Tag Archives: Indian English Poetry

Agha Shahid Ali: Tonight

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Agha Shahid Ali’s gazal ‘Tonight’ is a superb poem. As is suitable for a ghazal it is a virtuoso. The complex weaving of history, the intertextuality, the internal echos all dazzle the reader by the sheer brilliance and control. To write a gazal in English and then to make it self-reflexive is no mean act. Hats off, Ali saab!

Amitav Ghosh’s article on Agha Shahid Ali is a must read to know this little great man. The article starts thus:

The first time that Agha Shahid Ali spoke to me about his approaching death was on 21 April 2001. The conversation began routinely. I had telephoned to remind him that we had been invited to a friend’s house for lunch and that I was going to come by his apartment to pick him up. Although he had been under treatment for cancer for some fourteen months, Shahid was still on his feet and perfectly lucid, except for occasional lapses of memory. I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said: “Oh dear. I can’t see a thing.” There was a brief pause and then he added: “I hope this doesn’t mean that I’m dying …”

Read the rest of the article here.

Image from: google images

Tonight

by Agha Shahid Ali

Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar
—Laurence Hope

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?

Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful

“Trinket”—to gem—“Me to adorn—How tell”—tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—

A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar—

All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;

Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities

multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.

He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.

No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day—

I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.

Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.

The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer

fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.

My rivals for your love—you’ve invited them all?

This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee
God sobs in my arms.  Call me Ishmael tonight.

A.K. Ramanujan’s ‘A River’

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image from: the telegraph

image from: the telegraph

R. Parthasarathy, in his introductory note on Ramanujan in Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, reads ‘A River’ as a poem that exposes the callousness of the old and the new poets to suffering. But the irony in the poem extends to the speaker also, mocking the irrelevances he indulges in.

There are people who hold AKR very highly as a poet primarily for the technical finesse of his poems. One of the legends about him is that he used to revise his poems umpteen times, some undergoing as many revisions as sixty. It shows in his poems. No flab in them, pared to the minimum, enriched in possibilities through irony, line division and word placement.

A.K. Ramanujan in his poetry is a modernist to the T. In his themes as well as poetic strategies, he displays the international modernist attitude. He is right there with other modernists in writing about the existential issues, about the tension between being and world, about duality in relation to past, about scrutinising the self. His poems deploy all the modernist poetic trappings: tension, irony, obscurity, fragmentation, montage-like structure, ambivalence, imagistic, concrete.

“A River” immediately invokes binary structures: “new poets” and “old poets”; city of “temples and poets”; songs of “cities and temples”; the flood in the poems and as “people” saw it; a “couple of cows”; pregnant woman with “identical twins” etc.

The poem also presents alternative perceptions of the river in Madurai. One of them is available in poetry – old and new – which “sang” of cities, temples and the river in flood. On the other hand, “people everywhere” saw something else, which the speaker also concurs with. The speaker of this poem as the persona “he” has seen Madurai and has heard reports of the flood. The river as seen by the speaker is different from this report, which in turn is different from the description available in poetry old and new.

Thus, the view available of the river is diverse. The old and new poets see only the richness of the river when in flood; they see none of its impoverishment during summer. How about the present poets? This speaker sees the impoverishment during summer and the damage it causes during flood. He sees no richness. Thus, a dual view is available from the poets.

People seem to have a different “kind” of view. People seem to see the river in a contingent manner – as the flood is rising. The speaker-persona has his own report, which is different from the view of the old and new poets or the views of the people. He seems to pick up the details from the oral reports “everywhere” and then adds his own “poetic details” that veer away from the pathos of what he is describing with the triviality of his additions. Thus, instead of a serious criticism what we get is an unsure comment on the situation ending in parody. The indeterminacy in the poem is the result of the multiple possibilities that memory presents.

A River

In Madurai,
city of temples and poets,
who sang of cities and temples,
every summer
a river dries to a trickle
in the sand,
baring the sand ribs,
straw and women’s hair
clogging the watergates
at the rusty bars
under the bridges with patches
of repair all over them
the wet stones glistening like sleepy
crocodiles, the dry ones
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun
The poets only sang of the floods.

He was there for a day
when they had the floods.
People everywhere talked
of the inches rising,
of the precise number of cobbled steps
run over by the water, rising
on the bathing places,
and the way it carried off three village houses,
one pregnant woman
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.

The new poets still quoted
the old poets, but no one spoke
in verse
of the pregnant woman
drowned, with perhaps twins in her,
kicking at blank walls
even before birth.

