Indian English Poetry of the Twenty-First Century: Trends of the New Millennium

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Jagari Mukherjee

The story of post-independence Indian English poetry can be traced to Nissim Ezekiel’s A Time To Change (1952). Since then, Indian English poetry has grown in leaps and bounds, with luminaries like Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawala, A.K. Ramanujan, Dilip Chitre, Keki Daruwala, and Jayanta Mahapatra dominating the scene. These poets shattered the shackles of British Romanticism that influenced the works of pre-independence poets like Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Toru Dutt, Derozio, Sarojini Naidu, and others. The poets after Ezekiel, writing in English, gave the language a unique Indian flavour, peppering it with local color and idioms. Their contribution to Indian Literature is immense, and they have managed to carve out a niche for themselves in the world of arts and letters. Kamala Das, for instance, despite being an Indian woman from a traditional background, has broken social barriers to elevate confessional poetry to the highest level.

The above-mentioned poets are widely anthologized and their poems are a part of the undergraduate and postgraduate programs of many universities. It cannot be denied that they deserve to be a part of the canon. However, it is time now to look at the new crop of poets who are ensuring that Indian English poetry is a living and breathing literary form in the present times. Therefore, this essay proposes to examine a few poets and their works published at the turn of the century, from the year 2000 onward. Some of these poets started writing before the year 2000 but published their best works afterwards; others have started writing and publishing more recently, but even their maiden ventures hold myriad promises for the future. To take just one example, Linda Ashok, born in 1987, is the founder of the prestigious RL Poetry Award, owner of a publishing house, a Charles Wallace fellow, and the author of a unique collection of poems, a treasure-trove entitled whorelight (2017), which has been creating waves in literary circles.

The poets discussed in this essay by no means form an exhaustive list. However, they have been selected based on the fact that their collections highlight the current trends.

Sanjukta Dasgupta’s fifth collection of poems, Lakshmi Unbound, takes (and acknowledges) the inspiration for its title to P.B. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. In the words of the poet, her book is “a freedom song. It is the song that resonates in the recesses of the mind; it is an anthem that is heard by the spirit that longs to break free from the binding chains of callous habit and social conditioning.” The poems are mostly feminist in nature, the lyrics (whether in the first person voice or the third), flaring up like blazing torches in the dark. The first poem, entitled “Lakshmi Unbound: A Soliloquy” starts with a quote by Virginia Woolf and Rabindranath Tagore each. The poem’s lines resemble an incantation, asserting the essential freedom of a woman to be seen as a human being and not being confined to roles fixed by gender stereotypes.

I just can’t be Lakshmi
I have to break the silence
My wealth is not jewels
My wealth is my gipsy spirit

The chilling poem “I Killed Him M’Lord” narrates the horrific tale of a marriage rife with domestic violence, resulting in a gruesome murder. Incorporating aspects of a dramatic monologue, the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the murdered man, Amit, has been described employing similes deceptively beautiful to play up the horror.

Yet at daytime he was so calm, so caring
Running his fingers on the red stripes of my back
The fingers went forward
like a tram on burnt red tracks
His fingers played like a child
Running a toy car on the parent’s back.

The gendered differences of even a personal space such as the toilet are explored in “Perspective.” Whereas for a man, the toilet is the place for philosophical reflections, for a woman it is “a private space for silent expression/of trauma, fears and oceans of tears.” For women, it is the only place where they can breathe freely.

Sharmila Ray’s Scrawls and Scribbles, her eighth volume of poetry, treats the universe as a labyrinth to be negotiated. In “Burnt Continent,” the unnamed land is symbolized, and becomes one, with the dark-skinned girl.

She’s confused by a white god, brown god, yellow and
a black one.
Sun-stained, she quietly wears the tiara of thorns
Disguised in Hibiscus.

In the short poem, “Sarnath,” Ray, the professor of history, makes a profound observation: “Remembered history plays/snakes and ladders with/intricate time.”

