Rabindranath Tagore recollected his first visit to Japan in 1916 in his book Japan Jatri, where he first introduced the haiku into Bengali. Translating the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, Tagore wrote: “The heart of the Japanese people does not sound like a waterfall; it is quiet like a lake.” Since then, the haiku – and other Japanese forms such as haibun, tanka, and senryu – have become increasingly popular in Indian languages. In a 1992 article for Japan Review, former professor emeritus of Jawaharlal Nehru University Satya Bhushan Verma catalogues several haikus in Bengali, Assamese, Odia, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi and Hindi.
Over the past decade, several Indian poets have explored these Japanese forms in English as well. Rochelle Potkar’s Paper Asylum (Copper Coin, 2018) and Paresh Tiwari’s Raindrops Chasing Raindrops (RedRiver, 2018) are notable examples of full collections of either haibun or a mix of haibun and haiku. Tiwari also co-edited the Red River Book of Haibun Vol. 1 (2019) with Steve Hodge. Kala Ramesh, Johannes Manjrekar and Vidyur Jyoti edited the 2019 anthology of Indian poetry in Japanese forms brought out by Katha. Shobhana Kumar’s new book, A Sky Full of Bucket Lists (RedRiver, 2021), is an important intervention to this body of work.
While the traditional haibun combines a tightly knit prose narrative followed by a haiku, Kumar has taken several licences in her poems. One can find a familiar haibun in ‘Confinement’ (only partly quoted here):
We open the window a little more to let in some warmth. The little ones turn away; bury their heads in their downs. But we believe the morning sun will do them good.
the gods as lost
The following poem, ‘Lockdown Learnings’, has 28 free verse lines before the haiku (I am quoting an extract):
Lockdown is a true test
of marriage and family.
The power of the human touch
Has never bode the earth well.
Perhaps now is the time
to invoke the divine within.
even after a bottle
Kumar, the author of two previous collections of poetry, provides no reason for this. Instead, in her introduction, she writes about the subjects of her poems:
“I have chronicled longing, loss, abandonment, and letting go, by drawing from what I have been witness to. It is what happens in the head, in one’s home, on the streets, and in abandoned spaces. In this search, even names are sometimes redundant.”
One example of this universalist desire would be a poem like ‘Barter’, of which I quote, yet again, only an extract:
All along the way, neon signs announce names of nondescript villages. The road cuts into farmlands. Paddy fields gleam under the morning sun. On another patch, a group of women get ready to plough the field.
How many kilos of rice are we speeding on?
all the blessings
we don’t count
A crafty economy of words accentuates the effect of the poem and the visuals it evokes in the mind of the reader.
This does not, however, always work. For instance, in the poem ‘Post-mortem’, Kumar describes an accident at a construction site and the tragic fall out for the family of the dead worker:
They want to file a report saying he was an alcoholic. She spends the next five years fighting to prove he was not.
broken a kite falls into the sewer
There is no way for the reader to learn if the anonymous worker is inspired by a true one, but whether fictional or factual, the characters in this narrative needed names and more to make a reader truly empathetic. Else, in the rather desensitised world we live in, the nameless worker and his wife are another of the faceless unfortunate who surround us in our cities.
Indian poetry in English might have begun its career by exploring European forms such as the sonnet, the villanelle, or the iambic pentameter but its subject matter was often obstinately local. I am thinking of HLV Derozio’s The Fakeer of Jungheera (1829) and Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s The Captive Ladie (1849). Dutt introduced the sonnet and blank verse into Bengali poetry – but the traffic flowed in the opposite direction as well, often through translations and adaptations. The ghazal, the doha and other Bhakti/ forms are often used by Indian poets for their English poems in a true case of the Empire occupying the language.
The recent spike in interest in Japanese forms might prompt a reader to ask: Why? A simple answer would be: Why not? Indians are increasingly becoming familiar with Japanese culture. About 170,000 Indian tourists travelled to Japan in 2019; Japanese shows on streaming platforms such as Netflix have a huge following in India; and Japanese tea shops, as well as restaurants that serve more than sushi, are not uncommon in lifestyle districts of our cities. Is it then any surprise that Indian poets are also exploring Japanese forms? But this is perhaps a fertile field of enquiry.