We poets are in the habit of bemoaning the current state of poetry, whether it’s our limited readership, the lack of interest from publishers, or some other woe responsible for our literary obscurity, so it is indeed encouraging to see the recent burst of anthologies of Indian poetry.
In 2008 was published Penguin India’s 60 Indian Poets and its larger, cognate volume, The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, followed by Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (2010), and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (2012). The newest such offering, edited by poets Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, is These My Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry. While the other collections focus on English poetry by Indians and the diaspora, this ambitious volume aims to represent Indian poetry in its full polyglot variety: English poems are in the minority, sharing space with poems written in a staggering range of Indian languages, from Sanskrit to Malayalam, Assamese to Sindhi. What’s more, rather than confine itself to the modern or the contemporary, as other anthologies have done, it travels as far back as the Vedas and gathers much in between, including verse that has lived solely in the oral tradition. It is a testament to the efforts of numerous translators, both poets and scholars.
The editors’ decision to eschew chronology in favour of arranging the poems into ten thematic clusters makes for a readable book in which conversations take place across temporal, cultural and linguistic universes. The first group, appropriately enough, is devoted to the art of poetry, ars poetica, with the voices of Agha Shahid Ali, Dilip Chitre, Nissim Ezekiel joining the likes of Kalidasa and Bhartrihari. Since the language in which a writer chooses to work is a contentious matter, not just in our times but in other historical periods as well, Arun Kamble’s Which Language Should I Speak? (Marathi original) makes for a good opening poem in an anthology that will potentially raise similar questions, such as: should English be the primary conduit for accessing literature in Indian languages?
Poetry’s major concerns are well represented here, and a good portion of the poems comes from South Asia’s centuries-long bhakti or devotional tradition. There is love and desire, of course; poems that address the divine; filial relations in their diversity and complexity; a fine selection of political poems; a solid dose of philosophical inquiry and metaphysics; and a closing section that deals with death. The poems that stand out, or rather, the translations that stand out—as this is primarily a book of translations—are by poets or the result of collaborations between poets and scholars. Translation is a selfless enterprise, to be sure, and deserves more approbation than it normally receives, particularly as it is almost single-handedly responsible for making much of the world’s great writing more broadly available; but equally, like a bad poetry teacher, it can turn the reader off completely. This can happen if, for instance, the language is clunky or archaic, the line breaks erratic, and the normal syntax and flow of English flouted to satisfy a rigid sense of fidelity to the original. We no longer need (if we ever did) our poems to be littered with ‘thous’, exclamation marks, clangy rhymes, and apostrophic addresses in order to read them as poems.
What a pleasure, then, to find deft translations by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, A.K. Ramanujan, Vinay Dharwadker, and Ranjit Hoskote; these and others stand as independent works of art in English, making one forget that there is an original. Mehrotra and Ramanujan also share the distinction of having translated from multiple languages, and all have established reputations as English language poets. Even in a short poem like Let Faithful Wives (Prakrit original), Mehrotra brings, through contemporary diction and idiomatic English, an immediacy to the female voice, while retaining the playful and paradoxical quality of the 2nd century original from the Gathasaptasati:
Let faithful wives
Say what they like,
I don’t sleep with my husband
Even when I do.
Let faithful wives
Say what they like,
I don’t sleep with my husband
Even when I do.
There are continuities between this poem, Mehrotra’s other translations, and his own epigrammatic Bhojpuri Descant, written in English. Such felicitous translations, like the ‘unfaithful’ wife, when placed alongside English verse, make it possible for the poems in the collection to speak not only to one another, but also to the contemporary reader.
(The reviewer is a poet and art historian based in New York)
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
About faithful wives, if the husband feels that the wife married him for a particular reason, should the husband make others aware of it also, men and women? Perhaps, we should introspect on marriage.
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