INDIAN ENGLISH POETRY
Before and After Independence
BIJAY KUMAR DAS
The place and status of Indian English poetry before and after Independence are open to debate. There are people representing diametrically opposite views on the achievement of this poetry in general. One group outrightly condemns the poetry written before 1947 and eulogizes the post-Independence Indian English poetry. Take for instance, R. Parthasarathy’s pronouncement that Indian verse in English, “did not seriously begin to exit till after the withdrawal of the British from India”.1 P. Lal and Adil Jassawalla are in the company of R. Parthasarathy in denouncing the poetry of Sri Aurobindo and his contemporaries, lock, stock, barrel.
On the other hand there are critics like V. K. Gokak, C. D. Narasimhaiah and a few others who have lauded the poetry of Sri Aurobindo and his contemporaries like Sarojini Naidu. To Gokak, Sarojini Naidu is the Yeats of India and Sri Aurobindo a great innovator in the art of versification. He classifies the Indian poets in English before Independence into two groups: “neo-symbolists” and “neo-modernists”. The neo-symbolists dive deep into mysticism and the neo-modernists’ vision is coloured by humanism. C. D. Narasimhaiah speaks of Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu and Sri Aurobindo in admiration in his well-known book, The Swan and the Eagle.
He lauded both Toru and Sarojini as pioneers in the field of Indian English poetry. Professor C. D. Narasimhaiah is more eloquent in his praise of Sri Aurobindo whom he considers not only as a distinguished poet but critic too. He goes a step forward to tell that English language has gained from Sri Aurobindo and compares him with Joseph Conrad who broadened the descriptive range of the English language. He says, “It may be said of Sri Aurobindo that he made the English language accommodate certain hitherto unknown (inconscient) areas of experience both through his prose work, “Life Divine” and through his epic Savitri, not to speak of the numerous translations from Sanskrit poetry and drama as well as his other less known but important works”. 2 It is interesting and important to remember that Sri Aurobindo nearly succeeded in creating an idiom in English which is peculiar and unique to the genius of Indian people. Well-known scholars and critics like K.R.S. Iyengar, Sisir Kumar Ghose and M. K. Naik too praise Sri Aurobindo and Sarojini Naidu as poets of importance. In the course of an article entitled “Indian Poetry in English Yesterday-TodayTomorrow” (The Literary Criterion Vol. XVIII No.3, 1983. Pp.9-18), Professor K. R. S. Iyenger takes R. Parthasarathy, Keki N. Daruwalla and Adil Jassawalla to task for criticising Sri Aurobindo and earlier poets in English for wrong reasons.
On the other hand there are sceptics who denounce post-Independence Indian English poets beginning with Nissim Ezekiel. To some purists the best post-1947 poets in English would appear as Pseudo-Keats, second-rate Tennyson, third-rate Hardy, and fourth-rate Eliot. It seems to me that a good deal of poetry of our time can be highlighted without denying or denigrating the poetry of our predecessors or taking a parochial and what George Woodcock calls, “literary incestuousness” attitude to recent Indian poetry in English. I believe that serious Indian English poetry came to be written not immediately after Independence but in the ’Sixties and after. The Indian English poetic movement of the ’Sixties and ’Seventies did much to fix its image as deliberately deficient, moderate with a will. Indian English poets sought comparisons with Anglo-Americans and unfortunately, followed either the genteel English poets or the confessing Americans. This tendency has gradually frayed and will probably give way altogether for the fact that however deliberate (and after a faltering start) post-Independence Indian English poetry has proved increasingly robust, varied, responsive to the times and enjoyable. It is now very rarely either consciously indebted or consciously hostile to Anglo-American models, it has acquired a distinct character and discovered its own voice. The voice is discovered by the poet’s genius for intimately registering the idiom of his own world.
Post-Independence Indian English poetry is both a break with the past and a continuation with it too. Modernity in recent Indian English poetry, which essentially means a break with the past, has three identifiable manifestations: one – a past-oriented vision which is associated with a sense of loss and hopelessness, a sort of cultural pessimism; two–a future-oriented vision, associated with a desire to remake the world; three–a present-oriented attitude, ahistorical, amoral, neutral, stoic, ironic, ambivalent, absurdist. This modernity has two modes of “expression”–one, it might result in one turning inward going on one’s “voyage within”; two, it might result in an ironic observation of reality, in “voyage without.”
The incipient romanticism and rapid narcissicism of the early Indian English poetry are now discarded in favour of poetry as “a criticism of life.” Post-Independence Indian English poetry tries hard to set its roots and develop its own artistic credo. It has successfully risen above “decadent romanticism” and in the hands of such brilliant poets as Nissim Ezekiel, A. K. Ramanujan and R. Parthasarathy, it is acquiring new dimensions.
Jayanta Mahapatra, A. K. Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy, Arun Kolatkar and Kamala Das turn inward to get into their roots. There is a need to acclimatise English language to an indigenous tradition to write poetry effectively. R. Parthasarathy, as it were, gives a clarion call to Indian English poets to return to their respective linguistic traditions. He asks:
How long can foreign poets
Provide the staple of your lines?
Turn inward, scrape the bottom of your past.
