This paper discusses the merit of reading contemporary Indian poets as universalist poets. This implies that in addition to the current interpretations of contemporary Indian poets as postcolonial writers, more attention needs to be given to the ways in which many of these poets offer themes that are larger than the political in their scope, themes that portray the human condition, balance the epiphenomenal with the transcendent, and that seek to reveal the basic human need for community, regardless of place, ethnicity, creed. Poets whose work is discussed include Nassim Ezekiel, Kazim Ali, Srinivas Rayaprol, and G.S. Sharat Chandra.
[Key words: contemporary Indian poetry; universalist poetry; Nassim Ezekial; Kazim Ali; Srinivas Rayaprol; G.S. Sharat Chandra; human condition; transcendence]
Since the late 1970s through our present twenty-first century, there has been a great sweeping trend in literary studies to mark certain texts, whether fiction, poetry, or non-fiction, as postcolonial. The term postcolonial came to be partially replaced by its twin term of diaspora, and often the terms are currently used interchangeably. One definition of the postcolonial text is that it is any text that represents or speaks for the interiority or the subjectivity of non-western writers and their need to express their lives on their own terms apart from a western ethos. One form of a diaspora text represents the fact that the author has physically left the homeland; in this form of diaspora text, the author seeks to renew his mental impressions of the homeland, to refresh and revisit the lost place, often exploring the imprint of the homeland upon the mind as a utopian vision of how life could be ideally constructed. A second form of a diaspora text is found in writers who have never physically left the homeland, who are not living in exile, and who are very much still a part of the geographical place of the homeland. In this second form, the writer metaphorically, symbolically, and imaginatively creates for him or herself images of the homeland from within the geographical locale of the country or nation.
However, in addition to the need for the postcolonial or diaspora writer to accomplish the pursuit of giving voice the unique subjectivity of those affected by colonialism, there is also an underlying issue of how the postcolonial or diaspora author can find his or her literary voice, give literary expression to non-western cultures and ethos while also ascending to the artistic hope of creating a literature that will transcend political barriers and aspire toward the universal human dimensions of existence itself, without trapping itself, unnecessarily, within west versus non-west or west versus east spaces of thought.
All of these preliminary remarks bring me to my central set of questions—how do the terms postcolonial or diaspora affect the way that we read poems? What is a postcolonial or diaspora poem? Stylistically and aesthetically does the postcolonial or diaspora poem in some way differ from any other modern or contemporary poem? Assuredly, we must consent to the fact that the postcolonial or diaspora poem mirrors, or shares, characteristics and tenets of non-postcolonial and non-diaspora poems? So, is the conclusion to be drawn that the postcolonial and diaspora themes trump those of other aesthetic considerations? Or, what if the postcolonial and diaspora poet offers up no theme at all dealing with land and empire but offers up other aesthetic plots?
These questions are put forth merely as inquiries and as routes for intellectual investigation. Furthermore, please let it be understood that asking these questions in no way minimizes the importance of postcolonial studies or diaspora studies; rather, by asking these questions, it brings to light new considerations regarding the aesthetic dimensions of previously studied postcolonial poems. The suggestion here is that the contemporary Indian poet should not be pigeonholed into being depicted, represented, anthologized, and understood solely as having postcolonial and diaspora importance. Rather, the contemporary Indian poet should also be interpreted, read, and understood as offering aesthetic value, and in fact many contemporary Indian poets’ work offers us larger, universal themes pertaining to the shared lot of the human condition, apart from the political. There are many routes of inquiry to pursue in contemporary Indian poetry—the role of communal belonging (which is not necessarily a facet of postcolonial texts but may also be found in numerous western modernist poems as well), the need for spiritual transcendence over the temporal plane of phenomenal existence, the place of imagism in modern aesthetics, as well as the ability to record the imprint of the human personality upon the earth. These are very much equally compelling reasons to read contemporary Indian poets apart from, or in addition to the pursuit of studying contemporary Indian poets as postcolonial writers.
The main argument I present here is that reconsideration of many contemporary Indian poets is due from the standpoint of not only what may be said about them as postcolonial or diaspora intellectuals, but moreover what can be understood about them as universalist poets. But let me also define what is meant by the universalist poem or by a universalist poet. The universalist poem is one that seeks to record the human experience, captures the nuances of life as lived, including the pain and pleasure, the excitement and fatigue, the nervousness and frustration, as well as the love and laughter of the particular moments of phenomenal existence. The universalist poem does not seek to confine identity by way of political allegiance merely, nor any other form of duty or restriction; rather, the universalist poem is a way of photographing and imprinting via words, images, and text the significance of a moment immortalized, and a reconciliation of the opposites of the fragility of human suffering versus personal, communal, and spiritual transcendence.
