Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry edited by Jeet Thayil £12

This is not a review. Sometimes poetry books don’t lend themselves to definitive judgements. Particularly anthologies, which cover so many different experiences and styles. If they’re really good, and this one is, they become more like an old friend. You don’t necessarily agree with everything they have to say, or how they say it, but when you meet, you feel a deep sense of engagement. Sometimes you can go for ages without reading them, but when you do, there’s no sense of discontinuity.
This anthology, which extracts from the familiar and the obscure, places side by side one of the world’s most energetic but disparate diasporas. For the first time in the UK, we have an anthology which juxtaposes Kamala Das with Vikram Seth, Kolaktar with Daljit Nagra. Styles are either modernist/ post-modernist or brilliantly traditional (e.g. Nagra’s almost Kiplingesque light verse in the mixed codes on Hindi English and Seth’s elegant narratives). Backgrounds range from Zoroastrian priest to marketing executive, sometimes that might even be the same person! One of the joys of this book is that each writer is introduced briefly by the editor so you get a sense of the remarkable communities which have informed the writing of the poets contained in this volume. Generally, speaking, there are Indian writers who increasingly seem to be part of the New Capitalism of graphic designers and public relations consultants. Then there are the American academics and the British poets, the latter engaged with the very particular struggle against racism and stereotyping, though please would someone explain why Moniza Alvi is missing, please (OK! OK! She’s of Pakistani origin but hey, let’s not be sectarian!).
I want to avoid the cliche about everything Indian being essentially various. But I would dare to venture there may be a sort of openness in the verse in this volume - whether it touches on sex or badminton or politics or love or history or philosophy - which is characteristic. When you read it, you are not left with a sense that the poets were playing safe when they were writing their verse, they do not edit out their passions or ideas, which is why the book is exciting, and why it is a friend and companion.

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