Vol. 4 Num 144 Sat. October 18, 2003  

Indian Poetry in English: Kolatkar and Mahapatra

In this occasional series we will look at Indian poetry written in English. Though it has tended to be treated as the poor man's Indo-Anglian literature -- with Salman Rushdie also weighing in when he wrote in his Introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing:1947-1997 (though he did make time for Kolatkar) that while "it was evident to us that the rich poetic traditions of India continued to flourish in many of the sub-continent's languages, whereas the English-language poets, with a few distinguished exceptions (Arun Kolatkar, A. K. Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra, to name just three), did not match the quality of their counterparts in prose"-- we would nevertheless be failing in our duty to our readers if we did not introduce them to the varied voices that inhabit this particular poetic landscape.

Sitakant Mahapatra

There is a deceptive simplicity in Sitakant Mahapatra's poetry. He is an Oriya poet who deals with his remembered village by the banks of the River Chitropala, his children, parents and grandparents. They explore life, meditate upon it, with a child-like innocence, which he implies must always be the essential state of the poet's being: only the child-like can enter into the kingdom of heaven. But beyond the simple themes and language lies the eternal quest: man's search for meaning in his uncertain existence, his anguish in knowing that the only certainty is death. Mahapatra's poetry weaves together the recurring rhythms of life as embodied in tribal poetry, with the post-modern questioning, existential anguish and pain of the 20th century poet. Rooted in nature and the daily rhythms of life, the changing seasons, these poems celebrate both life and death. They stand at the intersection between time and timelessness, between imagination and prayer.

This Is Why We Are Human

(translated from Oriya by Bikram K. Das)

Not because we can converse
with fellow human beings
on this ancient earth
from light-years away in space;
but, even after sitting-hours together,
next to someone dear
not even a word rises to the lips.
No need to take all the trouble
Of journeying to the moon, the stars, or the sun.
For, standing here on this mother earth,
we can cancel out the sun
with just the bare palm of our hands;
we can make him jump
out of the bucket of water
and dance on the mud-washed wall;
we can plant the moon
on the beloved's chest
and the stars in her eyes.
We are human
not because we can compel words
to say whatever we intend to say
but we discover that the errant words
can never be cajoled or persuaded
to do our bidding.
We are human
because we can't face up to the truth
blazing as sun;
and instead, in love with illusory words,
those half-truths in half-light and half-shadow
we hide behind them
all our life.
This is why we are human
not because all information, all knowledge
are garnered and arranged
in puthis and computers
within our reach;
but because we spend the long morning
looking madly for the
misplaced pair of eyeglasses.

Arun Kolatkar

Arun Kolatkar--a recluse without a telephone in his home-- won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977 for his series of poems (first published in 1974) in Jejuri, which immediately established his reputation as one of the most important Indo-Anglian poets. That same year the first collection of Kolatkar's Marathi poems, Aruna Kolatakaracya Kavita, was also published and, in large measure owing to the celebrity engendered by Jejuri, forced a gradual, indeed begrudging, reevaluation and acknowledgment of Kolatkar's major place in the canon of modern Marathi poetry. By the sixties Arun Kolatkar, along with others such as Gopalakrishna Adiga (Kannada), Ajanta (Telugu), Ayyappa Paniker, N.N. Kakkad (Malayalam), Ajney, Muktibodh, Raghuvir Sahay (Hindi), Dilip Chitre (also Marathi), Navkant Barua, Nilmani Phookan (Assamese), Labhshankar Thaker, Sitanshu Yashaschandra (Gujarati), Akhtar-ul-Iman, Balraj Komal (Urdu), K.N. Subramanyam, Jnanakoothan (Tamil), had ushered in modernism in Indian poetry. As Ayappa Paniker himself wrote "Arun Kolatkar, being a bilingual poet, is heir to the western modernist ironic mode as well as the medieval Indian devotional mode. The two modes in their strange combination give strange results. His apparent simplicity of syntax heightens his subtlety and surrealistic power. His irony is not untouched by a deep personal concern." True words, and in the poem reproduced here we find both the modes.

Yeshwant Rao

Are you looking for a god?
I know a good one.
His name is Yeshwant Rao
and he's one of the best.
look him up
when you are in Jejuri next.
Of course he's only a second class god
and his place is just outside the main temple.
Outside even of the outer wall.
As if he belonged
among the tradesmen and the lepers.
I've known gods
prettier faced
or straighter laced.
Gods who soak you for your gold.
Gods who soak you for your soul.
Gods who make you walk
on a bed of burning coal.
Gods who put a child inside your wife.
Or a knife inside your enemy.
Gods who tell you how to live your life,
double your money
or triple your land holdings.
Gods who can barely suppress a smile
as you crawl a mile for them.
Gods who will see you drown
if you won't buy them a new crown.
And although I'm sure they're all to be praised,
they're either too symmetrical
or too theatrical for my taste.
Yeshwant Rao,
mass of basalt,
bright as any post box,
the shape of protoplasm
or king size lava pie
thrown against the wall,
without an arm, a leg
or even a single head.
Yeshwant Rao.
He's the god you've got to meet.
If you're short of a limb,
Yeshwant Rao will lend you a hand
and get you back on your feet.
Yeshwant Rao
Does nothing spectacular.
He doesn't promise you the earth
Or book your seat on the next rocket to heaven.
But if any bones are broken,
you know he'll mend them.
He'll make you whole in your body
and hope your spirit will look after itself.
He is merely a kind of a bone-setter.
The only thing is,
as he himself has no heads, hands and feet,
he happens to understand you a little better.

Death of Krishna and Other Poems