He said:
the river has water enough
to be poetic
about only once a year
and then
it carries away
in the first half-hour
three village houses,
a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda
and one pregnant woman
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.

An Essay on Nissim Ezekiel’s Background, Casually

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from: google images

from: google images

Nissim Ezekiel’s poem ‘Background, Casually’ is one of his most known poems. If ‘Night of the Scorpion’ is a popular anthology piece, this poem is more keenly read by the more academic readers of his poetry. The poem’s significance to Ezekiel’s oeuvre lies partly in it being an autobiographical poem which is seen to indicate crisply his ‘official view of life’ as it were (whatever that means). Ezekiel’s general tendency in his poems to be more communicative than be imagistic is evident here. Similarly, the ironic tone that swings between whipping the self and the society around it is also on abundant display in this poem. Some of the other recurrent motifs of Ezekiel’s poetry that we see in this poem are:

* finding satisfaction in limited ambition

* a set of experiences stated as providing deep insights

* use of unrhymed metrical lines

* probing the question of identity in a firm social context

* controlled fragmentation unlike the modernist tendency of obscurity

The poem is divided into three sections which approximate the childhood, adult and old-age experiences of the poet-speaker. The three sections do not merely present a chronology of significant experiences but reflections over these experiences that draw out lessons on the status of the identity of the self. Allow me to comment, in a rather school boyish manner, stanza by stanza.

Background, Casually
by Nissim Ezekiel

from: google images

from: google images

1

A poet-rascal-clown was born,
The frightened child who would not eat
Or sleep, a boy of meager bone.
He never learned to fly a kite,
His borrowed top refused to spin.

Notice the references to facts twisted to accommodate the present assessment of that fact. The first line for example is the present valuation of the past. The line also introduces a preference made all through the poem: the self perception of the speaker as a poet. This self-perception is immediately attached to irony with the addition of rascal and clown. From irony, this present perception of the past slides to self-pity, a rather clever ploy that corners the readers sympathy as well as explains away the lack of heroism in the self. The reader is required to agree that this ‘boy of meager bone’ with not even the skill to fly a kite, is not destined to achieve anything too noble; so the assertions of self-satisfactions at the poetic achievements of this self in the third section of the poem come to be accepted easily.

I went to Roman Catholic school,
A mugging Jew among the wolves.
They told me I had killed the Christ,
That year I won the scripture prize.
A Muslim sportsman boxed my ears.

I grew in terror of the strong
But undernourished Hindu lads,
Their prepositions always wrong,
Repelled me by passivity.
One noisy day I used a knife.

The second stanza slips from third to first person. In the 2nd and 3rd stanzas the multicultural mix of the society in which the speaker has grown up is introduced through the self-pity ploy. These two stanzas insistently introduce a major strand of this poem’s thematic: identity. The challenge to coherent formation of identity is indicated here as related to the mixing of cultures that are not devoid of intolerance toward one another. Amid the unhappy school life, a poetic career has without much ado announced itself: ‘That year I won the scripture prize’. This line is suggestive of the inclination of the child.

At home on Friday nights the prayers
Were said. My morals had declined.
I heard of Yoga and of Zen.
Could 1, perhaps, be rabbisaint?
The more I searched, the less I found.

Twentytwo: time to go abroad.
First, the decision, then a friend
To pay the fare. Philosophy,
Poverty and Poetry, three
Companions shared my basement room.

The last line of the 4th stanza is typical of Ezekiel in the use of antithesis. Intimations of failure are always around the corner in his autobiographical poems. The above two stanzas squeeze a long duration into rapidly moving lines. Growing up amid diverse influences the speaker expands the base of the incoherence of his identity to include yoga, zen, jewish theology. The alliterative line ‘philosophy, poverty and poetry’ burdens the experiential statement with the load of a life-time inclination. Many of Ezekiel’s poems suggest this inclination: ‘Enterprise’ for example. Usually they indicate symptomatically the poetic credo of this poet: to treat personal experiences philosophically to produce poetic significance.

2

The London seasons passed me by.
I lay in bed two years alone,
And then a Woman came to tell
My willing ears I was the Son
Of Man. I knew that I had failed

In everything, a bitter thought.
So, in an English cargoship
Taking French guns and mortar shells
To IndoChina, scrubbed the decks,
And learned to laugh again at home.

