Poetry and Keralite Writing in English – 1
The truth is Kerala has always had, like Bengal, Orissa, Kashmir and many other parts of India, an excellent crop of writers in English. They excel in criticism and poetry, mainly, not to mention novel writing and short stories.
MAPPING THE KNOWN
What I hope to do today is talk of a branch of Indian writing in English primarily, meaning Keralite writing in English, especially of poetry, against the bigger backdrop of the nation’s and its citizens’ efforts in Indian English literature. I hope to do this not excluding those who are NRIs or have settled outside the state or abroad (diasporic) but are still of Keralite or Indian stock, being ‘dual’ citizens, or those whose ancestors were or are Keralites or Indians. Shashi Tharoor, for instance. The Naipauls also come to mind, in this context. This pan-Indian and pan- Keralite approach satisfies me. When Keralites speak of their own writers who have made a mark in English they naturally speak of Madhavikutty (Kamala Das/Suraiyya) and her My Story and poems, of Arundhati Roy who is half Bengali and her Booker Prize-winning novel God of Small Things and if you are from Bangalore of Jeet Thayil with his nomination for the Booker, the novel Narcopolis, and a few others like the poet K Satchidanandan and the versatile Anita Nair. But the truth is Kerala has always had, like Bengal, Orissa, Kashmir and many other parts of India ( and also like Gujarat, Punjab, Delhi, Maharashtra and Bihar, not to mention Tamil Nadu, Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh) an excellent crop of writers in English. They excel in criticism and poetry, mainly, not to mention novel writing and short stories. If they have not yet made a mark in drama, where the two main talents emerge from Gujarat – Dattani – and Karnataka – Karnad – , to counter it they have written voluminously in fields like non-fiction and journalism, creating brief and lengthy works. I do not know if Manjula Padmanabhan is a Malayali, but it is very likely she is one, which would make her an exception that proves the rule, if it is so. V. V. John (of Light Luggage fame) is an early example of a good essayist who was a Malayali who is worth remembering.
Let me substantiate my claims, regarding just how exciting I find writing in English today in India and Kerala is, by quoting from the works of some of today’s exciting voices that have come to my attention or crossed my path, or at least by mentioning their names. My claim is not necessarily that they are great poets or critics or fiction and non-fiction writers as yet, as most are only blossoming, and the title great poet or writer is one I give only to one who has completed his or her oeuvre, but that they have written great pieces and are hence worth watching.
I would like to start with a poem written by Prathap Kamath. This poem has haunted me for years.
raindrops and my visage
falling in a pitcher
with a rose floating over
me and the clouds
(Prathap Kamath, Ekalavya, Cyberwit, UP, India, 2012 p.34)
A poet must have in his work something that goes beyond everything, an ineluctable beauty or grandeur that stuns us into calling his work our own by making it a part of our hearts through our need for memorising it and this one has it. It reminds me of the essence of Japanese painting, the kind that influenced the Impressionists. It is emotional and touching. What I like here, something I love in all the Keralite, Bengali, Kashmiri or Indian poets whom I care for, is also the care they show for the feel of the language. They do not mangle English by saying it is our right to write Indian ‘Englishes’ and use English any way we like as an excuse to cover up their own sloppiness, ignorance and mistakes and try to escape by just calling it desi or homegrown. Experimental English is fine but has to be done by those who know the rules first to break it, as James Joyce did, and not having gone abroad is no excuse to write anything as regards the language and call it justified.
Another poet I want to talk of is Ravi Shanker. Ra Sh, as he is also known, is one of the finer translators I have come across, not to mention a good critic. He moves with politically conscious radical poets, writers and artists like Leena Manimekalai and Meena Kandasamy who themselves are no mean pushovers at the art of writing but is no less interesting a poet himself. He brings in elements of science fiction, edgy communism, cuss and swear words, India, sex and the geography and culture of Kerala and post-modernism in his poems, making for an interesting mix.
Here is an excerpt from his poem “YOU are a fucking rain!”…
I hide, you rain. I go to a cave. You pour within.
I drown in a sea. You lash the waves.
I stand under a tree. The tree rains with you.
You pelt hail stones. You rain sparks.
You set fire to oil fields. You quake mountains.
You make islands. You raze cities.
You rain lava. You rain ova.
You rain and rain..oh god!..so much fucking rain in you?
You tear down the roof and pick me like a bone
In the jaws of an earth moving jurassic machine.
Hurl me into the strato meso thermo spheres
(Excerpt taken from his Facebook notes with his permission.)
