PCK Prem’s History of Contemporary Indian English Poetry
— An Appraisal
When I received the two volumes of P C K Prem’s treatise: History of Contemporary Indian English Poetry -An Appraisal, Authors Press, 2019, (740 and 679 pages; henceforth, the volumes will be referred to as Indian English Poetry or IEP. I had to let the visual register first: an immense panoramic and expansive landscape of words: sculptures of poets constructed with vivid poems, facts and views: and portraits drawn with information and accounts and perspectives, tantalizingly packed in the imposing and handsome pair.
Elated and intimidated at the same time I wondered, how does one even begin to navigate such vastness and compress the enormity into an atom? Would it be a leisurely reading of the contents, perusing the annals and depicting them by periods of the writer’s literary journey? Or would I be exploring the maze by taking various incursions and pathways to experience the hills and valleys of poetic periods at random?
In fact, to first acquaint myself to a semblance of familiarity, I read some other reviews, namely by Pravat Kumar Padhay (p.76-82, Poetcrit, January-June 2020) and K.V. Dominic (p.183-190, Poetcrit, January-June 2020).
Pravat Kumar Padhy, himself a published poet with an affinity for haiku, tanka, haibun etc. has written a review article on Prem’s analysis of Indian English poetry, which reads like an essay complete unto itself. Perhaps this is a tribute to Padhy’s felicity in expressing a gamut of thought in a few words demanded by a haiku. On the other hand, more significantly, it highlights in volumes, so to speak, the efficacy and scholarship of Prem and the remarkable delineation of his subject into organized and comprehensible segments, thus cohesively parsing the vast material into parts and elucidating their syntactic roles.
Enormously enlightening are K.V. Dominic’s words which went behind and beyond the monumental works, drawing an indelible impression of P C K Prem and his passion for the subject he was tackling, which helped me in framing my attempt to begin, to start somewhere. Writes Dominic
Before winding up my review, let me add a few sentences about the labour and pain behind the creation of these voluminous books.Prem is a close friend of mine; more than that, like an elder brother, and he has shared with me the background of his major works. He told me that he had worked six hours a day for long four years to complete the composition of these volumes. He had to search for the primary sources and materials here and there and collected many books from his poet friends and book bazaars. The impetus behind his hard labour is not profit motivated but sheer love of English Indian literature, particularly poetry and he wants to see his countrymen and future generations read and study Indian cultures, ethos, philosophies, traditions, emotions, dreams and beauties.
The reverential and thoughtful sentiments expressed hereinby Dominic illustrate the respect, value and industrious approach of Prem towards a subject he decided to undertake anew, for it is evident from his bibliography that he has taken forays into similar topics at various periods of his writing career (p.678-679).This personal glimpse gave me an insight into Prem’s search of those who trade in words in incredibly colourful, lively and disorderly Indian markets; I pictured his strolls through lanes, alleyways and roads scouting for books old and new; his visits with friends who exchange written works.I understood that it all came together to infusehissubject with insight and knowledge.
Introduction and Epilogue
The Introduction and Epilogue in each volume are the same, a very useful tool which supports the two volumes, like bookends holding them together, weaving them so that even if the reader is inclined to oscillatebetween one volume to the other, they would have the same references to rely on. [Myuse here of the pronoun ‘they’ to denote just ‘one’ reader has been used to avoid the cumbersome ‘he/she’. This was promulgated by Oxford University a few years ago, and is still decried and rejected as grammatically incorrect in several quarters, yet largely accepted as an evolution of the language to reflect the times]
Prem’s introduction in part is a fulsome portrayal of what the pages contain and elucidates my point:
… Evaluation and analysis for various perspectives leads to the conclusion that poetry interprets life in totality and as such, hope and anguish are integral to existence, is the truth of life. (Introduction, Vol. 1, Indian English Poetry, p.26)
To evaluate poetry and confine it to certain boundaries and trends would be unjust, inappropriate and premature. (ibid)
Epilogue seemed like quite a perfect place to start. Why not? I had to start somewhere to traverse this landscape. Epilogue is divided into two sections: Critics; and Editors.These refer to several research books and anthologies on English poetry in India. Going over the sections, I came across the following lines:
… Many write poems and if published like to read their compositions and spread the word so that others read but rarely look at lyrics others write. It is quite common with most of the poets. Most of the poets wish that others should appreciate what they write… (p.666)
It is a rather perceptive comment, even amusing when described in such stark terms. I was relieved that, although I was privy to the humbling fact that I had been featured in Prem’s book(s), I was not tempted to eagerly search myself in the pages and sections, perhaps out of some apprehension of the content, but mostly because I was so daunted by the extent of the publication in two volumes, that I first had the need to get an overview of the contents and the thought process of the author, and come to the chapter on me in due course. I am glad that I did.
