Do poets read differently from other writers – and from readers in general? We asked six modern Indian poets writing in English about their reading in 2017. What were the books that stood out? What remained unread? Two poets confessed they hadn’t read as much as they would otherwise have chosen to. Two mentioned Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth. The selections aren’t what we expected – they are as varied and intriguing as the poets themselves.
One of the finest books I read this year was When Mirrors are Windows by Guillermo Rodriguez, a study of AK Ramanujan’s poetics. It’s nuanced and refreshingly non-clunky in its approach – the way all good scholarly writing should be. It views Ramanujan – that remarkable poet and translator of the Tamil Sangam and Kannada vachana poetry – in all his cultural sophistication. We see him poised between identities without ever giving in to the extremes of easy internationalism or regional chauvinism. And it’s a treat to read extracts from Ramanujan’s journals and unpublished poetry.
Another book I particularly enjoyed was If I Had to Tell It Again, a memoir by Gayathri Prabhu, for its mix of candour, poise and urgency in a fiercely loving portrait of a parent. And I’m waiting to dip into CP Surendran’s new book of poetry – a volume from a fine poet after a hiatus of several years.
This was probably the year I read the least number of books, if one doesn’t count my reading life before the age of six. A broken arm followed by surgery meant that it became difficult to hold a book for a sustained period of time. I discovered, therefore, how reading is not only a journey of the eye but one related integrally to the body. This fragmentary nature of my reading – almost new for a reader like me, who often reads like a child, restlessly – affected what I chose to read and how I read, I suppose.
Though I increasingly find myself reading less fiction than I used to, the three books that left an impression on me this year happen to be novels. I’d begun reading James Salter’s Light Years right after delighting in A Sport and a Pastime followed by some of his short stories – I’m glad to report that I haven’t finished reading it even in a year’s time because I have no intention to. I’ve stopped reading it for narrative – I turn to a page or a paragraph arbitrarily and rest on the poetic.
Something quite opposite marks my experience of reading Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth which was published this year, in the summer. I am angry with myself for having finished reading it in one afternoon the way one regrets finishing dessert at one go, without control. I’ve read it a number of times since April, when I first read it, and every time I have the sense of reading a new book. In that, it is related to Salter and other remarkable works of art and literature – the inexhaustibility of the poetic, something new and fresh coming from it with every return.
The third novel that has left an impression on me is Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. The recurring trope of white paper in Light Years, “My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter”, the opening lines of The Sportswriter, and Chaudhuri’s pushing the form of the novel in a way that takes it back to philosophy and the essay, to the first essayist-novelist Daniel Defoe, as it were – all of these became related in my mind as I spent most of the second half of the year thinking about the relation between storytelling, reading, and the natural functions of the body.
Amit Chaudhury’s Friend of my Youth is, in my opinion, his most interesting book, entirely free of the anxiety of influence. Expect profanity. In Gregory Orr’s Orpheus & Eurydice: A Lyric Sequence, grief and desire are rendered in spare lines that tell of one who “sang the years passing/ like sparks/ flung in the dark:/ anvil, tongs, and hammer/ toiling at pleasure’s forge.”
Meena Kandasamy’s When You Hit Me is a vividly written first-person account of an abusive marriage. Reads like a thriller. Tishani Doshi’s Girls are Coming out of the Woods is an unsettling collection of poems that are brutal and beautiful in equal measure. Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems is eight books and two dozen new poems – thirty years of work collected in one indispensable volume.
One of the perils of being a writer is the joined-at-the-hip relationship one develops with books. You must read them. And yet, you must run some distance from them in order to be able to write yourself. I read Alice Munro’s book of long short stories, Runaway, in the middle of a rather schizophrenic semester spent teaching Poetry and Creative Writing to some very extraordinary masters students on the one hand, and, on the other, trying to push through a volcanic illness-landscape on the family front.
Through all this, there was a small, pathetic, whiny voice at the back of my head going, “You haven’t written a line this entire semester. How busy and full of constraints your life is! Poor you!” Munro, that queen of hellishly detailed interior experience, was not exactly soothing to read under these circumstances. For one thing, her almost pathological empathy, her ability to bore her witch-like way into the heads of the ordinary-but-stranger-than-fiction people she writes about has always made me horribly envious. For another, a book like Runaway makes you acutely aware of who you yourself might actually be. Or, rather, the many “yous” you probably are, even though to the world you may appear perfectly ordinary. With Munro, there is no hiding. But one good thing that Runaway, a most amazing collection about love, pain and utter desolation, did was to teach me to see that I didn’t have to travel very far for stories. “Busy” and “full of constraints” though my life in 2017 was, it still contained the seeds of some darned good stories.
The next few books on my list were Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early, Adelia Prado’s The Mystical Rose (which I have just started to read), and Sandra Alcosser’s A Fish to Feed all Hunger – all poetry, for some reason!
My favourite reading experience of 2017 was the absolutely devastating Leila by Prayaag Akbar. I have recommended it to everyone I know, and will continue to – not just because it’s beautiful literature but because it is so politically cogent. Subtle and rich with empathy, it holds a mirror to society that will disturb it in a most necessary way.
Other books I enjoyed included Shankari Chandran’s Song of the Sun God, a multigenerational saga about the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in which love (and not war) is the backdrop, which felt like a breath of fresh air to me as a member of the same. Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a poignant, subversive novel on desire and its necessity. Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy, on illegal immigration and motherhood, had a convincing moral ambiguity that had me hooked (you’ll find yourself taking sides too, and I personally loved how it ended). Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was moving, and reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s powerful Beloved. I’m currently reading SV Sujatha’s supernatural thriller, The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara, and it feels like it’ll shape up to be a favourite too.
I’m looking forward to reading Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties, Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply, Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me, Louise Erdrich’s The Future Home of the Living God and Traci Brimhall’s Saudade – all 2017 titles that have yet to make the jump out of my wishlist and onto my nightstand or Kindle, but will, very soon.
This was a year of eclectic reading. In novels, I especially loved Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders for its polyvocality and experimental form as well as Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, even though it was a gloriously messy read. In short stories, I immensely enjoyed The Refugees by Viet Than Nguyen. His prose is simple and assured with flashes of brilliance that punch you in the gut.
In non-fiction, I found Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood to be riveting as well as a memoir/non-fiction book on the pursuit of medicine called God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet. In poetry, there are simply too many to list, although Olio by Tyehimba Jess stood out for me as a testament to how poetry can recreate/reimagine history while documenting it at the same time. Honourable mentions to Chen Chen’s, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities and Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead.
In Indian poetry, I’m constantly revisiting Arun Kolatkar. I just reread Jejuri and each time I’m struck by its brilliance in thought and form, its wit and playful criticism of organised religion, combined with the beauty of sheer, dumb faith. The same goes for Eunice de Souza and her book A Necklace of Skulls. I’m also shocked that younger poets like Anand Thakore, CP Surendran, Jeet Thayil and Manohar Shetty have all brought out collected works. It makes me feel that Indian poetry is turning a corner and we don’t know what’s on the other side. It’s both terrifying and exciting!