His modern vocabulary and use of anaphora, combined with his sense of humour, his playful experimentation with language – are all worth commenting on and, more importantly, reading, as it brings us much enjoyment and thought.
I want to go on to Reena Prasad’s Autumn Resurrected, Rukhaya M. K’s Taj Mahal poem – a concrete poem -, Anilkumar Payappilly Vijayan’s philosophical outpourings, A.V. Varghese, Mary Annie A. V., Sara and Joanna S. K., not to mention my own poems. I would also like to mention writers like Binu Karunakaran, C.B. Mohandas, Vineetha Mekkoth, Satish Babusenan, Zeenath Ibrahim, Aveesh K. (who is no more), Ajithan Kurup who passed away recently, Elizabeth Kuriakose, Suja Menon (a critic), Jaya Prakash Kallickal, Sarala Ram Kamal, Jayachandran Ramachandran, Panjami Anand and a hundred others but my effort is not really to be a cataloguer like a K. Srinivasa Iyengar was. I mention so many names and have skipped many more only to point out that Kerala and Keralites, or Mallus as they are contemptuously referred to sometimes, are an erupting literary volcano, an iceberg that can sink any Titanic, and these names are only its tip, whether they are in Kerala or outside it or abroad. Rukhaya is also a fine critic. All of them try to be language adepts. All of them are quality conscious, in different ways, and write poems that reverberate in one’s mind. All of them set their standards high.
From Kashmir I want to especially mention the new star, Santosh Bakaya, who is making waves with her poetic biography of Gandhi Ballad of Bapu and her Oh Hark and Fog (a work in progress). She is an inspiration to many younger writers like Perveiz Ali who will produce great work from that part of the world. From Orissa my favourite poet remains Jayanta Mahapatra but there are a crop of others now like Saroj Padhi, Pradiptakumar Mohanty and Sarojkanta Dash now who are anxious to push into deep waters and I hope to speak more of Jayanta Mahapatra, definitely, and maybe of them later. However, the newer writers I read, I felt, need to be more careful regarding the use of language. I will also speak of Bina Biswas, who resembles in some ways some of the things I spoke of about Ra Sh, dealing in translation as she does, but she impresses me mainly for the amazing pluck and ability shown by her in lifting her writing standards over time in poetry up to a level where she now tries to match the very best in the whole world. Ananya Chatterjee, Lopa Banerjee, Gopali Chakraborty Ghosh, Ruma Chakravarti, K. V. K. Murthy, Madan Gandhi (one of the grand old men of Indian English writing), Jernail S Anand, Shruti Goswami, Udita Garg, Lagna Pany, Tapti Pal, Prasant Misra, Pooja Garg Singh, Taseer Gujral, the vivacious Sumana Roy, Malkeet Kaur, Avikal Shukla, Kamlesh Acharya, Abha Iyengar, Nalini Priyadarshini, Neeti Banga, Radha Debroy, Maitreyee B Chowdhury, Payal Pasha, Madhumita Ghosh, Ramakanta Das, Majrooh Rashid, Sudarshana Ghosh, Vasudev Murthy, Poulome Mitra Shaw and Atindriyo Chakraborty are some of the others I enjoy reading, at times, for various reasons.
These poets – many of them mentioned are primarily poets – I speak of are not all great yet, but have written a few or some or many great poems or works and will go on to become great as their works have or attempt for the depths that can influence many and be mined for critical explorations without having to be recognized by foreign or national or state authorities or awards first, in so-called validation exercises that are often only exercises in manipulation. If my bias is towards poetry in my choice of names, it is because in such a short space as the one I am writing in it is easier to deal with poetry than with other forms of literature.
Let me return to the serious business of giving you more snippets of new writing to sample and enjoy.
Here is Reena Prasad in her Autumn Resurrected, which I enjoyed quite as much as Keats’s Ode to Autumn, but in a different way and for different reasons.