We see this trend toward universalist poetry in modernism, particularly high modernism, in T.S. Eliot or in Rabindranath Tagore, in Wallace Stevens or in Robert Lowell. We find it as well in contemporary Indian poetry. The universalist poem, and thereby a universalist poet, does not necessarily shun direct expression of emotion (though Eliot and other modernists often did); nor, is there necessarily the shying away from giving a particular point of view, whether confessional, private, or the recollection of personal memories. The universalist poem can indeed share the private and confessional space as created and allowed by the universalist poet, but so long as the poem returns to reconcile the private with the deeper recognition of the inner longing toward unification with the commonality of human experience.
For the first example, I submit the poetry of Nissim Ezekial (1924-2004). Ezekial, a poet from Bombay, and often considered the “grandfather of modern Indian poetry” is most often discussed as a postcolonial poet; yet, with a deeper reading of his work, there are an abundance of universalist themes that transcend the limited spaces of political discourse. Ezekial’s poetry demonstrates the urgency of language of the modern and contemporary Indian writer to address concerns of communal spirituality, mythos and meaning-making in the ordinary acts of a life lived. In Ezekial’s poem, “Night of the Scorpion,” the poet relays the memory of his mother being stung by a scorpion and the reaction of the villagers. The poet relishes in the communal trust felt in the moment of despair, even while the community is unable to medically help his mother. While the poem concentrates on depicting Ezekial’s childhood and uses the Indian community as a point of reference in the poem, nonetheless the poem also moves to various other heights as it seeks to explain the genuinely human instinct to help loved ones conquer fear and misfortune. The poem moves along the same plane as Gabriel Martinez’s story “The Man With Enormous Wings,” and bears similarities to magical realism in Latin American postcolonial literature; but as in Martinez, so also in Ezekial that the human condition surpasses the postcolonial condition of depicting western science and western rationalism as pitted against the mythos of a community.
I remember the night my mother
Was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
Of steady rain had driven him
to crawl beneath a sack of rice.
Parting with his poison—flash
Of diabolic tail in the dark room—
He risked the rain again.
Ezekial explains the role of the community and the mythical incantations of the concerned. He does so when he writes,
The peasants came like swarms of flies
And buzzed the Name of God a hundred times
To paralyze the Evil One.
With candles and with lanterns
Throwing giant scorpion shadows
On the sun-baked walls
They searched for him: he was not found.
They clicked their tongues.
With every moment that the scorpion made
His poison moved in his mother’s blood, they said.
May he sit still they, said.
May the sins of your previous birth
Be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
The misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
There is no mockery in Ezekial’s images. But, it may be asked is Ezekial pointing out that the reaction of the villagers is too superstitious? Or, does he assent to seeing real, genuine, or significant belief in their acts? Is there even a contradiction in proposing that Ezekial recognizes both? The poet points out that his father, usually a non-believer, decides in the moment of crisis to allow his doubts to give in to belief, even if temporary belief. And what exactly is the nature of the belief? Is it Hindu? Is it Christian? Is it an amalgamation between the two universal religions? What does the hybridization of the two sets of ritual practices and beliefs, the two traditions laid bare and side-by-side prove, except to remind the reader of the realities of the aftermath of postcolonial influence upon the land. Ultimately, Ezekial presents readers with the view that what is best understood in the experience and by recalling the childhood memory is the kernel of truth that it presents.
May the sum of evil
Balanced in this unreal world
Against the sum of good
Become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh
Of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
They said, and they sat around
On the floor with my mother in the centre,
The peace of understanding on each face.
The heart of the poem to be found somewhere perhaps ‘other’ than in a strictly postcolonial read/interpretation; and this place of the ‘other’ is in the human compulsion to seek help, for the ailing to succor a little comfort from family and neighbors and kin, and for faith to present itself when needed. What makes the poem so beautiful is that it is self-contained; it draws the picture well of a small enclosed village, a community of helpers, only to end by offering up a lesson of hope, acceptance, peace, even resignation, so that the details are melded into the universal need to transcend suffering. At long last, even the “sceptic,” Ezekial’s father, gives in to the communal mythos in order to transcend watching his wife and mother of their children suffer the poisonous sting.
