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Only once did an alien
sound come between us—
when I said to him, I love you.
My drawled hosannah on the altar of us
was so paltry an offering
that we both laughed,
poured more drinks,
sat down to eat with our hands.
—‘Fathertongue’, Vikas K Menon


And not Spenser, Pope,
as one might imagine a
Book of English Poetry
to legitimately offer… or,
when you recognise it as
a book of Indian English Poetry
that nonchalantly drops its most
significant geopolitical identifier, not
even Ramanujan, Ezekiel, Moraes.
This new collection of fairly-recent
Indian poetic exploits has a couple of
startling paradigms, perhaps the quiet
but decisive politics of this anthology:
first, that English is one of India’s
many languages and therefore need not
be marked ‘Indian’, just as one would
not expect awkward anthology titles
such as ‘Indian Marathi’ or ‘Indian
Hindi’ for writings in any of its ‘native’
languages, argues its poet-editor
Sudeep Sen; second, that all the poets
whose work is collected here are post1950-born, the year that India became
a Republic. And so, the anthology is
young in spirit and in calendar time
—making a foreign language one’s
own in a postcolonial pirouette, and
establishing a correspondence between
the birthing of a nation as a republic,
and the passport-stamping of a new,
independent linguistic entity in that
most visceral of literary categories,
A ghost mutates through intensity,
gathering enough energy to touch you
through your thin blouse, or your
leggings, or your scarf.
 A ghost damages the triptych of
ancestors composed of descending,
and synthetic scraps.
 But what if the ghost is empty because
it’s making a space for you?
 ~ ~ ~
 Vertigo is a symptom of profound
attraction. An excess of desire.
—‘Vertigo’, Bhanu Kapil
For its youthfulness, its vertigo and
its excesses, we may have to pay a little
price, however: a certain unevenness
in the warp and weft of words, a
slight leaning toward the increasinglydoubtful,
‘global’ sensibility, a lack of a sense of
history that comes from many ages
of existence and experience — all this
one may have sought in an anthology
that claims the non-meagre realms
of English poetry in India as its open
playfield. (For there is a pleasure in
being young, which none but the young
may know — but there is a pleasure
too in having ‘been there, done that’,
which the young can only imagine
yet.) And so, one would be lying if one
said that a Mahapatra or a Kolatkar, an
Ezekiel or a Ramanujan is not missed
—especially in times like ours, when a
Ramanujan can (posthumously, alas)
become a household name for having
been expunged from a university
syllabus for an academic exposition on
the Ramayana. Such intertextualities,
such interwoven histories could spill
tumblers of spice on an-already-

p o e t r y

Under the gaze of
a nascent nation

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry
Edited by Sudeep Sen
HarperCollins Publishers India, Noida, 2012, 542 pp., Rs 599
ISBN 978-93-5029-041-5
dramatic tale, of the acquisition of a
foreign tongue now made one’s own
through an emergent literature. Here,
in The HarperCollins Book of English
Poetry, the tale unfolds under the
gaze (and guise) of a nascent nation –
which has its own adventurous allure
– but which in the process buries a
few effervescent stories of its being
and becoming.
Sudeep Sen, an acclaimed poet in
English in his own right, does not,

Tabish Khair, Amit Chaudhuri,
Amitava Kumar, Chitra Banerjee
Divakaruni, now Jerry Pinto — a
back-handed tribute to prose-primacy
in the printed universe, undoubtedly.
But then there are the poets one has
read and heard and heard of for a
while now: Ranjit Hoskote, Meena
Alexander, Imtiaz Dharker, Jeet
Thayil, Desmond Kharmawphlang,
CP Surendran, Rukmini Bhaya Nair,
Sujata Bhatt and Sen himself.

