For years we have been told that Indian English Poetry has come of age, and paradoxically so in independent India. But I am yet to see an anthology which does justice to this statement. The only kind of anthology that can possibly do so is one which is a collection of the best poems written by Indians in English since 1947. Or better still, it should contain the best Indian English poems ever written. That could prove or give the lie to the popular contention that pre-Independence Indian English poets were failures and failed because they ‘remained too derivative’, and that, in contrast, post-Independence poets are successes because they are culturally confident and experimental in their craft. There would of course be more than one opinion about the choice of the ‘best’ poems but that could only be to the good since the resulting debate could help in clearing the cobwebs in the criticism of Indian English poetry. For indeed even if Indian English poetry may have come of age, its criticism is yet to do so.
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Vilas Sarang’s anthology seems more modest in aim—the attempt is to bring together a few poems each of those whom Sarang considers to be eighteen of the most prominent Indian English poets writing since 1950. Its difference from earlier anthologies is only in the inclusion and exclusion of certain poets and poems. I shall not question the choice of poets—Nissim Ezekiel, Jayanta Mahapatra, A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, R Parthasarathy, Kamala Das, K.N. Daru walla, Dom Moraes, Dilip Chitre, Eunice de Souza, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, Vilas Sarang, Saleem Peeradina, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Manohar Shetty, Santan Rodrigues, and Darius Cooper—but I have to point out the curious fact that while the editor has tried to be fair in the number of pages (and poems) devoted to each of the poets, there are three poets who are represented by only one poem each. Sarang offers a curious defence for the choice of only one poem from Dilip Chitre but is silent about the other two—Santan Rodrigues and Darius Cooper. They actually seem to have been included as an afterthought since the anthology is arranged according to the ages of the poets and the last two poets are older than Manohar Shetty who features before them. The inclusion of these three poets, and the defence offered for selecting only one poem from Dilip Chitre, questions the existence of any rationale in the selection of poems. If this is a selection of the best poetry written in English in India, it is curious that the editor is able to be fair and equal in his division of pages to about fourteen poets (he is modest in the selection of his poems too). If this is a selection of the best poets (and not necessarily of the best poems or even their best poems), then how is it that three poets have been represented by only one poem each? Sarang in fact almost apologizes for the inclusion of Dilip Chitre’s ‘Ambulance Ride’ stating that he has done so because ‘this kind of poem is rare in the Indian English realm even though it is less successful than the Marathi poems in the same vein’. He also states that Chitre’s English poetry is far inferior to his Marathi poetry. What is he then doing here in this anthology? Or is it that Indian English poetry is far inferior to Marathi poetry and poetry in other Indian languages?
There are many such questions left unanswered even in the well written (if sometimes facile) introduction which touches on the problems and achievements of Indian English poetry and poets. The two major critical problems are those of the language and Indianness. These are interrelated (the latter arising because of the former) and need to be faced squarely by every Indian English poet. While not questioning the right of a poet to write in any language that he/ she feels competent to write in, I would hold that part of the poet’s competence lies in being aware of the nature of the choice made, in being aware of the nature of the chosen tool of trade (the language), and then in the attempt to and success in making the tool user-and environment-friendly. Sarang discusses this pointing out the limitations writing in English seems to place on Indian English poets and points to the examples of bilingual poets who seem freer and more confident in their mother tongues. Sarang also points to the attempts made at developing an Indian English but, as he says, ‘Indian English poets … have not yet been successful in developing a distinctly Indian idiom.’ Obviously the question of language and Indianness cannot be separated though Sarang attempts to discuss them as separate issues. As stated before he points to the failure in language use on the one hand, but on the other he concludes that ‘insistence upon Indianness may result in subtle cultural, chauvinistic pressures, stifling the poet’s individuality and idiosyncracy’. This is critical doublespeak. To battle the limitations imposed by the given language (English) one has to battle the language remoulding it to suit, and drawing upon, one’s Indianness. And it is evident, as Sarang himself points out, that contemporary Indian English poets have largely failed to do so.
The problems of Indian English poetry, Sarang points out, get compounded by the nature of its audience—which is partly the West. Crucial to the question of audience, and actually a more important question, is that of the function of poetry itself. If literary endeavour is seen as work in an ivory tower or a commercial activity (or both) then the question of a serious and creative engagement with one’s environment doesn’t arise at all. Otherwise poetry has to be the process and result of such an engagement —and this too is a test of Indianness in Indian English poetry. Even highly personal poetry—e.g. Kamala Das’s—will show evidence of this. Sarang does point out that the newer Indian English poets show evidence of this, with Jayanta Mahapatra even willing to get his hands dirty writing about Punjab and Bhopal. Hence it again seems contradictory that Sarang should end his note on Vikram Seth (an excerpt from The Golden Gate was to have been included in the anthology) with the statement that the ‘new confidence of the Indian English poet’ can be seen in the lack of ‘neurotic anxiety … to dutifully write about the beggar’s and slums at home.’ Nobody has expected this or done it—all that one demands is that eyes be kept open to the beggars and slums when at home! This statement also dismisses rather unfairly a whole line of poets from Toru Dutt to Agha Shahid Ali who have written about India when abroad and not out of any ‘neurotic anxiety’. It comes as no surprise then to see Dom Moraes in this volume even though Sarang is uneasy about his inclusion and states that Moraes ‘does not fit the general pattern of Indian English poetry’. Nor does The Golden Gate, but Sarang is on the side of individual idiosyncracy. He can also see the problem involved in this and states that the ‘way-stations for Indian English poetry are Jejuri and Puri [Kolatkar and Mahapatra], and not a bridge in California’.
As stated earlier, I shall not question the inclusion or exclusion of certain poets and poems but I do wonder why Agha Shahid Ali doesn’t make it to anthologies yet. His poem ‘In Memory of Begum Akhtar’ is a perfect anthology piece if there was one. This is really not the place to evaluate the achievement of individual poets, and for some in this anthology not yet the time, and in any case Sarang has done it very well in his introduction. He has neat and competent sections on most of the poets included in this anthology, and he also discusses the recurrent motifs in Indian English poetry. Sarang’s discussion of individual poets should serve as a handy reference and introduction to students of Indian English poetry. He brings out deftly both the achievements and limitations of the poets discussed, neatly putting them in their places. But Sarang ends with a horrific vision of a twenty-first century India where ‘Indian English poetry may be the chief poetry’. God and socio-historical processes forbid!
G.J.V. Prasad is on the faculty of the Centre for Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.