Verse Affairs: The Big Fat Book of Indian (English) Poetry

The 'Penguin Book of Indian Poets', edited by Jeet Thayil, must be judged for what it excludes as much as for what it includes.

Listen to this article:

W.B. Yeats, in his introduction to Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali (1913), explained his research methodology for finding out how important the Indian poet was to his countrymen: “An Englishman living in London in the reign of Richard the Second had he been shown translations from Petrarch or from Dante, would have found no books to answer his questions but would have questioned some Florentine banker or Lombard merchant as I question you.”

But 110 years later, a person ignorant of Indian literature has an easy way of finding out about English poetry written by Indians – the 883-page, hardbound, genre-defining, canon-making The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil. With 94 poets and nearly 1,000 poems between its covers, this doorstopper of a book is a testimony to the ambition of its editor and an exigent volume for anyone vaguely interested in poetry.

There have, of course, been many such anthologies. Thayil, the author of five books of poetry and four novels including the Booker-shortlisted Narcopolis (2012), has edited two of these previously – Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: Fifty-Six Indian Poets (2005) and the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008). In his foreword, titled “Extinction Violin”, to the current volume, Thayil explains why a new and expanded anthology was necessary: “In the intervening years the world had transformed, and where form had been the theme for the earlier anthologies, more urgent considerations were now in play.” It is a world in which democracy and reality are under attack and the threat of climate change makes an apocalypse an immediate possibility.

Thayil has also tried to be historically inclusive in this volume. “Three quarters of a century separate the oldest poet, born in 1924, from the youngest, born in 2001. The dates serve as bookends to a movement’s unlikely coming of age.” In a recent interview with the Hindustan Times, Thayil said: “Indian anthologists have made it a practice to exclude young poets. This is a disservice not only to young poets but actually to older poets. I wanted to be as inclusive as possible.”

Some of these younger poets he includes are Avinab Datta-Areng, Sohini Basak (who is probably the most technically sound poet of her generation as well as an accomplished editor), Urvashi Bahuguna, Ranjini Murali, Alolika Datta and others. As Thayil writes in his foreword, younger poets do not necessarily look towards the West – the UK or the US, mainly – for inspiration, like their predecessors did. They have leveraged the power of the internet – and social media – to take their poetry to an ever-expanding audience.

Also read: Poem: Death of a Santoor

But no matter how inclusive an anthology is, it is always judged as much for what it leaves out as what it contains. For instance, it is rather surprising not to find in this anthology poets such as Mani Rao, who has published more than 15 books of poetry and translation, Nitoo DasPriya Sarukkai Chabria or Kala Ramesh, all of whom have published important books in recent years. Similarly conspicuous by his absence is Chandramohan, possibly the most important contemporary Dalit poet writing in English.

At the same time, some inclusions are surprising – Sophia Naz, Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Imtiaz Dharker. All of them are wonderful poets, of course, but Naz and Dharker are Pakistani-American and Pakistani-British, while Nezhukumatathil is American, albeit of Filipina and Malayali descent. Why are they in a book of Indian poets? If their inclusion is an attempt at expanding the definition of “Indian” to include people from the Indian subcontinent, then why not Kazim Ali and Tarifa Faizullah? Or for that matter the Irish poet Fiona Bolger, who has spent a considerable amount of time in India and whose book A Compound of Words (Yoda, 2019) is deeply concerned about Indian politics and society. Or Michael Creighton, an American who has lived in New Delhi since 2005 and has published a wonderful book of poems called New Delhi Love Songs (2018)?

Of course, this makes us wonder what process was followed in the selection of the poems included in this book. Was there an open submission process, as followed by other anthologies such as Yearbook of Indian Poetry in English 2020-21, edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Vinita Agarwal, or The World That Belongs To Us, edited by Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal? Explaining the process of selection would have definitely added a layer of authenticity to this book.

Also, one is left slightly suspicious by the exclusion of the word “English” from the title of the book. Surely neither Thayil nor anyone else can believe that there can be any book that can hold within its covers Indian poetry – a million-headed Hydra speaking in a Babel of languages. Perhaps it betrays certain attitudes of English language writers in India.

In the Afterword of the book, “One Language, Separated by the Sea”, Thayil mounts a passionate defence of English writing in India, which he feels is necessary because writers of other Indian languages treat those writing in English with suspicion. This has the resonance with what Arvind Krishna Mehrotra described as the anxiety of his generation writing in English bang in the middle of India’s language movements in the mid-1960s and early-1970s. “Those who write in English – a small, Westernised, middle-class minority – are divided by more than language from other Indian writers,” claims Thayil. “Where a Malayalam poet has a distinct readership, English-language poets do not.”

This is actually not quite true. As the 2011 Census showed, English was listed as the second language by 83 million people and the third language by 46 million people, making it the second-most spoken language in India, after Hindi. There is a huge catchment area of readership that Indian poets writing in English can explore if they decide to step out of their “Westernised, middle-class” spaces. Even more damagingly, Thayil refers to languages other than English as “regional languages” in the afterword. But he doesn’t explain what exactly is a “regional language”. Surely he is not referring to Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Tamil, Bengali, Bhojpuri or Malayalam, which are not only pan-Indian but international languages.

Also read: Verse Affairs: A Brave New Anthology

Perhaps Indian writing in English needs to get rid of such attitudes – instead of a passionate defence – if it really desires to be part of Indian literature.

Scratch out the “if” – it already is, as this book testifies.

Of course, Thayil is not unaware of the million forces – including a renewed debate over language – that is tearing India apart. His editorial choices betray this awareness: Many of the poets he has included in this collection engage with lived realities such as backsliding democracyshrinking freedom of the press and violence against religious and caste minorities.

Shalim M. Hussain, one of Assam’s “Miyah Poets”, writes in his poem “Nana I Have Written”:

See me shrug my shoulders curl my hair
Read two lines of poetry one formula of math
Read confusion when the bullies call me Bangladeshi
And tell my revolutionary heart
But I am a Miyah

Hamraaz, the enigmatic and anonymous poet, the Banksy of Indian poetry in English, who has taken to social media to criticise the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government and its policies, also features in his book. Similarly, several poems by Tishani Doshi, which address immediate contemporary issues, such as beef lynching (“They Killed Cows. I Killed Them”), anti-Muslim violence (“The Stormtroopers of My Country”) or India’s alarming sex ratio (“I Found a Village and in it Were All our Missing Women”) are important inclusions in this volume.

While all the poems included in the volume are uniformly good, Thayil also does some detective work to include poems by poets who had vanished from the literary scene. One of these poets is Lawrence Bantleman, who had moved to Vancouver and had stopped writing poetry. “In ways too disheartening to enumerate, Bantleman’s story is an Indian one,” writes Thayil in his foreword. “He produced first-rate work as a young poet, and then, because of financial anxiety and the lack of sustained response to his poems, the usual denouement occurred: flight, an end to the writing, a disappearance into alcoholism and obscurity.”

Another such poet, who went “missing”, till his friends rediscovered him for the world, is Gopal Honnalgere. I have written about Honnalgere in this column previously, so maybe I’ll share a poem by Bantleman here:


You were not perfumed,
Yet stood
A delicate fragrance—
Smoking wood. 

Your smell,
And soft wet earth
About your coffin
Being the birth 

Of this cypress I shelter
Under in the rain:
From a farm wood smoke.
Wet earth here
And here you are again. 

Along with the poems by new and older poets, there are some wonderful black-and-white photographs of the poets themselves. These are as varied as the style and content of the poems themselves, and include simple, facing-the-camera portraits like that of Nissim Ezekiel or candid shots like Mehrotra roaming around Colaba, or the eccentric, like Eunice de Souza with her parrot perched on her head in the kitchen of her Mumbai home.

Over time, this book will be treated as the definitive edition of Indian poetry in English. A sensitive reader will read it, conscious of what it can offer and what it cannot.

Uttaran Das Gupta teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat. His novel, Ritual, was published in 2020.