The Word from India: Trafficking in Languages by Karni Pal Bhati
In a chapter titled “Babel” in his Vislumbres de la India (In Light of India), Octavio Paz wrote that the “linguistic problem in India is itself a political and cultural problem. How can so many millions of people, speaking so many and such different languages possibly understand one another? How can this immense population be educated without a common cultural language?” This sense of bewilderment at the language situation in India is a fairly common one among first-time visitors. And for this reason alone, it is difficult, if not foolhardy, to claim the ability to report on happenings in the realm of contemporary poetry in India as a whole. One can only hope to speak about the one or two Indian languages, in addition to English, that one has the competence to read. I will begin, however, with the general observation that although there has been a great deal of good poetry published in the various languages of India, for the last decade or two the poetry scene has appeared to lag behind the recent spate of international headline-grabbing fiction in the English language, much of it by expatriate Indians in the West. (Exception: Arundhati Roy, who is still in India.) This has, understandably I think, been something of a sore point for writers and critics in Indian languages who question the status of English writing as the sole representative of Indian literature in the international arena.
Some individuals and institutions have tried to alter this situation by undertaking the publication of translations from Indian languages into English as well as into other Indian languages. At the level of institutions, the Sahitya Akademi – the national academy of literature based in New Delhi – has in recent years redoubled its efforts to promote a greater awareness of works in the Indian languages by fostering various kinds of literary events including lectures, readings and translation conferences. The academy’s bimonthly journal in English, Indian Literature, reports on and publishes parts of the proceedings of such events. Although the journal has existed for decades, it acquired a new format and greater visibility when the Malayalam language poet and professor of English K. Satchidanandan took over first as editor of Indian Literature in the early nineties, and later was appointed to his present position as Secretary of the Academy. The academy now has a website with catalogues of its various publications, and information about its many activities round the year (www.sahitya-akademi.org/sahitya-akademi). Some of Satchidanandan’s recent poems in his own translation can also be sampled from the website of the Colorado-based e-zine, Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies: (www.colorado.edu/journals/standards/V7N1/v7n1.html).
Unlike most fiction writers in English who are known to write only in that language, almost all of the better-known Indian poets in English have also done varying amounts of translations, and some are even regarded as bilingual poets writing in English as well as the language of their region. Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar are established poets in Marathi as well as in English; the poet known to readers in English as Kamala Das has written for decades in Malayalam under the pseudonym “Madhavi Kutty”; and the well-known poet in English and translator from Oriya, Jayanta Mahapatra, now has his own collections in Oriya language too. These are only some of the better-known names of poets engaged in this necessary trafficking between languages, while its best known practitioner still remains the late A. K. Ramanujan – the Chicago-based poet, translator, folklorist and Indologist, whose works of translation from ancient Tamil have acquired an almost canonical status. (See his Hymns for the Drowning , Speaking of Siva , The Interior Landscape , Poems of Love and War , and When God is a Customer , in addition to his collected poems, folktales and essays published by the Oxford University Press in India.)
Indian poets in English who have published volumes of translations from Indian languages include Dilip Chitre (Says Tuka, 1991, and an anthology of Marathi poetry), R. Parthasarthy (ancient Tamil epic poetry), Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (The Absent Traveller, 1991 from Prakrit), Jayanta Mahapatra (three collections of translations from Oriya) and Ranjit Hoskote (co-translator with Mangesh Kulkarni, of the contemporary poet Vasant Dahake’s Yugabhrashta: A Terrorist of the Spirit, from Marathi ). Other prominent poets in English who have also done translations include Nissim Ezekiel, Gieve Patel, Adil Jussawalla, and Saleem Peeradina.
Perhaps this trafficking between languages on the part of poets is a desire for bi-culturalism, a desire to transcend the limitations of any one culture. Jayant Mahapatra, with about a dozen collections of poetry in English, of which three were published in the U.S., is a good example of this tendency, for he views himself as an Oriya poet who happens to write in English, and has spoken of his English poems as translations from Oriya. Among his many awards is the Jacob Glatstein Memorial Prize of the Modern Poetry Association of Chicago. Now in his seventies, Mahapatra has recently revived the highly regarded bi-annual journal in English, Chandrabhaga, that he had edited for seven years from his hometown of Cuttack in the state of Orissa before it ceased publication in 1986 for want of financial support. Although it includes an occasional short story and pieces of literary criticism, the main strength of the journal is original poetry in English and translations. (Write to Mahapatra at Chandrabhaga, Tinkonia Bagicha, Cuttack, Orissa, India.)
