Watering the Desert: Modern Indian-English Poetry

[A version of this essay first appeared in Swedish translation in Innan Ganges Flyter in i Natten, an anthology of modern Indian poetry in Swedish (Tranan, Indiska Biblioteket, 2009)]


In his introduction to a landmark anthology of Indian English poetry, The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1992), poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra calls those Indians who write poetry in English ‘strugglers in the desert’. Though this image might suggest a trickle rather than a flood, the fact is that three generations of poets have struggled in the desert. (I am using the term ‘generation’ to signify poets separated by a twenty-year age gap.) And when I say ‘three generations’, I refer only to modern poetry. We have written poetry in English for much longer than that – histories of the genre usually begin with Henry Louis Vivian Derozio who was born two hundred years ago. However, the poets who refashioned English to suit their own ends from Independence onwards did not see themselves connected to a poet like Derozio, whose style they would consider archaic. They would also reject later figures like the freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) who wrote picturesque, musical, dreamy poems. A glance at the titles of her poems (‘Bangle-Sellers’, ‘Palanquin-Bearers’, ‘Indian Weavers’) is enough to reveal their distance from the urbanscapes that later poets would take their inspiration from.

But even to consider only post-Independence poetry is to be faced with an extreme diversity of approach and style. It is difficult if not impossible to point to trends in the poetry written over the last fifty-odd years, starting with Nissim Ezekiel’s propitiously-titled, 1952 collection A Time to Change­ – considered the first book of modern Indian poetry in English. At the risk of over-simplifying, I will nevertheless point to three different, and I believe generationally different, ways in which Indian English poetry has been written.

Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004) grapples with the idea of ‘India’– an Ezekiel poem often progresses by somehow making peace with India, often simply by acknowledging its shambolic, odd and oppressive aspects. There is an exercise of choice involved in accepting India and that choice is always a moral one. The well-known lines: “As others choose to give themselves/ In some remote and backward place./ My backward place is where I am…” could be considered a motif of Ezekiel’s verse. His poems are often set in Bombay, yet Bombay (“barbaric city sick with slums”) is like a landscape in a parable and not visualised through its particularities, unlike, say, Arun Kolatkar’s Bombay or Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Allahabad.

Mehrotra who was born in 1947, the year India became a free nation, represents the second generation – already moving away from the first even though the field is still thin and Indian English poetry is nothing like a genre yet. His poems are marked by a confident, easy fluency very different from Ezekiel’s formal, deliberate style. Mehrotra taps the possibilities of two very different sources for poetry – the deeply autobiographical, rich with personal details, and the visionary, which encompasses the playful, the invented, the purely aesthetic, the surreal. (His 1967 Woodcuts on Paper is a collection of the surrealist-influenced concrete poetry.) With Mehrotra (and with the somewhat older Kolatkar, whom he deeply admires) we have the opening up of the subject matter of poetry to include the everyday, the imagined, the dreamed and the personally experienced. It is doubtful whether later poets could have ranged freely over all these realms without this early show of confidence on Mehrotra’s part. Unlike Ezekiel, whose dilemmas about creative and cultural choices give his poems their edge, and unlike Ezekiel’s contemporary, the ‘Indo-American’ poet AK Ramanujan, who explores the question of authenticity and the divided self with sophistication and subtlety, Mehrotra is free of anxieties about ‘Indianness’ even if he does address ‘India’ directly, such as in his long poem Bharatmata: A Prayer (1966) in which the country is seen as a septic tank filled with World Bank loans. More often though, Mehrotra is sensitive to the particular – sometimes locating his personal history in highly exact physical settings, sometimes drawing on the universal perspectives of the surreal, and sometimes bringing the two together as in the poem ‘The Roys’.

