Welcome to Indian Poetry — December 2007



Places. That is the theme for the fifteenth edition of the India domain.

And that does not mean tourist pamphlet poetry. It does not mean exotic landscapes, splashed with local colour. But it does mean exploring the diverse ways in which places enter poetry. At times, a place is explicitly invoked; at others, it is an atmospheric presence that saturates a poem, permeating its crevices. Sometimes it is in the foreground; at other times it is a shadowy but invariable context. At times, it is concrete; and at other times, imaginary.

This edition features a variety of poets: Namdeo Dhasal (Marathi), Amarjit Chandan (Punjabi), Meena Alexander (English), Udayan Vajpeyi (Hindi) and Anjum Hasan (English). It features various generations: from a poet born in 1946 to a poet born in 1972. And it features a gamut of places: a throbbing megalopolis (Mumbai); a picturesque hill town in North Eastern India; a dusty nondescript small town in Madhya Pradesh; a remote hamlet in Punjab; and an imagined homeland, a composite residence of the soul (where New York meets Kerala).

It is difficult to talk about place without invoking nostalgia, a sense of loss, even at times, a sense of exile. This manifests itself as a sombre elegiac mode in Vajpeyi, a resonant spareness in Chandan, a fierce lyric impulse in Alexander, a quiet meditativeness in Hasan. In the case of Marathi Dalit poet Dhasal, however, there is no trace of wistfulness. Tough and unsentimental, his poetry draws on what his translator Dilip Chitre terms bibhatsa rasa (revulsion or disgust), offering a portrait of Mumbai at its predatory, rancid and festering best— or worst.

It is difficult to talk about place without invoking time. Many of these poems express a yearning for an older simpler world, a world left behind, a world of memory, of childhood. But even here there are darker undertones. Hasan’s poems acknowledge memories of boredom, of stifling small townness, while Chandan’s poetry is veined with memories of prison life in Amritsar. In Vajpeyi’s work, time is ruptured into smithereens in which it is possible to see reflections of a distant past and present all at once.

And finally, it is difficult to talk about place without talking about home — its evanescence, its ungraspability, its elsewhereness. Frequently, home is recognized for what it is only in hindsight. Gunachaur is a simple place for Chandan simply because he has never been there. Hasan savours “the comfort of soup” and “the minor pleasures of chopsuey” only because the Chinese restaurant is resolutely part of her past. Home in Vajpeyi’s poetry is both real and make-believe, concrete and yet poised on the cusp of fantasy. And home in Meena Alexander’s poem is an integrated dreamspace in which it is possible to speak several tongues and lay claim to several literary ancestors all at once.

Read on to discover the ways in which place becomes poetry — and poetry, in turn, place. 

Images around ‘Places’ in Indian poetry

© Arundhathi Subramaniam  
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