From Portraiture of Poetry
The above title, while it evokes the art of drawing a portrait, appears apt in the context of the subject at hand, in that similar techniques have been applied by Prem to begin with an outline and then sketch in the detailsin organized segments, until the picture emerges as a whole.
Dawn of an age
Chapter 1, IEP Vol. 1, Beginning and growth – Early Poetry I, p.31, P C K Prem begins with the line:
Indian English literature is a reality.
A simple, uncomplicated statement instantly denotes strength. It catches the attention of the reader and highlights that the writer is assured in his confidence and conviction; that he is not a novice examining his subject for the first time; and that he is aware of where further lines will lead his thoughts, his knowledge and his ultimate goal, which is to illustrate that Indian English literature is a reality.
The perception of the author comes to life as each chapter flows as it is meant to, going back to the 19th century, coursing through history and collecting in its path all the pebbles in its way,the sediments of society, spirituality, richness in thought and poverty in existence, and distinctions between rural and urban poetry.
So how did the English language take hold in a country with its own ancient traditions, cultures and languages, and an untold number of dialects? The author illuminates deftly and systematically that it was gradual and inevitable, as the British expanded their hold into the “entire social fabric” (p.33). As such, it was equally inevitable that a creative person would rebel against the bondage in a variety of forms, poetry being a significant mode of expression “to depict social, economic, political, religious and intellectual anxieties of people while it shows anxiety for freedom” (p.33). At the same time, the British were adept at reaching the higher echelons of Indian society, whereby the English language as a means of communication, and to an extent, way of life, became ingrained in its people.
I must say that, while there was a sense of rebellion against the British incursion into our lives, rightly so, the inclusion of the English language into our vast lexicon also benefitted us and opened up vistas in literature and art and added another dimension to our way of life, albeit in a limited part of society. Indians were already used to the richness of our spoken languages, and adopting yet another one, namely English, was almost second nature to us. I always noted how, even a barely educated person could switch easily between Indian languages and dialects. Given that English has widely been accepted internationally, it has given us an advantage in a shrinking world.
On a similar vein, Prem also makes the observation:
In the beginning, one might call it a colonial hangover or psychic obsession but it does not exist, for English as a language is now, deeply entrenched in Indianness. Undoubtedly, it is an easily transmissible medium to connect, interconnect and revitalize India’s multilingual, multi-religious and multicultural characteristics… (p.109)
The author’s process of drawing the portrait of his subject has involved the perspective of history in an intimate way, providing sub-headings such as: The English do not Fulfil the Assurance and it causes Anger and Resentment – Gandhi Arrives on the Scene,…(IEPVol. 1, p.61)
While remaining mindful of Indian society with all its norms, rural and urban, this knitting together of history and language as Prem has done, provides context to what spawned Indian poetry in English. The first three chapters of IEP, Vol. 1, Chapter 1, Beginning and growth – Early Poetry I, Chapter II, Socio-political Awakening & Mystical Quests and Sufferings of Man– Early Poetry II, and Chapter III, Poetic Scenario – A Little before 1920 and after(p.31-113), give form to what begins to resemble a portrait with richness of quality and promise of texture,whereafter in subsequent chapters, the author begins to explore the individual contributions of poets within thought patterns, styles and perceptions, and various periods, as aptly captured in the captions and subtitles.
… To Poetry of Poets Vol. 1
The poets in Prem’s picture have seen it all, from mystical quests to the beginning of national awakening to“certain harsh truths and facts of life in urban settings” (p.77). All the poets who left indelible marks have been mentioned or cited to acquaint the reader of the path taken in order to reach today’s poetry.
Poets such as Henry Derozio (1809-1831) capture us with a single line, such as the one titled, A Walk by Moonlight: My heart is bettered when I feel… (p.45) and Toru Dutt who also died at the tender age of twenty one, will always be remembered, whenever IEP is explored in its depth. From its inception the influence of Indian heritage is apparent in their writing.