More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours,
More insects, and the endless rain.
My mother twisted through and through
Groaning on a mat.
My father, sceptic, rationalist,
Trying every curse and blessing,
Powder, mixture, herb and hybrid.
He even poured a little paraffin
Upon the bitten toe and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites
To tame the poison with an incantation.
After twenty hours
it lost its sting.
My mother only said:
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And sparred my children.
What also makes the poem beautiful is that the mother is placed as the central object of the poem. In much the same way that in a painting, what is called the “vantage point,” that part of the composition that draws the eye in, so the mother’s suffering and her pain draws the reader in and we feel her helplessness, as well as the villagers’ helplessness throughout the poem. Then, at the end of the poem we feel the mother’s relief at having survived and her love for her children.
Does the beauty of the poem, its aesthetic worth, reside in the fact that it demonstrates the hybridity of faiths, the residual effect of postcolonial power? Or, does the beauty and aesthetic worth of the poem reside in Ezekial’s ability to depict the universal problem of human fragility, of woman and man against nature and nature against woman and man, though depict it from the standpoint of his hometown, communal Indian memories of childhood? Thus, what makes the poem spectacular and worth commenting upon is really Ezekial’s ability as an artist (poet painting images with words) and his co-ability to hand us the philosophical and the metaphysical (to bring together or unify the universal of human suffering with the particular of an Indian mother). It is the merging of these two problems—how to show human suffering and how to tell the tale of a particular encounter with it—that makes Ezekial’s poem a success.
If we turn now to Kazim Ali (b.1971), here we have a poet who may be considered diaspora by some critics, though other critics might choose to reject that label. Ali lives in Ohio, in the United States, was raised in Canada, but was born in Croydon, Surrey. We do not find many (if any) diaspora images in Ali’s poem; rather, Ali’s images are replete with the exploration of the dividing lines between the sacred and the profane. Ali’s poetry, though it differs from Ezekial, also crosses over to show similarities to Ezekial. Ali, like Ezekial, uses poetry as a vehicle for expressing the universal human condition; the particulars of experience are shown to be but cogs in the wheel, parts leading to the whole. Ali’s poems are often quite religious in scope; as a practicing Muslim who is also a religious pluralist, Ali explores the spiritual practices within Islam, but also those points wherein Islam overlap and intersect with Hinduism and Christianity. In the poem, “Gallery,” he describes prophecy and mystical vision.
You came to the desert, illiterate, spirit-ridden,
Intending to starve
The sun hand of the violin carving through space
The endless landscape
Acres of ochre, the dust-blue sky,
Or the strange young man beside you
Ali’s lines are universal in their reach; for, he could be describing the flight of Muhammad or he could be depicting the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Likewise, his lines could indicate the temptation of any spiritual seeker wandering through the desert; or, the images could point entirely toward an interior, mental space of contemplation and meditation, toward no physical place at all. The fact that the poem lacks a clear referent leaves the text open to associations and the reader’s ability to grasp the spiritual intent behind the poem. Clearly, the place of contemplation in the poem is in the poet’s heart. And as such, Ali turns the first part of the poem that depicts a prophet, saint, or ordinary mortal in search of enlightenment and peace on its head, and moves the poem in a new direction, in a non-linear fashion, toward that of the poet’s ability to create visions of supernatural import. Or at least toward the poet’s ability to perceive such visions; and so, Ali chooses as his exemplary poet, William Blake, whose mystical system of religious thought is blended with Romanticism.
Peering into ‘The Man Who Taught William Blake
Painting in His Dreams’
Ali notes that Blake was both a painter and a poet, and so by alluding to this historical detail, he is able to remind his readers that art contains numerous outlets for the psyche to display itself. Ali then goes on in the poem to describe the sense of isolation and alienation, the process of stripping bare of the soul, that occurs in the mystical union of the self with the divine, but as he does so he brings that sense of union back down to a very temporal place. He uses the mind to point back toward the body, thoughts to lead back to the path of touch and sensation, and transcendence to renew itself within the moment, of a day stretched past toward another day.
You’re thinking: I am ready to be touched now, ready to be found
He’s thinking: How lost, how endless I feel this afternoon
When will you know:
All night: sounds
As Ali rounds the poem out, he brings the poem finally back around to a place where it can rest back at the point of the desert, the wilderness, whether that is a metaphorical or literal place. And in doing so, Ali reminds the reader of the call toward renunciation, and though ultimately the poem ends with a pronouncement, an imperative to renounce the poet’s intent behind the imperative is actually to release the reader from the burden of the act of renunciation. This in turn releases the psyche from its own tension of trying to accomplish what it cannot effectively do, which is to bind itself toward denial. The movement in the poem alternates between emptiness and the need for fullness to grow and enlarge itself within the mind.
