India: A hurdle for China’s ambitions

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n Abhijit Bhattacharyya
“I wonder if the weed knows
It grows In the bed of the rose Or even why Lacking its neighbour’s fragrance It must die?” From Kami Kazi The Useless Judge by Bachchoo
Oh dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark, the interstellar spaces”, wrote T.S. Eliot, mourning the human condition. Lofty celebrations of death come to mind. Poetry doesn’t reconcile, though it strives to appreciate the enormity and, on perhaps tiny occasions, to commemorate, appreciate or contribute to a choir of remembrance… so let it be with the “posts” I have read from the talented voices of Ranjit Hoskote and Arundhati Subramaniam, who mark in verse the passing of my friend the poet Eunice D’Souza. I knew her on and off through her life. Her childhood was associated with Poona (now Pune), my hometown, and we shared memories of it and of people there. She lived for a time in London with my late wife Mala Sen and me in our tiny flat in Cathles Road and we talked and argued and fought and reconciled and cooked meals and went to theatres and pubs together. Yes, we talked about our love lives and Eunice was as insightful and vituperative as her poems about her relationships testify.
Stories about her teaching, her severity, compassion and inspiring insights are, at least in Mumbai circles, legion. Pupils, acolytes, very many of them poets, have contributed poems to her memory — to the newspapers and to the ether media. So what does a non-poet like myself with only a secondary instinct for cheap doggerel (see above!) say? Yes, I mourn Eunice’s passing — she should have died hereafter — but it puts me in mind of the Indian poets I have known and feel compelled to recall — much as Juvenal in his satires called forth the spirits of departed Emperors and commented on their “greatness”. I count myself fortunate to have known Eunice. Her poems are now, on her departure, quoted on the Internet. Her measured disillusion with men is legendary and probably the most striking and lasting part of her work for some — but let that be interred with her bones. The verse I remember vividly was the very brief one about her Catholic aunt examining a stone “yoni” in an antique shop and asking the shopkeeper if it was an ashtray and receiving the reply “No madam, that is our God!” A Goan Catholic lady’s alienation from the Hinduism her ancestors were converted from by the Portuguese colonialists? Or just a joke? Light touch, heavy historical implication!
And with Eunice, a founding contributor to the canon of contemporary Indian poetry in English, one must remember Dom Moraes, the first poet of the genre that I heard of and read. There he was, winning prizes for his verse at Oxford and writing books about his alienation from India. I met him in London and later we became peripheral friends — and how he changed! His story is that of the “baba log”, almost Kiplingesque in their engendering, who transmogrified into an authentic voice of the exploration of several of the infinite dimensions of Indianness. Let me then recall Arun Kolhatkar, as impressive in Marathi (which I understand and sort of speak being a Punya tsa mulga) as in English. I met him regularly in Mumbai in the house of my lifelong friend, the poet Adil Jussawalla, and celebrated his drinking days. I knew him later when he had taken the teetotal vow and used to sit at the Wayside Inn at Kala Ghoda in Mumbai and write his undying verse about what he saw from that street perspective. “So many, I had not known death had undone so many…” So to Lawrence Bantleman, the Kolkota poet, who passed through London and lived in our basement flat for a few months. His lines, probably ones he wouldn’t have recalled writing, remain with me:
“The friars cut the fish and warn
Against the spikey centre bone
A soul may choke on should it scorn
Obeisance to God alone
How lonely must be God alone!”
He fled Britain and died, I heard, in Canada. Eunice’s death makes me realise that I knew and luckily know a number, a small number, of Indian poets writing in English. I’ve mentioned the dead ones with whom I was personally acquainted, but of course, in defiance of all superstition, will mention those that should live forever. I’ve invoked Adil, but then there’s Jeet and there’s Keki and Arvind KM who belong in this ramble because they, with the poets who have passed, and who we must celebrate rather than mourn, have contributed something unique and necessary to post-Independence and contemporary Indian culture. Obviously, poetry in English is, to understate the scale, not the most popular art form in India. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Bollywood song-lyric is! The Bollywood song lyric has, with a few exceptions such as some of the compositions of Javed Akhtar, at first pandered to the new, if unobservant myth of our India:
“Jahan hoton pey sachchai hoti hain
Jahan dil mey safai hoti hain,
Hum us desh ke vaasi hain
Jis desh mein Ganga behti hain…”
The geography is accurate, the rest is… err… umm… Indians always tell the truth? err… and have clean consciences… umm… have you ever talked to an Indian capitalist…? And then of course the Bollywood lyric takes us to imitation American Rap — a lungi dance with imitation Michael Jackson choreography? (Mazaa ka naatch, leykin Amrikan nakli cheez yaar! — fd) So it’s mythology or false, imitative, aspirational rubbish! Indian poetry in English is exploring the concerns, confessions, insights and preoccupations with regaining the myriad identities of today’s life that remain unexpressed. It is, as with poetry in other Indian languages, compelled to speak through individual experience. One day some poet will take this personal anguish to the magnificent pronouncement of the universal, even political — as Yeats did with Ireland or Blake with humanity.

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