Text of my Plenary Session talk in the National Seminar on Contemporary South Asian Literature in English, 20 – 21 March 2017, at The Centre for Foreign Languages (English), Central University of South Bihar, Gaya
Venue: Renaisance, Dayanand-Sushila Cultural Centre, A.P. Colony, Gaya
I am most grateful to the organizers of the Seminar, especially Professor Prabhat K Singh and his colleagues in the Department of English for inviting me to speak on some marginalized voices in contemporary Indian English writing. He particularly wanted me to reflect on haiku poetry, now so popular that almost every poet has been trying their hand at it, both in English and their mother tongue, not only in South Asia but all over the world. Haiku is poetry of the present.
My poet friend also wanted me to talk from the perspective of a practitioner of poetry as well as the academic profession. Thank you, Prabhat ji.
You will agree we as poets belong to the present, which shapes our creative consciousness. Some of us have also been writing vis-à-vis the crises of essential ideas, beliefs and systems and suffering isolation in our own mind but not without leading to a reconciliation in some way.
To quote Octavio Paz from his Nobel lecture on Dec 8, 1990 at Stockholm, “It may seem paradoxical to say that we have been expelled from the present, but it is a feeling we all had at some moment. Some of us experienced it first as a condemnation, later transformed into consciousness and action. The search for the present is neither the pursuit of an earthly paradise nor that of a timeless eternity: it is the search for the real reality.” Discovering this “real reality” could be tricky because we ourselves are part of it, its disintegration, division or disappearance, or its conversion into a the instant or fixed present. To quote from Shiv K Kumar’s poem, ‘Coromandel Beach’: “I know/if I probe any deeper/all the particles will/slither into the hole--/the sea will belch/and all evidence descend/into the subliminal bed.”
The despairing dehumanizing influences of the socalled civilized existence—its socioeconomic realities, the tragic mess one is obliged to suffer—have left deeper marks on the contemporary psyche. To quote O.P. Bhatnagar: “We’re afraid of speaking the truth/And resisting whatever is unjust/Foul and corrupt in our bones.” (The Inaudible Landscape,p. 10)
Several sensitive poets derive sustenance from encounter with the immediate and the tangible; they act by trying to understand what it is vis-à-vis their own dreams, often seen in half sleep—restless and fraught with countless dangers and surprises; they explore their own mind, body, psyche, their own life. sometimes with an awareness of lack of harmony with their surrounding. They are baffled at the life and living in the shadows of those religious, political, social systems that sustain us at the same time as they oppress us. Sometimes their anguished awareness invites them to self-examination, at other times the sense of being different or not belonging appears as a challenge, a spur that incites them to action, to go forth and face the outside world, to reflect on its genesis, the past and the future.
They reflect on the condition of the individuals isolated from the society and ponder over various levels of human relationship and problems of existence; perversion, corruption, degeneration, morbidity, privation, insecurity; terrors of bloodshed; pain and agony of aimless killings and death; feeling of helplessness; awareness of political and social turpitude; mockery of idealism, values and morality; tendency to manouvre truth; game of convenience; exploitation of the poor and innocent; in short, the hypocrisy operating at all levels. They address themselves to embodiments of modern corruption even as they try to betray what it is like to be a human being vis-à-vis new set of vulgarities every now and then.
Some of them make poetry out of arguments with themselves: they are driven to understand themselves, their lives. Their ‘personal’ voice is animated by issues and arguments around the mind/body relation, around what most people try to keep concealed—the sexual feelings, the sensations of the flesh; like any good artist, they also seek to make life show itself. They write with the awareness of what is denied in our ordinary existence, what is beneath the skin of things around, the psychospiritual strains, the moral dilemmas, the betrayals, and the paradoxes.
There are certain poets who combine personal memories with history while there is some kind of a neo-mysticism in the pursuit of others, showing subtle absorption of motifs and memories from their own roots/past in exploring the meaning of their various co-existing lives. The philosophical insight and artistic value of poetic creation make many a recent poet authentic.
My observations, howsoever general, should motivate teachers and researchers to explore new voices and study them as part of the curriculum. It disappoints me, and damages the cause of South Asian writing in English, when a young teacher or researcher tells me that in their college or university research on new or living authors is not permitted. Speaking as a poet, and if we claim a belonging to what we call Indian English Writing, then, as academics, we should ensure that poets like me (or Prabhat K Singh, or others present here) are not dumped without being read or evaluated. A little large heartedness is necessary in our own interest, that is, for being remembered as Indian English poets and writers. The dynamics of recent writing needs to be understood through analysis and criticism. Otherwise, the cause will die, repeating the praise for a handful of socalled well known poets and writers, and recycling research. Let’s shed our ego.
Speaking as an academic, let me share with you that before I retired in December 2015, and as long as the one-year MPhil programme continued at ISM (now IIT), I, as Professor and Head, not only encouraged students to write their dissertations on new authors and poets but also on new books of their choice. They explored works of such marginalized or new poets and authors as R. Rabindranath Menon, Pronab Kumar Majumder, Niranjan Mohanty, V V B Ramarao, Y S Rajan, A P J Abdul Kalam, S L Peeran, Syed Ameeruddin, Hazara Singh, P K Joy, D C Chambial, I K Sharma, Maha Nand Sharma, B Ahmad, Pashupati Jha, Vihang Naik, Manas Bakshi, Biplab Majumdar, P. Raja, R K Singh, Jaishree Misra, Mamang Dai, Tamsula Ao, S Radhamani, Sudha Iyer, Nirmala Pillai, Venu Arora, Dipanwita Mukerjee etc and a little better known Mani Rao, Tabish Khair, Manu Joseph, Raj Kamal Jha, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, Eve Enseler (who wrote Vagina Monologues), Raewyn Alexander (who wrote Fat), and Ross Donlon. My other colleagues there continue to guide research on several new authors from Pakistan, Bangla Desh and Sri Lanka.
A seminar like this provides us with an opportunity to discover and interact about new talents. Many of them have been writing and publishing against various odds. Let me mention my latest discovery, Kalpna Singh-Chitnis. Like Tabish Khair, she is born, brought up and educated in Gaya. She taught Political Science at Gaya College before moving to the USA to pursue her interest in film directing at the New York Film Academy Universal Studios in Hollywood. A Bihar Rajbhasha awardee, translator, editor of a literary journal Life and Legend, and founder and director at Silent River Film festival, Kalpna Singh is now based in Los Angeles, California.
Her poems are refreshingly fascinating. “Let’s just be, whoever we are”—this is how she seeks to bare the soul, our being at every level. Bare Soul (published by Partridge India, 2015) is her fourth poetry collection. She writes simple, sensuous and passionate poems that are spiritually elevating. She uses natural elements as metaphors for a complex of human emotions that connect her to the whole world. Her voice is “as original and cross-cultural as it is universal and classic.” One can hear the mystic in her quest: “I have come all the way/not to try your love for me;//I’m here to tell--/I can’t afford not to love any more!” (p. 12). Like many women poets the world over, she too declares: “My body is no longer my limitation” (p 19) and “we savor the darkness bestowed upon us/leading us toward each other/our wings are bruised/and there is no sky above our heads,/but we have what the heavens don’t;//like a twine in the candle/we burn together, we light together.” (Ancient Love, p. 29)
Kalpna is innocent, deep and perceptive, as she explores the ancient question, “Who am I?” and wonders if she’s “a bare soul without any face?” adding: “I’m able to see myself in a moment/beyond past, present and future/walking my way” (p 82). She exposes in Bare Soul a woman’s “wild inner beauty” as she articulates in varying tones male-female relationship: “I can’t be a disaster for nothing” (p 19) and “It’s now time for me to empty my soul/roll into the abundance of silence/to hear my voice…”
The women poets in-look, and outlook too, is challenging. They examine, as their poetry reveals, their private and public life, or everyday experiences boldly. They integrate the flesh into their beliefs and representations just as they have been traditionally linking themselves to their home, family, motherhood, social life, solitude, god, nature, myths. With the profound changes that have taken place in their lives, their choices, and their opportunities in the recent period, their status, roles, occupation, and legal position, they now voice their own visions and understanding of the everyday life, often cutting across cultures and regions. When they portray their sexuality, or comment on our sexual politics, they also tell us how woman is also master of her own place in poetical creation.