So, judging from the translations and the original work in English and Hindi alone, one could say that the poetry scene in India continues to look good, and has only improved with the competition from fiction, despite the usual odds stacked against it – the increasing hold of mass media, the lack of adequate patronage or appreciation, and the paucity of nationally visible journals, considering the size of the readership.
In the poetry that I’ve had some chance to browse through on a recent visit, my overall impression is that of the Indian poets’ awareness of the contradictions and failures in their society’s “progress” toward an increasing involvement in the global economy. This is especially the case among those who would believe, in the words of poet-translator Anamika, that it is the dharma or sacred obligation of literature “to question the establishment and join the struggle against injustice.” This sense of literature as a field of social action is, broadly speaking, a legacy from India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule, but more particularly it is the legacy of that post-sixties mood of disillusionment that registered the souring of the dreams and promises that came with decolonization in 1947.
This disillusionment and the need to wage anew, or to continue the struggle against, exploitation and iniquities was registered early in Hindi by poets like Muktibodh (1917-64) and Dhoomil (1935-75) in work that distinguished itself by appealing to the social conscience of its readership while being avant-gardist in technique. Dhoomil, the angry young man of Hindi poetry in the early seventies who published just one collection of poems in his life (Samsad se Sarak Tak, From the Parliament to the Street) has returned to the news with a reissue of his posthumous collection Kal Sunana Mujhe (Hear Me Tomorrow). The title phrase comes from the poem “Today I’m in Battle” where the poet hopes for a happier time in the future, because “today it is dark / and our hands are bloody.” Tomorrow there might be a different kind of poetry because in the dark present “Chains rattle against the laughter of flowers / Kinships are on the lookout for a change in the script.” Today “children are unfed / Mother’s face has turned stone, / father’s wooden. / It is as if the house burns / in its own flames.” Today “the professional smiles of roses / have cancelled the spring / and blood coursing through the veins of poetry / is more a burden / than a necessity.” Where are the youths, the poet asks, those “fire-wheels of change, / of a hungry history . . . Are the breasts of girls / wandering like jokes doing the rounds / artificial? / Do young men wear false teeth? / Why are those jaws jammed / that read the reports of massacres?” And the answer emerges within him “like words on the walls of a life-convict: / Hear me tomorrow / when plants shed milk flowers / on the tongue of a child drinking wordlessly / and in the courtyard / bread is broken with mutton / when the joy of eating what is earned / turns into family and fraternity / Hear me then. Today I am in battle.”
The shock of Dhoomil’s language and imagery has left a legacy that is easily discernible in the younger poets writing today. In “Tunakibai,” a poem about the life of a poor woman in a village eking out an existence by selling stalks of the medicinal neem tree (which rural people use to brush their teeth), to travelers on trains that pass through her village, Leeladhar Jaguri evokes both the things that have changed and others that haven’t. Fashionable urban women who look “almost healthy-pretty” and who have “opened their mouths several times before dentists” keep them shut ignoring both peers and the rural woman selling neem toothbrushes while a stout looking rural woman’s purchase encourages some others to follow the example and sets off a discussion about the patenting of the neem tree’s health-giving properties by an American company among those who read the papers. Tunakibai returns from the train station to her hut to light a fire for a meal with dry leaves of the same neem tree, when the speaker observes: “Half-reclining like a bank / between the hut and the neem tree / a bitch has her eyes fixed on Tunaki / while pups stir on her stomach / like anchored boats in water.” The poem closes with an ironic image about the incongruous mix of neglect and caring that colors the life of citizens like this one: “Whether or not the nation has any / this bitch has hopes of gaining a piece of bread from Tunaki.”
In the category of socially aware poetry in Indian languages there are many voices of the millennially oppressed caste-groups, the Dalits, and the feminists. The best poetry of this kind, as always, is that which does not slacken into sloganeering but attempts to reawaken the dormant ethical impulse in the readership while seeking emancipation by questioning the given.
In doing this, the Marxist-feminist poet in Hindi, Katyayani, is forced to question her own faith in the very act of writing poetry. Listing reasons against the writing of poetry that include the hallucinatory effects of long periods of being distanced from reality, and the necessity of preserving the capacity not to be moved to write poetry because “the individual who writes a poem on every tragedy / is the world’s most heartless person” — she suggests that “the decision not to write poetry / is a decision that saves one from joining the company / of the foul-mouthed, of hired assassins, courtiers and minstrels. / And sometimes it is also a decision that has an immense poetic justice.” Instead of writing poetry, she suggests it is time to speak unambiguously about the need for struggle and to take risks if only that we may be assured of poetry’s future. (“A Snap Decision Against the Writing of Poetry” in her Is Paurushpoorna Samay Mein, In These Manly Times, 1999.)