I consider this poem among the more “important” poems I have written.
I know myself (forgive my immodesty) that I have written better poems than this one, but few, I think, of more importance. Perhaps you will understand why I say this after you’ve read the poem.
Incidentally, in light of the poem’s theme, it is interesting that the rhyme scheme of the poem (aabccb) is exactly that of the ಕುಸುಮ ಷಟ್ಪದಿ or Kusuma Shatpadi (~ floral sestet), a medieval-metre that appears in Bendre’s early Kannada poetry. Believe me when I say that it was not a deliberate attempt but, rather, pure coincidence that gave the poem this form.
Please note that I’ve included a glossary (at the end) for the several non-English words in the poem. Do refer to it whenever you need to.
NB: Do read the “Afterword” too!
(P.S: This poem too is from 2015. I would publish more recent poems – but, to tell the truth, there aren’t a lot of them.)
As usual, here is an an audio of my reciting (chanting? intoning?) this poem.
India In English
How does it matter if I write poetry or prose,
Or if I compáre the jaaji and the rose
If all my writing’s in the English alphabet?
What does it matter if I tell of Rāvaṇa’s
Defeat by fire to a long-tailed vānara
If such a play with words reaches just the literate?
What does it matter if I heed the raita’s tragedy
And pray húmbly for Indra’s pity
If English is the language of my prayer?
How does it matter if I sing a song
For a beggar-child, crying and alone,
If my words of song mean nothing to the crier?
Why should the wretched dalit give a damn
If I, in my best English, express my shame
At his bèing denied temple-entry?
Why should the tired cement-worker care
When I write in English, eloquent yet spare,
Of his exploitation by the industry?
How can the ártless village-girl blush
If I, in the throes of a romantic flush,
Should praise her ‘Venus-like beauty’?
How can the warm and tender lullaby
I wrote in a state of rhapsody
Be sung in English by the old ajji?
How can I catch the scent of the flower
That scènts the pious woman’s hair
When English does not know the flower’s name?
How can I lyricise about the goddess
Who uprose from the sea within a lotus
When English is oblivious to the dēvī’s fame?
How can a bhāshā that is known to ten
Among a group of a thousand men
Càpture the yearnings of each wretched woman?
How can the shāstrās of olden times
Among whose copious chaff are hidden gems
Be learnt through a language that is alien?
Cán the rasa of a thousand years
That flóws in the véins of the villagers
Be distílled throúgh the English tongue?
Can àdages bòrn of the land
That see in all life some gód’s hand
Retain their flavour in English’s rationale?
Cán a language that once colonized,
That tyrannized, criticized, destábilized
A culture that submìtted to god’s will,
Be used once more tó revìve
The clotted hòney in the hive?
Wátch – wátch as I bend English to my will.
1. jaaji (jaah-g): The Kannada name for a flower of the jasmine family.
2. Rāvaṇa (raah-wuh-ṇaah): The ten-headed king of the ancient kingdom of Lanka (today’s Sri Lanka). His kidnapping of Sītā, Rāma’s wife, culminates in his defeat and death at the hands of Rāma and his army of vānara-s.
3. vānara (waah-nuh-raah): A member of a race that is today identified with monkeys. Its most famous representative is Hanumān. It is a matter of contention if the vānaras of the Rāmāyaṇa are simply mythical beings or if the word is a derogatory reference to the (darker-skinned, aboriginal) Dravidian peoples of South India.
4. raita (rye-thaah): The word for farmer used in Kannada (and other languages).
5. Indra (in-dhraah): The king of the dēvas, the gods. A rather insecure ruler, he is considered the god of the rain – whose weapon is the vajra, viz., the lightning bolt. [Looking now at the poem, I see that I have imputed to Indra an ignorance of the English language.]
6. dalit (the-lith): lit. crushed. A Marathi word used to describe those downtrodden people who belong to castes not included in the “caturvarṇa” setup of Hindu society. They were previously known as the “untouchables” – an English word that, it can be argued, more accurately expresses a sentiment than an actual practice. What is inarguable, though, is that they were treated diabolically for centuries by the “upper castes”. When I refer to them as “wretched”, it is in recognition of the fact that their status mostly remains “unhappy or unfortunate”.
7. ajji (uhjj-e): The (generic) Kannada word for “grandmother”.
8. dēvī (they-we): The female counterpart to a dēva; a goddess. The dēvī referenced here is Lakshmi, Vishṇu’s wife, who is supposed to have risen from the ocean when it was churned. This churning (known as the sāgara manthana) is a fascinating story in itself.
9. bhāshā (bhaa-shah): The Sanskrit word for “language”.
10. shāstra (shaahs-thraah): Any of the numerous ancient scholarly texts written in the Sanskrit language. They deal with a great range of subjects and are often prescriptive in nature. Today, the word is often used colloquially (in the various Indian bhāshās) to refer to old, dogmatic directives.