Several new collections that I could lay my hands on demonstrate their sensitivities and struggles that appeal for their lack of pedantry, moral commentary, or unnecessary romanticizing. They exploit the medium to understand why and how of life on the one hand, and to enrich and celebrate the female consciousness, redeeming their physical and spiritual existence, on the other. They sound warm, vibrant and capable.
Let’s also take note of certain obvious realities. Quite a number of our contemporary poets – male or female, in their 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s, with a 20th century consciousness—have learnt to live with a world in upheaval. They have grown up in very disappointing external conditions of living. It has been normal for them (in fact, it’s one of our collective cultural traits as Indians) to think intuitively, and/or turn personal, inward, godward, or spirit-ward; their capability lies in their emotional sensitivity than in intellectual abstraction. It is not their escapism but an urge for changing the situation for themselves.
A Kashmiri woman poet, Syeda Afshana, boldly disapproves of politicians and people who hold anti-women views, is critical of the media for reducing Kashmir to “propaganda symbolism.” She touches themes such as bloodshed, violence, insurgency, loss, sacrifice, and relationship. It is, however, her “different” attitude that makes her notable. Her sadness is evident when she says, “A scream/that is only mine, just mine/and has remained unchanged/since times immemorial.” (The Fugitive Sunshine, p. 24)
Writing in response to the gang rape of a 23-year old girl (Nirbhaya) in New Delhi three years ago, Chandni Singh feels part of every woman that gets raped. Let me quote from her poem ‘I am a Woman in India’:
I can hold my own on issues
about the environment.
I can wax eloquent about literature and music.
I am told, I am the future;
and for a moment I am bent into believing
in the bubble I have bought into.
But every morning
My ego slouches
as it is castrated at the hands of
I have lost count:
there are too many to fight.
I may be liberated. And educated,
but my fire has been doused.
Neither rhetoric nor review can
bring me solace.
And so, I turn the other cheek.
I have become deaf to the whistles and
blind to the lewdness.
I adjust my dupatta
and look straight ahead
as they line the streets and pucker their mouths.
I am just a woman in India.
Let me mention a couple of other recent instances reported in the media. In the neighbouring Afghanistan, some dozen Kabul women, who call poetry their sword, are determined to protect their new-found freedom despite constant death threats from the Talibans. Poetry is their form of resistance in a taboo-ridden, extremely conservative and almost illiterate society that treat poetry writing as sin. Karima Shabrang, for example, uses explicit images of intimacy: “I miss you…my hands are stretching from the ruins of Kabul…I want to invite you to my room for delicious smoke… and you will give me refuge in your shivering red body.” More and more women there are waging fight for the rights, including their rights to write and be heard.
Freedom to express themselves freely and creatively is something most women find hard to have, but some of them, not necessarily subscribing to feminist practices, have honestly and boldly shown how their modernity lies in fashioning a new language for themselves, for new ways of seeing, understanding and interpreting humankind and the world, for their attempt to change “thinking and growing.” Here haiku writing comes in handy. It’s in keeping with the current minimalist trend. Some examples:
“Bathing in bubbles/my breasts turn into mountains--/glistening with snow” (Pam Penny)
“May morning green fly/in my pink lipstick, you chose/a beautiful death” (Susan Kerr)
“Remembering last/summer’s infidelity:/your tongue in my cheek” (Sheila Glen Bishop)
“my youth has gone--/a solitary crow circles/adding his lament” (Janice M Bostok)
“pregnant again--/the fluttering of moths/against the window” (Janice M Bostok)
“cleaning the bedroom--/the warmth of her shirt/left in the sun” (Michael Dylan Welch)
“her fingers push/the roots into the earth--/touch-me-not” (R.K.Singh)
“green stones--/ the moss conquers/ the mountain” (Mohd Azim Khan)
I began with poets’ quest for the present. They are always in search of new ways of saying, the new experience of language, the new ways of expressing what we see, feel and think. Now as I talk about haiku writing, which is the shortest lyric poem, let me clarify: haiku poems always deal with the present; they are written in the present tense to create a sense of the moment of experience as a rule. It’s three lines, conventionally consisting of 5-7-5 syllables and one season word (or Kigo, as they call), follow the principles of comparison, contrast, or association between the images. In the words of a Canadian haiku poet Betty Drevniok, “In haiku the something and the something else are set down together in clearly stated images. Together they complete and fulfill each other as one particular event.” That is, haiku is a complete poem for the audience to relate to.
For example, “a spring nap/downstream cherry trees/in bud.” What is experienced, but not said, is the thought that buds on a tree can be compared to flowers taking a nap. The image of cherry bud could also be compared to a number of items just as something else in spring landscape can be compared to a nap without naming the thing? The reader is free to imagine, or experience, and create a new haiku!
I have been reading and writing a variety of haiku over the last three decades or so, and have developed a taste for only such haiku (without differentiating between haiku, which is conventionally objective, impersonal, and relates to nature, and senryu, which is light and has humour, irony or satire related to human events) that make use of concrete imagery, or sensation of a lived moment, and not abstractions.
Over the last few decades, haiku has developed as world poetry, and the 700 years old traditional Japanese form has been internationalized, providing to the poets in every language, and especially in English, an immense possibility to experiment. They have been sharing their moments of various experiences of poetical value in three (short-long-short) lines, reduced to minimum details. (That is, there is no room for adjectives, adverbs, mean details or comments, no rational analysis, no amplification, but just the essential of the moment of experience or observation, in a good pragmatic use of the language. The poet lets the readers connect with his/her context.)They have used the short poem form to convey their personal feelings and emotional states, everyday reality, sensual vitality, wit and humour, and even reflections and opinions. But what matters for the right effect is whether these point to, or relate to an actual, lived experience and evoke deep feelings in the reader; whether the poet could catch certain bright moments of life with his/her internal eyes.
The important thing is to write in a stripped down, terse style the exact experience, or the image (of it), and not about the feelings themselves, or meaning; leave it to the reader. The feelings will be most powerful if suggested indirectly, by letting the reader experience the image or action that the haiku conveys, rather than by trying to tell the reader what to feel.
Reading new haiku poets is a reminder that life is so rich in happenings that one can concentrate on a specific moment and create a haiku, not necessarily all cool,dry and objective,but emotionally fulfilling as well. Several new poets of the subcontinent -- Sonam Chhoki, Namgay Wangchuk, Kinely Tshering, Tashi Gyaltshen (Bhutan); Abhi Subedi, Mukul Dehal, Bamdev Sharma, Janak Sapkota, Anand Raj Joshi, Haris Adhikari (Nepal); Athar Tahir, Naeem-ur-Rahman, Mohd Azim Khan, Sohail Ahmed Suddiqui, Shaheen Shah (Pakistan); Malintha Parera (Sri Lanka); Rahman Mustafizur, Sadiq Alam, Quamrul Hassan, Khan Munia (Bangla Desh); Angelee Deodhar, Radhey Shiam, Vishnu P Kapoor, Vidur Jyoti, Pravat Kumar Padhy, Rebba Singh, Ajaya Mehala, K. Ramesh, Gautam Nadkarni, R.K. Singh, Kala Ramesh and scores of others (India) demonstrate something more than skill and style—haiku sensibility—which naturally makes room for readers to imagine what remains unexpressed, to “make connection.” Readers become part of the poets’ creation of “here and now.”
But there are also many haiku poets, I won’t like to name any, who offer a poetic or literary or philosophical view of the thing observed rather than the thing itself. They appear romantic, sentimental, didactic, or cleverly manipulating the simple truths of nature’s wonders, or life’s experience. Some poets attribute a purpose or aim to their objects of observation, and prevent readers from making connections. They tend to explain and elaborate (as in their regular poems) rather than sketch their experience of the moment. Some others end up writing ‘sublime’ poetry, or adhering to the ‘form’ and not spirit, the spirit of here and now, as I said.
It is the spirit behind the words that counts: the pauses, hesitations, and the silences between words and between the lines, the silences that make a poem live and breathe. That is what makes a good haiku, and not teaching, preaching, moralizing, philosophizing, intellectualizing, or what they do in epigrammatic poetry.
