Read To Win

Five reasons Indian poetry matters more than ever

Considered too esoteric for readers and commercially unviable for publishers, Indian poetry is losing its reach to people. Here’s why that’s wrong.

Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet, writer, composer and artist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his collection of poems, Gitanjali, which were described as “profoundly sensitive, fresh & beautiful verse”. Since then, India has gained her freedom from British rule and gone on to become the world’s largest democracy and second most populous nation, with Indian literature making significant strides as well. Booker prize winners, a myriad of literature festivals and one of the fastest growing publishing industries in the world often make headlines for India. The genre of poetry is part of this vibrant, pulsing field, too, and here's why you should know more about modern Indian poetry.

1. Poets bring history alive 

India’s rich poetic legacy dates back more than 5,000 years in ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali, with renowned epics such as the Bhagavad Gita written in verse. Bhakti poetry, devoted to asceticism and enlightenment, moved from south to north, creating a movement of its own, inspiring people to look at society, God and worship in new ways.

Then came the Muslim invasion and colonial rule, introducing Urdu forms such as the ghazal as well as English rhyme and meter. During India’s struggle for freedom from British rule, slogans, poems and songs flourished. Though barely a hundred years old, Indian poetry in English draws from this legacy, offering a powerful, multi-hued history of India and its people.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is one of India’s foremost poets, as well as an anthologist, literary critic and translator. In the poem Engraving of a Bison on Stone, Mehrotra grapples with language, history and the passage of time:

The land resists
Because it cannot be
Tempted or broken
In a chamber. It records,
By carefully shuffling the leaves
The passage of
Each storm, rain
And drought.


2. Poetry thrums with the pulse of a billion people

Poetry is a powerful ambassador, a medium through which awareness on greater issues can be raised. In a few short stanzas, it can tell a story, convey a message, and bring a slice of the world to you. With over a billion people, India’s voice is one that we should all be hearing.

In 5.46, Andheri Local, poet Arundhathi Subramaniam beautifully brings together the strengths and vulnerabilities of Indian women, turning the ladies’ compartment of a train into a powerful goddess in motion:

Like metal licked by relentless acetylene
we are welded –
dreams, disasters,
germs, destinies,
flesh and organza,
odours and ovaries.
A thousand-limbed
million-tongued, multi-spoused
Kali on wheels.


(From On Cleaning Bookshelves, Allied Publishers, Mumbai, 2001)


3. Poetry thrives in a diversity of languages

India has 22 official languages, including English, and 398 documented languages in total. Can you imagine all the poetry that has been, is being, and will be written? While some poems in Indian regional languages have been translated, there is a treasure trove of Indian verse waiting to be unearthed and explored.

In renowned Punjabi poet and writer Amrita Pritam’s poem Letter, she deftly captures the anxiety felt at the time of India’s freedom struggle:

And now only some sparrows come,
straw in their beaks,
and sit on my body
and worry about the next generation.
(How wonderful to worry about the next generation!)
Sparrows have wings on them,
but resolutions have no wings
(or resolutions have no second generation).


Translated by D.H. Tracy & Mohan Tracy


4. Poetry shows us English is an Indian language

Indian English is a rich patois of regional words and experiences mixed in, depending on which part of the country you live in. If you read Indian poets in English, especially the work of Arun Kolatkar, Gopal Honnalgere, Manohar Shetty and Jeet Thayil, it is hard to think of their work as anything else except “authentic Indian”, even though they write in a language brought in through colonial rule. India is a thriving example of many languages co-existing and having the power to capture an experience in their own way. The fact that English is globally recognised means that India’s rich, vibrant and uniquely Indian verse can be accessible to people all over the world.

In the poem Malayalam’s Ghazal, poet and novelist Jeet Thayil cleverly traverses culture and language by invoking his mother tongue, using an Urdu/Arabic poetic form, written in eloquent English.

Listen! Someone’s saying a prayer in Malayalam.
He says there’s no word for ‘despair’ in Malayalam.
Sometimes at daybreak you sing a Gujarati garba.
At night you open your hair in Malayalam.
To understand symmetry, understand Kerala.
The longest palindrome is there, in Malayalam.
When you’ve been too long in the rooms of English,
Open your windows to the fresh air of Malayalam.


(From: 60 Indian Poets, Edited by Jeet Thayil, Penguin India, 2008.)


5. Diaspora poets rock as much as diaspora techies 

People of Indian origin are all over the world, making strides in science, commerce and the arts. India’s diaspora, the second largest in the world after China’s, is estimated at over 25 million people. Poets in the diaspora are engaged in a compelling, ongoing documentation of migration and growth that is vital in understanding the world we live in.

Indo-American poet Vijay Seshadri won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection 3 Sections,  a gritty examination of human consciousness. In the poem Trailing Clouds of Glory, Seshadri pushes the reader headlong into a multitude of selves that celebrate, engage, question, and explore identities and environments.

Even though I’m an immigrant,
the angel with the flaming sword seems fine with me.
He unhooks the velvet rope. He ushers me into the club.
Some activity in the mosh pit, a banquet here, a panhandler there,
a gray curtain drawn down over the infinitely curving lunette...
...So why the angel with the flaming sword
bringing in the sheep and waving away the goats,
and the men with the binoculars,
elbows resting on the roll bars of jeeps,
peering into the desert? There is a border,
but it is not fixed, it wavers, it shimmies, it rises


(From: 3 Sections By Vijay Seshadri, Graywolf Press, 2013.)


Poetry suffers from a bad reputation: too esoteric for the common man, not commercially viable for big publishers. But because of its ability to pack experience and emotion within the confines of a stanza – to take snapshots with words, if you will –  poetry deserves to be utilised in the same way that we text, tweet or post pictures. It is a perfect mode of communication for the digital age.

Indian poetry is an ongoing, multi-octave raaga of history and human experience. We need to honor and learn from the rich landscape  of Indian poetry –  of voices such as Kannada poet Gopal Honnalgere who have died in obscurity, or like Meena Kandasamy who bear postcolonial witness to the nation’s wrenching twists and turns.  Otherwise, we may be asking ourselves, as Mehrotra does, “What happens to my drafts, my manuscripts, after my death? They will be kept in boxes and sold by the kilo to the raddiwallah (scrap dealer).”

Shikha Malaviya is an Indo-American poet passionate about promoting, archiving and teaching Indian poetry. Her book, Geography of Tongues, was published in December 2013. She is a co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a literary press hard at work to publish India’s most diverse poetic voices. To learn more, visit www.greatindianpoetrycollective.org.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

What hospitals can do to drive entrepreneurship and enhance patient experience

Hospitals can perform better by partnering with entrepreneurs and encouraging a culture of intrapreneurship focused on customer centricity.

At the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, visitors don’t have to worry about navigating their way across the complex hospital premises. All they need to do is download wayfinding tools from the installed digital signage onto their smartphone and get step by step directions. Other hospitals have digital signage in surgical waiting rooms that share surgery updates with the anxious families waiting outside, or offer general information to visitors in waiting rooms. Many others use digital registration tools to reduce check-in time or have Smart TVs in patient rooms that serve educational and anxiety alleviating content.

Most of these tech enabled solutions have emerged as hospitals look for better ways to enhance patient experience – one of the top criteria in evaluating hospital performance. Patient experience accounts for 25% of a hospital’s Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) score as per the US government’s Centres for Medicare and Mediaid Services (CMS) programme. As a Mckinsey report says, hospitals need to break down a patient’s journey into various aspects, clinical and non-clinical, and seek ways of improving every touch point in the journey. As hospitals also need to focus on delivering quality healthcare, they are increasingly collaborating with entrepreneurs who offer such patient centric solutions or encouraging innovative intrapreneurship within the organization.

At the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott, some of the speakers from diverse industry backgrounds brought up the role of entrepreneurship in order to deliver on patient experience.

Getting the best from collaborations

Speakers such as Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairman and Managing Director - Medanta Hospitals, and Meena Ganesh, CEO and MD - Portea Medical, who spoke at the panel discussion on “Are we fit for the world of new consumers?”, highlighted the importance of collaborating with entrepreneurs to fill the gaps in the patient experience eco system. As Dr Trehan says, “As healthcare service providers we are too steeped in our own work. So even though we may realize there are gaps in customer experience delivery, we don’t want to get distracted from our core job, which is healthcare delivery. We would rather leave the job of filling those gaps to an outsider who can do it well.”

