West indian literature

The Penguin Book of Indian Poets – a feast of literature

It is a universally accepted truth in India that while novelists can win accolades, great advances and glittering trophies, poets are the monarchs of literature. Schoolchildren in Kolkata can recite odes of Rabindranath Tagore or Jibanananda Das by heart, citizens of Delhi grew up quoting Urdu sher (verses), and my Tamil friends have at their fingertips the rich arsenal of ancient classical Sangam poetry.

India truly speaks, writes and thinks in many languages: it is a country with more than 400 listed languages, 24 of which, including English, are spoken by more than one million native speakers. Some studies claim that Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu are nearly 4,500 years old. Against these centuries of tradition, it has long been a challenge for Indian poets who wrote in English, a language that arrived in the 17th century, to join others at the table. But over the past century, these poets have become a force, their confident English casually, their imagination both deeply rooted and increasingly global.

The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, an anthology of poems exclusively written in English, is vast in scope and ambition. The book’s editor, Jeet Thayil – an acclaimed novelist and poet himself – first collected the works of Indian poets in a 2005 anthology for Fulcrum magazine, and followed with The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets in 2008. For his latest project, Thayil has selected the work of 95 poets (49 women, 45 men) from across the country and the Indian diaspora, and he is determined to claim each of these writers as truly Indian.

“Three quarters of a century separate the oldest poet, born in 1924, from the youngest, born in 2001. The dates serve as bookends in the improbable maturity of a movement”, writes Thayil in the introduction. He argues convincingly that in the 21st century, a new generation of Indian poets had ushered in “a flowering, an uprising” of creativity, which complemented the work of 20th century modernist poets in the West. In the hands of the poets whom Thayil is emphasizing here, English ceases to be the language of the ancient colonizers of India; it has rather the force of a young rushing river that has joined the ocean of older Indian languages.

Contemporary Indian poets Aditi Nagrath, whose first collection “Beyond Survival” was published in 2015. . . ©

. . . and Akhil Katyal, whose three published poetry books include ‘Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue: Delhi Poems’ © Madhu Kapparath

For the reader who has never encountered Indian poetry in English before, this anthology is an absolute treat. His range of subjects is vast, from Goya to ghosts, from mythology to climate change; its sprawling geography stretches from Missoula to Gurgaon, from London to the jungles of Rajasthan; and the skill of the poets to this literature baithak (gathering) is clear, whether reweaving old legends or borrowing freely from the Beats for inspiration.

“The land where I was born has given me words of love: / A score and more wonders burn here between sea and sea,” wrote the late Vijay Nambisan in “A Gift of Tongues,” one of the great poems about the love of language, the desire to steal words from other people’s mouths. In “Indian April”, the late Meena Alexander, who died in 2018, writes to American beat poet Allen Ginsberg traveling in Rajasthan, and pays homage to the mixed traditions and geographies that made her a poet: “Holy, the waters of the Ganga, Hudson, Nile, Pamba, Mississippi, Mahanadi. . . ”

Other poets play with the idea of ​​belonging and exclusion. In “Against Robert Frost,” Mamta Kalia, born in 1940 in the temple city of Vrindavan, and who writes with dazzling grace in Hindi and English, says, “I can’t stand reading Robert Frost. / Why should he talk about picking apples / When most of us can’t afford to eat one?

In places, the anthology takes a furious turn, delving into the bloody pages of recent Indian history. A poet, Hamraaz, writes his dissenting verse – “Repealed, in praise of Azaadi”, written and published in 2019-2020 – “like a fictional character who writes poetry”, because: “The reality of life in even an ineffective police state is that it can creep into our imaginations. This moment in Indian history—a time of riots and persecutions, lynchings and fear—has ancient roots, as K Srilata reminds us in his poem “Gujarat, 2002”: “All these hot afternoons later, / there is still no trace of rain, / only news, / of another lynching . . . ”

The late Arun Kolatkar, who wrote poetry in Marathi and English © Madhu Kapparath

Imtiaz Dharker, Pakistani-born British poet and artist, and Chancellor of Newcastle University, who won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her poetry © Madhu Kapparath

Running through these is a stream of other stories and landscapes. In “Lascar”, Ranjit Hoskote references the movement of migrant labor from Mumbai to Liverpool to London in 1889, using the image of the Indian sailors who crewed British ships, taking with them “a whiff of scurvy , a hint of rats in the hold”. , / hulls battered by typhoons . . . ”

The Penguin Book of Indian Poets is a major anthology, one that puts Indian poets on the map as a force and as a family. It needs companion volumes from poets who write in the many other Indian languages. But Thayil’s case that Indian poets who write in English belong fully – both to India and to the world – is exemplified by the dazzling work of these more than 800 pages. They are rich, grounded, disruptive and free voices.

The Penguin Book of Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil, Penguin, 908 pages

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