The compulsion of creating poetry is achingly sketched in “Coffee Bar.” The craving for coffee, a beverage symbolic of pleasures and/or temptations, must be conquered by a poet. The poet defers the sensuous gratification of tasting coffee because she is in the process of writing a poem. The lyrics of her poem draw their sustenance from the elements, while the poet continues to long for coffee.

Words twirl with lucidity
devouring earth water fire air
and my imagined coffee gets cold.
The silent noon hangs over the city
and I long for coffee with cinnamon.

One of the brightest stars of contemporary Indian English poetry is Kiriti Sengupta. In early 2018, his collection, Healing Waters Floating Lamps, (2015) won him the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize. The short poems in this volume communicate the poet’s profound spiritual experiences to readers, filling them with a sense of peace. In “Initiation,” Sengupta describes his communion with his Master, and his own response to it.

He directed me to face him
With my eyes closed
And as soon as he spotted the third eye
My spirit echoed

Sengupta’s variety of style and content is evident in a piece like “Clarity,” where he utilizes delightfully sensuous metaphors to portray his mother in the process of preparing ghee (clarified butter) out of milk.

Layer after layer she filled
The storage pot, then put it on
The burner, which filled
The house with aromatic milk

The tiny four-line poem, “The Sun,” is a complex composition. The poet addresses the Sun, assuring it that:

This is rather reaching you
As if you’re the destination…

Thus, the brightness, the brilliance, and other qualities possessed by the Sun represent the pinnacle of spiritual excellence. “Since Time Unknown” is addressed to the earth, and contained within it, the cosmos. The poet accepts that he has not been able t completely fathom the mysteries of the universe, which has continued to exist on its own terms defying, and in spite of, humankind’s attempts to analyze it: “You spin and continue to swirl/Since periods unknown.”

With the recent release of the third edition of Kiriti Sengupta’s most critically acclaimed work, The Earthen Flute, Sengupta’s popularity has reached a crescendo amongst poetry fans in India and abroad. The collection lends itself to a transcendentalist reading. The essence of Emerson’s “Oversoul” is present in most of the poems. His images are drawn from nature, and he describes daily life, yet, there seems to be an unmistakable spirit—an “Oversoul”—behind his poems. The poem “Experience Personified” embraces the wholeness, the oneness of experience in a few deft, beautiful strokes. The poet, out on a morning walk, describes the sensation of walking on new grasses “bathed/in the dew of dawn…” According to Sengupta it is not a “feeling” but an “experience.” I was reminded of America’s most celebrated poet, the transcendentalist Walt Whitman, as he says, “I loafe and invite my soul,/ I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass” (“Song of Myself”).

Vinita Agrawal, another recipient of the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize, is an award-winning poet and writer based in Mumbai. Her third book, The Silk of Hunger (2016), dedicated to her late father, is threaded with the pain of loss. Absence (which can be interpreted as death) is the recurring theme of many of the poems in this volume. “The Wilderness of Gone” ends in a couple of heart-rending similes.

And then the presence of your absence.
Like a charcoal sketch without features
Like an endearment and no one to call it by.

In “Raw Silk” Vinita implores the person whom she would be meeting (presumably after a long absence), to not greet her with a hello, because that would imply they are strangers. Vinita’s language is imaginative and simply, exquisite.

That greeting for strangers…
We’ve shared too many moons on the palettes of our nights

When we meet
Leave the race behind. Face me

“The Night of Father’s Passing,” replete with metaphors that suggest pathetic fallacy, tender and devastating, is the agonized expression of a daughter’s heartbreak.

Father passed away. Became an absence.
And time did turn into a thing.
It brought a sunless morning and a moonless night
Marking my father absent.

Sanjeev Sethi’s third collection, This Summer and That Summer (2015), encapsulates personal experiences in a language that is refreshingly original. For instance, in “Tavern Tale,” the experience of drinking alcohol to numb the mind’s chatter is marvellously evoked without a single direct mention of the speaker’s circumstances.

