What elephants! What tigers!

William Radice writes a well-meaning review of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets:
“Their poems start to rub up against each other, more interestingly and movingly in this anthology than in any other I have seen.”

Radice is an old India hand, but the rest of the review is illuminating because of his annoying assumptions about how Indian poets should write. “…For the reader of the anthology, the exuberance of India is precisely what is missing. Where are the colours, the light, the heat, the skies, the crowds and the birds? Where are the family relationships that the Indo-Anglian novelists have explored so lovingly?”

I was taken aback at that archaism–I haven’t heard anyone in India describe Indian writers by the term “Indo-Anglian” since the dark ages–and irritated at Radice’s appeal for Indian poets to abandon iambics in favour of the “tabla-beat of India”. It’s telling that he quotes Raine, who discovered India at the age of 74: “The place of every arrival, the term of every spiritual quest.”

Jeet Thayil, the editor of the anthology–full disclosure, on the McCrum scale quoted below, Jeet’s probably a 7–has responded:
“Radice’s orientalism would be quaint enough to be endearing – if it weren’t so annoying. He tells the reader (breathlessly, I imagine) that my anthology lacks “the colours, the light, the heat, the skies, the crowds and the birds” of India, not to forget “family relationships”, “children” and groups of enthusiastic “Indian university students”. What a happy picture must be playing in Radice’s overheated 19th-century imagination! What elephants! What tigers! What heat and dust and palanquins!” Check out the lively discussion in the Comments section.

Why am I blogging this? Not just because it’s a “fight” or a controversy. Not just because Jeet is a friend. But because this exchange feeds into a very contemporary debate, where many of us are beginning to question what the West wants to read about India and how it wants Indian authors to respond.

Amitava Kumar: http://bostonreview.net/BR33.6/kumar.php

David Baddiel: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article5205157.ece


  1. I haven’t read the anthology but I’m afraid I found Jeet Thayil’s response more than somewhat silly. Radice’s images of “the colours, the light, the heat, the skies, the crowds and the birds” by no means died out in the 19th century, but — unless you live in a secluded hill-town — are everywhere and in your face all the time; and the secluded hill-town will compensate for the lack of crowds and heat with an increased avian population. You can argue that Indian poets have a right to ignore it all, but accusing Radice of “orientalism” for bringing up the point is absurd. And it has nothing whatever to do with palanquins, either.Thayil says:I am trying, without success, to imagine a reviewer of, say, John Ashbery’s work lambasting the absence of prairie landscape and hip-hop in his poems. Or a reviewer berating Larkin for liking the then un-British art forms of jazz and the blues. Or a reviewer of Irish verse suggesting that Heaney and Muldoon should include more of the Gaelic rhymes their grandmothers may or may not have sung to them.But the book under discussion is not a single-author work but an anthology relating to a country, and ought in some way to evoke that country. A collection of Irish verse need not include Gaelic rhymes but it should, at least in parts, be recognisably Irish.Thayil also writes: Radice quotes the first line of my preface as the kind of English-centric viewpoint that will infuriate the regional writer: “Modernism arrived in India at roughly the same time as Independence.” He omits, of course, the next line: “It came to some of the regional Indian languages before it came to English.”But any rational reading of those lines will suggest that modernism arrived in regional languages during independence, and in English later.Better than a response such as this would have been no response at all.

  2. I agree with Rahul. Radice’s review seemed thoughtful enough, except for the images in that one unfortunate paragraph. Walt Whitman, in his preface to Leaves of Grass, called for a “first class song” that “embodied a sufficient nationality.” I suspect Radice only wanted to encounter a similar embodiment. The review– quite positive, by the way– certainly didn’t merit the charge of orientalism. I was jarred by the term “Indo-Anglian” too, but Google-chacha turned up a whole bunch of contemporary references. In fact, Gokak’s recent sampler (Sahitya Akademi, 2004) explicitly files itself under that label. Pity.