The second section of the poem brings in adult experiences as suggested toward the end of previous stanza. Amid rather tedious lines the above quoted stanzas introduce the summary dismissal of the self that recurs in Ezekiel’s poems. The sense of failure is recurrent. But Ezekiel usually positions these statements strategically in the poems. Their function is not to state to the reader the sense of the speaker’s disillusion. These lines are positioned by Ezekiel in such a way as to herald the experiments that lead the self toward the present significance. This strategy is also to be found in ‘Enterprise’. The stanzas also indicate the speaker’s decision to turn away from the metro-centricness of the colonial mentality. The last line could have been interpreted as being puerile patriotism had it occurred in a poem less ironic than ‘Background, Casually’.

How to feel it home, was the point.
Some reading had been done, but what
Had I observed, except my own
Exasperation? All Hindus are
Like that, my father used to say,

When someone talked too loudly, or
Knocked at the door like the Devil.
They hawked and spat. They sprawled around.
I prepared for the worst. Married,
Changed jobs, and saw myself a fool.

The song of my experience sung,
I knew that all was yet to sing.
My ancestors, among the castes,
Were aliens crushing seed for bread
(The hooded bullock made his rounds).

A lasting question, something that has characterized Ezekiel’s approach generally, is introduced in the first line of the next stanza: ‘How to feel it home’ is a question raised by many of Ezekiel’s poems about identity. What I want to indicate is that the manner Ezekiel frames the identity question is apparent here. Ezekiel makes out a case for homely feeling as a measure of identity. With homely feeling comes a responsibility. For Ezekiel, this responsibility requires that one not only see ones home in appreciation but also with a certain critical distance. Ezekiel practically indicates the figure of the ‘homely critic’ as the frame of reference. This homely critic manages a stance that is not shy of scathing criticism, yet asserts the value of home. It is thus that Ezekiel develops a critique of Naipaul’s tourist perspective of India in his well known essay that appeared in Adil Jussawala edited ‘Penguin New Writing from India’: ‘Naipaul’s India and Mine’. It is an essay that would have won the prize for walking the tight rope. For in this essay, Ezekiel defends the indefensible. The essay was written at a time when the patriotic pitch was so shrill against Naipaul that anybody critcising him would have sounded like whistling along. Ezekiel maintains a remarkable cool in pointing out the perspectival problem in Naipaul’s narrative. We easily see Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ full of prejudicial whining at personal slight and inconvenience rather than a balanced criticism.

3

One among them fought and taught,
A Major bearing British arms.
He told my father sad stories
Of the Boer War. I dreamed that
Fierce men had bound my feet and hands.

The later dreams were all of words.
I did not know that words betray
But let the poems come, and lost
That grip on things the worldly prize.
I would not suffer that again.

The third section swiftly moves on in life: the speaker is mature now. He is through his experiments. He is ripe with his experiences so that he can now give out his conclusions. That is, within the poem the narration of experiences is now over, and it is time to draw out philosophical implications. ‘The later dreams were all of words’ picks up the theme of poetic career. The poem is now poised to give us a peep into the poetic process.

I look about me now, and try
To formulate a plainer view:
The wise survive and serve–to play
The fool, to cash in on
The inner and the outer storms.

This is a remarkable stanza which very concisely states a complex attitude to poetry. The speaker puts simply that his approach to poetry is rather pragmatic. The inner and the outer storms are not to be seen as problems to be solved: it is not a measure of ones wisdom to solve them. The wisdom is in playing the fool yet cashing in on these inner and outer storms by making them the subject of ones creativity. It is a pithy way of saying that the poet has to respond through his/her creativity.

The Indian landscape sears my eyes.
I have become a part of it
To be observed by foreigners.
They say that I am singular,
Their letters overstate the case.

I have made my commitments now.
This is one: to stay where I am,
As others choose to give themselves
In some remote and backward place.
My backward place is where I am.

These two stanzas, jerkily moving away from the earlier stanza, sum up the speaker’s socio-political stance. The colonial divide between the metropolis as the centre and ‘India’ as a backward place is alluded to here. Staying in India is seen as a committed move. The ambivalent place of the ‘homely critic’ is stated in the first line of the above quoted stanzas: ‘Indian landscape sears my eyes’. The necessity to assert ones commitment to ones station arises because of the ‘the foreigners’ viewpoint. From their point of view, being in the ‘backward place’ warrants an explanation. The speaker seems to agree that his station is backward, though it is his own.