Violet’s brief engines
The violin’s empty stomach resonates
Music a scar unraveling in four strings
An army of hungry notes shiver down
You came to the desert intending to starve so starve
A second poem by Ali illustrates the need for the contemporary Indian poet to express the inner workings of the mind, to demonstrate those spaces existing psychically between the self, the soul, and the universe. Ali’s poem, “Prayer” connects the poet’s task or the poet’s role with that of the mystic, the mendicant, the saint. The word “pilgrims” in the poem becomes intimately connected with the other serious word within the poem, “poet.”
Four green threads interrogate the wind.
Pilgrims tie them to the iron fence around the saint’s tomb.
Each thread is a prayer. Each prayer is a chance to weave.
I do not want to return home without that which I came for.
The poet was here—but he’s gone now—
You’ve missed him.
The river turns three times on the journey home.
I have to tie the thread around my own wrist bone.
Here, the poem’s sentiment is one of understanding the essential nature of existence—that to exist is but for a season, and then like a river that “turns three times,” that season ends only to begin again. Because the lesson cannot be easily learned, the poet takes the thread from a prayer ritual and binds it to its bone, to his skin, to his flesh, as a reminder to himself to understand the fleeting nature of life. Yet, there is a great sense of underlying irony within this small act that could easily be missed; to bind the flesh so that the mind understands is in a way a disavowal of the lesson’s meaning. The lesson is to let go; but the poet, not quite able to do that, instead holds on to the small string that grips his wrist.
A third poem by Ali continues to illustrate the contemporary poet’s task as universalist poet. The poem, “Night,” describes the poet’s vision of night as a gateway into higher forms of consciousness. He takes as a central point of movement in the poem the constellation Orion and uses it as a way of allowing the rest of the poem to unfold.
Up against the window, the fading sun.
In rags, Orion’s notes appear against your skin.
Sparsely thrown across your chest.
Swathed in the folds of blankets.
Now you are luminous.
The bow no longer exists.
Again, we see existence as a primary concern in the poet’s mind and working its way repeatedly into the poet’s vocabulary. The contemplation of Orion and its seemingly permanent place within the universe moves the poet to confront his own demons, that of the “terror” of “absolute silence.” Much like T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets in search of the “still point” behind the universe, so Ali searches for it as well. The qualitative difference between Eliot and Ali is that in Ali the contemplation of the universe brings him back to the everyday space of a country drive and a person sitting next to him whose eyes and hands he is staring wildly into, as though in search of the divine within the sheer bodily presence of another.
The star chart I traced into the palm of my hand.
Has smoke written all through it.
Are you terrified of absolute silence?
I drive miles into the country just to have a look at you.
What Ali finds out in his contemplation of Orion, the night sky, and the unnamed companion is that there is no “still point” to be had; there are no permanent stops, no ultimate rests. All is movement. And all remains relatively unknown. In the end, what he finds is absence. The absence of love, the absence of a mythological lover, the absence of fate, the absence of ultimate meaning; thus, Ali’s poem ends in a place that Eliot’s The Four Quartets never could, in a place of nil.
You are no plagiarist of dusk.
Nothing in the sky equals itself.
All the stars have changed positions.
All the fortunes have been faked.
Charted against a lover who hasn’t existed for a million years.
If we move to a third poet for comparison and examination, Srinivas Rayaprol (1925-1998) was born in Andhra Pradesh. Rayaprol’s accomplishments as a poet include the literary magazine he founded and helped edit during the 1960s, East and West, embraced modern American poets. Widely influenced by American aesthetics, including the Beat poets, Rayaprol’s poetry demonstrates the need for poets to escape categorizations and limiting definitions. Rayaprol’s poem, “Oranges on a Table,” is flawlessly imagistic in its approach to art, and is reminiscent of Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell’s versions of imagism, or of William Carlos Willaims’ brand of modernism. The poem takes the everyday world of objects—a table, fruit—and breaks them apart to reproduce the meaning they represent to the poet. The poem’s technique is not only reminiscent of Pound and Amy Lowell but also of the Cubist artists Picasso and Braque.
