19 May In The Name Of Poetry
POST-INDEPENDENCE INDIAN ENGLISH POETRY
By Sanjukta Dasgupta
The sixteenth century English poet Samuel Daniel anticipated that Britain would rapidly emerge as an imperialistic power and very soon the language and culture of the British colonizer would overwhelmingly influence the colonised. In his poem “Mysophilus” Daniel voiced the imminence of the cultural expansionism of Britain with understandable pride,
Who (in time) knows whither we may vent
The treasures of our tongue? To what strange shores
This gain of our best glory shall be sent
T’enrich unknowing nations with our stores.
What worlds in th’yet unformed orient
May come refined with th’accents that are ours.
To “enrich” and “refine” the “unknowing” and the “unformed” on February 2, 1835 Macaulay announced in the historically significant Minute on Education that it was possible to make the natives of India “good English scholars” and soon after the British government in India passed the resolution on March 7, 1835 that “the great object of the British government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India, and all funds appropriated for the purpose of education would be best employed on English education alone”.
So, despite some myopic observations about the social and political environment of pre-colonial and colonial India, Karl Marx heralded the birth of Eurocentric modern India in the mid-nineteenth century when he categorically declared that the English were “causing a social revolution in India’, by being the “unconscious tool of history”. Colonial culture and literature exuded the norms, values and practices of the colonizer and admirable adaptations, mimicry, ventriloquizing the colonizer’s voice were common features of the times. Eminent Indian poets of the colonial period were Toru Dutt, Aurobindo Ghosh, Manmohan Ghosh, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore and Vivekananda among others. These poets not only wrote in English but were able to capture the cadences of English lyric poetry with admirable competence. Of them young Toru Dutt in her sonnet “Lotus” heralded the beginning of cultural fusion without surrendering indigenous identity. So, “Love” is personified, the classical literary tradition is invoked through the poet’s familiarity with the allusiveness integral to such referents as Flora, Juno, Psyche, as well as the conventional nuances that references to such traditional images as the rose, the lily and the bard who sings their praise invoke.. Also, remarkable is Toru’s qualifying the bards as versifiers of power thereby deviating significantly from Keats”celebrated romantic encomium to the bards of passion and mirth. The young poet’s ability to discern the power of poetic language is indeed commendable. It is language that conveys and decodefies the inherent message of sense impressions and Toru was aware of the poet’s responsibility as the addresser of power. The cultural fusion is effected not through rejection but through harmonious assimilation of the Occidental red rose and white lily, the innate chemistry that empowers the lotus, the national flower of India. Toru answers Kipling’s oracular dictum that the East and West are irreconcilable through the innovative projection of an apparently simple icon. Toru adroitly employs and fuses international icons of mythic power to emphasise the superiority of the national icon. In this respect the “Lotus “can be assessed as a profoundly political poem-
Love came to Flora asking for a flower
That would of flowers be undisputed queen,
The lily and the rose, long, long had been
Rivals for that high honour. Bards of power
Had sung their claims.”the rose can never tower
Like the pale lily with her Juno mien”-
“But is the lily lovelier?” Thus between
Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche’s bower.
“Give me a flower delicious as the rose
And stately as the lily in her pride”-
“But of what colour?”- “Rose-red”, Love
Then prayed,-“No, lily-white,-or, both provide;”
And Flora gave the lotus,”rose-red “dyed,
And “lily-white”-the queenliest flower that blows.
Can this poem be cited as the trail-blazer of cultural decolonization, a subtle but confident rejection of cultural monopoly of the West that seemed to appropriate the colonized urban intellectuals’ psychic terrain?
