How 40 poets under 40 are writing India of the 1980s and 1990s

A new anthology captures liberalisation and after through poetry.

One waning late summer afternoon, the young poet Semeen Ali, whom I had met very briefly – actually, barely met, but seen on the podium – at the 2012 Hyderabad Literary Festival, got in touch with me with a rather invigorating proposition. Although Semeen had headed back to Delhi after winning the 2011 Muse India National Literary Award, Jury’s Commendation, and I to my home in Hyderabad, we began an active association on social media.

Sharing poetry, musings, and political concerns became regular for us. Of a few very reliable friends I made in the virtual world, Semeen was one. I appreciated her work and related to her disposition. So, I said yes to her almost immediately.

The proposition was to co-edit a poetry anthology based on themes of globalisation. We hovered around the concept for a while, weighing the pros and cons of such an anthology. We arrived at post-globalisation as a more appropriate theme. Mainly because Semeen and I decided to include poets who comprise a young voice in Indian English writing, of age 40 and under, and primarily born and brought up in the 1980s and the 1990s. Thus, 40 Under 40: An Anthology of Post-Globalisation Poetry was born (the final title was locked down later, with our eager publisher’s participation).

Facebook, where a large number of literary and publishing entities also come to roost, became our major platform of announcement. A submission call with a theme note was placed and renewed from time to time. September 30, 2015, was the extended final deadline. By then, poets ranging from twenty-something to to-be-40 had sent in their best work. Poets who were familiar to us and poets we just got to know. The journey had begun.

Back to the theme a little more. This post-globalisation exercise for the editors was a special memory trip. And the idea of collecting memories came to the editors via many routes. Semeen pointed out that as we were growing “old”, we were looking back at several things that we had lived with but were oblivious to them.

Our poets in this anthology portray these punctuations in the said swathe of time like able photographers, in spunky snapshots. The 1980s and the 1990s have so much to offer via the poetic voices that it was exciting and heady for us to sum up our own selecting and editing criteria.

The personal is of course always important in the poet’s vision:

How I can write with a certain ease now about
the night my grandfather died a long painful death
as the rock in his stomach imploded and spilled
the contents into his bloodstream little by little. Or
the loneliness of that British surfer who came
smiling out of the sea every morning like a visitation,
pleased about the movement of the wind. The
crimson-cheeked whores in shiny Kiras lingering
around the hotel lobby in Thimpu, or the complete lack
of women in that small mountain town in the south,
save for a beautiful Tibetan girl who sold sweaters by the lake.

— "Recapitulation", Rohan Chhetri

The reality of globalisation and the period right before that was a mixed bag for some. Certainly it was a tango with the familiar and the romantic.

I used to gift you two or three photographs,
(.jpeg’s were smaller than .bmp’s),
of us standing on the Gomti embankment,
or of you at the Chota Imambara
next to the portrait of the fat Asaf-ud-Daula,
or of our school Principal (after doing
vulgar things to him on MS Paint).
Then, along with those,
I gave you songs – one .mp3
(could be Bombay, ‘Humma Humma’
or Dil To Pagal Hai, ‘Chak Dhoom Dhoom’
or that ‘Dance of Envy’ where Shiamak Davar
was thinking what-was-he-thinking, and
Karishma Kapoor was dancing wtf-is-that-dance.)

— "In the 1.4 MB floppy disk", Akhil Katyal

These are stories that regaled or fascinated, stories from folklores and magic tales, or stories the elders narrated – stories of cities, of migration, of partition, of sensibilities shaped by the incoming onslaught of global impacts among various other things.

I hear bare-headed witticisms about Jesus. Jesus – the tightrope walker, the historical Jesus. I wonder about serrated sagas of Delhi’s boundaries, the aesthetics of a bright tangerine shirt, slim-fitted and its allegiance to history. I wonder about corner talks and how revolutions are intimately difficult things to write about, while sipping wine from plastic cups on manicured lawns.

— "Two Ways of Looking at the Word Cerulean, Maybe Three", Jennifer Robertson

While compiling this one of a kind poetry collection, we also did well to remember the political events that rocked the nation ranging from the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, to the Bombay blasts of 1993, to India becoming a “nuclear power”. Before that, the Mandal Commission movement brought the Indian polity face to face with the reality of a deeply caste-divided country. Collecting memories, therefore, entailed not just technological marvels and global visions of fashion, industry and media, but also the portrait of a nation seeking social justice.

Lines such as…

She was told...
...not to wear a blouse.
To allow every male…
to watch her as a device.
She was told...
to bend her back ...
and not walk straight.

— "She Was Told", Aruna Gogulamanda

…will remind the reader of the harsh reality in India that no amount of globalisation has altered till date. English-speaking/writing India is yet to catch up with the Dalit and Tribal writers’ voices.

As children of the 1980s and the 1990s, many of the poets have recorded the sights and sounds of the period in a curious way, free of cable television interference, social media or even the splurge of electronic messaging:

From the night of Ma’s surgery
I remember the ants that crawled up
My folding bed
And bit me for hiding a dead moth
Under my pillow
Baba and I often spent our summer nights
Sleeping in the courtyard
With snoring neighbours and noisy crickets
For company

— "Alienation", Manjiri Indurkar

If the 1980s conceived most of the poets in this book, the 1990s defined them. It is true that one cannot put a finger on a particular decade and call it a defining one, but going through the anthology will speak to a generation and beyond is what the editors believe.

That generation is sometimes history, sometimes the present – a fluid caravan of old forms and new ideas rushing towards love and urban chaos:

You come not and I keep biding my time.
The peacock’s wings are furled, surly, restless.

Together in raging storms, powerless,
Delhi too, romantic, rainy, restless.

— "Restless", Maaz Bin Bilal

And these are only a handful of names among several others such as Mihir Vatsa, Sohini Basak, Rochelle Potkar, Nabanita Kanungo, Mihir Chitre, Aditi Rao, and more.

40 Under 40 will be published in 2016 by Poetrywalla.

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