THE UNIVERSE of contemporary Indian poetry written in English is surely more fascinating than we give it credit for if it can, in the same breath, offer us two books as diverse as Vikram Seth’s The Rivered Earth and Adil Jussawalla’s Trying to Say Goodbye. The first records a collaboration spanning over four years between three creative artists — a writer (Seth), a composer (Alec Roth) and a violinist (Philippe Honoré ) — who produced a piece of work every year for performance at three different festivals in the UK. Seth’s four libretti in verse are at its core. The second is a book of poetry by one of India’s most significant poets, whose last collection was published 35 years ago. Jussawalla’s book marks the online journal Almost Island’s foray into publishing, a fact that is indicative of the increasingly active role that independent initiatives have in keeping poetry alive in print.
Jussawalla, who has been editor, anthologist, columnist, publisher, film writer and lecturer, has published two poetry collections before this one. Seth has published three novels (one in verse), a memoir, a travelogue, another libretto (Arion and the Dolphin), a book of translations (Three Chinese Poets) and four books of poetry. For me, the most delightful of these have been The Golden Gate and Beastly Tales from Here and There. Seth’s great gift as a poet has always been that most unfashionable thing (especially in current times) — rhyme. Rhyme is his element, the air he breathes, the idiom he employs so fluidly it seems like the stuff of everyday speech, the means of all human communication. One can be suspicious of such effortlessness, and cynical about its use, but how can one fail to delight in lines like, “Then (prime pleasure of his life)/Drag the carcass to his wife” or “He is permitted food, and I/ The furred indulgence of a sigh”? In Seth’s best poems, the rhymes tumble from line to line, creating narratives, moods and impressions that range from the melancholic to the comic, the self-deprecatory to the self-protective (“the rules/Of metre, shield him from/Himself”). Used intelligently and with finesse, rhyme can produce the kind of poem that is no less complex for being easy on the tongue and pleasing to the ear.