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Mandir, Mandal and the Muse

Uttaran Das Gupta 

Author: Nabina Das and Semeen Ali (Eds)
Publisher: Poetrywala
Price: Rs 399
Pages: 185

In his "A Poet's Advice to Students", E E Cummings writes: "A poet is somebody who feels and expresses his feelings through words. / That may sound easy. It isn't." Besides the sheer difficulty of the art form - and writing poetry is starkly different from any other kind of writing - the material conditions that young poets are confronted with in contemporary times can be daunting: Poets don't make living by writing, making their pursuit of the muse a necessarily a stiff challenge. There are also few outlets for poetry - mainstream publishers and magazines keep their distance, as it is thought to be unprofitable.

Nabina Das and Semeen Ali, the editors of this volume and poets themselves, have performed a great service to the form by collecting and publishing some of the best and brightest young voices in the country. As the title suggests, this volume has 40 poets - 41, actually - all aged 40 or less. The subtitle is an explanation as to why this age limit was chosen, but in the Introduction, the editors explain: "The reality of globalisation and the period right before that, was a mixed bag for some of us but certainly tainted with a special romance and longing." Undeniably, the eighties and the nineties, with their avalanche of changes - liberalisation and globalisation, Babri Masjid demolition and the Mandal commission recommendation, the tech revolution and the emergence of India as a major global player - transformed the country in profound ways. If our grandparents experienced Independence and our parents the Emergency, we were witness to this metamorphosis.

For instance in Akhil Katyal's "In the 1.4 MB floppy disk" we get a glimpse of how even computers have changed for us over the years: "I used to gift you two or three photographs, / (jpeg's were smaller than .bmp's) / of us standing on the Gomti embankment, / …Then, along with those, / I gave you songs - one .mp3 / (could be Bombay, 'Humma Humma'). A strange nostalgia indeed for the floppy disks, which used to be ubiquitous even 10 years back but have now disappeared, along with so many other things such as cassettes, polaroid films, Wing Sung fountain pens. Here, poetry performs the task of witnessing subtle changes that may have slipped through the historian's lenses.

The poems also bear witness to the irony of the so-called "liberalised country" that we inhabit. The editors write: "If the 1980s conceived most of the poets here, the 1990s defined them." Naturally, the issues that concern them are, "caste, feminism, sectarianism, sexual orientation, urban decay, nation and borders." Aruna Golamunda writes in "She was told": "She was told… / …not to wear a blouse / To allow every male… / to watch her as a device." In "The Muse in the Market Place", Chandramohan S (who identifies himself as a Indian English Dalit poet), writes: "In the Neo-liberal world / A dog with a collar crosses / The road at the zebra./ …This poem was not conceived with translation in mind."

The question of language, and choosing English as one's medium, cannot be too far from the minds of Indian writers. For most of us, English was a choice made by our parents and guardians, to provide us with a living. So the choice of the language was natural - but it is also very frequently a cause of concern. (Recently, a Dutch journalist was very surprised when she heard most of us don't use our native languages for any business.) The concern was answered decades ago by Kamala Das in her poem, "An Introduction": "Don't write in English, they said. English is / Not your mother tongue… / Why not let me speak in / Any language I like? / The language I speak, / Becomes mine…" Indian poetry in English has a long , though somewhat discontinuous history - from HLV Derozio to the Bombay School to Jeet Thayil and Karthika Nair. If this book is anything to go by, the future of poetry in English that's uniquely Indian is going to be glorious.

This review cannot end without a disclaimer. Many of the poets whose poetry has been collected in this volume are my friends and acquaintances: For instance, Goirick Brahmachari, Maaz Bin Bilal, Arjun Rajendran and Sohini Basak are people I know personally; Ishita Basu Mallik was my classmate at Jadavpur University; and I know many of the others, including editor Das, through social media. This may have made me a more generous reader, but the generosity did not augment my appreciation of their work - it is the quality of the poetry.

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First Published: Sat, September 03 2016. 00:18 IST