On August 15,1947 India became independent. The common characteristics of pre-independence Indo-Anglian poetry such as nationalistic fervour, romantic, mystical and lyrical approaches eagerly yielded place to hybridism, a blending of different cultural influences, an active syncretism, montage effects, mythic adaptations aimed at debunking the impression of the colonizer’s pervasive power and the resultant anxiety of influence. Traces of the erstwhile poetic conventions still lingered in the fifties till P. Lall and a group of young poets founded the Writers Workshop in 1958. These poets ridiculed the “greasy, weak-spined and purple-adjectived spiritual poetry” and addressed the need to write in a “vital language” free from didacticism dealing “in concrete terms with concrete experience”. Upto the nineteen eighties Indo- Anglian poetry seemed to have focussed on a nagging sense of alienation from the mainstream culture of India, registering an excessive consciousness about using the colonizer’s language during the period of rabid decolonization when the subalterns emerged as historical subjects. A severe guilt syndrome seemed to oppress the poetic consciousness of the Indian writers writing in English. Their distress was far more complex than that of Michael Madhusudan Dutt who experienced a sense of disillusionment after voluntarily decrying the merits of his mother tongue for the allurements of English literature. Madhusudan became an Anglophile during the colonial period, an understandable desire to be recognized by the dominant power motivated him, a common colonial tendency, as pointed out by Fanon.-” the native intellectual will try to make European culture his own. He will not be content to get to know Rabelais,Diderot, Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe;he will bind them to his intelligence as closely as possible.”[Fanon:1970 p.176].But the post-independence Indo-Anglian poets experienced a most debilitating embarrassment for using the language of the Other, that was so alien to indigenous culture. English was accepted as the link language for communication, higher education and technical knowledge. But English as the medium of expression for creative writers invited censure and such poets felt not only marginalised but ostracized.So, S.K. Desai observes,”Marginality affects the Indian writing in English in a significant way even with regard to where he should stay. He chooses to do one of the following: either he goes to England or America and be an exile there or stay here in India and be an exile here.”[Indian Journal of English Studies xxvi].But such a sweeping generalization is rather reductionist and such critics compel sensitive poets of the sixties as Nissim Ezekiel to declare in self-defence, “I regard myself essentially as an Indian poet writing in English. I have a strong sense of belonging not only to India but to this city. I would never leave Bombay-it’s a series of commitments.”
Oppressed by a guilty conscience, the Indian poets writing in English experienced a sense of identity-crisis and as a result their integrity was flawed by lack of confidence, uncertainty and indecision. Their distress and desperation are registered in their poems which clearly signal their uneasiness and their simultaneous inability to use the mother tongue for the purpose of writing poetry. Tension, anxiety and schizophrenia are some of the recurrent problematics of such poetry and the insecurity as well as the agony of the poet are expressed in such lines as –
“He had spent his youth whoring
after English gods
There is something to be said for exile:
you learn roots are deep.
That language is a tree loses colour
under another sky.”
The extract from R. Parthasarathy’s poem Rough Passage written over a period of fifteen years between 1961 and 1975,grew out of lived experience and moral dilemma. The long poem is divided into three sections, “Exile””Trial” and “Homecoming” and the above extract is from “Exile”. In “Exile from Homecoming” Parthasarathy reiterates his schizophrenic distress as he laments,
My tongue in English chains,
I return, after a generation, to you.
I am at the end
of my dravidic tether,
hunger for you unassuaged.
I falter, stumble.
