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The article attempts to present the current state of Indian English poetry and its appreciation in India, stressing the need for critiqing the new/less known poets who have been writing for years but not noticed by academia and media alike.
New Indian English Writing: Postcolonialism, or the Politics of Rejection?
Has Indian English poetry died with the creative and critical contributions of a couple of Nissim Ezekiels, A. K. Ramanujans, and R. Parthasarathys? Or with the few noted poets of the 60s and 70s – Moraes, Mahapatra , Mehrotra, Daruwalla, or Shiv K. Kumar – who have been occupying the center and throttling others from emerging? Niranjan Mohanty in his reflections on the current scenario has raised certain vital issues that must be debated before it is too late. I agree with his view: “At times I feel that the colonial, deconstructionist and postcolonial discourses have elusively alluded to the construction of a passion for empire-building, for erecting boundaries, for perpetuating the dialectical, often subvertive relationship between the center and the periphery, between the privileged and the marginalized.”
I do not intend to reflect here on the new postcolonial writing of the Indian or South Asian diaspora despite its veritable quality in terms of the cross-cultural aspects of migration, or the identity crisis in terms of home, language, nation, race, religion, power, politics etc, or the reshaping of self, values, and norms. I also do not question the expatriate authors’ negotiation of the physical, emotional, psychological, and intellectual tensions in terms of native/non-native, difference/sameness, known/unknown, us/them, home/home-like, or the Freudian heimlich/unheimlich contexts that characterize postmodernity and postcolonialism. The postcolonial migrants, irrespective of their origin—Indian, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangla Desh, West Indies, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, South America, etc.,--do construct an identity and re/presentation which accommodates and is accommodated by the West (or the country/countries of their adoption). Authors like Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Bharati Mukherjee, Rohinton Mistry, Shashi Tharoor, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amit Chaudhuri, Meena Alexander, Sujata Bhatt, Agha Shahid Ali, Vinay Dharwadkar, Moniza Alvi, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tabish Khair, Zulfikar Ghose, Bapsi Sidhwa, Hanif Kureishi, Tariq Ali, Alamgir Hashmi, Taufiq Rafat, Tariq Rahman, Shyam Selvadurai, Michael Ondaatje et al have been receiving good media and academia attention in India. They are settled in the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in Europe. Most of them do not like to be called Indians but the colonial mindset of the academia here drives critics and reviewers to identify Indian English Writing with foreign nationals of Indian/Pakistani origin (who are published abroad), shunning the Indian nationals who keep publishing in India and abroad without being noticed. The Western discourse dominates their critical reasoning and reflection through perils and delights dominates of growth and change; through survival skills vis-à-vis emigration, sex, parenthood, and age; through race, gender, politics, and a wide range of interests and perceptions; through re-visiting past and present with historical consciousness; through communal and personal experiences vis-à-vis quest for roots and awareness of the evils of intolerance, ignorance, and extremism etc.; through a celebration of ethnic, religious and cultural differences/merger/hybridity, and “intellectualized accommodation of ones fragmentation” etc.
No doubt in the last two decades fiction has drawn more attention than poetry. So much so, M. K. Naik and Shyamala A. Nartayan’s book Indian English Literature: 1980-2000(2001) devotes 122 pages (covering about fifty new authors) to it and only 60 pages to poetry, showing displeasure at the deteriorating quality of verse today. Even if there has been a ready acceptance of Indian English literature abroad now, many new Indian English poets have been suffering a deliberate neglect, not only by the governing-elites-cum-cultural elites of India but also by the media and academia that think there is nothing worth while in recent writings that are not honored by a Pulitzer, a Booker, a Sahitya Akademi, a Commonwealth, or a Whitbread prize, or published by a Heinemann, Deutsch, Random House, Oxford, Longman, Cambridge etc, or have a ‘foreign’ stamp. How long the so-called established scholars, critics, reviewers, and university dons at home will continue to ignore the poets appearing in small journals or publishing their books spending their own hard-earned money. Thanks to the designs of media barons and their agents in the academic, cultural and bureaucratic set up, most of the good poets of the last 25 years, writing and publishing for the Indian audience, have been reduced to a position of “internal exile”, as M. Prabha points out in her path-breaking socio-bio-literary criticism boo, The Waffle of the Toffs (2000).
With their misguided notions and criticism, a few literary and academic colleagues for/with a stint abroad keep conspiring to damage the very existence of Indian English Writing by Indians by denouncing it. I doubt they are aware of the implications of restricting the literary space: they make the native authors feel that they are not “them”; they are rather outsiders in their own country. They blindly formulate notions of a collective literary or cultural identity to praise the new diasporic authors and disdain their counterparts at home under one or the other pretext. This is dangerous to the country’s cultural and literary presence in the world. Even if the urge to communicate is common to both the poets in the center and on the periphery, the latter suffer marginalization for want of media coverage and publicity that make one great or a celebrity. The resourceful publishers at home have the necessary means to ‘buy’ media persons, including influential reviewers, readers, and academics but they evince a different sensitivity. Creative writing at a profitable level is now something market-driven, something attached to awards, prizes, honors, membership of various bodies/committees, and right connections, just as the organized networks of vested interests, controlling the center, are too strong to allow someone active from the margin or periphery make a dent; they resist every new entrant who does not belong. And, all those who suffer exclusion naturally wonder if they can ever survive with legitimate identity vis-à-vis their privileged compatriots.
The growth of Indian English prose and poetry has been marred by lack of recognition by the local/native audience with taste, pride, and professionalism. The well-known postcolonial authors of the 1960s and 1970s have simply throttled others from emerging, just as there has been a vulgar search for, or currency of, fame abroad. No Ezekiel, Moraes, Pathasarathy, Mahapatra, or Naik has cared to promote an O. P. Bhatnagar, I. K. Sharma, R. K. Singh, Gopal Honnalgere or P. Raja, nor a publishing house like OUP or Longman, or institution like Bharat Bhavan or Sahitya Akademi cares to discover and support new poets like Angelee Deodhar, K. Ramesh, or Mujeeb Yar Jung. Most of the main stream English departments would not know even six new poets and writers of the last two decades and explore for an M. Phil or Ph.D. study; they know only the few names propped up by Bombay poets as if Indian English poetry has stopped after Ezekiel, Ramanujan, Parthasarathy, Dom Moraes, Jayanta Mahapatra, A. K. Mehrotra, Keki Daruwalla, Arun Kotkar, Shiv K. Kumar, or Kamala Das etc. Many new poets and authors living in Jaipur, Bareilly, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Aligarh, Trivandrum, Cuttack, Pondicherry, Dhanbad, Ranchi, or Berhampur and appearing almost regularly in small Indian English journals have not been discovered despite being qualitatively strong. While “metro” poets evince a colonialist mentality in not tolerating the “mofussil” poets who are often better than them, the established poets, critics, and professors do not like to look beyond their narrow vision, centred round a few voices. If they pretend ignorance about new voices, or do not write about or reflect on them, it simply means they have no commitment, and their complaint about lack of quality in Indian English Writing is superficial.
There has been virtually no evaluative study of new poets or non-canonical writers of the period 1980-2000 despite their artistic and aesthetic excellence. Most of them have been victims of obscurantist and sadistic stances of critics and academics that have been presenting a totally negative picture of Indian English creativity today. For instance, M. K. Naik and Shyamala A, Narayan say: “… there is that huge crop of verse (to call it “poetry” would be the mis-statement of the millennium) which seems to be growing all the time, like wild grass in the narrow field of Indian English literature.” They lament the “weed-like growth of verse” in recent years and brush aside all news poetry as “the incorrigible in-full pseudo-poetic pursuit of the inconsequential.”
This is alarming! I suspect they did not have access to poetry of several current poets like R. S. Sharma, R. V. Smith, Biswakesh Tripathy, Pronab K. Majumder, K. B. Rai, S. Samal, Sailendra Narayan Tripaty, Renu Gurnani, Eugene D’Vaz, Asha Viswas, Sudha Iyar, Esha Joshi, Mani Rao, Anuradha Nalapet, S. Radhamani, Christine Krishnasami, Lata Ramaswamy, Shernavaz Buhariwala et al. Naik and Narayan have not realized their there is more openness to artistic innovation today than in the previous generation and that the strength of Indian English Writing has always been sustained by new talents. Though looking for the peaks yet is premature (as most of the new poets of the last 25 years are still active), it is powerful critics and academics’ job to prove the worth of new/contemporary poets and authors and relate their works to their predecessors’ without critical pampering or mindless overpraise.
However, the canon continues to repudiate most of the poets of the last two decades even as journals like Creative Forum, Poetcrit, Canopy, Bridge-in-Making, Triveni, Poet, Cyber literature, Littcrit, Points of View, Indian Book Chronicle, Language Forum, The Journal of Indian Writing in English etc. have been publishing critical articles on some of the “marginalized” poets that include Krishna Srinivas, O. P. Bhatnatar, I. K. Sharma, I. H. Rizvi, R. K. Singh, P. Raja, Gopal Honnalgere, D. C. Chambial, D. H. Kabadi, U.S. Bahri, L. N. Mahapatra, D. S. Maini, PCK prem, R. S. Tiwary, Niranjan Mohanty, Baldev Mirza, T. V. Reddy, A. N. Dwivedi, Maha Nand Sharma and many others. These native Indian English poets have been confronting colonialist treatment in a postcolonial environment even after the maturity of Indian English Writing. They are not exile, emigrant, expatriate, or diasporic, and yet they suffer identity crisis. They live and work in India and yet find themselves ‘outsiders’, or not belonging to the larger native community. They feel deprived despite genius; they rot in anonymity which is not a matter of mere attitude or personal failure to negotiate identity formation or politics of belonging.
For those of us born after Independence, postcolonialism should have ended in fifty-five years of romance with democracy. With the current politics of empowerment of the socially and economically deprived and too much Hindu and Muslim, or majority and minority, only the signs of a new colonialism are visible. At national and international level, after the fall of the USSR and the rise of the processes of globalization, the postcolonial societies everywhere have been experiencing a new dominance under the control of the USA. It seems to me that postcolonialism is not devoid of colonialism. It is rather continuation of colonialism with certain added features to suit the perpetrators of colonialism, be it art, culture, commerce, or politics. Or, we are heading back to colonialism by not resisting the politics of tyranny of a handful of zealots who have virtually consolidated their brutal power and are now out to obliterate the “marginalized”. I think it makes sense to talk in terms of revival of colonialism after post-colonialism. And this is what we face in the first three years of the 21st century: the totalitarian morality of Information Technology, the manipulated fear of war/disaster/doom through globalization, multi-national capitalism, corporate economy, WTO, environmental concerns, various rights, war on terrorism, etc.; through political orthodoxy in the name of democracy, religious fanaticism, ethnic dominance, and repression of the liberals and the simple, and through the new processes of fossilization of the precolonial/colonial/postcolonial that may render many of us irrelevant. I wonder if we are not terribly dislocated in our world divided into North/South and First/Third world today, just as many postcolonial writers, settled abroad, have been communicating with a colonized mind/subjectivity and getting media recognition.
A new colonialism of the right wing, the American and the British, is taking its hold in developing countries, which have become a playground for long-term exploitation by the newly empowered colonialists within. A process of re-colonization is going on in the name of decolonization, as evident from post-September 11 developments, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Against such a perspective, new writers and poets, be it in India or in any other country need a positive mediation on the basis of equality rather than “us vs. them” treatment which is geared to separate or ignore talents that await discovery and recognition. With empathy, recognition, and responsiveness, the literary scholastic orthodoxies of the earlier decades can be replaced with fresh contexts, unaffected by monopolistic approaches. Instead of pronouncing the demise of Indian English Writing or lamenting over its poor quality, if academic critics could demonstrate professional dedication and commitment, they would be able to locate good poets/fiction writers, and playwrights besides fostering the art, harnessing the taste, and developing the talent.
1. Niranjan Mohanty. 2003. Sirs/Madams, This is the Indian Poetry in English Scenario for you. The Journal of Indian Writing in English, Vol.31, No.1, p.12-17.
2. M. K. Naik and Shyamala A. Narayan. 2001. Indian English Literature: 1980-2000. Delhi: Pencraft International, p.183.
From: R.K.Singh, Creative Forum, Vol.16, No.3-4, July-Dec 2003, pp. 107-112