A Poet Interprets an Interpreter's Diary

This weekend's 'Verse Affairs' is a review of Arjun Rajendran's new collection of poetry, that takes off from a meticulously kept 18th century diary.

In a diary entry on November 30, 1745, Ananda Ranga Pillai notes:

“This day, there was an event worthy of record. In the village… a church has been constructed by Kanakaraya Mudali… In honour of this, he invited, without distinction, all the Brahmans, Vellazhas, Komuttis, Chettis, goldsmiths, weavers, oil-mongers, and people of other castes; and all Europeans and Christians, and entertained them with a feast… Meals for Europeans were prepared at Pondichery [sic]…”

Pillai, a dubash or interpreter to French governor François Dupleix, is known for the meticulous diaries he kept, detailing 18th century life in south India during the Carnatic War. In his telling, the elaborate contours of castes, religions, languages, nationalities, and customs in Pondicherry are revealed likes rich oil painting.

Arjun Rajendran plunders the archives to recreate a remarkable book of poems, rich in detail, spectacular in ambition:

“The dubash fluent in Tamil and French.
Pondichéry’s many castes, mourning:
every vase to its withering.

His twelve volumes on battles, commerce,
courtesans, ships and shipments,
curd-rice, arecanut godowns,

espionage and storms debilitating.”

Few books, if any, in the Indian English poetry landscape either attempt to use such sources, plagued as it is by the personal lyric that indulges in little more than navel-gazing. Rajendran’s poems in the first part of the book would have been remarkable only for their subject matter — but they also bear evidence to their author’s craft.

Take for instance, ‘The Dog-Catcher’:

“Gunmastas, sowcars, spies and mahouts
maybe important—but then
there is Savari, the dog-catcher, searching

near the town gates, in kilns, the riverbank:
for canines to drown”

The poem allows Rajendran to explore a character who would at best be on the periphery of traditional history writing. While acknowledging his debt to Pillai’s diaries, Rajendran notes: “While some of the incidents described can be sourced to the diaries, enormous liberty has been taken to release facts and apocrypha into the realm of the imagination, to re-create the interiorities of a populace of a town during war-time.”

It is the power of imagination that transforms the prose of a diary into the powerful fiction, a process often referred to as “magical” and familiar to readers of a Garcia Marquez or Kapuscinski.

The book, however, goes beyond the past and explores a present and a future that can be alienating as well. Rajendran, who’s last book was titled The Cosmonaut in Hergé’s Rocket, often uses tools of speculative fiction:

“We glide into the fly-in NASA blanca
our antiquated pod rustling like pirated music

The usher, in his tablet, notes we’d like
to watch the movie + kiss (a word

our two moons situate on the opposite
spectrum of the eucharist)”

While it travels from planet to planet, or from moon to moon, in poems, it also travels between continent and through time in others. In ‘Delhi, Texas’, Rajendran explores the unfamiliar in the familiar:


a community in Texas, Population: 303,
with one parish,
one cemetery


      where tumbleweeds cross abandoned
railroads leading detention camps.”

Despite all the tools he employs, Rajendran’s poetry is never far from contemporary concerns, as the (presumably) fake epigraphs to this poem shows: “When told to ‘go to Pakistan’, they deported the government”.

Not all the poems in the book meets this reviewer’s expectations, such as ‘Passport’:

“You are my passport to happiness,
and I need you for travelling above
these clouds of depression.”

Undoubtedly, the poem comes from a place of deep feeling, but feeling is not enough. Perhaps, this poem required more work, or perhaps it should have been kept out of the volume itself.

The experimentation with the different genres, narrative techniques and time-travel are a process of grappling with memory, which has always been important to his work. ‘Refilling’ is a good example of how he has used memory elsewhere.

In this book, too, memory plays a significant part, though subtly. It comes back in a postcard (‘Postcard from Stirling’), as a VCR (‘playing truant’), or bookmarks (‘Insecurity’). Rajendran has the ability to infuse all of them with magical qualities, transforming them into horcruxes. The accumulation of these objects creates a kinship between the poet and a seafaring trader who would have been familiar to Pillai or a cosmonaut hoarding these and shooting out into space as the earth recedes into a blue dot outside the pothole of this spacecraft.

Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel, Ritual, was published last year.