It seems natural to conclude that a poet with a live cultural past behind him, aware of his roots and perhaps prejudiced by those roots, has a greater probability of writing significantly than one who has no knowledge of any Indian language: other than English. Jayanta Mahapatra’s “Relationship” is set in Orissa–a land of “forbidding myth”. Mahapatra is “caught in the currents of time” and in his attempt to “go into the unknown in me “tries” to speak of the myth of sleep and action” in order to soothe himself and others who suffer a similar fate. Parthasarathy, Kolatkar and Ramanujan have tried to evoke a sense of their past and inherit the native traditions. Kamala Das too works out her emotional and sexual traumas in poems of unexceptionable frankness reminiscent of the medieval Sahaja poets who espoused free love as a means of realizing oneself. While A. K. Ramanujan’s mind seems to be perpetually busy probing the areas of strength and weakness of his Hindu heritage, Kamala Das highlights with boldness the sexual permissiveness and uninhibition rooted in her native culture and produces arresting effect on readers.
Post-Independence Indian English poetry is genuine because it is deeply felt and addressed to the whole community. Indian situations form a vital part of it. The superstition and folk belief that exist in Indian society, turns out to be a favourite theme of recent poetry. Nissim Ezekiel handles such a theme with superb irony and subdued mockery in “Night of the Scorpion”. The mother is astung, the nationalist and sceptical father tries, “every curse and blessing/powder, mixture, herb and hybrid,” as the peasants swarm in to console her offering advice of a strongly ritualistic and faith healing band. The mother’s reaction to her own suffering, “Thank God, the scorpion picked on me / and spared my children”, ironically rejects both the responses. Ramanujan in his much anthologized poem, “A River” does not present the traditional hymns in praise of the river but records instead, the details about the twins, which the women would have borne, bringing the experience to its simple and painful humanity. India’s present day ills like brain-drain, too attract the attention of our poets O. P. Bhatnagar examines the implication of the exodus of the Indian intellectuals to foreign lands and makes a fervent appeal to them to return home. These intellectuals are worse than migrating birds, for the birds, who flyaway in winter because of trenchant cold, return home at the turn of the season. But our intellectuals fail to escape the lure of gold and glamour and stay back. Thus in a poem called “Look Homeward Angel”, Bhatnagar ironically calls them “angels”. Likewise, Shiv K. Kumar comes heavily on the politicians who are unprincipled and time-servers. In “Epitaph on an Indian politician”, Shiv K. Kumar has given a very daring portrayal of the politicians:
Vasectomized of all genital urges
For love and beauty
he often crossed floors
as his wife leaped across beds.
Besides the contemporary problems, there is one vital problem–namely, the problem of creating an Indian English idiom which haunts our poets without end. As R. Parthasarathy has rightly observe:
That language is a tree
under another sky.
Some of our poets have tried to evoke the sense of “Indianness” both in content and language in their poetry. Ezekiel’s “Every Indian poem in Indian English”, “Good-bye party for Miss Pushpa T. S.”, Keki N. Daruwalla’s “The professor condoles” and R. Parthasarathy’s “Incident at Ahmedpore Station” are cases in point.
Nissim Ezekiel, Keki N. Daruwalla, Margaret Chatterjee and Lila Ray, who are unable to share the indigenous tradition, take a different attitude, ahistorical, amoral, neutral, stoic and ironic. The expression results in an ironic observation of reality, “Voyage without”. O. P. Bhatnagar joins them in making pointed, objective and thought-provoking observations on the reality around us. If poetry written in English in Commonwealth and third world countries today is any indication, correctness of language should not be insisted upon. American, Australian, African and West Indian writers have discovered their own idioms in English. Post-Independence Indian English poets have attempted and succeeded to a limited extent in evolving a new Indo-English idiom Though Indian English poetry has outgrown victorian taboos and our poets have broken new ground, the quest for cultural moorings seems to be a major pre-occupation with them, a trait they unwittingly share with Madhusudan Dutt, an earlier Indian English poet of repute. But the pervasive presence of this conscious “Indianness” without any trace of romantic nostalgia or exotic quaintness sets contemporary Indian English poetry apart from the imitative mediocrity of much of this poetry in the pre-Independence period.
A. K. Ramanujan’s determination: “I must seek and will find / my particular hell only in my Hindu mind”. Kamala Das’s assertion: “I am Indian, very brown / born in Malabar / I speak three languages / write in two / dream in one”; Nissim Ezekiel’s resolution: “I have made my commitments now / This is one to stay where I am”; R. Parthasarathy’s persuasion: “How long can foreign poets / provide the staple of your lines / Turn inward, scrape the bottom of your past”; Daruwalla’s contemplation: “Then why should I tread the Kafka beat or the westeland / when, mother, you are near at hand / one vast, sprawling defect” and Jayanta Mahapatra’s attempt “to speak of the myth of sleep and action / in the hope of soothing myself and those others” have unmistakably indicated the direction Indian English poetry is likely to take in the future.
1 R. Parthasarathy, (ed) Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, O. U. P. 1976. P. 3.
2 C. D. Narasimhaiah, The Swan and the Eagle (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study. 1969). P. 29.