What I find interesting in the poem is the way it frames the question of identity. The poem quite clearly takes India as the place from which this view is generated. The view that raises the question of identity and the backwardness of the place, first of all, sets up a binary opposition. This binary opposition conveniently sets up two categories: something called India and something called foreign. With this opposition there is a termination of the question. Then the poem sets out to resolve the puzzle. It admits that the ‘identity’ of the speaker spills over a pure category. That is what the ‘foreign’ experiences suggest in the poem. Therefore, the speaker has to point out the ambivalence in the identity of the self – critical yet committed to home. This view at once enables a distance from the totalized category of ‘India’ and an identification with it. The problem of course is that, the binary invoked here deals with essentialisms. The perspective developed in the poem is very comforting in a way, and often is seen as politically correct too. But it confronts the question of identity in a reductive polarization between ‘India’ and ‘the foreign’.

Teaching Indian English Poetry

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It is always a challenge to teach poetry. Because in the case of fiction or drama, the experience of the students within the field of popular culture is continued in their encounter with the literary works that get prescribed in syllabi. This is so not completely but approximately. When it comes to poetry, students’ familiarity with poetry in popular culture is mainly through film songs, pop music. Whereas, poetry prescribed is very different from these songs. This results in a sort of incomprehension of the significance of the poems.

Studying Indian English poetry faces further complications. How does one ‘place’ these poems? How do we explain the ranges of their significance to students? How to make them accessible to students experience?

Well, I would like to hear from my readers regarding their idea on how to read Indian English poetry. Whether you have been teaching or studying, what has been your experience? How do you go about cracking IEP?

Do share your views with me.

Jayanta Mahapatra’s poem “Hunger”

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Jayanta Mahapatra, along with Ezekiel, Ramanujan and Dom Moraes, is a major voice of the first wave of modern Indian English poetry. In my opinion the works of poets like Kolatkar, Agha Shahid Ali stole the luster from the works of these other poets, Mahapatra held his own. If he is not as pervasively known name as someone like Ezekiel, it is due to non-poetic reasons. Mahapatra is one of the most haunting of the Indian English poets with a highly demanding poetic style. He edited a magazine called Chandrabhaga for some time. He started writing late in life: he taught Physics in a College in Cuttack and began writing after he was 40. But soon he had a substantial body of writing.

(Go here for a You tube interview. Poet’s Homepage)

from: poet's homepage

from: poet's homepage

His Crossing of the Rivers is a remarkable long poem. An abiding motif in his poems is the tangle between tradition and modernity. The picture that emerges in works like A Rain of rites is that Mahapatra tends to position himself on the side of modernity and then rather than challenging or undermining or ironically doubting tradition, he examines modernity itself by evoking the tradition to throw posers at his modern location. The modernity of the speaker in many of Mahapatra’s poems is a burden to bear. But, yet his poems do not cast tradition as the preferred resource. It is the difficulty that this opposition raises that gets foregrounded.

One of his poems that earned a lot of fame is ‘Hunger’. This poem impressed Bernard Young, the American poet, so much that he ‘quoted’ the whole poem in The Hudson Review. The poem presents two kinds of hunger – one (physical) leading to the fulfillment of other (sexual). The theme is quite obvious, so let me focus on what I like about this poem.

The poem primarily has two structures of images: flesh related and poverty related; hunger emanating from the flesh and that from poverty. What makes the poem impressive is the way these images entangle one another, some abstract, all building the irony of the two urges. The vividity of the images build a word portrait of the place, graphically relating the manners of the three characters.

The fisherman, the father who pimps his daughter, is careless in his offer of the girl: “as though his words sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself”. I think the poet craftily pushes the reader to question the very ideas of sanctity here. The utter hopelessness in the life of the fisherman and his daughter is such that it words like sanctity would be meaningless there. The values have no ‘purchase’ in so utterly degraded a human plight.

The image of wound is prepared to by such images as ‘the bone thrashing in his eyes’, ‘mind thumping in the flesh’s sling’, ‘burning the house’ ‘body clawing’. The actions indicated in these image portray the human effort that is rather desperate, fruitless and hurting. The wound image gathers them all together in a place where the combined force of all these previous images together hits the reader hard and jump him/her out of complacency. It must be borne in mind that the tourist searching for sexual gratification implicitly holds the place of the audience as the reader is a voyeur like the tourist.

from: museindia

from: museindia

The soot image, a customary suggestion of sin, alerts us to how the blackness of the predicament of the father pimping his daughter is a condemnation not of the father but of the society where such a tragedy comes to pass. The soot covers the shack of the fisherman, but it is the tourist’s mind on which the poem sees the soot. Thus, like Blake who said the presence of a whore in society is a curse of the marriage system, this poem questions the justness in society from which sanctity has disappeared.

