Speak, Ranjit

Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets, edited by Ranjit Hoskote. Viking (New Delhi) 2002. 148 pages. 195 Rupees.

As Reviewed By: Rabindra K. Swain

“For a time,” warns Michael Roberts in his introduction to the first edition of the influential anthology The Faber Book of Modern Verse, “the false poem may be more popular than the true one could have been.” More than anybody else, it is the anthologist who must guard himself against self-deception in his principles of selection. He must not only make himself immune from personal bias, but also from the fleeting beauty of a work which is like a two-day crescent moon that disappears soon after its brief appearance in the sky. Anthology-making is an awesome task–and if the anthologist doesn’t maintain his balance, he loses credibility.

In my own mother tongue, Oriya, there has not been a single anthology of poetry worth naming. The ones that exist are mere compilations, including as many as five scores of poets so that no one is left out and no one hurt. At least this is not the case with Indian English poetry. Starting with the path-breaking Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo (edited by P. Lal from his Writers Workshop, Calcutta in 1969), there have been a good many anthologies which have made their presence felt. Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, edited by R. Parthasarathy for Oxford University Press in 1976, was a milestone. It almost decided, definitively, which poets were going to last from that century. In the successive Oxford Book of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, A. K. Mehrotra not only excluded R. Parthasarathy but also kept his own poems out of it. One can only praise that kind of objectivity![private]

Now the young poet Ranjit Hoskote joins this tradition with gusto. In his Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets, Hoskote has set out to canonize a body of poetry that is still nascent, still lisping. His task is even more daunting because the poets he has taken up have only a couple of books to their credit or, in some cases, none at all!

The poets included in Reasons for Belonging are mentioned below, along with their dates of birth: Jeet Thayil (1959), Tabish Khair (1966), Ranjit Hoskote (1969), Vijay Nambisan (1963), H. Masud Taj (1956), Rukmini Bhaya Nair (1952), C. P. Surendran (1959), Vivek Narayanan (1972), Gavin Barrett (1967), Anjum Hasan (1972), Jerry Pinto(1966), Smita Agarwal (1958), Arundhati Subramaniam (1967) and Anan Thakore. So, it is an anthology of poets born after 1950. As I said earlier, the young poet who is writing today may not continue to do so. This concern has been voiced before by Keki N. Daruwalla when he reviewed Jayanta Mahapatra’s Shadow Space: “Jayanta Mahapatra stands among the sterile Indian crowd of English language poets who dry up after an average of two volumes” (Biblio, Jan-Feb, 1988, P.28). This fact is acknowledged by Hoskote himself when he says in his introduction that “Nearly a decade ago, when this generation was still an emergent species, Makarand Paranjape set himself the task of identifying its characteristics in an anthology that included eighteen new voices (only four of whom, incidentally, appear in this anthology).” What Hoskote obviously means here is that fourteen of these poets have dried up before his very eyes!

Paranjape had several poets in his Anthology of New Indian English Poetry (New Delhi: Rupa & Co, 1993) who had no collections of their own. Now in Hoskote’s anthology, the poets who don’t have first collections as yet are Vivek Narayanan, Gavin Barrett and Anjum Hasan. And taste the snuff of Narayanan’s lines, which Hokote thinks will rise from obscurity:

Puzzled I glanced
Into the car again: the form of his thighs dissolved,
Imperceptibly, dark below the steering

Or dust of Gavin Barrett’s poem on your face:

Part of what I am is in the road,
In travelling past the dusty names,
In the grimed towns that
Past the car-window,
Past the creased, tired maps I read.

So this, then, is metropolitan poetry–taking to the road, in a car. This is the poetry of “hybridity”, another name for rootlessness. In not being true to the heart, they could not be true to their mind either:

Forest eyes you in the dark,
Measures every move you dare,
Stalks your trail of uncertain steps.
Vanishes when lightning fall,
Reappears the instant after.