It seems to me the most
magnetic pages of poetry
here indeed come from
the young and the untried
– which makes good Sen’s
intrepid claims for its dating
as well as its naming – even
when every poem is not,
conventionally or otherwise,
necessarily cut flawlessly into
sparkle and perfection
as editor, look for a fair geographical
spread or an equity between the array
of subjects that the collection covers
in terms of the personal and the
political. He avers in his Introduction
to the volume and in subsequent
interviews that he has searched (for
well over a decade) solely by the merit
of poems themselves and not who
or where they come from. He has,
also, clearly looked out for a variety
of forms and idioms, to do justice to
the anthology’s inherent principle of
the multifarious – with 400 poems
from 85 poets spread across 550
pages – and to make a strong case
for his assertion that Indian poetry
in English today is emerging “as
good or superior to Indian fiction in
English as a whole”. The assertion is
self-consciously ‘provocative’, to stir
a literary hornet’s nest perhaps, just
as Rushdie’s infamous comment that
Indian writing in English was superior
to regional Indian literatures did in
1998 — but certainly in syncopation
with the current gloomy prediction
that fiction in Indian English has had
its brief moment in the sun and is on
the wane. Not a bad hour for poetry
to slide in sideways to occupy an
emptying space, then.
It is ironic, though, that some of
the most recognisable names in the
anthology are those who are hailed
as prose-writers first: Vikram Seth,

Why, asks a friend, attempt tetrameter?
Because it once was noble, yet
Capers before the proud pentameter,
Tyrant of English. I regret
To see this marvelous swift meter
Demean its heritage, and peter
Into mere Hudibrastic tricks,
Unapostolic knacks and knicks.
But why take all this quite so badly?
I would not, had I world and time
To wait for reason, rhythm, rhyme…
—‘The Golden Gate’, Vikram Seth
It seems to me that world and
time have been discovered, and that
the most magnetic pages of poetry
here indeed come from the young
and the untried – which makes good
Sen’s intrepid claims for its dating
as well as its naming – even when
every poem is not, conventionally or
otherwise, necessarily cut flawlessly
into sparkle and perfection. And
this, I would venture to suggest
(‘provocatively’?), is the volume’s
USP—that it is singularly a testament
to a genre which has both come of
age and is still wrestling bravely and
riskily with itself in a bid to aspire to
other words, other forms. The very
fact that not all such edgy skittishness
comes necessarily to rest in poetry as
memorable as the reams of ‘English
Poetry’ which have inspired this
linguistic creative jiving, is in fact its
subtext and its politics. And there are


enough jewels that flash and glint in
the eye of the beholder.
And so, it is a lark and a plunge
to dive into this anthology of
vibrant, capricious, kaleidoscopic
poetry in English from Indians of
the contemporary homeland and its
diaspora. For me, at least, who reads
poetry voraciously but eclectically,
with no intent and no design, it is
not possible to tell whether many of
the hitherto-unknown names in the
collection are actually established
poets in circuits I am not privy to –
but then this is what, in fact, makes
Sen’s assortment seductive, a veritable
freefall into new poetic writing in
English from Indians everywhere
across the globe as well as at home –
…the slip underneath my dress her
valedictory address is
showing the future for the overeducated
english major is
living in a flop house buying chips and
beer on your father’s
gas card until he cuts you off folding
perfect t-shirts in a
go-nowhere retail job documenting the
apathy and fear of
your friends as they roll in and out of
bed with a long list of
anonymous lovers terrified they might
die of aids i was going
to class forgetting class watching my
roommate a korean
baptist who covered a hole in the wall
next to her bed with a
poster of jesus fall messily in love the
fiddlestick of hedonism
unfurled for the both of us i reeked of
clove cigarettes of the
transient thrill of breaking up with your
first love before he
beats you to it everything was excess rip
it out damn it
get rid of it damn it…
—‘Reality Bites’, Summi Kaipa
While we may, and do, miss
personalities or poems – the comfort
food we instinctively seek from
anthologies that do not tag themselves
as ‘new’ – we are intrigued and drawn
deep into a reckless breathless careening
through a panorama of risky responses
to living, giving, receiving, loving
and losing by Indian poets the world
over, drawing upon their historical,
emotional and intellectual resources
vis-a-vis the coloniser’s language —
inherited, appropriated, combated.
The new voices which scratch, scar,
wound and burn with illumination and
promise are many, too many to list.
The victories over a raging, brand-new
word-fashioning, the losses and the
struggles are all of a piece in this fat
blue book of a freshly-minted English
poetry. And all of it is significant,
perilous, fearless, exhilarated.
Goddamn it, Shiva is a walking
disaster; whatever
he touches burns. Restraining him with
I said, forget it babe, your lingam and
my yoni are
made for one thing only, improper and
It’s little more than conjecture to think
our sweaty
helix could ever be whole. Then I
offered to grind
and gyrate him silly, suspend our want
and he fell utterly silent with this new
—‘Parvati in Darlinghurst’,
Michelle Cahill

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