I have always felt that it is the reader who has to bear the force of irony of this poem. Notice how the reader in this poem is not allowed to be outside of it. Like the tourist in the poem, the reader is an outsider and a sort of voyeur. So the shame of the plight of the pimping father falls on the reader – not on the individual reader.

It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back.
The fisherman said: Will you have her, carelessly,
trailing his nets and his nerves, as though his words
sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself.
I saw his white bone thrash his eyes.

I followed him across the sprawling sands,
my mind thumping in the flesh’s sling.
Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in.
Silence gripped my sleeves; his body clawed at the froth
his old nets had only dragged up from the seas.

In the flickering dark his lean-to opened like a wound.
The wind was I, and the days and nights before.
Palm fronds scratched my skin. Inside the shack
an oil lamp splayed the hours bunched to those walls.
Over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind.

I heard him say: My daughter, she’s just turned fifteen…
Feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.
The sky fell on me, and a father’s exhausted wile.
Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber.
She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside.

Nissim Ezekiel’s Night of the Scorpion

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Every poet, good or bad, writes a poem that strikes the right chords with a majority of readers. Say, Frost. He is so much loved for so many poems, yet many take the name of ‘Road not taken’ or ‘Sleeping by woods..’ when you mention his name. With the Nissim Ezekiel such an oft remembered poem is The Night of the Scorpion. In this poem the speaker, an adult now in awe of his mother’s love for her children, remembers the time in his childhood when a scorpion had stung his mother. It was a rainy night, cold, and a scorpion had slipped into the house, perhaps for warmth. The skill of Ezekiel in this poem is in making it so evocative. It has his characteristic irony, and even a hint of satire. But what catches our attention is the vividity of the description.

For example, see how the poet refers to the remembered detail of the visiting neighbours who come expressing sympathy and solidarity: “The peasants came like swarms of flies”. This image gathers together at once a statement and a description of the behaviour of the neighbours: villagers coming to visit in big numbers and the continuous noise (not very useful speech but an endless stream of repetitive chatter) they make. Rarely do we come across vividity of such density.

Similar is the lines: “With candles and with lanterns throwing giant scorpion shadows/ on the sun-baked walls they searched for him; he was not found”.  The image here is at once apt, vivid and accurate. The villagers with candles or lanterns are searching for the scorpion. It is obvious that they bend forward in this search. This action would require them to hold the lamps ahead of them and at a low height. The light from these lanterns catches the bending shapes of the villagers and throws shadows on the walls which naturally are amplified in the process.  To the bewildered child who is seeing all these commotion, these shadows appear like giant scorpions because of their bloated size and because scorpion is on everyone’s mind and talk.

The use of inversion in the following lines with the repeated ‘they said’ ending is effective in recreating the effect of repetition and reporting. The closing lines make the poem a bit romantic although I reckon, many like the poem for the sentiment contained in those lines.

In the Indian classrooms when this poem is taught, what seem to receive emphasis is the status of superstition. I feel that the poem is not really about superstition. Somehow, the paraphernalia that surround this poem in most of the academic anthologies encourage the students to consider this poem as a criticism of the superstition among Indians. That interpretation beats me. How about you?

from: google images

from: google images

Here is the text:

I remember the night my mother was stung by a scorpion.
Ten hours of steady rain had driven him to crawl beneath a sack of rice.
Parting with his poison — flash of diabolic tail in the dark room — he risked the rain again.
The peasants came like swarms of flies and buzzed the Name of God a hundred times to paralyse the Evil One.
With candles and with lanterns throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the sun-baked walls they searched for him; he was not found.
They clicked their tongues. With every movement the scorpion made his poison moved in Mother’s blood, they said.
May he sit still, they said.
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
the misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
May the sum of evil balanced in this unreal world against the sum of good become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh of desire, and your spirit of ambition, they said, and they sat around on the floor with my mother in the centre.
The peace of understanding on each face.
More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours, more insects and the endless rain.
My mother twisted through and through groaning on a mat.
My father, sceptic, rationalist, trying every curse and blessing, powder, mixture, herb, and hybrid. He even poured a little paraffin upon the bitten toes and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites to tame the poison with incantation.
After twenty hours it lost its sting.
My mother only said:
“Thank God the scorpion picked on me and spared my children.”