Prem’s treatise which delved into the beginnings of Indians writing in English, emerge as an age of recognition of India’s soul. Expressed perhaps for the first time in English, it combined the divine and the spiritual which was innate to its ethos, to the rebellious, and the life beyond. Consider the haunting lines of the great mystic and philosopher, Sri Aurobindo in the Bride of Fire:
Voice of Infinity, sound in my heart –
Call of the One!
Stamp there thy radiance, never to part,
O living sun. (p.67)
All lyricists who are remembered herein by Prem are names which have hovered in our psyche through our own decades. I recall hearing a recording recently of Swami Vivekananda’s lecture in 1893 at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, and it sounds like a poem. Like the author, Prem, states:
Swami Vivekananda’s (1863-1902) epistles reveal eternal truths in a religious-cum-philosophic disposition even as rationalization continues to determine the meaning of existence. (p.52)
The writer and activist, Sarojini Naidu, the unfailing nationalist, transported me to my childhood courses in school, when I had read the poetry of Naidu with fascination. Said she:
The enquiry into the mystery of life on earth and beyond keeps the questioning spirit in poet alive and that drives him to fathom unmeasured lands of life. (p.67)
These were some of the women emancipated even before the later struggles against the British began. Her brother, H.N. Chattopadhyay was equally multi-faceted. As little “Chhoti Didi” on All India Radio’s Children’s Programme, I interviewed him, and he recited his famous poem, “Rail Gaadi” with gusto and aplomb.
[Readers, please forgive my insertion of these personal references and anecdotes; it is a testament to the essays of P C K Prem which are eliciting connections and memories from a seemingly distant past, and which helped shape me as a writer and artist]
The visionary, Rabindranath Tagore, as a writer in Bengali, translated the collected poems in Gitanjali himself, which led to his winning the Nobel Prize. But if I may opine here, while his translations transfixed the poet Yates, Tagore has failed to do justice in English to his own Bengali versions. The only poem which he wrote directly in English, quoted in part, is The Child :(Tagore, by Sisir Kumar Ghose)
‘What of the night?’ they ask.
No answer comes…
Sudden tumults rise in the sky… a startled shudder
Runs along sleepless hours…
Underneath the noisy terror a stealthy hum creeps
Like bubbling volcanic mud…
The reason I am citing these few lines from a longer poem is to illustrate that this “inimitable… optimist…a visionary, a philosopher and a mystic” (p.52) as described by Prem, had a surprising felicity with the English language, a trait that flows through the author’s examination of the writings in English of various poets, from the early years of the subject, to the present times.
“Metropolitan Poetry and its Contours”
The chapter on the Poetic Scenario – A little before 1920and after (p.77-113), has probed the growth and upheaval in the backdrop of the effects of science and technology and material growth quite expansively (p.77-118). While it seems unfair to give an overview of such depth and width of Prem’s search and survey, it is an imperative from the point of view of someone who is attempting to capture so much with so little. I found the following lines encapsulate the essence, while they condense the kernel contained herein:
…the decades of 1920s, 1930s and 1940s of the 20th Century are significant, for many poets take birth with a distinct urban mindset even as rural psyche, spiritual enquiries and metaphysical questions reassert inter-alia cultivate sensibilities of the opposite consciousness, and at times, a unique synthesis emerges.
Several poets gained prominence during these periods and the author, Prem, has examined many. While too numerous to even enlist, Shiv Kumar, Nissim Ezekiel, KeshavMalik, P. Lal, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwala, must be mentioned, because not only were they writers themselves, several also encouraged and published works of emerging, even unknown poets. [Keshav Malik was the first one to publish my poems in his literary magazine, Thought]
Thought Patterns and the eternal question of existence
By mid-20th century, the roots of this genre of writing had gone fairly deep, which is apparent in the foliage of publications by poets mentioned above whose writings have been explored in-depth by Prem. “Nissim Ezekielis redolent in expression of sensuousness with a firm, comforting and enthralling innovation…” Quoting from Ezekiel’s poem, Urban, The Unfinished Man, the author opines, “An irresolvable inconsistency persists because city is passion unrestrained.”
The city like a passion burns.
He dreams of morning walks, alone,
And floating on a wave of sand.
But still his mind its traffic turns
Away from beach and tree and stone
To kindred clamour close at hand.(p.138)
Writes Prem on Keshav Malik’s The Unlatched Gate, Rumor – Cycle of Thirty Poems:
“Transformation of Life’s structure in its totality continues to question man. He makes conscientious inquiries but reaches nowhere as riddles begin to take shape.” (p.169)
The above vein of thinking appears to dominate several poets of these times. The author takes us through the poets of Religious-Secular Thought and Universality, Secular Ambience and Anxiety, Consciousness and Realization and Possible Stability and Judgement (Chapters VI, VII to XIII and XIV). Regarding universality and secular thought Prem notes, “One significant feature is quite apparent in the poets of this age group. They are hopeful and foresee a better future for humankind.”(p.230)
Among numerous poets whose works, whose philosophy, whose influences Prem goes over individually, given my limited space and role, I will mention only a handful, namely, O.P. Bhatnagar, Baldev Mirza, I.K. Sharma, Kamala Das, Gieve Patel, Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla, P.K. Majumder, Pritish Nandy, P C K Prem, D.C. Chambial. Prem describes Das hence:
Kamala Das (1934) is an important, controversial poet of this period. She shatters ingrained beliefs, hits hard in poetic lines and breaks artificial barriers with devastating argument social norms build up. In My Story, a few poetic lines look simple but give a huge shock as she tells “Like the phoenix I rose from the ashes of the past.” (p.283)
I shall someday leave, leave the cocoon
You built around me with morning tea,
Love-words flung from doorways and of course
Your tired lust.
The chapter on P C K Prem (p.563), a bilingual author (Hindi and English), who has tackled disparate genres from poetry to prose to narrative and fiction, has been written by D.C. Chambial, another writer, publisher and editor of note (Editor,Poetcrit). How do I begin to critique these authors whose works span decades, and who have nurtured other writers, established and emerging, a category I too fall under? Well, I use their words to illuminate the readers and provide a mere glimpse into their vast contribution.
In Enigmas of Identity (1990), Prem is a complex poet. The poems have many layers of meanings and, in overlapping of meanings, poems become ambiguous to comprehend and it takes time for the meaning to become clear. He talks about love and hate in life. (p.564)
Sentiments illustrating the same hypocrisies as the ones under the British, the mental and physical suffering, are evoked with passion in Oracles of the Last decade (1998):
When the sea of change convulsed
In seething pain
And rays of sun fought
Withdesperadoes of darkness
Those fighting for man’s soul
Agitated and became violent… (p.565)
Thus, it can emphatically be stated that the poet in P C K Prem is a cautious watcher of time and space, men and manners and very meticulously notices every change that takes place in the society. (p.571)
To me these words of Chambial epitomize the essence of Prem`s enormous exploration of many genres, which, amazingly, also includes a massive undertaking such as the two volumes of IEP.
D. C. Chambial is a poet of distinction and an indefatigable editor who has continued to publish the literary journal, Poetcrit, with essays, reviews and poems, since 1988. Prem`s sentiments on D. C. Chambial capture the vision of his mind`s eye:
… (he) talks of life in images, metaphors and symbols, and creates a wonderful world, and this world speaks of hope, cheers and faith in life despite certain unresolved complexities life offers. (p.620)
According to Prem, This Promising Age (This Promising Age & Other Poems) is one of his finest poems, makes an unforgettable impression provokingly:
Estranged soul entangles itself
in the criss-cross of vibrations.
Entirely new features prop up the land
synthetic cultures and ideals. (p.620)
The impact of this poem on Prem is significant, and he finds shadows of these lines in other lyrics like Confessions, contained in Gyrating Hawks and Sinking Roads. (p.625)
…Poetry of Poets Continues in the Second Volume
By the time P C K Prem reaches the limits of the first volume, he realizes there are several other poets who are awaiting their turn to be enumerated, scrutinized and reviewed (my feeble attempt at humour), and given their due in Indian English Poetry. It impressed upon me once again just how much thought, research, labour and love has gone into the creation of the massive commitment.
Just as seamlessly, astonishingly, the author Prem moves to the second volume, mindful to include as many poets as he could that he considers made an impact on Indian English poetry.
From the point of view of my commentary(for which other word can possibly describe my small effort at examining such expansive work) the weight of Indian English Poetry, Vol. II, falls on Part II, Contemporary Indian English Poetry and Women Poets (p.329-603), analyzed in four chapters. There is some reservation on my part, because in deciding to concentrate on Part II, I appear to be ignoring the poets of Part I of Vol.II. There are numerous poets of note, but I am mindful of my restriction, and feel my assessment will be better portrayed and organized if I limit Part I to the mention of the poets Prem has written about, in as much detail, as the ones in IEP Volume I. Hence I stand guilty of noting just a few poets without preference, like Vikram Seth, Pashupati Jha, Manas Bakshi, K.V. Dominic, Pravat Kumar Padhy and Shankar Divyasingha Mishra.