More gulps…
This label is incoherent—
The mind gets clogged.
I am at peace.

The short prose-poem, “Afterlight,” treats the theme of absence very differently from that of Vinita Agrawal’s poetry. The lines appear to take a direct passage to the poet’s heart, where he lays bare his naked emotions, admitting that he sobs when he cannot be himself due to his missing the absent person. However, the very last poem ends in a shock, as well as delight, for readers: “Skin ruddles when my salve is another’s snack.”

Sethi’s “Conduction” is a poem on how to approach poetry. If one reads poetry as a mere entertainment (“like a nabob before a nautch”), then there is no joy but restlessness. The correct approach is that of a lover undressing his beloved.

When you undress a poem with dignity
delicately like a lover, it will disrobe you
of excess, accessing your inner feelings.

Sudeep Sen has been on the Indian literary scene for quite some time. A selection of his older as well as newer works was published in a collected edition, Fractals(2015). The opening poem, “Mediterranean,” divided into four sections, are snapshots of the poet’s observations. Each observation is linked to a color—bright red, yellow, blue, ochre, gold, dark black, brown, rainbow. In the last stanza, the relationship between memory and color is clarified:

My lost memory
White and frozen


Now melts colour
Ready to refract

Sen’s poems in the eponymous first part of this collection are unfettered by geographical boundaries. While “Mediterranean” was composed in Alexandria, the lovely “Chinese Calligraphy” was written in 2011 in Shanghai. The poem begins with a physical description of the calligraphy brushes, reminding the reader that there are always messages in the writing.

Some brushes
have carved heads


containing the sound
of pigeons—


ancient postmen,
now a cosmetic
gaggle of bird-talk.

The lines go on to depict the graceful art of creating calligraphy on paper, ending with the artist putting his signature with a stone-carved stamp in a corner of the page. The poet, or the reader uninitiated in Chinese letters, could still admire the artistic process and the completed work.

Sen’s “Matrix” takes the reader back to India. The poem combines intriguing imagery, logical argument, and unrhymed couplets with certain words and phrases in italics, to convey the poet’s ultimate conviction.

Birds fly across the pale blue sky
cross-stitching a matrix in Pali—


a tongue now beautifully classical
like temple-toned Bharatnatyam.

The prolific Gopal Lahiri is the author of six poetry collections in English and six in Bengali. In this essay, we will consider his third volume in English, Tidal Interlude (2015). In his introduction, Lahiri explains the title of his collection in the following words, “Admittedly, nature has a special place in my poems and tide is a recurring motif which reflects energy of swell and the inherent interlude.” The opening piece, “Secret Code,” is a poem on peace and happiness, reflected in “the eyes of rain washed birds/tempered with silken feathers and rummaged greenery…” Lahiri’s language is shot through with an uncommon and startling pulchritude. In “Immersive,” the speaker observes his beloved in the evening amidst serene nature, reading the lamplit river in her eyes. Yet, amidst the surreal setting, the woman is tangible and her yellow scarf, her tilted head, and her brown hairpin form concrete images.

The brilliant and versatile Nabina Das has three poetry collections, a novel, and a short fiction collection to her name. Her gorgeous second collection, Into the Migrant City (2013), is divided into three sections entitled ‘Tracks to the Inner City,’ ‘Beaten Shape,’ and ‘Work in Progress.’ The poem “Summer of 2006, Rue du Faubourg-St. Antoine, Paris” is dedicated to Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’. The longish composition is a description of a very different Paris from the romanticized version of popular imagination. Nabina’s Paris is a melting pot of different races and nationalities, simple folks trying to eke out a living, and if one has a long-reaching memory, it is the same city where immigrant-led riots flared up in 2005.

Of a different flavor is “Notes to Her Lover, Undated,” where the blue god, Krishna, is the ultimate fantasy of a beloved. Krishna’s sexuality, (aesthetically depicted in Jaideva’s Geeta Govinda) is alluded to in graphically passionate terms:

Radha was not all yours, she
also had her husband. While you
cooed about the forbidden fruit, she
just got her legs around your loins.

