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This new book of Indian poetry is a collector’s item

Jeet Thayil talks about The Penguin Book Of Indian Poets, contemporary young voices, and how the book's cover photo captures a decisive moment

Portraits of various poets, by photographer Madhu Kapparath, feature in the book. This is of Jeet Thayil, the editor of the anthology.
Portraits of various poets, by photographer Madhu Kapparath, feature in the book. This is of Jeet Thayil, the editor of the anthology. (Madhu Kapparath in The Penguin Book of Indian Poets)

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For over two decades, Jeet Thayil has been compiling the definitive anthology of Indian poetry in English. The 2008 Penguin India book, 60 Indian Poets (released in the UK as The Bloodaxe Book Of Modern Indian Poets), edited by Thayil, was the culmination of these efforts—until now, with the release of The Penguin Book Of Indian Poets. This beautifully designed 900-page volume happened after Penguin asked Thayil to update 60 Indian Poets. The poet and novelist decided to expand its scope, adding dozens of new voices. Madhu Kapparath’s black and white images of poets like Vikram Seth, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar and Thayil himself enhance the book’s value as a physical artefact and collector’s item.

In a phone interview, Thayil speaks about the anthology’s making, some of the younger poets whose work is featured, and why he chose to include a Bruce King essay on Indian poetry right in the middle of the book. Edited excerpts:

I immediately fell in love with the cover image. Eunice de Souza’s cigarette, the parrot, the lighting…it’s the most iconic front cover image I have seen in a long time. Tell me how it found its way on to the cover.

For me, it’s a timeless image of a poet. Madhu (Kapparath) is in the habit of miracles and he has certainly got one here. What photography does is it captures the “decisive moment”, as Henri Cartier-Bresson put it. With this image, Madhu captures something decisive about how we think about poets, about writers who create magic. The entirety of Eunice’s personality is in that image. Her love of animals and birds was a big part of her life. She was somebody who was very comfortable around her friends, a Bohemian in many ways. What’s interesting to me is that she didn’t like this picture when she saw it first—in the photograph that accompanied her newspaper column, she’s wearing a sari and a bindi; that’s the image she preferred to project.

I quite enjoyed reading the poems, especially the one about Medusa, of Yamini Krishnan, one of the youngest poets. How did you come across her work (and that of the other young poets, all of them in their early 20s)? What clinched their inclusion?

You know, if you read these poems—Yamini’s or the ones by Alolika Dutta—but don’t read the poet bios, you will never guess that these are works by people in their early 20s (Yamini is 22 or 23, I think, while Alolika is 20). Yamini is one of two poets included here who are from Ashoka University; the other is Prithvi Pudhiarkar. These are extremely mature voices, I thought. When I read Yamini’s work (and for someone her age, she has a large body of work), I saw a poet using every tool at her disposal. The same with Prithvi. I came across their works on Instagram; I did a lot of online research when it comes to this book’s contemporary voices.

As to what prompted me to include them, I asked myself: Would these poets be around 10 years from now, doing what they are doing? And if so, would they be noticeably better at it? The answer for all of these poets was, “Absolutely!”

The Penguin Book Of Indian Poets: Edited by Jeet Thayil, India Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 908 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1,499.
The Penguin Book Of Indian Poets: Edited by Jeet Thayil, India Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 908 pages, 1,499.

In your Afterword, you quote Henry Louis Vivian Derozio’s line “Chillum hither lao”, which speaks to the “chutnification” of language, and sounds similar to the style deployed by novelists like G.V. Desani, Salman Rushdie and Upamanyu Chatterjee. Isn’t it surprising that more multilingual books and special editions have not been published in India so far?

Absolutely. I think we have finally reached where we were supposed to around the time of independence—by which I mean there’s a lot of translation between Indian languages, so that Indians can read each other (the poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has been saying this for a long time). Suddenly, all of the literary prizes have woken up to the fact that there are languages other than English in this country. The recent inclusion of Tomb Of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (translated by Daisy Rockwell) on the Man Booker International shortlist is a case in point. Seventy years too late, we have woken up to the fact that we have great writers in all of these Indian languages and we should utilise this.

Nissim Ezekiel by Madhu Kapparath
Nissim Ezekiel by Madhu Kapparath (Madhu Kapparath in The Penguin Book Of Indian Poets)

On the other hand, you also write about how Nirmal Verma et al would regularly disparage Indian English literature, saying English could never capture the thought process of the average Indian—to me that sounds especially weird because Verma is, for me, the poster boy for internationalism in Hindi literature. He translated so many European writers whose works, in turn, influenced his Hindi short stories in a big way.

You would expect a little more kindness on Verma’s part, yes, especially because that European influence is so apparent in his own work. The same with Ashokamitran, whose work had such strong American and European influences. But no, when it came to the topic of Indian English writers, all of them thought we were awful, or we were traitors to the cause (of Indian literature). This was unfair, I thought, because these writers were just working in the language that they knew well enough to write in. I think attitudes like that are less prevalent now but they are very much around.

There is no chronological or alphabetic order to the poets in this book. Did you always find resonances in form and content (like the pairing of Anindita Sengupta and Nissim Ezekiel) or was it more of an instinctive decision in some cases?

Some juxtapositions are coincidental, although there’s no such thing as a coincidence. In almost every case, I found real resonances in terms of the poets placed before and after a particular entry. For example, the book for me is divided into two parts, with the Bruce King essay literally in the middle, providing historical context. Before the essay, there’s A.K. Ramanujan, after the essay there’s Dom Moraes. So if you look at the poets before Ramanujan—Subhashini Kaligotla and Arundhathi Subramaniam—I find a generic affinity and a kind of flow from these poets to Ramanujan. Dom’s poems are followed by mine because I know how influenced I am by him, and I am followed by Monica Ferrell, because I see that connection between us.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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