The last few weeks have been good for poetry in mainstream publishing in India. Westland Books has just brought out poet extraordinaire and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Book Of Rahim & Other Poems, his first collection in 25 years. The slim, red paperback comprises his reflections on family homes, everyday things, and literary history. A little before this, HarperCollins India published Shikha Malaviya’s self-explanatory title, Anandibai Joshee: A Life In Poems.
The two share one thing in common: persona poetry based on the lives of 19th century icons. In his book, in the section Ghalib, A Diary, Mehrotra assumes the voice of the ageing poet; and each poem in Malaviya’s book is a building block in re-telling the tale of India’s first female physician.
Joshee’s life has been covered a fair bit recently. She was the subject of Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions, by Nandini Patwardhan in 2020; Kavitha Rao featured her in a chapter in her 2021 book Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine; and AdiDev Press included in their Learning to Be series in 2022 a board-book on her titled Courage with Anandibai Joshee, written by Pervin Saket and illustrated by Sriya Singh.
But Malaviya writes that her “story has been told through the lens of her husband being her saviour and inspiration. And while he encouraged her, it was often by coercion and violence.” Re-telling Joshee’s story through poetry, by referencing old letters and other accounts, Malaviya hopes to “give her story back to her” and highlight her intellect, strength, and desire to help other women.
Malaviya helps readers re-imagine a remarkable life by presenting the poems as Joshee’s intimate thoughts. “Though the darkest one in the room, I’m the brightest of them all/in a red Pitambar saree deemed Pompeiian, belle of this ball—/…Majhe nav Anandi aahe, I want to say/in my native tongue, so that I don’t forget who I am/the young girl whose books once lay tattered in the cowshed/whose baby lived barely ten days…” reads the poem titled They Call Me Lady Of The Orient: Philadelphia, September 1883. The layers and details suffused in these lines, coupled with an effective use of the dramatic monologue, make it a powerful journey into the mind of Malaviya’s version of Joshee.
Similarly, with Ghalib, A Diary, Mehrotra becomes a poet-storyteller-biographer-historian. Inspired by how Basil Bunting’s poem Chomei At Toyama brought a work of prose into poetry, and referencing Prof. Khawaja Ahmad Faruqi’s translation into English of Ghalib’s Dastanbuy, Mehrotra re-poetises the poet’s life. At one point in this poignant work, the protagonist’s vulnerability, due to his fall into poverty, reaches a crescendo: Living can kill anyone,/it never reveals its ways,…/My clothes and bedding were all that was left./I sold them one by one./While others ate bread, I ate trousers./I’m sixty-three.”
Inherently distilled in its messaging, shorn of explanation or redundancy, the verse-form is great at creating intimacy. It makes sharply personal a story that can otherwise seem so far removed from a reader’s life. Mehrotra’s and Malaviya’s efforts with Ghalib and Joshee exemplify this.
If prose can have best-sellers in biographies and autobiographies or historical fiction based on the lives of popular personalities, persona-poetry that is well-researched and accessible may be able to lead verses down a different path to popularity.
Line Break is a series that spotlights new books of poetry