The subtle distinction
On the three
A summer arm
Yellow and slow
Not an ultimate order
Of the orange sky
But the angular
Of the stone
The river’s run.
The poem moves by creating tight associations between the world of materiality, physical objects, and that of nature, the sky, springtime, stones, rocks, rivers. Rayaprol’s poem, “Poem” deals with India and even more with Indian women. Using the same technique of a simplicity of language, Rayaprol is describes watching her own mother grow old in a way that fulfills the pattern of all the women throughout historical time, so that the individual is both celebrated but also absorbed into a larger pattern of female movement.
Have a way
Of growing old
Sat on the floor
A hundred years
In a sauce pan
At the bitter
In the yard
For a hundred years
Without the kitchen walls
Another example of contemporary Indian poetry that makes great use of imagism and simplicity of language is G.S. Sharat Chandra (1935-2000), from Bangalore. Chandra’s poem, “Reasons for Staying,” describes a woman’s right to own things. Thus, an intimate connection is built within the poem between the material world and the inner, emotional world of need, want, desire, and hope.
I am talking to the kitchen table
Full of roses,
The language is my own,
I tell them
I own them.
There are roses because I say so,
The vase is mine,
So is the kitchen.
I like them red,
I pay for the water.
The chairs immediately respond,
The knives and plates,
The salt shaker,
Chandra’s poem, “Vendor of Fish,” rivals the American confessional poet, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish.” In Chandra’s poem, she paints for us the vision of a fish vendor who waits by the sea to meet the trawlers to buy what he needs to sell to his merchants. She connects the fish vendor to the earth through the “color of blood.”
all night he waits at the harbor
his eyes the colour of the sea
the sea the colour of trawlers
he grabs the finest wipes them
on his shawl his shawl
the color of blood
Chandra also describes the mercantilism of the community; the fish vendor’s purpose is to serve the needs of others. Each line of the stanza is broken by a sensation—either color, thought, smell, action, natural elements.
fish the color of rupees
he thinks of the meal he’ll buy
the mean of chapattis and kurma
the fish in the smell of kurma
he packs them in the basket with ice
his hands the color of fire
All of Chandra’s attention on the fish vendor moves the poem finally in the direction of praise for the communal way of life; and as the need for community and its roots are celebrated in the poem, so also she gives voice the fish vendor who is depicted as praising the natural world for its bounty. Thus, the poem’s ethos is one of the revelation of appreciation for environment and service to fellow humanity.
he leaps on the tar road faster
than sweat can print his feet
the distance is the colour of dreams
the fish in the basket shine
sawdust daubs their fins
he sings in praise of their color
In Chandra’s poem, “Encircled” we see the poet discuss the interrelationship between reality and non-reality, between what can be discerned and empirically verified and what cannot. This investigation into what lies deep down between the authentic and the fake pivots around the poem’s central image of the carnivalesque. But in depicting the circularity and motion of the carnival, which hints at postmodern themes, Chandra is able to also hint at the connection between Hindu beliefs of karma and the dying and resurrection of life within and through the universe.
Always this circle
Within which I seek those that are dear,
Those that have gone ahead without me
To ride the carnival wheels,
Hands clutched around radiant balloons,
Head vanishing into lights
As I grope for them.
In a dream-like, phantasmal state of mind, the poet proclaims the ways in which the transitory can meet the immortal.
And always this man,
Not a stranger, not a friend,
Someone even more intimate,
Rows a rigged boat on a fake lake
Beside the large blue canvas
Of stars, moon, bleached clouds.
This man whom I also know
In my wakefulness,
Whose name I can easily recall.
The fish swim below his sway
Flapping their fins on the airs,
They’re accustomed to his weight
Above the crowd, above my anxious face,
The poet expresses even in the midst of the strange, the hybrid, and the out-of-the-ordinary the unquenchable personal desire for the communal space; for, the poem ends with the poet’s family being caught as well in the inner spinning of the dream.
Even in these dreams where I’ve found
My wife, children adrift in high balloons,
In voices that swallow their dark heads.
I call, push bodies soft as pillows,
My friend who sees everything,
Dips absurdly into the juggled air.
What then can be concluded from reading contemporary Indian poets from a perspective apart from or additional to postcolonial interpretations? Well, one conclusion is that the aesthetic value, the communal ethos, and the need for poetry to inspire toward a place of transcendence and universality is at the heart of many contemporary Indian poet’s concerns, and so should be recognized as such.
The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. Ed. Jeet Thayil. Cambridge: Bloodaxe Books