A borrowed voice, to quote a line from an Arvind Krishna Mehrotra poem (“Borges”), sets the true one free. It was through Ezra Pound’s poetry that Mehrotra discovered his own voice as an apprentice poet many years ago. But Pound’s influence on him as a critic was equally formative. According to Pound, the critic’s job is “to dig out the fine thing forgotten.” And Mehrotra’s sense of the literary-critical vocation is exactly in line with this idea: of criticism as a form of excavation, a form of remembering.

Pound had to travel back in time – to Homer, Dante, Chaucer, and the distant epochs of Latin and classical Chinese poetry – to find his wasteland of cultural detritus. His interest was in reviving dead reputations and restoring old icons. In Mehrotra’s case, no time travel is required, since he’s dealing not with some long lost memory but with a kind of short-term cultural amnesia, which kills reputations before they are formed. Unacknowledged talent is all around him, writers living or recently dead, inhabiting, in his words, “the rainshadow region of literature”, where the canonical and the traditional are meaningless concepts.

Calling on Kolatkar

Notwithstanding Salman Rushdie and his epigones, the tradition of Indian writing in English has largely occupied a marginal space in our cultural life. In this tradition, countless writers have lived and died in obscurity. Some even courted obscurity by refusing to publish their work, the better to maintain a hygienic distance from the literary establishment.

Arun Kolatkar, who wrote in both Marathi and English, was one such figure. Mehrotra calls him “a secret writer,” referring to Kolatkar’s indifference to the conventional dreams of the literary life. If it weren’t for Mehrotra’s tireless championing of his work, the name Kolatkar wouldn’t mean anything to most of us today.

I want to invoke the inevitable “Pound campaigning for TS Eliot” analogy, but Mehrotra’s devotion to Kolatkar has more in it than a critic’s approbation for his subject. There’s an element of the personal informing it. If Mehrotra is unsentimentally clear-sighted about Kolatkar’s strengths and weaknesses as a poet, he never fails to remind us that he is writing from a standpoint of sympathy and gratitude, as only a friend could.

More than half of Mehrotra’s new book of essays, Translating the Indian Past, is centred on Kolatkar. Included in this collection are pieces about Kolatkar’s early poems; about his notebooks and drawings; as well as an extended section featuring a series of letters Kolatkar exchanged with his first wife, Darshan Chhabda. The letters are reprinted in this book verbatim, with occasional doodles and drawings by Kolatkar, and occasional commentary by Mehrotra, adding biographical context to a correspondence that is by turns intimate and literary. “A common love of books and literature, of writing as a form of living, runs through their correspondence,” Mehrotra writes.

“Soap-bubble reputation”

There are those who embrace writing as a form of living. And then those who position themselves, as Mehrotra writes in his essay on the Hindi poet and novelist Vinod Kumar Shukla, “against a certain idea of writing, of writer.” In the contemporary imagination, the writer is an exotic beast one could sight near the watering holes of literature festivals. The writer is always worried about his, in Mehrotra’s hilarious metaphor, “soap-bubble reputation”: “…constantly blowing on the soap bubble gun to keep themselves in the public eye.”

Mehrotra himself is at odds with that species of writer. He spent most of his life teaching English at Allahabad University, and now lives in Dehradun, safely out of reach of the literati. He once called himself a “reluctant writer” and, like Kolatkar, he publishes his writings if not reluctantly then sparsely. The edition of Mehrotra’s collected poems, nearly five decades’ worth of work, runs to just under 300 pages. His first essay collection, Partial Recall, was published as late as 2012. Translating the Indian Past is his second book of essays, and the writers it celebrates – from Kolatkar and Shukla to Srinivas Rayaprol, Eunice de Souza, Adil Jussawalla and Amit Chaudhuri among others – have all been “against a certain idea of writing, of writer.”

Now here’s a certain idea of writing: That creative writers ought not to waste their time on criticism. It’s almost fashionable for novelists and poets these days to look down upon the critical enterprise. The word “critic” itself has been conclusively divorced from its original Greek root kritikos, which means to judge, to decide, to discriminate on the basis of merit. It is now commonly used as a synonym for naysayer: The critic is the fault-finder, the spoil sport, the “artist manqué,” in George Steiner’s regrettable words (Steiner of all people! One of the great critics of our time.).

All this is enough to make one forget about the existence of that fast-vanishing breed called the artist-critic. We are on the verge of forgetting that some of our greatest artists believed that the critical and the creative impulses feed into, and derive sustenance from, each other. Just to stay with the poets: WH Auden, Joseph Brodsky, TS Eliot and, of course, Ezra Pound wrote criticism that lives up to the high standards of their poetry. But I would argue that their poetry can’t be imagined without their critical essays, with which these writers were mapping out a literary context for their poems.