In a more direct poem “An Introduction” Kamala Das engages in a debate with the accusing other, arguing that her medium of expression is a sincere and natural choice-
… Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not your mother -tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half
Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,…
In an impassioned outburst Syed Amanuddin perhaps underscores the identity-crisis that haunts all Indian English poets –
they call me indo-anglian
the mistaken misinformed folk
n class me with a small group of writers
i would rather roam with kalidasa n kabir
or go on a spiritual journey with dante
meditate with khayyam on the mathematics of existence
or sing with ghalib the anguish of love
or drown with li po kissing the moon’s reflection in the river
they call me indo-anglian
it’s true i write in english
dream in the language of shakespeare n keats
but I am not an anglo my friend
i am a POET
i have lived forty centuries under various names
i am now amanuddin
Amanuddin consciously avoids using capitals for proper nouns and pronouns as well as in the words beginning each new line. The only word that is highlighted with capital letters is the word “POET” thereby prioritizing the focus of the poem. Cultural pluralism is addressed by the poet with celebratory exuberance. In the case of all these poets however certain common culture specific determinants categorize them as a minority group, who have received their education in English medium schools. In the power structure and status hierarchy they are invariably situated in the urban, affluent and middle class groups many of whom have received their higher education in the First World, have worked and lived there, leading the lives of expatriates. G.N. Devy observes, “A rather disturbing fact about Indian poetry in English is that, in spite of the 900 or so volumes of poems and about 50 anthologies published so far, one finds hardly any poet who could be credited with having created a body of poetry “.[In Another Tongue:1993].Will it be fair to disregard the contributions of Ezekiel, Ramanujan, J. Mahapatra and Kamala Das?
Since the eighties however there has been a remarkable shift in the thematic representations of Indian English poetry. Contemporary poetry reveals an interesting assimilation of globalised and cosmopolitan culture that is disseminated through exposure to the media of the world. In the Third World context the consequences of such a shift ushering in a cultural mosaic, encouraging cultural pluralism however also implies the hegemony of the dominant West over the Rest. Neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism have steadily infected the indigenous social structure, ranging from sartorial preferences to westernised modes of lifestyle choices.Also, the policies of open market economy, internet and web facilities of the Information Age have accelerated this process of change. But cultural globalization does not address cultural homogeneity or essentialist universalisms. Instead the thrust seems to be on structured identification of cultural difference, heterogeneity and fragmentation rather than a subjective acceptance of an overarching position of commonalities. Therefore instead of the canon and the grand narrative, activating the differences occupies prime importance, for such an approach discourages exclusionism and celebrates the primacy of inclusionism in the dissemination of culture.Aijaz Ahmed observes that in the case of a multilingual country like India,despite the fragmentation and splintering of national culture, the kaleidoscope of regional cultures simultaneously emphasises the presence of a national culture.
In an interesting essay on multiculturalism G. N. Devy identifies a triple decker structure of cultural narratives emanating from indigenous inspiration and cross-cultural fertilization.Locating relationships between the categories, Sanskritization and westernization generates an impression of a dynamic bi-cultural intellectual environment.The three co-ordinates , that Devy locates are (1) the marga traditions [of Sanskrit, scriptural,and brahminic origin ](2) the alien traditions [gradually nativised, but of Arabic,persian or English origin],and (3) the desi tradition [of local,indigenous regional-language origin.]. A serious cultural split is often the result of the Indian English writer’s endeavour to translate and fuse the marga and desi traditions into English linguistic patterns.Devy further locates four distinct styles of writing that emanate as a result of the multicultural context-
Style in which internationalism and nationalism meet and collaborate, where the alien cultural features work together with the marga cultural features.
Style in which nationalism or the marga cultural features merge wih the local or the desi cultural features.
Style in which the international cultural features are in conflict with the national or the marga features, where irony and sentiment constantly thwart each other.
Style in which the national and the regional , the marga and the desi cultural features are at cross purposes.
Despite Devy’s pioneering efforts at erecting a scaffolding of structured theoritical principles for Indian writing in English ,simple determinants as the above ignore the multifarious problematization that such texts incorporate.From a initial space of cultural confusion to a space of existential fusion and acculturation are some common routes that Indo-Anglian literature has pursued, as the hyphenated term “Indo-Anglian”highlights.The main problem with the use of the English language in creative writing is that it is not the language of any regional space,and therefore lacks a following and tradition at the grassroots level where it remains as alien as when it was introduced as a formal discipline of study in the nineteenth century.Rather than acculturation hybridism or the blending of different cultural influences seems to be a natural consequence of such cultural conditioning. Mostly the descendants of settlers, the nativised Indians and the affluent sections of the natives themselves who have studied English as their first language feel the urge to express themselves in English rather than their mother tongues. “Is it possible to feel in English?” is a common query that the Indo-Anglian poet invariably faces from even discerning writers and critics using the vernacular language as their medium of expression.