Women Poets, Another Dimension
I wondered why Prem gave separate space to women poets, which becomes evident to me in Chapter VII Women Poets. Writes the author:
Twentieth century witnesses noticeable emergence of women poets as social, economic and political scenario changes… Modern thought creates new sense of social consciousness and it influences women. (p.331)
This observation makes eminent sense. He goes on to emphasize that the impact of hierarchy of status is diluted with time, and in free India, “women evaluate identity in the changed environment where opportunities to grow expand…” (ibid)
To sum up one finds that women’s poetry demonstrates love, sympathy, compassion, hope, peace and harmony, ingrained love for culture, heritage and humankind, faith in the Invisible, and here one discerns a striking variation in women’s poetic thought and sensibility. (p.338)
As an expatriate, I attest to the astute statement above, in that while one can and should imbibe one’s new environs, the ancient strains echo forever.
Four chapters have been set aside for several women poets, divided by the last three decades of the 20th century, up to the 2nddecade of the 21st century. This promises the readers that Prem’s journey will continue after this exposition and keep enriching our knowledge in this verdant field.
To introduce Meena Alexander, Prem writes:
If a person is aware of social complexities, thinks of man, is sincere in expression, it makes him a part of societal consciousness. (p.349)
It is a limitation of the English language that to observe on humanity, one has to resort to the word “man”. What is the alternative? Endlessly write “man or woman”? Mankind, humankind? Each is jarring!
Prem aptly observes that the penultimate lines of Alexander are transfixing and faintly mysterious, and ask many questions.
Write in the light
of all the languages
you know the earth contains,
you murmur in my ear.
This is pure transport. (p.349)
As I perused the write-up on Rita Malhotra, I too was taken by the strength of simplicity in her poems. The poem, Hills are alive, I am not your woman and other poems paints a languid picture in diffused tones:
as darkness sprawls
on the breast of the hills
silhouette of awesome peaks
a sense of intimacy overtakes
in the half-light of the hissing fireplace
we enact love. (p.391)
Each poet has been distinguished from the other by Prem, selecting apt poems, providing the reader with a fulsome picture. “True contentment is a mirage”, writes Prem (p.425) to introduce Nandini Sahu and it attracted my attention, perhaps because I chase shadows on dark nights. “She creates a world inside, sometimes clear and bright at times…It is foggy at other moments…” (p.428). Just what makes a writer, a poet.
In Let There be a Space, Sahu evocates:
If at all there is a space
between words and a poem
clouds and the sky
blood and the veins,
let there between us
be a space. (p.428)
Prem’s inclusion of Esther Syiem of Eastern Meghalaya is very pertinent and timely. The fact that the Khasi tribe is matrilineal, where the mother is the head of the family (p.438) brings to the fore a force which is distinguished not just in the Indian social fabric, but perhaps most of the world. It also reflects highly on the author that he does not feel inhibited by this structure, but mentions it as a matter of course, finding authenticity in her writing.
Indira Babbelapati’s lines marked the poet’s presence in the page, and Prem’s later description of the lyric having surrealistic undertones made the poem more intriguing for the painter in me.
I’m neither a woman
nor a man
I’ve no body
I’ve no identity
I’m just a small echo
of that universal voice. (p.484)
Prem’s chapter of Uddipana Goswami, a media consultant from Assam, “a state not very peaceful and politically stable as anti-social elements disturb peace,” (p.523) provides an aspect of the country which belies all the poetry of mysticism, harmony, universality. The lines from the poem, From Exile, which paint the anguish the poet feels, make the intensity memorable:
As I swim back across
Fighting monsters, gasping for breath
I miss life.
I search for an anodyne,
But even as I do, I remember,
Tomorrow is yet another lifetime
In purgatory. (p.524)
I confess that having lived outside the country for decades, not all poets were known to me, and I am grateful to Prem for acquainting me with several of these later writers. What appeals to a reader is subjective and instinctive, and defies explanation. At times, to illuminate my viewpoint, I have relied on my own preferences, at others it has been based on the moment. I know I will gain more perspective as I continue to read through the write-ups by the author and the poems he has quoted.
Conclusion is a misnomer
As I stated earlier, P C K Prem has tantalizingly set us up for more by designating the last chapter as, “Women’s Poetry of the 2nd decade of 21st Century”. The promise of another decade is apparent in this title.