The Yearbook of Indian Poetry in English 2020-21 has evolved from an inspirational coming together of two poets as editors who decided to help steer and facilitate the process of cherry picking – with the help of a committee of experts – in a rapidly expanding jungle of Indian poetry in English. When the path in the wilderness begins to get strewn with thorny acacias and nettles, some clearing of land is called for, if only to make space for newer paths.
We fully realised that cherry picking cannot be a singular and whimsical act. It is both a skill and a matter of sensitivity.
An objective understanding and collective wisdom are crucial in discerning the best from the large assembly of voluntary submissions received in response to our call for poems for the Annual Yearbook. An overwhelming number of poems was received, written in English and published in the period specified. On invitation, an illustrious group of poets, young and not so young, readily agreed to join us in making a selection of over a hundred poems for this inaugural volume.
Since there cannot be absolute objective criteria for the selection of poetry, we thought we could at least make the selection less subjective by involving diverse poetic sensibilities in the process. Also, for dispassionate choices, it was imperative that there be a blind reviewing of the poems. What was maintained throughout was a clear understanding that the poem itself would be central, not the poet.
The idea was to capture and record quality work, written by Indian poets, published anywhere in the world, in the year specified, for it to not remain unnoticed, get waylaid, or die an unnatural death.
In addition to reaching out to poets themselves, we solicited nominations of poems from editors of magazines and journals. We wish to emphasise proudly that this is a collective selection, not to be perceived as an anthology with any other agenda but that of an attempt at recording-keeping of the best of Indian poetry written in English annually. Our job as editors has been to facilitate the process...
The objective of the Yearbook of Indian English Poetry declared at the outset has been further reinforced on observing the enthusiastic and bountiful submissions (more than 550 poems received from 191 poets along with nominations by several editors). We hope that the Yearbook will help in showcasing benchmarks in standards of quality poetry in English in India and contribute in building yearly awareness of the ongoing publication of good poems.
It is hoped that this will motivate readers to undertake critical reviewing of poetry and also maybe translating these selected poems into other languages in India for a meaningful intra-lingual literary interactions.
Creative use of the English language in India has had by now a fairly long tradition of nearly a century and a half.
English is a language, one amongst many in India; Queen’s English has had to shake off its colonial baggage and shed its imperial designs, for it to take roots in the richly multilingual Indian subcontinent where many languages nurture their own literary traditions, not to speak of the vast range of oral traditions.
The journey thus commenced in search of our own English which has negotiated with the rich repertoire of literary traditions and languages in this country. Raja Rao, an important early Indian writer in English had made a profound leading statement in the Preface to his novel Kanthapura published in 1938, “Indians can write in English but not write like the English”.
A historical perspective to creative writing in English in India informs us how the decolonisation of the language gradually progressed through the owning of English by such fiction writers and poets as Mulk Raj Anand, RK Narayan, Nissim Ezekiel, R Parthasarathy, Kamala Das, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Jayanta Mahapatra amongst many others. Bilingualism inevitably leads to the creation of a liminal space of bi-culturality as well.
An English with an interface with Punjabi, Marathi, Tamil, Bengali or for that matter any other Indian language is bound to acquire a tone, tempo and cadence etc impacted by the other tongue so vitally present in the consciousness of the poet.
Its vibrant presence in the environment is enough to affect her/his English even if technically the “other” language is not being used by the poet for creative writing. Each language informs, negotiates, feeds and rejuvenates the other. One might say then that poetry in English in India is written in many Englishes, each one with an indigenous or a kind of a hybrid ring around it. This is not to dismiss any creative writing done in the so-called “standard” English – maybe used deliberately – to serve a creative purpose. This too carries within itself its own cultural baggage of history and politics!
In this forest of poetry, the interconnections amongst diverse vegetation cannot be overlooked. Greater the diversity, greater the scope for creative prosperity. The extraordinary variety of over five hundred poems submitted for this Yearbook provided us with ample evidence to prove this fact!
By Madhu Raghavendra
(for Poge Karso)
The warp and weft of stories
knit life and lore tightly,
automated looms loom,
the dust on our hands draws debt
and dullness takes over.
The assembly lines kill culture,
societies now come in the same clothes.
She meditates like a mountain,
one end of the loom tied to the window,
an antelope of light leaps looking for a companion,
the other end to her spine.
Her nerves run through the universe,
there are no permanent fixtures,
the voice of her fabric is untameable.
Her dyes don’t bleed, she bleeds love
for daughters, brocades of rain,
fashion, decorative dashes, peacock plumes and
lakes of lilacs that drown man and his machines.
Her colours are infinite, her needles converse
in codes, migrate centuries
before she brings them home.
Her motifs are faceless revolutions,
no pamphlets are served, no slogans raised
yet her women blossom
at the dance of her tribe like wild orchids.
She owns no war, stitches boundaries and
harvests the Sun on her loom
yet none of her children weave a gāle.
A Poem about Rain
By Kunjana Parashar
Even the rain does not spare my mother. It is
the middle of October and the lightning makes all
the fig trees look like a ghastly white. Mother rushes
to rescue her almost dry laundry from the clothesline
with the same panic with which she watched my sister
once slip in the waters of Godavari where teen boys
swam like fishes. She was saved – but the clothes are
wet again. Someone once told me that you mustn’t write
a poem that is too aware of itself, of its intentions.
But I always know it is going to be about my mother
even if it might disguise itself in odes to corvids
or horses. I do not mean for her to be my golden scarab
but she permeates everything. She is everywhere.
The World takes a Breath
By Arundhati Subramaniam
The world takes a breath
about the wisdom
of looking within,
photographs of mute anguish
to give us our daily fix
a wild pandemic
Who’d have thought
an empty hour
was so much labour?
We walk the day most times
on steel girders
knowing that as long as there are lists
the world is safe,
and meaning won’t save us
but rhythms will.
And only sometimes
does all the fumbling
when the sky falls away
like blue laughter
and suddenly, we’re cycling,
hands free, hands free,
Excerpted with permission from Sukrita Paul Kumar and Vinita Agrawal’s ‘Introduction’ to The Yearbook of Indian Poetry in English 2020-2021, Hawakal.