Mehrotra’s concerns as a critic are similar. By highlighting certain qualities in the poets he admires he is also telling us about his own poetic proclivities and ambitions. “Writers like him do our looking (and our hearing) for us,” he says of Jussawalla at one point in this book. Here’s Mehrotra, in his poem “Evening Walk,” looking at the world on our behalf: “After a rubbish dump / And a country liquor bar, / The Adventist church, / A piglet in black / Ditch-water trousers / Running across its yard.” And in his poem “At Seasons,” he is doing our listening for us: “In winter, the wet monsoon – / Frog songs, low rumbling clouds, / Insects crawling on the arm, / A heron shooting off its mouth.”

Curating / critiquing

There’s one more aspect of Mehrotra’s literary essays that reminds me, yet again, of Pound. What gives Pound’s critical work its extraordinary cogency is the enthusiasm it coveys. It is the enthusiasm of the common reader discovering the joys of literature and desiring to share them. “LISTEN to the sound it makes,” is his basic yet indispensable lesson on prosody offered in ABC of Reading. “READ HIM,” Pound once wrote of Eliot, in characteristic all-caps, making as good a case as a critic can make for a writer.

Mehrotra, too, is trying to convey the same message, with the same degree of urgency, in relation to the various subjects he chooses to write about. “Read this,” he is saying to us, throwing the spotlight on the text under review as he himself takes a back seat, like a self-effacing anthologist. (I should mention here that his 1992 book, The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, has been read by generations of literary enthusiasts.)

It is with an anthologist’s generosity that Mehrotra quotes other writers in his essays, often at length. The Kolatkar letters and the translated version of an entire Vinod Kumar Shukla story published in this book remind us that Mehrotra is less interested in authorial sermonising (of which Pound was a specialist) than in curating a reading list for us.

Behind this reading list is a multilingual sensibility. The project of Indian writing in English has been shaped by those – from Toru Dutt to AK Ramanujan – who were comfortable traversing across languages, and were well-versed in the art of translation. Like his literary forebears, Mehrotra, too, is at home in more than one language. He has translated several Hindi poems, including a wonderful selection of Kabir’s songs, into English.

Translation as a subject of critical inquiry is something he keeps returning to, as he does in the title essay of Translating the Indian Past. Should the translator simply aspire to be a medium, giving us a glimpse of another’s genius? Or should he be more audacious and think of himself as an artist, as the creator of a new version of the original? These aims aren’t mutually exclusive, as Mehrotra says in his essay, citing Ramanujan in his defence: “The translation must not only represent, but re-present, the original.”

The writer behind the writing

Critic, poet, anthologist, scholar and translator. Mehrotra’s literary career is as multifaceted as it is difficult to write about. To do justice to it, we would need a higher vantage point than what’s afforded by the book review format. For those who haven’t read Mehrotra before, Translating the Indian Past serves as a decent introduction to the author’s longstanding literary preoccupations; the book can also be seen as a belatedly written preamble to the poems. But do these essays give us a better sense of the man who wrote them? Not of “writing as a form of living,” but of life that the writer lives outside his bookish layer?

I hesitate to use that solipsistic word “autobiographical.” In any case, there’s nothing of the Augustinian laying bare of the self in Mehrotra’s nonfiction. There are essays in Partial Recall – including the very moving title piece – that are structured around personal themes. But even these are focused away from the self: more concerned with people and places beloved to the author.

In Translating the Indian Past, the authorial “I” surfaces on rare occasions, often to mark an interruption or a digression in the narrative. As in the essay entitled “Sunday Painter Revisited” – about a professor and art critic Mehrotra got to know at Allahabad University – the author’s attention shifts from the subject to self a few pages before the end, at which point, this piece that started out as a tribute to a mentor transforms into a memoir about university life. “I sometimes taught two classes, so was free by 11.20, but most days I taught just one, and that one was zero,” Mehrotra writes, referring to the “zero period” that began a little before regular hours.

In the essay on Adil Jussawalla, “Being Here,” the digression inaugurates the narrative. Mehrotra writes, “When in the summer of 1966 I arrived in Bombay from Allahabad to enrol at Bombay University, there was hardly a soul I knew in the city. My parents had found me accommodation in Mulund in a sort of ashram run by a woman we called Maaji…” He then gets to the point, to Jussawalla and his work, and you know he’s not going back to that ashram again. Not in this piece, nor in any other anytime soon.

“Why do writers want to be visible and invisible, famous and anonymous?” he asks in an essay on Kolatkar. This paradox might be explained, according to Mehrotra, by the “nature of writing” itself. By the complex of anxieties the blank page can cause in even the most experienced of writers. By the overwhelming question every writer is condemned to return to, line by line, book by book: what to write next? (Title of a Mehrotra poem: “Where Will the Next One Come From”.)

May be writers who are attuned to these anxieties feel that urge to hide, to go missing, very strongly. May be that’s why they tend to be reticent on the page about their personal lives. If we wish to look for them, we must look harder, and we must know where to look. In Mehrotra’s case, the poems are where we find him. Here he is, in “Approaching Fifty,” encountering the self as an image and a memory:

In unwiped bathroom mirrors,
He sees all three faces
Looking at him:

His own,
The grey-haired man’s
Whose life policy has matured,
And the mocking youth’s
Who paid the first premium.

Translating the Indian Past

Translating the Indian Past and Other Literary Histories, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University.