The cheer of chillies & megaphones

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Indian poetry in English is alive and kicking. Arul Mani examines new work from poets across three generations

Verse feelers K Satchidanandan

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

While I write: new and Selected Poems K SatchidanandanHarperCollins152 pp; 299

IN ITS explorations of the adventure of being a word-child, of the joys that accrue from writerly preoccupations, Absent Muses demands of the reader a corresponding suppleness and agility. I can think of only one suitable metaphor — a workout with a somewhat Nazi gym instructor that turns in about five minutes into a duel, no quarter given, no muscle left unpunished, occasional percussion provided by some combination of your bones and the floor, followed by a week of memorable, happy hurting.

Sampurna Chattarji does not come at you in the expected ways — no whingeing about identity- theft, no lost-and-found fairytales from the love department, no tea-bagging of memory into a waiting cup. Her concerns are simpler and more elusive.

One is the nature of inspiration. In Storytelling, writing is celebrated twice over as a means of travelling in two directions: “I will count and recount the ways/ in which a poem turns slowly/ into the story I wasn’t writing/ was always writing”. The poem Absent Muses offers a similarly puzzling reversal: “My muses are made of flesh, real and distant as stars./…I need to work at keeping them real”.

The book’s second section, Hoping to Land, investigates the small moments of heightened awareness made possible by transit, by being translated into the unfamiliar. The multiple meanings of Home and Away are distilled, quite appropriately, into a poem about drinking whisky in a faraway city — titled Glenfarclas on India Street. I returned to this poem several times, charmed by the ease with which she captures the contours of a passing moment, of a brief homecoming, warmed repeatedly by phrases such as “the Esperanto of kitchen clatter” and “inhabiting the savour of other countries”, finding in the composition of the final moment of the poem (“the graciousness of blue, flowered cups/ the large, uncurtained window/ and the flash of passing headlights”) everything about settling somewhere briefly that invariably escapes me.

In the autobiographical note that accompanies While I Write, K Satchidanandan invokes the notion of poet as public person: “I fear only the suffocating silence of a world where the soul has ceased to speak and man cannot decipher the language of leaves and waterfalls.”

This volume offers a poetry that is Catholic in its expansiveness, sparked with equal facility by registered sources of inspiration such as childhood memories, lore from the four corners of the world and memories of conversations with poets from far countries, as it is by the merely random, by such things as football heroes fallen from grace, lost objects, the fascination provided by Chinese script on signboards at a hotel, and an art-house film that refuses to dwindle into one or two easy stills.

How does the writer, who chooses a transparent idiom, avoid the risk of churning out no more than Poetry Lite? Does embracing a Neruda-esque ideal of commitment leave the poet vulnerable to charges of a high-minded, catch-penny simplification? Such risks are perhaps out-weighed by the role poets like Satchidanandan play in their respective reading contexts — as bridge-builders who bring home the world and allow what is intractably local to make its way into the world.

Verse feelers Sampurna Chattarji

Photo:Shailendra Pandey

Absent MusesSampurna ChattarjiPoetrywala110 pp; Rs 300

In the title poem, Satchidanandan talks of being transformed and made whole by choosing to write this way: “I write in love. /Birds roost on my shoulders, / Trees bend with flowers and fruits/Warring men hug one another.” If in writing thus he lapses occasionally into the facile and borderline-silly (“the mixed fragrance unique to you, of white lilies and hot chillies”), these moments must be held in balance against others that range from the affecting (“You are…/…the journey of the salt beyond Babel, the vigil of the spark beneath the ash”) to the mysterious (“The footprint on the wet grass/need not be death’s; / perhaps a folk-song had gone by”).

We must not omit mention of the fact that Satchidanandan is here both poet and translator; these elegant transfers from Malayalam to English retain something of the energetic orality of one language while exploiting the other’s capacity for surprise on the printed page.

Verse feelers Meena Kandasamy

Photo: Thomas Langdon

MS MilitancyMeena KandasamyNavayana68pp; Rs 150

THERE ARE three outstanding poems in Meena Kandasamy’s Ms Militancy, poems that offer a glimpse of the passion and the intelligence she brings to writing. Why She Writes of Her Love offers both a wry evisceration of the decorum prescribed by the Tolkaapiyam to Tamizh love-poets and a reminder that love is constantly subversive of some hierarchy. In Emergency she surveys with ironic detachment the righteous indignation of “brahwoman medicos” protesting reservations, before offering a litany of lower-caste goddesses and their medical specialisations. Moongazers is a layered, understated account of the stilling of curiosity and of how far-reaching the effects of such lessons in conformity can be.

When it comes to the rest of the poems in this collection, I have, alas, some quarrels with the writer. Some are no more than bland two-minute copybook exercises in irony. While she is free to retell local or national epics or to recast Rama as Random Access Man and Brahma as the “dour-faced father-figure who fucked up our lives”, I cannot help but wonder if such forays do their own little bit to affirm the very contestable idea that Brahminical Hinduism is central to all our lives. What of uncovering the lived history that this construct eclipses? The other thing that puzzles me is her need to build some sort of sorority with Karaikalammaiyar, Akkamahadevi and Andal. We’ve heard enough about how subversive those famous but dead aunties were. More Meena (and less Meera) might be a better idea for those alive today. It is a great idea to take the reader to the crossroads where caste and gender meet. More power to that enterprise — and some modulation, please. The megaphone is an instrument best left to the sloganeers and truth-paste merchants who warble on The God Channel and something-or-the- other-jagruthi.org

If you judge by the space in print media, you’d think poetry is a lost cause. These three works offer the opposite inference

If one were to judge the audience for poetry by the space assigned to the enterprise in the print media, one could come away believing this is a lost cause. The readers implied in these three different works and the robust ways in which the poems begin to address those readers offer the opposite inference. The possibility of living some part of your life online seems to allow a conversation more immediate and more sustained — think YouTube videos, Facebook pages, long-running blogs — between readers and writers irrespective of generation or location. It is equally worthwhile speculating about how these things are connected, if at all, to the fact that two of the volumes here are published by small houses — Poetrywala and Navayana. The diverse ways in which poets and readers have begun to find each other is good news in a context where such tidings have long been unfamiliar.

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