11. rasa (ruh-saah): A very important word (as well as idea) in Sanskrit poetics. It is occasionally translated as “juice” but is more often left untranslated for lack of an English equivalent. However, the word “sap” or, better still, “lifeblood” may be thought to be closer equivalents.
I remember listening, some years ago, to a well-known Indian poet in English reading out some of her own poems. (I cannot be certain if it was before or after I wrote this poem. I believe it was after.) One of them was written, she said in the video, in response to a Welsh (?) critic who questioned the “lack of Indianness” in her poems. Adopting a posture of haughty indignance (as though the Welsh critic was right in front of her), she read out her poem – which, if I remember correctly, contained self-conscious (and obviously ironical) references to well-worn “Indian” tropes like sambar and henna and verandah and cashemere. “Who are you to question my Indianness?” was the poem’s import.
More recently, the same poet said in an interview that she was tired of talking about the language that poetry was written in. Identifying herself as an Indian poet writing in English, she said she preferred to think of poetry itself as the language.
I bring this up because I feel a certain sympathy with the Welsh critic. I never read his review (which may have been condescending or colonial in its outlook?), but I understand (and even share) his concern; a concern I express in the poem you just read. And I do this as a self-conscious insider, as an Indian writing in English who, although part of the privileged, is cognizant of – to a certain extent, even familiar with – both the “Englishlessness” and the “IndianEnglishness” of the India around him. But just how does one capture the essence of this chaotic, babel-like environment; how does one speak not simply for but to the “average Indian”; in what register of the (English) language does he represent the realities of a people who do not even speak the language? And, in case he does find a register, can the expression ever be poetic?
It must be noted that the questions raised here are not new. In fact, they have exercised several important Indian poets who wrote in English. (Prose writers have not been unaffected, but their medium is better suited to handle this vexing issue. R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Kamala Markandeya, Raja Rao, and, more recently, Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh are a few writers who have been praised for their capable handling.) One notable poet is Nissim Ezekiel, a Jewish-Indian poet often considered one of the pioneers of modern Indian poetry in English. Here are a few lines from his poem, ‘The Professor’:
“Whole world is changing.In India also|We are keeping up.|Our progress is progressing.|Old values are going, new values are coming.|Everything is happening with leaps and bounds.”
What stands out here is Ezekiel’s bold and deliberate use of the Indian-English idiom. The professor who speaks, presumably a well-educated man, uses an English that may be called patois and, strictly speaking, even incorrect. However, this “incorrectness” also imparts to the poem a “realism” that it would not otherwise have. By reproducing the professor’s speech, Ezekiel has tried to create what Wordsworth advocated for in the 18th century; namely, a poetry that borrowed its rhythms from the cadences of the common man’s speech. But did Ezekiel’s attempt lead to the creation of a (lyric) poem? I say no. Even taking into account the modernist movements of the 20th-century (that looked to rid English poetry of its historical rhythms and rhymes in favour of the many possibilities that “free verse” brought), it is hard to argue that Ezekiel’s creation is a poem. There is no musicality, no rhyme, no rhythm, no striking imagery even. Instead, it reads like a sterile record of a man expressing himself in an “outside” language even as he thinks in a “home” language.
What then is Indian poetry in English? I can offer no definite answer. Nevertheless, it seems to me (setting aside, for the moment, the problem of readership) that one possibility is a poetry that borrows (its spirit) from the cadences of the languages of India, viz., the bhashas, as they are often referred to. This poetry would conceivably meld the rhythms peculiar to (phonetic) languages like the Indian bhashas with the modern free verse form of a non-phonetic language like English to create a poetry that is Indo-Anglian in its character; that bends English (without breaking it) into a form that is incantatory; that can be chanted or intoned.
In fact, it is an experiment of this kind that I began to conduct some four years ago – by using diacritics to indicate stretched and pressed syllables (in contrast to unstressed and stressed syllables). This poem itself is an example and so is this.
Perhaps more significantly, this transcreation of my own bhasha (Kannada) poem to English is a nice example of what the English language is capable of when it is asked to progress to the beat of a (structurally) different language’s drum. In other words, I am fairly certain I could not have written this as an original English poem.
What’s more, as a translator of Bendre’s wonderfully euphonic Kannada poetry into English, I have looked to work the (non-phonetic) English language in a way usually reserved for phonetic languages. Naturally, this has meant giving a lot of thought to what distinguishes the rhythms of phonetic and non-phonetic languages. Though germane to this matter, I will leave that discussion for another day.
To end, I thought I’d share a couple of (critical?) responses to my poem. They came about when someone I know shared the poem with someone she knows who shared it with the two people (both women) whose responses you see here.
I am, quite naturally, appreciative of and grateful to the first woman for her sympathetic reading. As for the second response, well, it seems to me extremely unlikely that the writer is a “well known critic in English”. (To tell the truth, I can only marvel at her remarkable ability to completely miss the point.)