Literary history

Those poems you read in school are not what Indian poetry in English really is

An excerpt from the first comprehensive collection of essays on a poetry movement that can equal any other in the world.

English poetry, it might safely be surmised, arrived in India from about the eighteenth century onward in the knapsacks, trunks, portmanteaus and bags of traders and adventurers intent on making their fortunes in the East. It then proceeded to establish itself among readers in exile and readers new to the English language with great and astonishing rapidity, fuelled in most part by the newspaper and periodical print culture that had spread through urban and semi-urban settlements in every part of the country.

The first newspaper in India, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, reserved a section of the pages of its first issue in 1780 for a Poet’s Corner, a demarcated space which would carry one or more poem in each issue for the short period of the paper’s existence, a practice followed by every nineteenth-century newspaper published subsequently. The poem published in the first issue was called The Seasons, and described, expectedly, the English seasons; it took a few months for a long poem with the title A Description of India to make an appearance here.

Does "Indian poetry" exist?

Since then to the present day, poetry written in India in the English language has, of course, changed hands and, indeed, changed nationality – what was once written by Englishmen in India, English poetry, is now Indian poetry (and has been since the nineteenth century), and is currently generally called Indian poetry in English to distinguish it from poetry written by Indians in the classical languages in the past and in the many powerful modern Indian regional languages since the mid-nineteenth century. If ever used in an over-arching sense, any category called “Indian Poetry” is a construct that is still hard to defend; in a 1963 article titled Bengali Gastronomy, the famous Bengali poet and critic Buddhadeva Bose had commented derisively that just as there was no such thing as “Indian food”, there was no such thing as “Indian Literature”, gesturing elliptically at the common understanding that every region in India produced its own variant tradition – of poetry or curry – and needed to be marked accordingly.

So there was Kannada, Punjabi or Gujarati literature (or cuisine), but nothing that could be described as “Indian” curry or “Indian” poetry outside of Indian restaurants and international publishing houses abroad. Besides, in India, Indian writing had never meant, and could never only mean, Indian writing that was done in English; the coloniser’s language was presumed to be a deracinated thing of the elites: unrepresentative, uninviting, and certainly unwanted.

Thirty five years from Bose’s comment, towards the end of the twentieth century in 1998, the pendulum had swung so far in the opposite direction that Salman Rushdie was emboldened to declare, in the introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-97 that he co-edited with Elizabeth West, that not only was there something called “Indian Writing”, as their title indicated, but that on the evidence of the fifty years under consideration in the volume, it was best represented by writing in English alone.

Such a remark, of course, was always designed to provoke a backlash from the Indian literate classes, which it did with great success; less remarked upon was the fact that Rushdie’s notion of “writing” did not for a moment include poetry in it – irrespective of whether it was of the regional or Anglophone variety. Yet Indian poetry in English arguably has a more distinguished lineage than its counterpart, the novel; intrinsically, it has accomplished and achieved as much, if not more, than the celebrated fiction by well-known names that occupies so much shelf space, media space, and literary chatter nowadays, and it has done its work quietly, passionately, and to extraordinarily high standards through all these years. This book is an attempt to elucidate this fact and make a case for it in the wider world of reading.

A tradition without a history

Indian poetry in English is an indissoluble component of India’s existence in modernity, yet this is a tradition without a proper history, an unclaimed tradition for much of its beleaguered and secret existence. No clear notion of its origins and development exists in the minds of most literate Indians, who have generally been introduced to it through prescribed reading at school, alongside much-anthologised and occasionally syrupy specimens from the English canon, as some of the contributions to this volume will mention.

The first introduction to poetry in the English language for Indians might go back to pre-school childhood for some and linger in memories of books of English nursery rhymes with coloured illustrations (in what can only be described as Eastman colour) of blackbirds coming out of pies, rosy-cheeked boys and girls, fat pink pigs, or grandfather clocks with mice in them, all of which usually existed in middle-class surroundings far removed from the world depicted in the utopian space of the pages themselves. From there to Lochinvar and Daffodils in school, without any clear idea as to what the Scottish Border or the daffodil ever looked like, in common with almost every boy or girl studying English in formerly colonised countries anywhere, was a short hop.

The only concession to hard-earned political independence in these school text books was the inclusion of Derozio’s apparently dreary sonnet, To India, My Native Land (a title ascribed to the sonnet by the anthologist rather than the poet), or some even drearier Sarojini Naidu specimen on Coromandel fishermen or palanquin bearers that continues to be part of school text books today.

Excerpted with the author’s permission from the Introduction, by Rosinka Chaudhuri, to A History of Indian Poetry in English, edited by Rosinka Chaudhuri, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

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There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

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The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.