The path turned away from the bustle of life
We halted, finally alone with the tall trees
The floor, a striped carpet of sun and shade
Around us an orange rain of leaves
You kissed my hands, gently pushed me down
A replay of a younger season
In your dark eyes, a scented image lurked
Of green mangoes and silver-belled strings
I want this scene to break its waters
even if it leaves me irrevocably broken
So there I am under the tall trees
caressed by a vagrant breeze
but it seems this you cannot bear
You are on your knees shoveling furiously
till the assonance of twin coral-crested baubles
beneath a leaf-bejeweled corset
dissolves your peace
I stretch and fill my autumn grave
Deliriously content to be slaughtered
by skin, breath and unrestrained vigor
my back cushioned by purple heather
A delicate conspiracy of creation
murmuring its delight in my ears
That was then
Not long now
before you join me under the forest floor
A space waits alongside my imprints
A space to which I sometimes flee
to make sure you haven’t reached
before my time is breeched
Our spring has spilled over several seasons
I am a wistful bloom minus her green sepals
You juggle wildfires-a defiant breeze
whenever we meet
I try to hold on to my cast-off skins
But you devour each one, my fanged king
leaving me bare
A tree birthing itself
© Reena Prasad, 2014, a poem that appeared in Brian Wrixon’s Autumn anthology.
Keats would approve of such rich and sensuous imagery. So do I. Reena is one of the most exciting poets writing in the world today in English, whether we call her Indian or Keralite or just a poet.
Here is a poem by Sara, now no more.
Break the slumber
Of the silent morn
Organic imagery; simple, classy and beautiful.
Here is a perennial favourite of mine by Anna Maria (Mary Annie A. V.)
If, in a pack of cards,
you are the King of Hearts
permit me, please
to be the Queen.
© Mary Annie A.V.
Here is Rukhaya with her startling Taj Mahal poem, a pure delight in terms of concrete poetry.
Pillow-fight days with my muse,
word-feathers fly mellifluously loose.
I hide behind the words, to give you space,
wait like comely commas at fretwork lengths of the way
for as Thebes to Amphion, jigsaw words fall into their own place
as one day I wrote your name upon the sand, in the desert leaves of my life.
I rewrite (his)tory mummifyin’ you, in dulcet verses of my choice,
for even if I die, you will hear the echoes of my voice.
So long as women breathe, and eyes can see
so long lives my mausoleum of verse,
and words give birth to thee.
©Rukhaya M.K 2015
To shift a bit away from Keralite writing to someone who comes from Kolkata, Delhi and Hyderabad, here is Bina Biswas with her beautiful title poem from her latest collection of the same name.
Half a Life
Painted blue tears
draining from the eyes, and
behind those closed eyes
I found stories.
Eyes dripping kohl
were my crayon doodles
My hair smelt of sea spray, and
While I played
with half-hearted sorrows,
my dreams got painted blue,
dark midnight blue, and
I lived by halves.
© Bina Biswas 2015
And last, but not least, Atindriyo Chakraborty and myself.
you’re so beautiful that love seems to be the running force of life
you fighting for the world
it’s like Turgenev’s mom-sparrow fighting for her baby
like light rising from darkness
like blind soldiers seeing the source of light
unlike mooby hairy bald pervs quoting Russian literature for you and thinking of you as Margarita
unlike moobier hairier pervier pervs selling faith for votes
Adonis goes hunting with Angulimala
many houses burn within a radius of 100 kilometers
my love is so selfish that it romanticises fire and hates real flames
i’d rather look at photographs of you fighting for the world to come together and sing,
think that things are all in place in the universe
despite knowing that the construct of balance is elusive
and knowing that some people will forever walk the world
and see how the coldest, softest moment of the night turns blue in the sky in a few whiles
and see how mom-sparrows go out to fight for their babies
and see how the warmest, softest moment of the day turns blue in the sky in a few whiles
and see how mom-sparrows come back to fight for their babies
the house where i had stayed from birth till high-school ended had an occasional readhead Krishnachura swaying a headful of flowers in the green rain beside the window that opened to the South and an occasional orange-head Radhachura swaying a headful of flowers by the one that opened to the North
by the time i came to know that all trees are hermaphrodites they weren’t there
but poetry with endless blue skies rolling overhead and words filling a few blank spaces up and all blank spaces wrapping words up – have always been there and so have memories of a couple of Bangla poets who would look at the skies and at the streets and feel hermaphrodite
the streets took one of them
life took the other
and poetry took both
it’s like that, something taking in the binaries and the void – love is
and then, the roads are always thirsty and none of them lead to anywhere specific,
except for people who believe in battles, and for fools and philosophers
and for the moon behind the mirror
and for all lamps that flicker
and for the uneasy relationship between storms and nests
and for the easy relationship between the sea and the seagulls
and for the relationship between fishes and the water where ease and diseases flow by, like life, like Eliot’s women for Prufrock and Yeats’ horsemen passing by
unlike mooby hairy bald pervs quoting English literature to feel good about loving you,
the transparent cold of death wraps eyes of fishes
i have seen them staring at blank spaces from the other side of highly polluted slabs of ice
and in Lorca’s city there’s everybody asleep
and Pagla Meher Ali screams: ‘Beware!’
and flames of devotion burn the sages
and hot streets burn musafirs
in the city the times are harsh. they sing songs of Lalan with greed for fame
and five odd timid stars sing and dance their carnival of sadness out in the five star sky of a dead poet’s novel, their sadness melts in cheap cosmetics of sweaty, beautiful women from the streets, along their sweaty necks down their flabby flaneur-fleshes – i call them Shujata and think of them as mercy
April is mostly a cruel month in any case
Even sparrows don’t talk much and crickets don’t sing much in April cities.