The influence of these older poets on the younger ones is not immediately obvious. Though younger poets have often written poems about the elders, this is not necessarily to acknowledge influence as much as to simply acknowledge. For instance, Vijay Nambisan’s ‘Dirge’ invokes the elders only to say he is not up to the task of carrying their legacy forward. “So Arun and Dom and Nissim – I will shun their hard-earned grief/ And much though I will always miss ‘em, in softer shadows find relief.” And in his poem ‘Nissim Ezekiel’ Amit Chaudhuri says, with a touch of the anti-climactic, of his meeting with the poet as a seventeen-year-old – “In some ways he did not disappoint.”

Nevertheless, it is possible to see how poets like Ezekiel and Mehrotra pave the way for a third-generation poet such as Ranjit Hoskote (born 1969). Hoskote’s poem on Nissim Ezekiel, ‘Passing a Ruined Mill’, is a portrait of the older poet when he was dying of Alzheimer’s Disease but it is also a poem about poetry. He imagines that for Ezekiel it was a tree he had created, laden with forbidden, poison fruit, “its roots anchored in passion”. This image of the poet being consumed by his own creation is both a larger metaphor as well as a description of Ezekiel’s own struggles in the desert. But even though his diction can at times sound like an erudite version of Ezekiel’s, it is to a poet like Mehrotra that Hoskote’s poetry owes its self-appointed freedom to roam the world and take pleasure in reinventing it. Hoskote’s poems are full of the often timeless perspectives of explorers, conquerors, refugees and storytellers. At the same time, he is like Ezekiel an art and literary critic and many of his poems, by taking the form of tributes to artists and writers, become grounded in the ‘modern’ and in the celebration of poetry as an aesthetic pursuit.

Even though there has been a marked lack of movements and schools within Indian English poetry, the genre has, as I hope the necessarily selective examples above show, covered a wide swathe in three generations. Yet there remains over it the feel of an underground and sidelined activity. Why is this and how has it been addressed by the poets themselves?


Notions of marginality and iconoclasm have been a persistent part of the image of Indian English poetry – both in the minds of those who practise it and those who only comment on it. (Though it is doubtful that we would today go so far as to say, as Pritish Nandy did in 1973, that the Indian English poet is to Indian poetry as a whole what Alice Cooper is to American rock!)  Modern pioneers such as Arun Kolatkar, Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Gieve Patel, Jayanta Mahapatra and Dilip Chitre, writing in the fifties, sixties and seventies, appeared to consider their art intensely small-scale and private – sometimes they went all out to embrace this marginality by not publishing their work at all or by jointly starting small presses and little magazines in which to publish themselves and their friends. Today’s poets, even if they consider themselves marginal to both the international English language poetry scene and the larger currents of Indian literature, have a public body of work called ‘Indian English poetry’ and a sense, however incomplete, of its history. Nevertheless, discussions about Indian poetry continue to centre on this question of the relevance of writing poetry in a language that many still consider ‘foreign’.

One reason for the feeling of marginality is the view that this poetry lacks a home. Where, commentators ask, within the context of the geographical and cultural entity called India, do we locate this body of work, created by people living not just far apart from each other but also speaking different mother tongues in addition to English? Poets themselves have taken this question seriously such as Dilip Chitre when he says, “Indian English poetry is the poetry of a landless minority… A sense of exile has to be an irreducible part of the IE poet’s self-perception… He is therefore forced into an inner territory or surrogate landscape as a substitute for a linguistic homeland.” This constant search for a geographical analogue to a literature, this assumption of a primeval connection between language and land, has made a freaky vagabond out of Indian English poetry.

However, homelessness need not be a bad thing. Analysing one of the great figures of Indian poetry, Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004), the poet, novelist, and critic Amit Chaudhuri (in his introduction to the 2005 New York Review of Books Classics’ edition of Jejuri) draws on Walter Benjamin’s idea of the flâneur. Kolatkar’s best known book is a long sequence of poems about a visit to a temple town and is called Jejuri after this town. His Kala Ghoda Poems, a collection published posthumously in 2004, has become as celebrated as Jejuri and describes a small section of downtown Bombay in close, loving, dense and ironic detail. Chaudhuri says that these two books have more in common than may first appear. “Although it’s [Jejuri] about a journey to a remote (for many) pilgrimage town in Maharashtra, it’s less about the transformations of the journey than about a man who never left the city, or downtown, or a cosmopolitan, modernist idea of the metropolis […] His journey, and his sense of travelling and of wonder, brought him back to where he was – and where he was is metropolitan, shabby, and dislocating […] The flâneur stops, starts, pauses again, ponders, constantly struck by the unremarkable object that the city’s passers-by don’t notice.”

This is the vagabond as artist. Though Chaudhuri says that younger Indian writers have not explored the possibilities of this lineage enough, the fact that each generation strikes out on its own, and that the body of Indian English poetry (which I referred to earlier) is a loose-limbed, heterogeneous, dynamic body, does owe something to the sense of adventure shown by early pioneers like Kolatkar.

So rather than harping constantly on what Indian English poetry is – apparently the homeless sibling to other traditions of Indian poetry – it might be more productive to think of what it does. I think that precisely because the practice of Indian English poetry remains dispersed and private, because the publishing and circulation of it is fragmented and limited, because it does not labour under an obligation to either further or challenge any existing traditions, because the poets writing it are subject to extremely diverse literary influences from home and abroad, Indian English poets enjoy great thematic and stylistic freedom, and can use the language in fluid and ingenious ways. This informality and openness does, of course, mean that it is harder to trace connections and overlaps between different poets, and that critical frameworks for judging this poetry are often provisional. But it also means that this poetry is able to give voice in multiple ways to the experience of being an urban Indian. For someone seeking to build a picture of contemporary India, it therefore becomes a very important expressive source.

Younger poets, in their role as compilers of poetry anthologies, have begun to recognise this. Earlier anthologists such as Vilas Sarang, R Parathsarathy, Pritish Nandy and K Ayyappa Paniker tended to remind their readers about the marginality of this poetry and mounted only a tentative defence on its behalf. In more recent anthologies edited by poets like Ranjit Hoskote and Jeet Thayil, the use of English has become a sign of cosmopolitanism rather than a signifier of limited relevance. However, this cosmopolitanism does not mean poets are disconnected from the idea of ‘Indian’. In his Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets (2002), Hoskote says, “If this poetry emerges from a metropolitan consciousness and is informed by the experiences of speed and novelty, violence and isolation, it can also overcome the brittleness of the contemporary to adapt, critically, the forms and impulses of tradition. Experiments with the villanelle and the sonnet coexist with attempts to conduct into English the silhouettes of the ghazal and the doha, the discipline of the bandish, the cadences of the dialect.”

Jeet Thayil’s anthology 60 Indian Poets (2008) takes this upbeat approach further by redrawing the boundaries around the category ‘Indian English poet’. Reacting to the fact that earlier anthologies have tended to be like small clubs with the same poets and the same poems appearing repeatedly, Thayil has put together the largest anthology in the language to date. (The British edition of the same anthology, The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry, has even more poets – 72 in all.) This is not just a matter of enlarging the club. By including not just Indian poets from home but also those who live – and whose parents and even grandparents might have lived – in countries like the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia, Thayil brings previously unknown poets to the attention of readers. At the same time, he further complicates the question of what Indian poetry is. One of Thayil’s subtitles for his anthology is ‘One Language Separated by the Sea’. The image of the desert is now replaced by the image of a literature spread across linked continents. But despite this claiming of the global, the question about the validity of English remains. The first third of Thayil’s introduction is devoted, like those of his older anthologist colleagues, to defending Indian English poets against the charge that because they write in English, they don’t matter.


To talk about literature in India is most often to talk about language. Indian literatures are first distinguished from each other on the basis of language. As a result, Indian English poetry is often read and studied independent of other Indian poetry writing traditions. This reflects the situation of poets and critics who increasingly function only in English; they might at best be able to speak their ‘mother tongues’ but cannot read the literatures written in them.

There are some who see the limitations of approaching Indian poetry in this divided way. Poet Adil Jussawalla’s anthology New Writing in India (1974) was one of the first in which translations of poetry, fiction and essays from various Indian languages, as well as writing in English, were allowed to rub up against each other and reveal their interconnectedness. AK Ramanujan and Vinay Dharwadker’s The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (1994) is another noteworthy example. Since the language of these anthologies is English, a major preoccupation of their editors is the subject of translation.

English is an Indian language not just because we have been writing in it for 150 years but also because we usually access each other’s literatures through it. Poetry from the twenty-two officially recognised tongues (if not from several others) is regularly translated into English. This means that we have further scope to stretch and adapt the language to suit Indian idioms, and that there is a greater basis for thinking of English as something that has over time become native to us. Nevertheless, and perhaps inevitably, questions about the suitability of English to India still remain.

Some critics have ideological problems with the use of English – the language associated with colonial dominance – as a medium of translation. But as critic Makarand Paranjape puts it in his essay ‘The Future of the Past and Past of the Future’, even if the continuing domination of English is a problem, to read translations into English is better than to only read Indian writing in English. “On the decolonizing cline, translation would be one step ahead – from Indian English, to Indian texts translated into English. Similarly, multilinguality and multiculturality in our context is an advancement over English monolinguality and monoculturality.”

In the introduction to his anthology, Jussawalla identifies another, more literary, problem associated with translating into English – namely, while reading a translation of an Indian poem into English, we are very likely to miss the context against which that poem was written. Indian writers are often seeking to bring their writing closer to the spoken tongue and break out of the ‘constricting classical traditions’ that might exist in their languages. But how can a translation convey this? Talking about the work of Tamil poet Shanmuga Subbiah, Jusawalla writes – “The simple English of the translation of say, Shanmuga Subbiah’s poems, is just simple English. But the simple language of the originals is much more than simple Tamil – it breaks with a two-thousand-year-old tradition of written verse and enters into subjects not previously thought fit for Tamil poetry.”

One discovery I made while working with Swedish translators on a project to translate a selection of English poems upturned Jussawalla’s point. Lines and phrases and words that in the English did not appear specifically ‘Indian’, revealed their peculiarly Indian connotations when they were subjected to the scrutiny of Swedish translators. I do not mean Indian names for flowers or spices or foods. More interestingly, innocuous, everyday words seemed to carry with them an invisible Indian veneer and were therefore not immediately understandable – such as the phrase ‘white drill pants’ in an AK Mehrotra poem, used to describe the kind of trousers worn by schoolboys during physical training, or the hidden colloquialism of the exclamation ‘Couldn’t wangle a cosy place in the world’ in a Mamta Kalia poem, or the term ‘morning walkers’ in one my poems – which refers to people who go on early morning walks for exercise – a peculiarly Indian practice, it seems, but not one I would have recognised as such till my poem was translated! This proved the truth of what critic Bruce King says in his book Modern Indian Poetry in English – “English is no longer the language of colonial rulers; it is a language of modern India in which words and expressions have recognised national rather than imported significances and references, attending to local realities, traditions and ways of feeling.”


This creation of new and indigenous idioms in English is a crucial but under-recognsised aspect of Indian English poets’ ongoing struggles to water the desert with a language they both love and distrust. 


Indian Poetry in English: a Discussion (From Phalanx magazine, Issue 1, 2007)
Indians writing poetry in English may seem to be playing an esoteric game; and published criticism of Anglophone Indian poetry, scanty in any case, doesn’t really tell one much about it. Phalanx believes that the subject deserves more attention than it receives, and wondered if it could be approached through a discussion between two practicing poets.
Vivek Narayanan and Anjum Hasan published their first collections recently. In the following conversation they start by distancing themselves from a ‘national’ literature, and consider both the prospects of going ‘global’ and the rewards of going ‘hyper-local’. They move on to, and between, many subjects then: from the circumstances that led them each to poetry, for instance, to the “partly combative, partly longing relationship” that Indian writers in English develop with the language; from how one might address the different cultures one belongs to, in poetry, to how one can use strict form in liberating ways; between the importance of good translations and the consideration that tradition is a vital source of innovation.