The Other Mother Tongue

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets
edited by Jeet Thayil
Bloodaxe Books/Fulcrum Poetry Press, $28.95 (paper)

India is like a lot of Québecs. There are more than 1,600 languages spoken in India, and almost all are regional, with speakers centered in particular locales.

After independence from the British Crown in 1947, one of India’s regional languages, Hindi, was named the country’s official language. Then, as now, what linguists call “native speakers” of Hindi comprised only about 40 percent of India’s population. There was much resistance to the language’s elevation. To this day, large numbers of Indians, particularly in the southern states (from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu and Kerala), are bitter over this perceived “symbol and arbiter of North Indian cultural hegemony,” as the anthropologist Rashmi Sadana describes it. The majority of the “languages”—as the regional languages are known—have their own competing media, and speakers of Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu together number hundreds of millions.

That the rancor persists is hardly surprising. Less expected, however, is what the conflict has meant for English: the language of India’s erstwhile colonial rulers, a language that first entered the country by armed force and bureaucratic “necessity,” has become, increasingly, “neutral.”

The importance of English has been amplified by its emergence as the language of international transaction and class mobility, and in the process its older political meanings have been almost wholly eclipsed in India.

The tens of millions of people across the country who speak English fluently comprise a variety of classes and subclasses much too diverse to be called an elite. English is the main medium of instruction in Indian higher education, and students in India who can afford university (a broadening group) have an edge if they attend “English-medium” schools in order to prepare. English is also a secondary official language of the Union government and the lone official language of some states with diverse linguistic populations. A significant number of people in India are brought up speaking only English. The language is present in one way or another (on television, for example) for most of the population.

Yet while most people agree on what it means to use English in daily discourse, more controversial is the role of English in Indian literature. Indian critics overtly evaluate a writer’s regional linguistic loyalties and correlate those loyalties to the writer’s degree of “Indianness.” In that equation, as Sadana has documented, writers of English come in for lashing critique by bhasha, or vernacular, writers (a category that includes Hindi, somewhat complexly still considered a vernacular literature).

Nowhere is this more true than in Indian poetry in English. English-language fiction is a major medium for the expression, and the export, of India and Indianness, even as it is critiqued by the vernacular writers for “pandering to a global . . . audience,” as Sadana reports. Indian poetry in English, however, is denounced, dismissed, or ignored pretty much across the board in India, partly because the cultural demands made on lyric are very different from those on prose.

Lyric poetry is the form that most explicitly and self-consciously explores the relationship between the construction of the self and the construction of sentences. Its intimacy sets it apart from the novel, and makes it the ultimate expression of a culture’s sensibility—of its most intimate self (or selves).

As such, whether the poet intends it or not, lyric is political. When Indian reviewers wonder aloud whether India can ever produce poetry in English that would be of any value—or what the point of doing so would be—they are making a political argument. A related move is to challenge the poet’s linguistic competence in English, so as to impugn the poet with lingering colonialist sensibilities, to condemn alleged mimicry. Such critiques, rooted in a politics that does not see English as a proper medium for an Indian poetic, deny that Indian poetry in English is Indian at all.

• • •

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil, makes a collective riposte for Indian poets writing in English. Thayil’s anthology seeks to showcase a mature tradition, a canon of founding poets, and a take on the current English-language Indian-poetry scene.

Other anthologies inside and outside India have attempted the same thing, but Thayil’s is the first to place a large selection of poets from across the diaspora, including poets born outside India, alongside the standard canon beginning with Nissim Ezekiel. As a result—though for reasons Thayil may not totally recognize—The Bloodaxe Book is the most forceful reply to bhasha critiques to date.

Thayil never explicitly identifies the ground shared among the anthology’s poets, referring instead to “a community separated by the sea.” The demographics roughly are split between India and the diaspora, and between writers under and over 50. What is consistent among the poets is Indian descent and the use of the English language.

Thayil spends a significant chunk of his introduction rehearsing and shooting down vernacular critiques of Indian poetry in English: that it is a “failure of national conscience”; that it is “perpetuating colonialism in a postcolonial era”; that what it does is “essentially a conjurer’s trick” lacking a native tradition in India, inauthentic. His rebuttals dig deep into the history of the English language in India, going back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Missing from his account, however, is an appreciation of the larger process by which regional, or vernacular, literatures arise—a process that, properly understood, clarifies both the role of English in Indian poetry and the object of bhasha complaints.

Historically, vernacular literatures represent a response to literary languages that are perceived as cosmopolitan or universal. They are not preexisting literary modes crushed under the heel of parvenu hegemonic languages, but rather novel forms that arise only after those hegemonic languages achieve their status, at least in terms of governmental transaction and literary transmission. Ironically, English and bhasha literatures are all paradigm examples of vernacular response to cosmopolitan dominance.

Among populations speaking unrelated languages, English is a means of mutual recognition—and perhaps a way of being Indian.

Just as Latin once stretched from London to North Africa to Bethlehem and was the administrative language therein, Sanskrit, less than a thousand years ago, was the language for official transactions across kingdoms extending from “Afghanistan to Java and from Sri Lanka to Nepal,” as Columbia Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock traces it. When Sanskrit was taken up by poets, it enjoyed “the fact and the perception of universality.” Pollock finds the eleventh-century Kashmiri poet Bilhana boasting that “there is no village or country, no capital city or forest region, no pleasure garden or school where learned and ignorant, young and old, male and female alike do not read my poems and shake with pleasure.”

India’s regional-language speakers self-consciously positioned themselves against Sanskrit, a perceived universal, in order to define themselves and their literatures—a reaction known as vernacularization. Urdu, Persian, and Hindustani also played roles in Indian vernacularization, as did English, eventually. English itself, as a literature and as a language of statecraft, was created out of Latin’s shadow by the same process, part of a wave of vernacularization that also created written Spanish, French, and German. Bhasha writers define themselves against English as much as they once did Sanskrit and now do against Hindi, in some cases.

Vernacular critiques, which assert a single acceptable structure of authentic Indianness, are thus not only an attack on a language, but on the Indian poetic diaspora, which largely relies on the cosmopolitan dominant—English.

But the charges against the diaspora are problematic. Among the contributors to The Bloodaxe Book, poets such as Prageeta Sharma and Srikanth Reddy, who were born in the United States and live and work there, most clearly violate bhasha “authenticity” strictures. Are they thus not Indian poets? What about Meena Alexander—born Syrian Christian in Allahabad, educated in Khartoum and Nottingham, and currently teaching at the City University of New York—a traitor to Kerala, and to Malayalam? And Vivek Narayanan—born in the North Indian city of Ranchi, raised in Zambia, educated in the United States, and currently living in New Delhi—is he really a traitor to Tamil?

The complex relationships and tensions between Indians in India, Indian ex-pats (or “NRIs”—non-resident Indians), people who split their time between continents, and other permutations of diaspora are present as a kind of background to Thayil’s anthology. A long poem that Thayil includes in its entirety—Adil Jussawalla’s “Missing Person,” published in 1976, a few years after Jussawalla’s return to Bombay following a decade-plus stint in England—may be the great ex-ex-pat poem of the era. In trying to telescope Indian and emergent global society through the title persona, the poem’s speaker finds that his sensibility—and his English—offend: “You’re your country’s lost property / with no office to claim you back. / You’re polluting our sounds. You’re so rude.” He continues channeling voices and registering atrocities (“childbrides bundled to a knot / childbirth a bleeding bag”), as echoes of “The Waste Land,” “Howl” and other precedents add ironies: “You see, / we’re Das Capital, a dried-up well / and a big Mein Kampf. Also.” It’s a poem that deserves to be read alongside contemporary work by Ed Dorn or Amiri Baraka. It explodes the Indianness equation by turning its terms against it.

Thayil includes a number of other poems that engage the Indianness equation in various guises. His own “Malayalam’s Ghazal” conveys a poet’s fear of imperfect vernacular mastery. Arundhathi Subramaniam’s “To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian” takes on the West’s demands for ethnic authenticity with a rhetoric that’s “about as rustic / as a mouth-freshened global village.” Kazim Ali’s “Two Halves” takes the equation’s concrete givens—language, location—and makes them oblique:

two halves circle each other
each aching for the other’s arms

they’re rent in their itching
to hit the ground at the speed of sound

the half of you is tone deaf
but the other half still sings

one half forgot the other’s face
his ‘collision or collusion with history’

the two lock now one to the other
sink blazingly below the clouds

At the same time as he throws a spanner in the Indianness works, however, Thayil tacitly bypasses a powerful means of refuting bhasha definitions of authentic Indianness.

Lyric has peculiar connections to truth, to the mechanics of language, and to voice. Those connections present obstacles to piecing together stable political identities within lyric—of any kind, in any language. There is a large body of work that engages those difficulties and attempts to write out of or through identity positions, and to do so as an end in itself. The goals of this “identity work” are to transmit, for example, knowledge about being “Indian” or “Gujarati,” or to define the problems in trying to do so.

Thayil largely avoids identity work, possibly because of its connection, in India, to forms of political and religious communalism. But its exclusion deprives the anthology of an important insight that undercuts the anti-English critics: English has become a local mode of expression that acts differently in different contexts even within India.

A new collection, Dancing Earth: An Anthology of Poetry from North-East India, captures this point elegantly. Edited by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Robin S. Ngangom of the North-Eastern Hill University in Meghalaya, Dancing Earth includes a wealth of poetry in English from one of India’s most politically divided regions, and a lot of it makes strong identity claims or investigations. Questions of what is “Khasi” or “Manipuri” run up against their representations in English to startling effect. Nongkynrih’s “Blasphemous Lines for Mother,” for example, describes the poet’s childhood in rural Cherrapunji (or, in Khasi, Sohra) and draws on Khasi idioms that sound shocking in English:

My mother is retired, toothless, diabetic and bedevilled
by headaches and a blinding cataract. In short,
she is a cantankerous old woman.

I remember the time when she was a cantankerous
young woman. When she took an afternoon nap,
she was tigerish: “You sons of a vagina!” she
would snarl, “you won’t even let me rest for a moment,
sons of a fiend! Come here sons of a beast! If I
get you I’ll lame you! I’ll maim you! . . . Sons
of a louse! You feed on the flesh that breeds you!
Make a noise again when I sleep and I’ll thrash you
till you howl like a dog! You irresponsible nitwits!
how will I play the numbers if I don’t get a good
dream? How will I feed you, sons of a lowbred?”

The mother’s epithets and her allusion to a particular Khasi betting practice, are
rendered with a literal starkness that often departs from standard English. Those departures—explored ironically in India by poets such as Ezekiel—turn them into identity markers. It is a transformation that requires English’s relative neutrality: among small populations speaking unrelated, mutually unintelligible languages far from the “Hindi belt,” English is a means of mutual recognition—and perhaps of being Indian. Nongkynrih’s poem is unthinkable in Hindi: that language still retains its connections to bhasha identity claims. English’s meanings in India’s Northeast thus differ from those in Delhi, or those in the southern cities of Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai.

Pressed by both the diaspora and the regional Englishes, Indianness is a problem more fraught than even the bhasha critics realize. English modifies Indianness, and vice versa, multiply, inside and outside India. In this process, vernacular languages cease exhaustively to express Indianness, if ever they did.


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About the Author

Michael Scharf, author of For Kid Rock / Total Freedom and two other collections of poems, was poetry reviews editor at Publishers Weekly from 1997 to 2006.

Amitava Kumar, Bad News
Martha C. Nussbaum, Land of My Dreams
Prageeta Sharma, Poet’s Sampler