Bruce King responds to this question by stating,”English is no longer the language of colonial rulers; it is a language of modern India in which words and expressions have recognized national rather than imported significances and references, attending to local realities, traditions and ways of feeling.”However, the problem seems to emerge from the fact that the English language continues to occupy a distinct position of privilege and power as it is the language commonly used by metropolitan intellectuals, English medium school educated members of the urban bourgeois and petty bourgeois class.In the process , privileging of the language despite decolonization leads to the language remaining alien and elitist . In India, English is still the language of a minority group, it is economic class specific in application especially in the areas of creative writing and non-technical intellectual discourse. Aijaz Ahmad argues that English has survived in India because it has undergone a process of steady Indianization , a characteristic of Indian civilizational ethos that transforms the intruder into a native- ” English is simply one of India’s own languages now,and what is at issue at present is not the possibility of its ejection but the mode of its assimilation into our social fabric, and the manner in which this language, like any substantial structure of linguistic difference, is used in the processes of class formation and social privilege, here and now.”[Ahmad:1994 pg.77].
Indo-Anglian poetry of the post-seventies period therefore represents and addresses the problematics that a class specific medium of creative writing generates.Cynicism about the threat of a commercialized society of profit and loss, debit and credit is expressed by Ezekiel in a sonnet appropriately titled “Warning II” where words like sell, customers, shrewd, cheat ,money,counterfeiters, cops,whores, job and “how much” repeated thrice, signal cultural transition.
Sell what you have if you must
but do not buy it: customers
are shrewd,even when they don’t complain
they doubt and sense their discontent.
Who says he is a poet?How much
does he really know, or is he
one of those who cheat with words
instead of money? Counterfeiters
caught by critic-cops at dead of night.
How much love do you expect from whores?
How much truth from failures
who cannot hold on to a wife or job?
Come, confess, and do not talk of God.
Your vanity is not so wretched as your style.
Interestingly, counter-balancing the signifiers of a growing commodity culture are such signifiers that engage attention to a moral dilemma as doubt, discontent, love, truth, failures, confess,God, vanity and wretched.
In the poem Middle Age A. K. Ramanujan engages in a poetic discourse on globalized oppression and human rights and the futility of the persona.Vietnam, Biafra,potbellied babies, hungry, famine are words that signify as subject the wretched of the earth and the last line of the first section underscores the wretched futility of the persona-
Vietnam eyes my children in the sandbox
as she splatters my neighbour’s tall blond son
while Biafra gives me
potbellied babies with copper-red
hungry hair, pellagra scales,
and perpetual pink eyes.
I hold them close from famine to famine
looking for mothers and penguin nuns,
their little mouths from my dry
The sub-text thus registers historiographic data about a nation in transition, of a traditional agrarian culture and economy gradually being replaced by global culture, industrialization and the threat of neocolonialism, the public and the private domain are juxtaposed in a manner so that the verbal contacts between the everyday and the literary are effectively presented. The poetic persona’s concern manifests itself in the metalingual commenting code ,as merely the use of the traditional poetic idiom seems inadequate. Vikram Seth’s poem “Close of Play” is a disturbed commentary in metalanguage that brings together computers, chisels,Beijing, Boston, Madras, Surdas and Bach.A further cluster of linguistic messages are coded in such inputs as life, love, work, worth, sustenance, millionaire, starve, antagonist indifferent, death, dust, survive, crippled grass and defunct.Language brings together the private and the public, with an underpinning of cultural pluralism, and also blends the poetic and the critical with supreme control and perception.
Close of Play
We are the last generations. Surdas, Bach,
Rembrandt,Du Fu, all life, love, work and worth
Will end in the particular rain. Computers
And chisels will rust, unpeopled city by city,
Beijing and Boston, Rome, Madras, grow still.
