Extinction Violin

Some of the poems in this book originally appeared in Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: Fifty-Six Indian Poets, a special supplement I edited for Fulcrum number four (2005), a poetry annual out of Boston. Thence came the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (Bloodaxe, 2008) and 60 Indian Poets (Penguin India, 2008).

When asked to update the last iteration, I thought to overhaul the entire project and allow a final sea change. In the intervening years the world had transformed, and where form had been the theme for the earlier anthologies, more urgent considerations were now in play. Unsurprisingly, the book developed an end-of-the-world climate all its own, a sense of catastrophic atmospheric changes: democracy and reality were under attack and the world was in the midst of an era-defining paroxysm.

We were witness to the struggle between the desperate regimes of authoritarian old men and a brash new world clamouring to be born. From this came the idea of extinction, and extinction’s music, and a climactic archiving. There are ninety-four poets in this anthology, of whom forty-nine are women and forty-five men. Three quarters of a century separate the oldest poet, born in 1924, from the youngest, born in 2001. The dates serve as bookends to a movement’s unlikely coming of age.

For Indian poets writing in English, modernism arrived at roughly the same time as Independence, which is to say after it had already established itself as the new orthodoxy in other parts of the world. It came to regional Indian languages long before it came to English. In Marathi, to take one instance, the modernist movement attempted to recast seemingly immovable social divisions, including those of caste, in a literature that was nothing if not indigenous.

These writers were in a hurry to overthrow the conventions of the Indian bourgeoisie as well as those of their former colonial masters. Later Marathi modernists (such as Chitre and Kolatkar) owed their allegiance not to British but to European and American poetry, particularly to the Surrealists and the Beats. Indian poetry in English took longer to emerge from the influence of “English” poetry – by no means a situation peculiar to verse.

The most prominent Indian modernists of the fifties, Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes, shaped the canon and cleared the way, but the sounds they made were British and they confined even their experimentation to the essential iamb. It wasn’t until the seventies that Internationalism established itself on the English page in India, with the Clearing House editions of Eunice de Souza, Adil Jussawalla, Jayanta Mahapatra, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Arun Kolatkar, and with the psychic weather poets such as AK Ramanujan, Kamala Das and R Parthasarathy brought to their lines.

The next generation of Indian poets, the poets of the eighties and nineties in Bombay and other cities, were more conservative in some ways than their immediate forebears, and there was a return to the canonical influence of mid-twentieth century British poetry. But by the second decade of the twenty-first century there had been a flowering, an uprising, and a new generation of poets who cared little about the usual poetry presses, who published poems on the Internet and rewrote the canon in their own performative or spoken or gender-fluid image.

To demonstrate the range and variety among Indian poets since Independence, this anthology includes poets who live in places other than the urban centres of India, who trace their imaginative lineage to Faiz, Szymborska, Plath and Lorca, rather than to Walcott, Auden, Eliot and Pound. It returns forgotten figures such as Lawrence Bantleman, Gopal Honnalgere and Srinivas Rayaprol to the centre stage where they belong, and it connects poets who have never before shared a stage.

A chronological parade of poets is as arbitrary as one that is alphabetical. The arrangement in these pages bypasses those systems for the pleasures of verticality. By placing Ezekiel beside Anindita Sengupta, born half a century later and writing to a transformed poetic and social milieu, it is possible to see genetic connections not only in tone but in formal preference. This system of placement, or displacement, may make it difficult to form a quick, superficial assessment, but it gives the reader a more lasting understanding – of how vast, how riverine is the poetry, and a sense of its currents and vitality.

The Fulcrum anthology was published soon after the passing of Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes and Arun Kolatkar, the modernist trinity, who died within months of each other in 2004. One of the developments between the Fulcrum and 60 Indian Poets anthologies was the addition of four names – Kersy Katrak, Revathy Gopal, Santan Rodrigues and Lawrence Bantleman – to the listing of the dead on the dedication page.

In my original headnote to Bantleman’s poems I wrote that he had “vanished so effectively that none of his friends knew what became of him”. Eunice de Souza, working on email from Bombay, made contact with a former colleague who confirmed what had been conjecture, that Bantleman moved to Vancouver and died there more than a decade earlier, that he had given up writing and taken a job with the department of social housing where he made affordable accommodation for the city’s poor, and that he left the post after falling out with a supervisor. “Lawrence had developed an alcohol problem but he remained brilliant,” the colleague wrote to me.

Following a visit to Vancouver on an unrelated matter, I discovered there was a project named after him, the Lawrence Bantleman Court. And there were a handful of people who still remembered him, though not as a writer. In ways too disheartening to enumerate, Bantleman’s story is an Indian one. He produced first-rate work as a young poet, and then, because of financial anxiety and the lack of a sustained response to his poems, the usual denouement occurred: flight, an end to the writing, a disappearance into alcoholism and obscurity.

This volume adds Eunice and Vijay Nambisan to the dedication page, who died in 2017; and Meena Alexander and Deepankar Khiwani, in 2018 and 2020, respectively; and Kamala Das and Dilip Chitre, in 2009.

Excerpted with permission from The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil, Penguin Books.