My experience of reading and writing haiku convinces me that the best haiku just happens, or gets easily written, just as the brief poem with its directness, naturalness, and simplicity of the keenly observed moments in life and union of mind and nature conveys something so evocative and dynamic that one is filled with a sense of being alive, or one with what is called the “haiku moment.”
Since haiku is a different poetic tool, if one uses two images and a key word, if one juxtaposes two things that happen to be somewhat “together” with an eye on the dynamics of relationship, if one is down-to-earth and conveys sensuousness with or without the traditional kigo (season word), or if one practices free-form and experimental haiku in 3-5-3, 3-4-3, 4-7-5, 4-6-4, or even 7-7 syllables, or just short-long-short lines—I enjoy them. What matters is precision, perception, and awareness; sound and rhythm, but not rhyme.
Classic haiku do not rhyme, though rhymed haiku, as tried by I H Rizvi or T V Reddy, are very much possible. If for structural reasons there are only two lines in a haiku, or the last words of any two lines rhyme with each other, I enjoy them too, provided the haiku image or haiku spirit remains intact, and everything is clear and reads well. If rhymes happen naturally and fluently, not artificially, it adds to the beauty of the three-liners.
If a South Asian poet is well-versed in the genre of haiku and demonstrates sensitivity for the medium, s/he appeals to a wider regional/nation al/international audience. They understand what and how of haiku, and so, their ‘style’ can be explored in terms of local/regional usages as part of a national norm. The authenticity of expression of the poets sheds light on the multilingual /multicultural situational context and their English.
Researchers can examine the socio-emotional contexts and problems too: Haiku and tanka allow for tension, contradiction,and emotional expressiveness, each of which is essential to explore the complexities of native identity. They can study their communicative devices, highlighting not only the use of the typical kigo (season) words unique to the poet’s region and/or contexts but also ‘deviances’ which is a significant constituent of pragmatics and stylistics, as part of the process of adaptation of the Japanese tradition and use of English in the SL contexts.
As I think aloud, it is also possible, for example, to explore heteronyms (which are different in form, have identical reference, and share stylistic equivalence (e.g. autumn/fall, hood/top, corn/oats/maize, pavement/sidewalk, pancake/hotcake, trailer/truck/tractor trailer etc) and relate to Indian kigo words, besides helping the international audience to understand the attitude of speakers’ regional preference/territorially desired variants for the same word or set of words in a context. There are so many new expressions and innovations in haiku and tanka.
There is so much experimentation in word-formation, code-mixing, code-switching, and loan translations going on, and it is challenging to describe South Asian Englishes, or the English used by poets in the region. Researchers have an opportunity here for international and intereregional comparison, and possible lexicographical study.
Those of you interested in stylistics, literary pragmatics, discourse analysis, or view literary activity as communicational might find it rewarding to explore the new grammar of poetry via Japanese poetry form as adapted in English not only in India but also South Asia, Europe, North America and Africa. The poets use metaphors, irony, humour, words with double meanings, puns, word-plays, riddles/puzzles, paradox, besides Japanese techniques of shasei (sketch from life), shajutsu (reality), depicting something as it is, sabi (loneliness, solitude, pity), wabi (poverty, austerity), yugen (mystery) etc differently. Their text structure and communicative function of aesthetic experience calls for serious academic study and research, if you trust my observations as a practicing poet and academic, who is committed to the promotion of creativity in Indian English and its criticism.
Let me assure you the canon need not repudiate the new and marginalized voices (I may be biased if I mention some and leave out the others), but the tendency of academics, the power politics apart, to simply reject the native Indian English poets in favour of a handful of names, even after maturity of Indian English, is not positive. Nor is there any sense in recycling information (in the name of research) about already firmly established authors such as Mulk Raj Anand (about 100 theses), R.K. Narayan (about 140 theses), Raja Rao (about 70 theses), Kamala Markandeya (about 70 theses), Anita Desai (140 theses), Sri Aurobindo (75 theses), Ruth Prawer Jhabwala (50 theses), Arun Joshi (45 theses), Shashi Deshpande (over 45 theses), Salman Rushdie (47 theses), V S Naipaul (45 theses), Kamala Das (42 theses), Nissim Ezekiel, Manohar Malgonkar, Bhabani Bhattacharya (each over 30 to 35 theses)—these data are dated by 5 to 6 years. What new is being said when each of these writers have over 20 to 70 full length books already published on them? Those who have been evaluating PhD theses can tell you better how frustrating it is not to find something new and exciting in a study and yet okay it!
A change in attitude is necessary. Unless the academia explore the literary imagination and linguistic inventiveness of the new and the marginalized Indian and other South Asian writers as they negotiate their varied cultural identities, or their search of alternatives for the creation of another world, they won’t be able to familiarize students and researchers with rapidly changing styles of writing, here in our country, be it fiction or poetry. Fiction is readily accepted because the form has adapted to the fast changing world and writers have been trying new storytelling methods. They have been innovative and readers who buy their work support them. Recent fictioneers such as Ashwin Sanghi, Amish Tripathi, Mohan Vizhakat, Rajiv Menon, Jaishree Misra and others have been successful for their creative innovation and myth-making. They are worth studying for academic degrees. Poets too need support.
In whatever little way we can help, let’s try to make research relevant, refreshing, challenging, innovative, and adding to new knowledge by examining, for example, the emerging cultural dimensions and discourse; the different worlds-as-experienced, conceived, and talked about to explore the great diversity of experience and talk of the world (there is no one world-as-conceived-by-us at all); the ‘otherness of English’ in all its creative and critical manifestations; the relationship of one language (that talks about) to another (that in which we talk). With appropriate theoretical approaches, it is possible to promote cross-cultural dialogue. We need an eclectic understanding of creativity, as Wole Soyinka once pleaded, for an awareness of “universal catalogue of metaphors of art.” William Harris even speaks of “a kind of cross-cultural psyche of humanity, a cross-cultural psyche that bristles with the tone and fabric of encounters between socalled savage cultures and socalled civilized cultures.”
We need to be judicious and yet tolerant to appreciate a multifarious creativity and promote “reasonable discussion” without being hegemonic, antagonistic, condemning, or threatening. It is possible to probe new literatures in a spirit of good faith, understanding, and reasonable disagreement. The university research programme can be geared towards multiculturalism, valuing and encouraging individual thinking, but discouraging dominance, conformity and subservience.
Thinking aloud, I would like to suggest for relevant research, each teacher in his/her university and college should identify three to five new, or less known, or marginalized authors (poets, novelists, dramatists) each at (i) local/district/state level; (ii) regional level; (iii) national level; (iv) international level, and study each of them for MPhil and PhD theses singly, or in a group, or collectively, and/or comparatively, both intra- and inter-regionally and internationally, and negotiate creative and critical differences. This will help generate a large number of new ‘topics’ and promote a positive cross-cultural mediation on the basis of equality, rather than one the basis of dominant versus dominated.
Academic and poet friends such as Dr I H Rizvi and Dr Satish Kumar have published works drawing attention to scores of poets and authors from Uttar Pradesh just as Dr C L Khatri and Dr I K Sharma have done books and articles on poets and authors from Bihar and Rajasthan. Muse India, an online literary journal, has devoted issues on writings in English from several other regions of the country. Similarly, another new online journal, Creation and Criticism, edited by Sudhir K Arora , Abnish Singh Chauhan and others, from a small city like Moradabad , has been promoting new talents and linking them to international audience. This kind of exercise has to pick up to give new life to literary and scholastic studies at local, regional, national, and international level with newer theoretical approaches that may interest a scholar.
With empathy, recognition, and responsiveness, the literary scholastic orthodoxies of the earlier decades can be replaced with fresh contexts, unaffected by monopolistic approaches. Instead of pronouncing the demise of Indian English writing or lamenting over its poor quality, as the authors of Indian English Literature: 1980-2000 (2001) M K Naik and Shyamala A Narayan do, if academic critics could demonstrate professional dedication and commitment, in a short time we would be able to locate many good poets, fiction writers, and playwrights besides fostering the art, harnessing the taste, developing the talent, and promoting criticism.