But I’d rather think of the void and be happy
I’d rather look at a photograph of you fighting for the songs and for the baby-songs and think that there is something called balance and that the universe is in perfect balance now
and be happy
you’re so beautiful that love seems to be mom-sparrows and baby-sparrows singing songs and baby-songs of life
My poem, finally, as a fitting summing up, a raucous rebel cry, a manifesto, to remember the vortex of the destroyer before new creation, first published in Vortice July 2, 2014, to remember Vorticism’s spirit.
Setting the World on Fire
First you throw away the style manual
then you burn up your soul body mind
give short shrift even to your women or woman
even that one who you know: she can take it
who beat up your rival, to pulp
while you watched
relishing every moment of it
playing your axe, singing “don’t you cry, tonight” –
that was something, don’t you remember it? –
her heart bears the red marks and welts of your spanking
because in your dark heart, like Genet or
or was it Rimbaud or Huysmans?
the names don’t seem to matter though you know them –
the blue archipelagos of desire beckon
or the dreaded land, the empty quarter
the mistral in the Arles or the sandstorms and the Sahara
the great desolate is what draws you
wheels in the sky, the great cormorants
and you want to go to the unknown regions
Malta across the Meditteranean
the depths of some black jungle where blooms the rafflesia
you are traversing the terrains of the unconscious
you are in the land of the exotic surreal
here there are no rules and your harem dances to nautch tunes
here there is Mughal beauty and Byzantium and
more than America!
here there is Khajuraho and Chidambaram
Jerusalem, Athens, Rome and all the upside down towers of London ringing bells
bats in their bellies and flying out from their dark belfries
you are making warts grow on your face
‘horrible worker’, you have come to expand the territory
tasting even the poisons left untouched by those earlier others
making women free to speak in their own voices, with their clefts
setting them free to express what the Other is
what the world knows you are doing and is watching uneasily
the fiery comet
the shooting star
the black hole
the white dwarf
the collapsible time-frame continuum
the arrival of the big bang and its shrinking after full expansion
the pinprick of light
the cosmic dance of yogi and yogini
you have set free the subconscious
and you are swimming past the ether
in the coral reefs where puffer fish, monstrous fresh water snakes and snakes of the salty deep and ocras play
in the skies where dragons and pterodactyls still fly and battle
you have gone further than any one else you have known
set sail, don’t stop!
you will reach the zenith and the meridian
you do not need magazines to publish your love poems
you do not need publishers or awards or collections
if no one pays you money you do not need them fuck them
fuck Sahithya Akademi, Nobel, Booker, Hindu literary prize, sales and what Penguin & Sage have become
fuck Pulitzer, Man Asian and Man Booker too
instead there is the way of the bums who burn out and do not fade away
you are the Jim Morrison and Nirvana of poetry
you are the rock and roll star in the world of poetry
on the burning sands of time
while your life bleeds out inch by inch in poem after poem
like Apollinaire’s Christ zeppelin who holds the record for height
you are crucified and yet making ardent love to your one woman lover daemon muse
making space melt and the sun burn down
with the rage of poetry, setting the world on fire
you both are unclothed and the old song is sung
man and woman adagio if you can only you two meet
like the molten rays of the midday sun
driving into parched earth
into each other’s marrow
you will reach the furthest farthest pole beyond all human compass
no do not yield to the lesser ones
but set the universe un-verse on fire.
I hope to continue this mapping and exploration in the next column, again, writing a part two, meanwhile, to explain what I mean in more detail, with more proof-texting in the form of criticism, not to validate my claims and mapping of new territories in the rich minefield and world of Indian and Keralite writing in English but to explain the poems perhaps to a world that may wonder why I chose them as great according to those who know poetry, in terms of exegesis and hermeneutics. For real lovers of poetry it is not needed, as these poems speak for themselves. Meanwhile, till the next time, ‘dear reader/s,’ I bid you adieu, as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre would.
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