How many books of poems does it take to acquire the lucidity and beauty you have been aspiring for since teenage? It took Ranjit Hoskote six books to arrive at a point where words make much more happen than their sum total might suggest, while celebrating the preoccupations found in his earlier collections. Myth, fable, nature, history, metaphysics, meditation, ventriloquism – he has plucked every string in the lyre with love. Here, we unmistakably find a poet who has walked “through mirrors to be himself”.
A Ranjit Hoskote poem is a bird on the wing. Try transcribing its trajectory, and you end up enraptured by the sky that only the bird could have brought about. The poems in Hunchprose similarly incandesce in a space in which words not only breathe but also “grip the flint-edge clarity / of breath”:
Did I ever think
Heaven would ripen its doors
before their right season
expecting me to arrive
any day now my boots caked with mud
my coat weighed down with rain
The door to the poem beginning with these lines hinges on the word ripen, which shares its second syllable with open. Adherence to everyday collocation makes us pull the word fruit closer to ripen, just as a door pushes us towards the verb open (or close). Fruit has an age-old link with karma, which in turn cannot be sundered from the heaven–hell dyad.
This is one example of how masterly word choice amplifies meaning. Speed reading, however, will close the door that lets light fall on such “marigold petals on silk”, besides making the rushing eye capture ripen as open. The pleasure the lines ladle out is not just contained in the metallic vessel of assonance (as heard in “ripen” / “season” / “rain” and “caked” / “weighed”/“mud”) but also spills over from the terracotta ewer of image (as seen in “doors” maturing, as if their wood were alive, remembering the forest where it took birth).
The title poem, “Hunchprose”, hails the endless contributions that enemies, whether overt or covert, make to render each other’s existence tolerable in the pursuit of rancour. The title is an obvious coinage inspired by the word hunchback, and the reader doesn’t need a special hunch to see that the poem is satirical: “He calls me Hunchprose”. Even if one wishes to be left to one’s own devices, there’s no dearth of diligent contenders for the post of the “murderous rival” who leaves no stone unturned to make their presence felt. No foolproof way has been devised so far to deal with a
teller of tall tales who wraps you up
in his flying carpet serves you snake oil
This is Hoskote’s first poem written in a sardonic vein, and the way he ends it is brilliant:
Call me Hunchpraise. I bend over my inkdrift words.
And when I spring back up I sting.
This poem uses only end punctuation – that too, sparingly – except in the second-last line. The experiment is well worth the effect it produces. Reading “Hunchprose”, admirers of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who selected and translated Prākrit Love Poetry from the Gāthāsaptaśatī of Sātavāhana Hāla and named it The Absent Traveller, might remember what a second-century poet from India had to say about special company:
The moment it meets a bowstring,
The simple arrow’s in flight:
Can the straight be friends
With the bent?
The bent have every right to christen the chosen adversary – straight or not – “but what’s a word / between murderous rivals?”
Formidable erudition can be an impediment to poetic expression. Not so for Hoskote, who knows how to inveigle the too-knowing mind into a gentle silence so that the heart can sing its homespun aphorisms:
every proverb you were taught
to reveal the raw welt of ardour
until you find
where the reluctant chronicler wrote:
because what is healed is dead
Raw and effusive words, those, but not without an underlying order, achieved through white spaces in conjunction with slant rhymes. The reasons behind the decision to shun punctuation in four fifths of the book might be varied, ranging from intuitive to stylistic, yet in all probability is inspired by a longtime engagement with poetry in other Indian languages, as well as an abiding commitment to translation. Hoskote’s nimble fingers have accomplished such sartorial finesse that the seams in his work are no longer tactile, let alone visible. For needlepoint, he has
. . . rows of houses steeped
centuries-deep in peace
a soulsleep elsewhere familiar
only to livestock curtained from the falling axe
and the sealed train
that’s about to bump west–east across cratered plains
carrying its deathweight
Echoing the music woven into these words, the portmanteau “soulsleep” carries all the elegance a word needs to register its permanent presence in dreams. Neck ever exposed to the keen edge of the blade forged fondly by the world, even those devoted to peace will often be rewarded with violence; they can’t always escape the axe hidden behind a curtain.
The connotation of “soulsleep”, despite its charm, is sinister: an abandonment of empathy regardless of the quantum of horrors meted out to fellow humans. The human capacity to ignore is as remarkable today as it was during the Third Reich. Even the never-fading rail squeak of the Partition trains carrying their “deathweight” (another portmanteau) fails to wake those who deem such sleep sacred.
If a book opens on a prose poem, it is natural to expect more than one to fulfil the promise the first one, titled “Sidi Mubarak Bombay”, makes, but lovers of the form will have to make do with the only prose poem in the collection. The poem tells a story:
A child, I was sold for a length of cotton and hammered into a link in a chain of caravans.
. . . In Bombay, I was a Sidi, a man from Zanj, a man the colour of night. In Zanjibar, I spoke Gujarati, Hindustani, two words of English. Stuttered in Kiswahili. But this new–old country spoke to me in rhymes of soil, sand, river, jungle. It brought me gold.
Here’s a poet who not only differentiates his en dashes from hyphens but also knows why it is essential to use “heeng” instead of asafoetida and why the tongue relishes the “masala-thick pungency” of “[b]ombil, surmai, bangda, rawas.”
The poem titled “Tree” has a thing or two to teach the word technicians who, out of habit, lock their imagination in the attic while they sit in the living room to humour prim guests who would rather strike up a conversation with the toolbox than with the engineer:
Across the river I hear squirrels chittering as
they try to climb
the branches of a tree’s shadow
the squawks of parrots biting into
the shadows of its fruit
the echoing chants of hermits sweating in
the shade of its shadow
Gash the bark
of this fornever and never tree
Let the baffled woodpecker
taste its sap
“Tree” is the kind of poem that the likes of Vinod Kumar Shukla will revel in.
Each new poem in Hunchprose begins on a recto. That’s an interesting ritual to individually thank all poems that have come to pay a visit. It’s as if the poet is telling them, “Each one of you is equally special to me.” For all we know, this homage to right-handedness might soon become a trend among typographers who favour ambidexterity in their layout choices.
Out of the 61 poems in the book, 50 carry one-word titles. These are common nouns with which even a child will identify: “Sand”, “Earth”, “Voice”, “Town”, “Room”, “Castle”, “Train”, “Lion”, “River”, “Tree”, “Cave”, and so forth. But the simplicity isn’t confined to the titles alone; it also trickles into the poems, word by warm word, inviting even first-time readers to a world whose wealth can’t be matched by any other genre of writing, a world with “red earth glistening / jewel-quick with early rain”.
The seventeenth-century bhakti poet Tukaram, in Dilip Chitre’s translation, says:
Words are the only
Jewels I possess
Words are the only
Clothes I wear
Words are the only food
That sustains my life
Words are the only wealth
I distribute among people
Over more than three decades of his writing life, Hoskote has multiplied this wealth many times over. With Hunchprose, he also seems to have discovered its sole purpose: philanthropy.
Hunchprose, Ranjit Hoskote, Penguin Books.
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