This anthology fulfils the long felt need to have an authentic and comprehensive anthology of Indian poetry in English written in the post-independence era. Brought out under the special 'Golden Jubilee Anthology Series' of the Trust, it covers a wide spectrum of trends and 'schools' of poetry written in English language in India. The anthology also seeks to become a repository of the creative aspirations and dilemmas of the different generations of poets since independence who have chosen to express themselves in a language that now seems to be fully integrated with the socio-political and cultural realities of India.
Eunice de Souza (b. 1940) retired as Head of the Department of English, St Xavier's College, Mumbai in 2000. She has published four books of poems, Fix (1979), Women in Dutch Painting (1988), Ways of Belonging (1990) and New and Selected Poems (1994). Ways of Belonging was awarded The Poetry Book Society Recommendation. She edited Nine Indian Women Poets in 1997, published two novellas, and edited various volumes of 19th and early 20th century poetry, fiction and non-fiction written in English in India.
Looking through old issues of Kavi, a little poetry magazine started in 1976, which Santan Rodrigues, Ivan Kostka, Aroop Mitra and Rajiv Rao used to edit, I came across an advertisement from Thackers, a now-defunct Mumbai bookshop. "Where Poetry has pride of place," it reads. Oh well, those were the days! As Mangalesh Dabral, who commissioned this anthology of post-Independence poetry in English for the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the National Book Trust, India, said to me in a note, he thinks of this period as "an epoch of great forgetting." He was referring, among other things, to the fact that I was trying to track down poets whose work has been ignored or forgotten. I have many of the older books, and Adil Jusawalla has a great many old and new books and manuscripts which he lent me. This anthology would have been impossible without his help. It is difficult to find books of poetry in bookshops now, and some are not available even in libraries. Kavi too no longer exists. Despite all these difficulties, there is much to celebrate; many good poems, and some memorable ones. New poets continue to appear, and some publishers are now publishing volumes of collected works.
In his introduction to Twelve Modern Indian Poets, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who edited the volume, describes the early post-Independence poets as "strugglers in the desert." The struggle was, among other things, to create a new poetry, modern in its concerns and language, international in its standards. There didn't seem to be local models-Aurobindo and Sarojini Naidu were uncongenial. And much as the new poets admired Yeats, Eliot, Auden, they were not interested in being pallid clones.
For all practical purposes, Nissim Ezekiel was among the first to create a paradigm. His name is invariably coupled with the phrase, "barbaric city sick with slums," from one of his best-known poems (A Morning Walk), for he introduced the sordid and corrupting city, specifically Bombay to the landscape of Indian poetry in English, and the concern is there from the very first book. But he was also concerned with something equally, if not more important: an inner search for the poise required to deal with such a world. How do we engage with the world, not attempt to escape or transcend it, and yet remain human beings open to the risks of such engagement? This is a search all of us can recognize as central to our lives. In one way or another, most of the poets in this anthology embark on a search for meaning, through an examination of themselves, their relationships with people, the environment and the world.
I think too much has been made, in almost every critical study I have looked at, of the lack of continuity which is said to exist between pre and post-Independence poetry. But the fact is that many good poets of the pre-1947 period have been ignored or forgotten. The pre-Independence poets were certainly strugglers in the desert too, and any serious history of Indian poetry in English must now take them into account. They were conscious of doing something new, and while they admired the Romantics, they were not interested in being clones either. As the critic Rosinka Chaudhuri remarked in an interview with me, When Derozio, in 1827, wrote his sonnets to India, which he called 'my native land,' he was setting in motion a process that resulted ultimately in shaping the manner in which we think of India ... For me, Derozio is an important figure not only because he was the first poet to self-consciously identify himself as an Indian, but because he is a living example in the history of heterogeneity of race, language and creed that may comprise a true-born Indian.
One difference is that there are many more women writing poetry now. Women in the 19th and early 20th century distinguished themselves in prose-novels and short stories, diaries, letters, autobiographies, travelogues, journalism. In poetry, Kamala Das and Mamta Kalia in different ways have opened up new territory for women, both in content and in language. Kamala's work contemplates, with a brooding, sometimes theatrical intensity, the failures of love, marriage, relationships. Mamta Kalia's poems create a funny-sad world where women nag and sag, and buy plastic buckets for the freebies that go with them. She too contemplates the failures of love and marriage, but in a wry, low-key way.
Mehrotra's phrase "strugglers in the desert" can be applied not just to the effort to create a new poetry, but to find places to publish it. In the beginning, there was the Illustrated Weekly of India, edited from 1947 by C R Mandy, an Irishman with an interest in local writers, and he published both original poetry in English and in translation. At one point he appointed Nissim Ezekiel as assistant editor. There .were journals such as Quest which Ezekiel founded in 1955 and edited, and of which Bruce King says, ''Quest helped make modern Indian poetry part of contemporary Indian culture." But an interesting aspect of the post-Independence poetry scene is the extent to which poets themselves have published the work of other poets, through individual effort, the creation of publishing collectives, and small publishing houses. Bruce King's Modern Indian Poetry in English is invaluable for information in this area. Nissim Ezekiel published Gieve Patel's first book Poems in 1966. What I didn't know till I read King's book was that Ezekiel had hoped it would be the first of a series along the lines of P Lal's Writers Workshop in Calcutta which had begun publication in 1959. But for reasons not mentioned, it turned out to be the only book. Writers Workshop have continued to publish poets who wish to be published, an essential service when few publishers are willing to take on little-known poets. But the list has also included significant volumes such as Ezekiel's The Unfinished Man in 1960, Adil Jussawalla's Land's End in 1962.
The 1970s saw the creation of two major poets' publishing collectives. 'Clearing House' was the creation of Adil Jussawalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Gieve Patel, and Arun Kolatkar. 'Newground' was created by Santan Rodrigues, Melanie Silgardo, and Raul d'Gama Rose. More recently, Anand Thakore, Jane. Bhandari, Vivek Narayanan and Deepankar Khiwani have begun publishing under the name 'Harbour Line'.
Perhaps inevitably, the quality of some of the newer work (and a couple of older books) is fairly variable-too prolix or too prosy. Sometimes the poems are competent but bring nothing new to the paradigm within which they are working. Feelings sometimes get the better of form. My own preference is for poems which are both economical and resonant, and as far as possible, that is the kind of poem I have tended to choose.
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