Verse Affairs: Three New Poets

The many different experiences of poets expand the horizon of Indian poetry in English.

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The headline of my column is only partially correct. The three poets whose books I write on are “new” only in the sense that they have published their debut collections of poetry recently. However, Michelle D’costa, Sayan Aich Bhowmik, and Avinab Datta-Areng have been writing and publishing for a decade or so and are well-known Indian poets. It is only natural that their first books are mature works, with a wide range of subjects, techniques, and even publishing conventions. Reading them, together, I believe shows one how rich and diversified is Indian poetry in English.

The shortest among the three books is D’costa’s Gulf (Bengaluru: Yavanika Press, 2021) — an e-chapbook with 15 lyrical poems. Born and brought up in Bahrain, D’costa is well-known in literary circles as an interviewer of authors for Bound. The title of her book, naturally, refers to the Gulf of Bahrain, and she writes about her experience and memory of growing up in the West Asian country in her poem, “Flight to India”:

I’m leaving Bahrain
with languages under my tongue
like pills. I’m asked to open my mouth.
Smuggling tongues is illegal.

A little later, in another poem, “My Neighbour” we learn what these different tongues are: English, Arabic, Hindi, Konkani, and Kannada.

D’costa problematises the Bollywoodised concept of non-resident Indians in prosperous countries of the West. Her poems remind us that while the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia continue to be popular destinations for people migrating from India, many Indians — especially from southern and western states — often go to the countries in West Asia. This is increasingly becoming the subject of contemporary literature such as Benyamin’s award-winning novel Jasmine Days.

A poem in which D’costa challenges our notions of the non-resident Indians is “Haughty NRI”:

Mom said English will take you abroad.
Gulf will kick you out when it has sucked
the life out of you. You must go abroad. At home,
Konkani is the language of shut doors because
in the world—English opens doors for you.
Our cousin has returned from America
with an accent that we don’t follow.
His mother spills hot water
on his feet and out comes our mother tongue
that I don’t follow.

It is a peculiarly contemporary predicament of a person stuck between languages, expressed through humour.

The preoccupation with language is common in the second book under review — Sayan Aich Bhowmik’s I Will Come With A Lighthouse (New Delhi/Calcutta: Hawakal, 2022). In the poem “Masks”, Bhowmik writes:

When I write in Urdu
the words drag themselves from the right
like children being taken to school
against their will.

The title of the poem itself is suggestive and reminds one of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”: “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”.

Bhowmik seems to suggest that a poet wears a new mask every time they write in a different language. For him, Urdu is possibly his fourth language — after Bengali, English, Hindi, and perhaps a few others. This is, of course, an undeniable feature of Indian poetry in English, and not really a novelty. Kamala Das in her poem “An Introduction”, which generations of Indians have read in school, proudly claimed: “I speak three languages, write in / Two, dream in one”. Most Indians writing in English are familiar with at least three languages and the literature of all these languages act as an influence on their English poetry.

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

Bhowmik is conscious of these influences, perhaps even a bit anxious. In “Twin Cities” he writes: “I switch between two languages / when writing about you / between Faiz and Shahid.” Faiz Ahmad Faiz, of course, wrote primarily in Urdu and Agha Shahid Ali in English, but the influence of English on Faiz — he had an MA in English from Government College, Lahore — and Urdu on Shahid are undeniable. Bhowmik’s poem “Witness”, only 20 lines long, is a tribute to Shahid, with many references to the Kashmiri-American poet’s body of work. The title itself is a reference to Shahid’s remarkable English ghazal “In Arabic” and its last couplet:

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: Listen, listen:
It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

An even more intricate reference is woven into the lines:

On certain nights he asks me
to walk through Lycidas
a write letters to an October autumn

As Donald Hall writes in his introduction to Shahid’s The Veiled Suite, Shahid had committed John Milton’s pastoral elegy Lycidas to memory later in life.

Bhowmik, as I said in my introduction, is no newcomer to poetry. He has been the co-editor of Plato’s Caves, a Kolkata-based online magazine, and the founding editor of the recently launched Parcham, which has published my poems as well. In our country, where poetry is anathema to most mainstream publications and publishing houses, it is independent and often web-only spaces that provide a platform for poetry and have sustained the monstrous growth of Indian poetry in English in the past few years. Bhowmick’s commitment to independent publishing is also reflected in his choice of the publisher of his book, Hawakal. The publisher, which operates out of both Kolkata and New Delhi, has put out several important new books in recent years.

Also read: Verse Affairs: A Brave New Anthology

Avinab Datta-Areng breaches the bastion of mainstream publishing with his book Annus Horribilis (Gurugram: Penguin, 2022). To be able to convince a mainstream publisher to bring out your first book is no mean achievement for a debutant. Datta-Areng is, again, not a novice. A recipient of the Charles Pick Fellowship and the Vijay Nambisan Fellowship, he has edited the well-regarded literary journal nether for several years. The title of his book does not refer to, as some may assume, the pandemic year(s); instead, the poems in the volume are well-crafted, deep meditations on loss, love, and language.

The image of the mother haunts many of the poems — “Beheading My Mother”, “Fever, Mother”, “My Mother’s Brain”, and “Letter to My Mother”. Of these, the most striking, at least to this read, is the last one, which begins:

I drank too much hoopoe crown
so I could see you while the world
got things done. Things were getting done.

A sort of feverish imagery grips this poem (and the others), intoxicating the reader with mysteries. The experience of reading this poem is like watching a surrealistic film, where images tumble after each other, refusing to yield their meaning to the reader too quickly, and culminating in a sort of condensed philosophical statement:

I will again recall
Your words I can seldom follow:
the opposite of compassion
is more compassion, the opposite
of love is, always, more love.

Perhaps the best example of Datta-Areng’s mysterious method is in the titular poem, which is also the last one among the 54 included in this book. It has only one line:

trust you to turn every yes into you

The poems are dense and unfamiliar on purpose. They are an invitation to the reader to make themselves vulnerable, like the poet does, revealing his innermost emotions and images. It can be seductive and scary at the same time.

Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat.