Wednesday, 15 April 2009


The current issue of Poetry London carries my review of ‘The Bloodaxe Book Of Contemporary Indian Poets’ edited by Jeet Thayil. Here are more than seventy poets who write in English and all likely to be unread by most poetry readers in this country. As well as from India there are poets here from Britain, Fiji, Guyana, America, poets of mixed heritage born in India, in the UK or USA, members of minority groups in India such as Jews and Parsis, while the editor was born into India’s Syrian Christian community. There is a large representation of women writers. A question begged by this anthology of course is what is ‘Indian’? Arundhathi Subramaniam has a poem titled ‘To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian’ – a pre-emptive riposte perhaps to William Radice’s review of the book in the Guardian where he criticised the work as 'not sounding Indian enough' - this at least was how Jeet Thayil summarised Radice's review when hitting back in the paper’s Response column. Thayil accused Radice of an ‘orientalising’ tendency. In her poem ‘Home’ Arundhathi Subramaniam writes:

Give me a home
that isn’t mine,
where I can slip in and out of rooms
without a trace . . .

A home that I can wear lightly.

Arun Kolatkar is a poet who writes in both Marathi and English. His best-known work, the sequence ‘Jejuri’ is an exemplary text in the way it pays a kind of wary, disenchanted respect to a depleted tradition of pilgrimage. In the review I quote from his ‘Pi-dog’, whose canine protagonist, in a sideways acknowledgement of the British legacy, claims descent ‘matrilineally’ from ‘one of thirty foxhounds’ imported from England

by Sir Bartle Frere’
in eighteen hundred and sixty-four
with the crazy idea

of introducing fox-hunting to Bombay.
Just the sort of thing
he felt the city badly needed.

I got involved in this area way back in the early 1980s as part of the whole multicultural project. I helped run The South Asian Literature Society, founded by teacher and critic Ranjana Ash. The idea was to spread knowledge of South Asian writing to a wider audience. In the event SALS events only really attracted an Asian audience. But I certainly became aware of just how much stuff there is, available in English, that never finds its way over here (a lot of writing in different South Asian languages gets translated into English for the benefit of Indian readers). There’s a tendency to pride ourselves on our receptivity in this area. In fact it’s an uneasy relationship characterised by multiple silences and omissions.

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