Whither Indian English poetry? A valid
question in the 21st Century when scores of talents,
anonymous or marginally known, are screaming for
recognition. India’s political history is only 58
years old and on the wave of globalization is seeking
economic stability. With private sector making
inroads into core areas like power and
telecommunications, the new mantra is to leave the
market open to players, both native and overseas.
India’s socio-economic ethos is at cross roads
but that is the price to be paid in a global context.
It encapsulates the attendant problems – the
burgeoning population despite control measures, urban
prosperity and rural impoverishment, ossification of
public sector and unemployment.
The rural scenario is a bleak with instances of
starvation deaths and suicides among small and medium
farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa and constant
lobbying for higher procurement prices for farm
produce. Besides recurrent drought, ecological
mismanagement and the farmers taking to alternate
cropping to escape the dragnet of dues. Look at the
cities and the eye is besieged by the pressure on land
because of the overwhelming intrusion of Information
A bird’ eye view of this scenario will show that
hope is more in the brain than heart. Hopes of a
“Quality society” emerging from myriad pulls are as
much straws in the wind as recognition for “Quality
Poetry to the Indian has an ancient halo but
Indian English poetry is yet to come to terms with
him. Its proficiency in Vernacular – Urdu, Malayalam,
Tamail and a ring of regional languages – is amazing.
Their reach among the discerning audience – middle and
lower classes – is established with Poetry-reading
sessions in the campuses and the wings of the British
Council. Yet those who publish their collections
invariably turn a cropper in terms of recognition.
Reason? The publishing house is financially strapped,
charges a hefty price from the author and produces
peer reviews of poor quality and access.
Every author is not a scion of a dynasty,
political or royal, to make a name. Someone like
Feroze Varun Gandhi, great grandson of Jawaharlal
Nehru, can have access to the Penguin but the rest are
poor mortals in the wilderness. Making a name
incidentally is not proof of quality poetry too.
Everything is saleable in a market-oriented
economy, the tip of the present capitalist ethos in
developing countries. All are pinned on making a
‘career’ and careerist aspirations shape the minds of
writers too. Through engineered peer reviews a “poet”
gets acclaim and money.
Arundhati Roy was not a name till “The God of
Small things” hit the stalls but her book is not
market trash but the rendering of a generation’s
angst. Her commitment to public causes and writing
must be seen against the market’s engrossment with
Back in the 50s or earlier two poets stood
apart – Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate and
Sarojini Naidu, the latter known more for her role in
freedom struggle than any poetic skills.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, in his selection of 10 great
Indian Poets, dubbed her verse “mellifluous drivel”
and ignored a couple of known names such as Shiv
K.Kumar and Parthasarathy as not worth a look.
Down the staircase of Indian English tradition,
only a few names like A.K.Ramanujam, Adil Jassiwala
stood out in the 60s and 70s as genuine articulators
of alienation from a huge, growing industrial
culture. But Ramanujam was a cultural import into
U.S. as many others later like Saleem Peeradhina, Jeet
Thayil etc. Nizzim Ezekiel and Jayanta Mahapatra were
determined to be natives, seeking a salve to their
alienated wounded psyche.
Mass of words have been written about the
pantheon of poets – from Sarojini to Manohar Shetty –
but Indian literary criticism has not made its
presence as acutely felt as European literature. Is there an anonymous
basin yetto be tapped in the unexplored scenario?
Publishing houses as yet are not prepared to
put their bets on them because of the grim reality
that poetry does not pay. They would rather split
their investment with the author so that the
cumulative loss/gain is that of both.
What about publications in India? But for
Asian Age which runs a poetry contest, Alive and a few
others many seem to think that poetry is no more worth
than a jingle on an ad hoarding for Amul.( brand name
for a milk dairy) And poems used in them are not the
axiom of quality poetry which makes it obvious that
the jury must be the incorrigible hacks of the news
The less said about magazines run by the
Departments of English in universities the better.
They suffer infant mortality before you can say
Bleak though it is, the scenario raises a
pertinent and overwhelming query – will any
publication rise to the task of bringing unfamiliar
poets into the open? As of now, subsidized agencies
like the Writers Workshop, Kolkata go through the
ritual of publishing new writers and sending them to
canonized libraries at home and abroad.
It only begins with the publisher belling the
cat. Rather beyond peer reviews he could look for
sponsored events, both for print and visual media..
In a free market a writer has to absorb the
pulls, whatever be his ideological and cultural
moorings, to be absorbed. Otherwise quality poetry
would remain unknown, because it is