Shapeshifter: Jeet Thayil

(This profile of Jeet Thayil, with a focus on the anthology of Indian poetry in English that he’s currently editing, was carried in The Hindu, in June 2006)

The house in which we’re meeting is bare, the boxes of books still unpacked, two lonely chairs anchoring the emptiness of the room. Jeet Thayil and his wife will settle in soon, but this empty space is the perfect place to have a conversation about Indian poetry.

Fulcrum is an elegant little poetry magazine published from “a room in Boston”, already seen as one of the most significant of its kind. Fulcrum Number Four contains two sections—Poetry and Truth, and a special section on Indian Poetry in English, which was guest edited by Thayil. It’s an astounding collection—56 poets, from places as far apart as Fiji, New York, Bombay, Sheffield, Coorg, Berkeley, Bangalore, all, as Thayil says, connected only by language, English. The few omissions are significant, and regrettable–Imtiaz Dharker, Agha Shahid Ali, A K Ramanujan–all unavailable for copyright reasons.

The usual suspects are here, from Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Eunice de Souza, Dom Moraes to Kamala Das, Ranjit Hoskote and Dilip Chitre. There are poets who aren’t as well-known in India as they should be, from Aimee Nezhukumatathil to Mukta Sambrani and R Parthasarathy. And there are a handful of “lost poets, the ones we forgot about”: Gopal Honnalgere, Srinivas Rayaprol, Lawrence Bantelman.

“I think one very fine way to tell the development of a society is how it treats its poets, its gay people, and its women,” says Jeet. “And in those three areas, we really are backward. I believe that two generations from today, there may be value placed on all of this. Young people today read poetry, they buy books, they read poetry on the Internet. The Internet has taken poetry out of that academic conversation, which has to happen if poetry’s going to live. Say “poetry” and there were a lot of people who were turned off already, who had forgotten that a poetry reading is just a man or a woman speaking to you. Poetry needs to resonate with you if it’s going to live. It’s human speech, and it’s the most beautiful speech, it’s elevated in a way we can’t have in our normal lives; it contains the best of us.”

What Jeet’s trying to do with Indian poetry in English is an archaeologist’s job: to recover what was lost, to take scattered shards and isolated schools of poets and fit them together in a pattern. It was Fulcrum’s editor, Philip Nikolayev, who first broached the idea of a special issue of Indian poetry. It took Jeet nine months of concentrated work to put it together, and a revised version of this anthology, with sensitive portraits of several poets by photographer Madhu Kapparath, will be published by Penguin India later this year in 60 Indian Poets: 1952-2007. It’s one of the most ambitious, and most significant, anthologies of Indian poetry to emerge in recent times.

“I don’t know why Indian poetry has been so clannish, so fragmented,” says Jeet. Previous poetry anthologies have collected remarkable work, but have often, in his opinion, been bogged down by the need to categorise. “We’ve seen slivers of Indian poetry, tiny parts of the whole—women poets, the younger poets, post-Independence poets, diaspora poets; different ‘versions’ of Indian poetry. It’s so fragmented, so clannish, and it’s only when you put it all together that you realize Indian poetry is an enormous thing. It can compare with the best in the world—with Latin American poetry, with European poetry.”

Amit Chaudhuri commented, after reading Fulcrum, that India’s poets were actually producing better work than India’s fiction writers; an observation that Pankaj Mishra had made almost a year ago. “Interesting that two novelists should say that the poetry’s better than the fiction,” Jeet says. In the introduction, he looks at the problems that poets face in India: “Unlike Indian novelists, poets receive no advances; their books are usually out of print; even the best-known of them have trouble finding publishers and are virtually unknown outside India….That they continue to produce original work is nothing short of remarkable.”

When he began work, Jeet had the usual suspects on his list. He found a great many more courtesy the legendary Adil Jussawala. “In Adil’s apartment in Bombay, the manuscripts, the photocopies and the books have displaced the human beings. Adil gave me a couple of feet worth of books—it took me months to go through it. And there were all these guys whose work had been forgotten. Like Lawrence Bantelman, who wrote five books, went to Canada and vanished. It’s like a Rimbaud story, nobody knows whether he’s alive or dead.”

Both anthologies pay homage to the dead—as Jeet points out, we lost nine poets between 1993 and 2004: A K Ramanujan, Srinivas Rayaprol, G S Sharat Chandra, Agha Shahid Ali, Gopal Honnalgere, Reetika Vazairani, Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes and Arun Kolatkar. In ‘Dirge’, Vijay Nambisan writes:

“The poets die like flies…
How well they wrote, those friends now fettered, how the Indo-Anglian tongue
Allowed them to be lovely-lettered, their lives lived when the world was young…”

That reference to the “Indo-Anglian tongue” reminds us both that the debate over English is never going to go away. Jeet sees no reason why poets who write in English should be seen as somehow less Indian or less authentic than their counterparts, but he acknowledges that the argument refuses to die. I like Arundhati Subramaniam’s tart perspective in ‘To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian’:
“This business about language,
how much of it is mine,
how much yours,
…how much from the salon,
how much from the slum,
how I say verisimilitude,
how I say Brihadaranyaka,
how I say vaazhapazham–
it’s all yours to measure, the pathology of my breath…”

For Jeet, the return to India has coincided with one of the most productive phases of his life. He spent his early years in Hong Kong, and became a poet in his twenties after coming to Bombay to do a BA. Dom, Nissim, Adil, Eunice and a dozen other poets eventually became friends and colleagues, but it was a rough apprenticeship. There was no space for poetry; he remembers that period as a time of isolation. He published a few collections of poetry over the next two decades, did an MFA in America, shifted to New York, and came back to Delhi after 9/11 to find his feet in a city newly hospitable, experimenting with tenuous new energies and conversations.

In addition to the anthology, Jeet has completed work on a book of new poems, his first collection after English: Poems, is putting together a special issue for the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and has finished a work of non-fiction. “It’s called An Alien of Extraordinary Ability,” he says of the last, “which was the category under which I was approved for a green card, it’s for writers, professors, film-makers. The book’s about a man who comes back to India after many years away, newly sober, and he sees the country and himself as if for the first time.”

Thayil was, he says, an alcoholic (like many of the Bombay poets) and an addict for almost two decades: “I spent most of that time sitting in bars, getting very drunk, talking about writers and writing. And never writing. It was a colossal waste. In two years I’ve done more than I did in twenty years. I feel very fortunate that I got a second chance.” These days, he says as we make our farewells, the only addictions he has are poetry, and coffee. “Coffee’s much easier to get than heroin.”





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: