or a language” (eds. Dharwadker vii). Forgetting what they had said earlier, they later write: “the poems we have chosen also indicate the variety which we find in modern Indian poetry as a whole” (eds. Dharwadker x). One wonders where this contradiction is going to lead us! All they seem to present to the reader is a collection of hundred and twenty five poems written by hundred and twenty five poets from fourteen languages.
It is, however, another matter of either conscious or unconscious self-fashioning on the part of the compilers that they later mention that “not only do they [poets] come from a wide variety of linguistic, regional, social, professional, economic, political, and even religious backgrounds, but collectively they also cover many of the important schools and movements in the twentieth century poetry” (eds. Dharwadker x). Such an exhaustive list of parameters not only tell us about the amount of labour the compilers have put in but also the way ‘Indian Poetry’ has been conceived by them along these lines. This, I found, was the traditional way in which students of literature or scholars of Indian literature have been reading and studying poetry. Then what is the claim that this anthology will question our assumptions of Indian poetry all about?
It will also be worthwhile to look at the politics of language in this anthology. Out of the hundred and twenty-five poems, translations from Bengali, Hindi, Kannada and Marathi get the maximum space, with each language contributing around fourteen to sixteen poems. Gujrati, Malayalam, Oriya, Tamil, Telgu and Urdu contribute between five to ten poems each and less than five poems each from Assamese, Dogri, Punjabi and Sindhi find space. Are we to believe our compilers when they say, “The amount of space given to a particular language, style, movement, region or poet does not necessarily reflect on its position in the overall picture of modern Indian poetry” (eds. Dharwadker ix)? Can the process of selection and rejection be at all free from such constraints or considerations when one talks of modern Indian Poetry? The compilers have included twenty poems written originally in English by stating that they “are as much a part of modern Indian poetry as the one hundred and five poems offered in translations” (eds. Dharwadker ix). The apologetic tone with which the compliers justify the inclusion of twenty English poems seems rather misplaced since English was never under a threat from the other Indian languages. The compilers, it seems, need to be reminded that it was the Indian English Poetry which enjoyed greater attention and exposure (both literary and commercially) and paraded itself as the best representative of Indian Poetry. The preface, too, hints at this hegemony in which the compilers in a celebratory and self-congratulatory tone assert: “As the reader will soon discover, the most satisfying translations often came from Indian-English poets, who bring to a native sense of their mother tongues a sensibility trained in the traditions of English writing” (eds. Dharwadker viii). What about the languages which are indeed “as much a part of modern Indian poetry” and have not been represented at all? For instance, does not the traditional exclusion of translations from languages like Sanskrit, Manipuri or Khasi reflect its neglect in the category such as the one the compilers are attempting to re-define? Or can an anthology which exhibits and markets itself as an anthology of ‘Modern Indian Poetry’ afford to ignore and exclude some vital poets such as Pritish Nandy, P. Lal, Robin Ngangom , Desmond Lee Kharmawphlang, Mona Zote or the three crucial figures of Manipuri poetry in the twentieth century, such as Khwairakpam Chaoba, Lamabam Kamal and Hijam Anganghal? How “innocent”, “accidental” or objective are these selections is an issue worth our consideration.
More surprising is that in spite of such a conception, the compilers have given arbitrary divisions to the anthology. Divisions which, according to them, have been “arranged in an interactive thematic sequence” (eds. Dharwadker viii). However, if one concentrates on poems of a particular section, one discovers that though these poems might be interactive, but thematic and sequential they are surely not. Poems made better sense when I began ignoring the section under which it was slotted. This ends up confusing the reader as to why the divisions be made at all if they were not meant to be taken as one.
Let us look at another section titled, “Household Fires”. This section is even more wonderful in terms of its hospitality to a variety of poems. While most of the poems by female writers in this section are about domesticity, man-woman relationships and patriarchy, it also includes poems about the consumptive city life, about people who make unusual choices and pay the price of being unusual, about the present and perennial violence in society, son looking at his father’s poor existence, and about the nostalgia for a noon in Malabar. Again, the connection fails.
Though these questions are disturbing, given the kind of project such as this, I decided to read through the collection and ignore the languages in which they were written, to treat them as individual pieces, as if for a moment free from the bounds of their linguistic, social, historical or religious labels. This was my chance to read what was being written and how it was being written by poets across the country. I would consciously stay away from saying that it was a chance to know what was being written in different languages since all I was reading was English translations from other languages and not the original poems. Yet overall, the salad-bowl that we have been offered by Vinay Dharwadker and A.K. Ramanujan is tempting, but we tend to miss some of the important ingredients without which one does not get a good taste, but many flavours.
Dharwadker, Vinay and A.K.Ramanujan. The Oxford Anthology Of Modern Indian Poetry. New Delhi: OUP, 1994.
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