  3. You have absolutely no reason to remember me (I think the last I commented was a year or more ago) but I am briefly de-lurking to say that I enjoy your writing. :)http://sunayanaroy.blogspot.com/2008/12/le-grande-finale.html

  4. There is a problem here- viz. the poems in the anthology were crap, albeit crap annunciated by the currently fashionable flatulence- whereas Radice's review though equally crap was not except in those circles- surely suspect- where it is not yet axiomatic that all poetry is crap.I am reminded of the great Indglish poet- John Mahalingam Thomas- whose poem IN VIKASPURI- AN EPIPHANY- I can not resist quoting "More connected than this Colony with its Metro and MallSo sparse, yet splendrous, the Arya Prayer HallAiming his anus at which a sullen street urchin squatsNow accosted by a Vidushi who plumbs thus his thoughts"Chee! Chee!" What're you doing" asks the woman so wise"Being proud of being Indian!" the boy tersely replies"Study Spivak & Sen!" says she, stung by his wit"Be proud of being Indian while yet full of shit!"There is a message there for all of us- or at least an explanation for why street urchins, in Vikaspuri, choose the Arya Samaj Bhavan to shit in front of. My Granny thought it was coz they were Muslim. Can you imagine!

  5. Sorry, it’s been a while since I checked comments. @Rahul: Take a look at the anthology, and you might concede that Jeet has a point. The clash here is between stereotypes of India (or any country) and what the anthology actually offers, in the way of images. It’s not about whether Radice is wrong; but he puts forward fairly innocent expectations–x is what he wanted from an “Indian” anthology–and it’s those expectations that are revealing.@Anonymous: thoroughly enjoyed the Arya Prayer Hall verse, thanks. But your comment that all the poems in the anthology were crap: did you, by any chance, read them before passing judgment? I wouldn’t be able to agree with your assessment.@Sue: welcome back!

  6. Nilanjana — well, I suppose I shouldn’t comment further before actually reading the book. (I still haven’t but I have read some of the authors.)Good to see you’ve come back to blogging.

  7. Rahul–your comment was a fair one, since you were commenting on a review and a response, not on the merits of the book.The modernism point–didn’t have time to explicate then–Jeet brings up is valid: news of the modernism “movement” had percolated to the regional languages (Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi and I think Tamil among them) long before it came to the world of Indian writers in English. I’d say several decades before, in some cases. Not to put words in Jeet’s mouth, but his point may have stemmed from annoyance, at Radice’s automatic assumption that the history of Indian literature is the history of Indian literature in English. Jeet’s response is part of a bigger debate–let’s call it the Slumdog Millionaire-and-White Tiger debate. It’s not as simple as are these writers authentic–Adiga definitely is. It’s more like, are some ideas of India more acceptable to the West than others? The great and often pointless debate over the last decade concerned authenticity, which I presume will only end when someone drags out a specimen of the 100 per cent Guaranteed Authentic Indian Writer (Roots to Native Place included) and insists that all Indian writers must conform to said standards. Today’s issues seem to revolve far more around accessibility: is your novel opaque or accessible to a non-Indian audience? What was Radice expecting from an anthology of Indian poetry, and why was he disappointed when he didn’t find it? I find that question quite interesting, not least because Radice has strong connections with India, and isn’t speaking out of ignorance so much as a wistfulness, a sense that the India he saw was missing. If that’s the case, then you need to ask why two–possibly three–generations of Indian poets writing in English didn’t feel the need to write about *that* India.Great to have you pop up on the blog again.

  8. N – I understood precisely the opposite about modernism: Radice was accusing Jeet of ignoring (or being ignorant of) modernism in Indian languages, and Jeet was defending himself with the lines I quoted, which in my view (and given that this is a published book by a professional writer) can’t be interpreted in any way other than how Radice interpreted them. If it were a debate on the blogosphere I’d give Jeet more rope. I don’t think the India that Radice is “wistful” about has in any way gone missing. 80% of India remains unchanged in decades, perhaps centuries. As to why Indian poets have not written much about “that” India: well, I’m not sure I accept the premise, and I don’t think that is what Radice was saying. He seemed to be accusing Jeet of ignoring poets who write about that India. But even granted that many of the prominent Indian English-language poets do write about themes that are not identifiably Indian, the question is why? I think the answer may not be very flattering. The same question is posed to many scientists: why isn’t your research more relevant to India? Part of the answer is, science and literature should be universal. But I think part, at least, is our preference to gaze westwards — not necessarily to seek western approval (though that does play a role), but merely to hold up our work against what is done in the west. Again, I get the feeling I’m saying a little too much given that I haven’t read the book. It could well be that, once I do so, I’ll find Radice’s criticisms quite ill-founded…

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