There is no doubt about it: English poetry by Indians – even by Jeet Thayil’s broadened definition that includes the likes of David Dabydeen, Jane Bhandari and Sudesh Mishra – is a minority genre.
Unlike their counterparts in prose or vernacular languages, its littérateurs are easily the country’s least known and least celebrated – readers are usually also writers, a second edition is a miracle, and profit is a laughable concept. Bookstores carry Dr. Abdul Kalam’s collections in quantities as embarrassing as the books themselves, but the award-winning Tishani Doshi’s is unavailable. When someone asked recently if the large cheque my publisher had entrusted briefly in my care was my advance, I scoffed, “What do you think I am, a novelist?”
This collection, therefore, is not just a risk, it’s a bit of marvel. Sixty poets and fifty-five years of work are here, traipsing the breadth of experience – love, sex, exile, the city, existential angst, the body, gender, death, and family. There are some exceptional choices, including Mamang Dai, G. S Sharat Chandra, Srikanth Reddy and Vivek Narayanan, who deserve greater local acclaim.
And there are notable exceptions, in spite of influence (Agha Shahid Ali), fame (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Reetika Vazirani) or recent notability (Meena Kandasamy, Temsula Ao, Sridala Swami). Alongside most of the other usual suspects, names largely unknown or unremembered take their place, among them Gopal Honnalgere, Subhashini Kaligotla, Karthika Nair, and Kersy Katrak.
In some cases, this recognition is posthumous or out-of-print, and could bring the work to greater attention. In others, the springboard provided by inclusion may portend some promising careers.
Either way, Thayil has taken some gambles, and this is commendable, for doing so augments the canon. In the past, anthologies (including two Oxford University Press ones edited by R. Parthasarathy and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra) have stayed loyal to a tested fifteen or so names. Even Ranjit Hoskote’s Reasons For Belonging, with a meagre fourteen poets, encountered criticism for being filled out with “mediocre” choices. If nothing else, 60 Indian Poets will serve to detonate the perception that only a handful of English-writing Indian poets are worth attention.
But there is more to savour in this book than just the poems. Thayil’s introduction is so precise in contextualizing the place(s, as it were) of the Indian poet writing in English that it holds the attention more than some of the poems within. Two essays by Bruce King and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra are also included – King’s on the Holy Trinity of Bombay poetry in its heyday, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar and Nissim Ezekiel, all of whom died in 2004, and Mehrotra’s on “the Indian poem”, using Kolatkar as a base. All three essays are a pleasure, and a few more would certainly have added perspective to a collection that in its ambition clearly intends to encapsulate not just the poetry but also its milieu.
The introductions to each poet also speak volumes, such as the subtle suggestion that Kamala Das’ scandalous reputation may be no more than the effect of various personae, or when Thayil says of Bibhu Padhi, “His poems have the numbed conversational tone of someone who has been so long in mourning that he has forgotten the origin of his grief”.
And there are the photographs of the Bombay poets, a wonderful touch that discreetly but too infrequently punctuate the collection. One in particular, of Eunice de Souza in a caftan with a bird on her head, is delightfully candid.
The question remains: is this a definitive anthology? Indian poetry in English has some way left to go, and this book appears at a significant junction; its publication may in fact be the most visible harbinger of an upcoming revival. A fresh interest in poetry, as evidenced by mainly low-key efforts in cities including Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai (Bombay is exempted here for its headstart and iconic status as the country’s capital of verse), suggests that in a decade, 60 Indian Poets could well be no longer representative. And this, if this minority genre meets its potential, is as it should be.
An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.