No need to go any further in quoting. This kind of abstract poetry sounds nice, as Michael Roberts has already warned, but I am afraid it won’t remain memorable. Equally patterned a piece is Taj’s “Medina’s Highway” which begins and ends with “Lord of…” in each line, a poor imitation of A. K. Ramanujan’s “Prayers to Lord Murugan.” And the poets here who have one collection each are Jerry Pinto, Smita Agarwal, Arundhati Subramaniam and Anand Thakore.

The fast-food culture is even consuming the patience of the poets. The young poets are too much in a hurry to collect whatever they write in a book form. And there is always a dearth of literary magazines, which are truly edited. There are also presses like Writers Workshop in India–which publishes hardly any good poetry, while the number of their publications is perhaps greater than all the poetry books put together from other presses in a year. Worse, even, than these are the books which are published by the poets themselves. The norm today among young poets is this: write tonight; get it self-published in book-form in the morning; and, if a Ranjit Hoskote is available, land up in an anthology the day after.

I have no quarrels with Ranjit in taking up the rest of the poets: they deserve to be there. Perhaps he should have exercised restraint by not falling into the trap of personal relationships, which I infer from the introductions to the individual poets, some of whom are members of Bombay-based poetry circles. Incidentally, eight out of the fourteen poets here are products of Bombay–Bombay, a proud mother like Gandhari, of a hundred poets! (In Oriya literature, it is said, there are now some three hundred practising poets and it must be the case in other languages also. But that should not affect the taste of a connoisseur.)

Ranjit could put up any defense for the inclusion or exclusion of poets in this anthology, but the fact remains that it is not fairly representative of “contemporary” Indian English poetry written today by the poets born between 1950 and 1970. About the poets from the regions other than Bombay, I can only say that regional representation of poetry can never be the hallmark of an anthology–how can a region be represented where no perceptible writing is done? I am sure Ranjit is not unaware of what is going on elsewhere, but what I am not sure of is the force that ran through the fuse of Ranjit’s principles of selection. If it is metropolitan poetry he is representing he should have stated it in the title itself, like “Fourteen Cosmopolitan Indian Poets”. Personally, I also like Anjum’s poems which have appeared in Kavya Bharati, Indian Literature, Lipi, and Chandrabhaga. But can Ranjit swear that Anjum Hasan is a better or greater poet than Robin S. Ngangom? Can Ranjit, again, swear that Bibhu Padhi–who has been writing consistently and publishing in journals like TriQuarterly, Poetry and Encounter for the last 25 years–was not included in his anthology on the basis of poetic merit?

And, finally, a glaring omission is Meena Alexander–who was born after 1950 and lives in the United States. Going by the biographical details of the poets, we see that Nair was born in 1952 and Gavin Barrett lives in Toronto. So age and place of residency could not have been the factors barring the inclusion of an excellent poet like Meena Alexander in Reasons for Belonging. Or does the editor think that she is too established to be among the young ones? Perhaps to justify the word “Contemporary” in the title of his anthology, he should rather have confined himself to those poets who were born only in the 1960’s.

All of these criticisms aside, Ranjit has still made a beginning, for such anthologies are exploratory rather than definitive. Reasons for Belonging should be taken by readers as a first step in a long journey. The onus lies with the publisher, Viking. They must see that a radical anthology like this should be updated periodically, as happens with major anthologies like The Faber Book of Modern Verse, whose fourth edition was recently done by Peter Porter. After all, which contemporary Indian English poets will be valued by our descendants is, still, anybody’s guess.[/private]

About RKSwain

Rabindra K. Swain was born in 1960. He gained an M.A. in English Literature in 1983 and a Ph.D. on the poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra in 1995 from Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India. He has published three books of poetry, Once Back Home (Har-Ananda, New Delhi, 1996), A Tapestry of Steps (Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1999), and Severed Cord (Indialog, 2002). He has also published a book of translations from Oriya, Bahubreehi, and a critical work, The Poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra: A Critical Study (Prestige Books, New Delhi, 2000). His poetry has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Verse, New Letters, and Quarterly West, among others.
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