Meena Ganesh shares a similar view when she says that entrepreneurs offer an outsider’s fresh perspective on the existing gaps in healthcare. They are therefore better equipped to offer disruptive technology solutions that put the customer right at the center. Her own venture, Portea Medical, was born out of a need in the hitherto unaddressed area of patient experience – quality home care.

There are enough examples of hospitals that have gained significantly by partnering with or investing in such ventures. For example, the Children’s Medical Centre in Dallas actively invests in tech startups to offer better care to its patients. One such startup produces sensors smaller than a grain of sand, that can be embedded in pills to alert caregivers if a medication has been taken or not. Another app delivers care givers at customers’ door step for check-ups. Providence St Joseph’s Health, that has medical centres across the U.S., has invested in a range of startups that address different patient needs – from patient feedback and wearable monitoring devices to remote video interpretation and surgical blood loss monitoring. UNC Hospital in North Carolina uses a change management platform developed by a startup in order to improve patient experience at its Emergency and Dermatology departments. The platform essentially comes with a friendly and non-intrusive way to gather patient feedback.

When intrapreneurship can lead to patient centric innovation

Hospitals can also encourage a culture of intrapreneurship within the organization. According to Meena Ganesh, this would mean building a ‘listening organization’ because as she says, listening and being open to new ideas leads to innovation. Santosh Desai, MD& CEO - Future Brands Ltd, who was also part of the panel discussion, feels that most innovations are a result of looking at “large cultural shifts, outside the frame of narrow business”. So hospitals will need to encourage enterprising professionals in the organization to observe behavior trends as part of the ideation process. Also, as Dr Ram Narain, Executive Director, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, points out, they will need to tell the employees who have the potential to drive innovative initiatives, “Do not fail, but if you fail, we still back you.” Innovative companies such as Google actively follow this practice, allowing employees to pick projects they are passionate about and work on them to deliver fresh solutions.

Realizing the need to encourage new ideas among employees to enhance patient experience, many healthcare enterprises are instituting innovative strategies. Henry Ford System, for example, began a system of rewarding great employee ideas. One internal contest was around clinical applications for wearable technology. The incentive was particularly attractive – a cash prize of $ 10,000 to the winners. Not surprisingly, the employees came up with some very innovative ideas that included: a system to record mobility of acute care patients through wearable trackers, health reminder system for elderly patients and mobile game interface with activity trackers to encourage children towards exercising. The employees admitted later that the exercise was so interesting that they would have participated in it even without a cash prize incentive.

Another example is Penn Medicine in Philadelphia which launched an ‘innovation tournament’ across the organization as part of its efforts to improve patient care. Participants worked with professors from Wharton Business School to prepare for the ideas challenge. More than 1,750 ideas were submitted by 1,400 participants, out of which 10 were selected. The focus was on getting ideas around the front end and some of the submitted ideas included:

  • Check-out management: Exclusive waiting rooms with TV, Internet and other facilities for patients waiting to be discharged so as to reduce space congestion and make their waiting time more comfortable.
  • Space for emotional privacy: An exclusive and friendly space for individuals and families to mourn the loss of dear ones in private.
  • Online patient organizer: A web based app that helps first time patients prepare better for their appointment by providing check lists for documents, medicines, etc to be carried and giving information regarding the hospital navigation, the consulting doctor etc.
  • Help for non-English speakers: Iconography cards to help non-English speaking patients express themselves and seek help in case of emergencies or other situations.

As Arlen Meyers, MD, President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, says in a report, although many good ideas come from the front line, physicians must also be encouraged to think innovatively about patient experience. An academic study also builds a strong case to encourage intrapreneurship among nurses. Given they comprise a large part of the front-line staff for healthcare delivery, nurses should also be given the freedom to create and design innovative systems for improving patient experience.

According to a Harvard Business Review article quoted in a university study, employees who have the potential to be intrapreneurs, show some marked characteristics. These include a sense of ownership, perseverance, emotional intelligence and the ability to look at the big picture along with the desire, and ideas, to improve it. But trust and support of the management is essential to bringing out and taking the ideas forward.

Creating an environment conducive to innovation is the first step to bringing about innovation-driven outcomes. These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott, which is among the top 100 global innovator companies, is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.