The kolkhoz milkmaid, the Basque goatherd, the peasant
Eking his sustenance from the Nile’s silt; old
And young ;black, brown; the Rio millionaire
And those who starve in the favela; without
Discrimination, justice or injustice,
Antagonist and indifferent alike
Will house the charge of death, and as the dust
Dissolves in the sea, the dolphins too,the complex
Whales. Seaweed may still survive; life’s sap
May permeate a crippled grass; but we,
” The roof and crown of things”, if such we are
Will be defunct.
In the nineteen nineties cultural pluralism, cross- fertilization, global quilting are inevitable with the steady dominance of the Information Age and the internet system. Describing this growing phenomena as a bricolage, Boehmer states, “In the 1990’s the generic postcolonial writer is more likely to be a cultural traveller, or an “extra-territorial”, than a national.Ex-colonial by birth, Third World in cultural interest, cosmopolitan in every other way, he or she works works within the Western metropolis while at the same time retaining thematic and\ or political connections with a national background. “[Boehmer:1995 p.233] This comment establishes the hegemony of the west on the culture of the rest of the world , which is a debatable premise for the postcolonial writer is an empowered voice that would be able to distinguish between felicitous fusion and subordination.Migrant writers however follow the programme outlined by Boehmer as is evidenced in Rushdie, Mistry and Ghosh among others.Indo- Anglian poetry is comparatively less recognised and primarily marginalised despite the sensitive expressions of a historiographic consciousness. One reason for this maybe the fact that Indo-Anglian poetry is insular in its scope and space. It is mostly a product of the urban English medium school educated bourgeois and petty bourgeois cultural environment.Its tenuous relation to the grassroots level that comprise eighty percent of the human population in India is like that of a casual tourist doing the countryside and getting a feel of the folk culture. This overtly spectatorial attitude is a self-alienating process and therefore its acceptability as a genre of power is still interrogated in the academic arenas.Nevertheless, native writing in indigenous English or “Englishes” continues prioritising the culture of the nation and more intensely of the region while simultaneously expressing awareness of the dominant European cultural tradition, philosophy and intellectual experiments from Derrida to Foucault.Indo- Anglian poetry is very much a culture specific construction and its dynamism is obvious from the enthusiasm of the young and new poets who participate in thousands in the British Council sponsored All India Poetry competition held every year.
I shall conclude this discourse with a poem by a woman poet who is not yet thirty. Her poem “Yo!” is an impassioned linguistic interplay of environmental concerns on the dual levels of the natural universe and the urban milieu. The counter- balancing of the language is exercised with skill as we find in the parallel juxtaposition of such signifiers as refrigerator, cable, Doordarshan, CD, MTV, Gucci and Nike along with earth, mountains, trees, streams, rivers, valleys, sun , dolphin and blue whale.The rhythmic jingle of the four line stanzas are incident to youth yet the poem effectively constructs the experiential environment and underscores the limitations of an urban-centred , commodity culture where globalization is the name of the consumerist game, where the earth and earthlings are systematically exploited for material gains .
The poem is by Shonali Ghosh .
The refrigerator’s stocked, the cable’s connected;
With “Santa Barbara” on the air,Doordarshan’s rejected;
With CD’s available, two-in-ones are passe;
Move over, Ms. Paudwal, it’s MTV’s day.
From Gucci to Nike, you’re in step with the times,
And you talk over cocktails on escalating crimes
In the city; and you deplore the fate of the planet,
And wonder why on earth someone just does not ban it-
Where were you when the rain turned acid and sour?
And a tree lost its leaves and a plant its flower?
And the sun took on new and terrifying hues?
Where were you when the earth began to pay its dues?
Dept. of English
* This paper was first presented at the Oxford Conference on Teaching Poetry, held at the Corpus Christie College, Oxford, UK in 1997. The revised version of this paper was published in Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi journal no.187 in Sept-Oct 1998. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.