“Buddha’s Children” is a narrative about faith in the face of poverty. The poor villagers wear torn clothes and barely have enough to eat, but they still bring butter and milk to offer at the Tawang, the milk “saved from yak calves/And naturally, wailing babies.” However, the tone of the poem is of gentle irony rather than biting sarcasm.

Many of Arundhati Subramaniam’s works toy with the ideas of home and identity. In “To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian,” the concepts of identity and nationality are entwined with that of the language that the poet writes in. While the Welsh critic might think that the deepest fantasy of an Indian poet writing in English is to sip dandelion tea in an Edwardian vicarage, the reality is more complex, and thus, she requests the critic to “Teach me how to belong,/the way you do,/on every page of world history.”

“Home” is a poem where the poet longs to be comfortable with her ambiguous identity, employing the simile of the body, which is “so alien when I try to belong/so hospitable/when I decide I’m just visiting.”

In “546, Andheri Local” the train becomes one with its women passengers, merging to form the dark goddess Kali. When the narrator gets off the train, she makes a choice to transform into an ordinary housewife.

When I descend
I could choose
to dice carrots
or dice a lover.
I postpone the latter.

Tishani Doshi’s Countries of the Body (2007) contain a bouquet of poems that describe places infused with the poet’s perception of them through the senses. In “Pangs for the Philanderer” the space is private and internal. The “glittering” life of the person being addressed evokes the scent of “talcum powder and envy.” Even the memory of their day together is perceived through “the cracked light/ of the windows.”

“Homecoming” is a poem about Doshi’s hometown, Madras (Chennai), to which she returned after spending several years abroad. What strike the poet are the noises associated with the city, and each kind of noise reverberates with significance, expressed through cosmic metaphors.

How funeral processions clatter
Down streets with drums and rose-petals,
Dancing death into deafness.

The poem “Evensong” brings together two cities, Canterbury and Madras, linked by symbols of faith and communion. Here, the communion of man and woman is compared and contrasted with that of animals: “No bonds to tie them/to the smell of certain skin/certain hair.”

US-based poet Ravi Shankar’s poems often reflect his western upbringing. In “A Square of Blue Infinity” (a tribute to O. Henry, inspired by the short story, “The Skylight Room”), the speaker narrates how, while listening to O. Henry’s stories as audio-books on his way to work, he enters into the legend’s unconventional life and unforgettable works, to his poignant last words, “Turn up the lights, I don’t want to go home in the dark.” Another outstanding poem by Ravi Shankar is “Landscape in Chelsea,” where the recurrent hue is grey, the city is perpetually under construction, and a pigeon moves through the jarring manmade jungle. The poem strikes one as a sharp contrast to G. M. Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” where God’s handiwork is seen in nature and color. On the other hand, in Ravi Shankar’s Chelsea, “Gods /Are swept up by the street caners on alternate days.”

An empty beach figures in Shankar’s “A Story with Sand.” The empty beach is a territory of the mind, an anti-Eden with a vast expanse of sand, it is haunted by the past and prevents the present from being different from what it already is.

Driftwood sprains the shore.
You had to be here for this.
We could have been different
But past shapes still remain.

Among the talented younger poets, the names that stand out include Linda Ashok, Kushal Poddar, Srividya Sivakumar, Nitoo Das, and Amit Shankar Saha.

Kushal Poddar’s Sratches Within (2016) contains poems that throw a unique perspective on the most mundane aspects of life. A prosaic train commute is transformed into a profound journey and observations both within and without.

You remain tipsy
on rain infusion,
eyes shut, metals
unthreaded in your dream.
A field opens.

In “Champagne” the eponymous drink symbolizes beauty and celebrations, and the poet’s lines gleam with the beauty of light.

I needed your glint
while I dined in my house of winter.
You turned and flipped your hair, sipped the gold.

Yet another poem, “Pillowcase,” is replete with pathos and seasoned with a touch of humor.

Perhaps I shall fall in love with my pillow
and my case will be studied as The Pillowcase.

The pillow is the antidote to the narrator’s essential loneliness. However, it is still in the future tense, as the speaker hopes that the person he is addressing will make a pillow for him.

Linda Ashok’s whorelight mixes, in terms of T.S. Eliot, memory and desire. “The First Time” ends in a shocking, violent imagery. The woman in the poem—both imaginative and educated—is a victim of domestic violence, and the telling last line sends chills down our spine (“he broke the glass and rubbed her lips with molten scar”). There is a rich variety of themes and styles in Linda’s poems. The exquisite prose-poem, “Mark It With F” derives its title from the line of a popular children’s nursery rhyme, “Pat-A-Cake,” a variation on the original words “Mark It With B.” “Mark It With F” is a tale of hope amidst pain and crisis, pervaded by the sustained metaphor of baking bread.

The symbolism of food also occurs in “Many Lives of A Memory.” Tennessee Williams in his expressionist play, The Glass Menagerie, describes memory as follows: “Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” The poem lends itself to an expressionist reading.

It quacks, a nestling
its mother gone
for breaking bread
to feed the topaz void.

Linda’s language that George Szirtes terms as “luscious as berries,” shine forth in all its loveliness in “The Unmaking of An Astronaut.”

…i wish I could remove the window
and have geraniums nap in the rain
but you pull the curtain…

Here, the distinction between the “i” and the “I” is also to be noted—the latter emphasizing the strength of the poet’s desire.

A poem that this reviewer found particularly unforgettable is the haunting, sensitive prose-poem, “Tree Inspector.” The tree inspector communicates his stories to trees because humans often do not believe him. The reader gets a sense of being “caught out” when the inspector tells the Indian lady, “I know, like many you are not likely to believe my story…” Yet, his intrinsic longing to communicate with another human remains strong, and he tells the woman that she could call him for tea, a note of hope in his voice.

The Heart Is An Attic (2018) by Srividya Sivakumar essentially encompasses songs of the urban feminine experience. The poems are bold and beautiful enough to remind this reviewer of Kamala Das, but the aesthetic is Srividya’s own. “Façade,” for instance, speaks about breasts, but rather than disembodied and dismembered entities, they are an intrinsic part of every woman’s days, and contribute to her experience of life.

Invisible breasts
Hidden behind a lover’s mouth
Clutched as life by a man’s fingers
Bound by leather in a mask
Clamped by clips and kisses

“One Night Stand” seamlessly blends a ‘postmodern’ theme with the traditional form of rhymed and half-rhymed couplets, with the last four lines ending in a quatrain. The protagonist goes to bed with a new man every night, but behind each foray is a desperate seeking of the man she addresses, the man she actually loved: “The beds are different the men are too/I look in all the faces and do not find you.”

The sorrowful end of a love affair in contemporary times is delineated in “Sunder.” With the advent of social media, it is nearly impossible to mourn the loss of love in privacy, because our lives, including our relationships, are in the domain of public knowledge.

things were simple then. sorrow too.
now the whole world knows about me. and about you.

Nitoo Das’ second collection, Cyborg Proverbs (2017), encourages the reader to take a fresh look at the world. In “The Poetry of Everyday Life I” the mundane stuff used by people—a safety pin, TV remote, umbrella, and other sundry trifles—are the speakers, describing themselves in engaging metaphors. An umbrella, for instance, is “a flower eroded/with tears and the sun” to which “A steel skeleton/gives me wings.” The first-person plural voice is also used in “Four Parakeets on a Wire,” reminiscent of Ted Hughes’ animal poems, but with green and red tints adding a painterly effect to the scene rather than portraying nature red in tooth and claw. In “Aparajita” Nitoo uses the imperative “Look” to draw attention to the ‘cunt-flower’ that , like its name, doesn’t know how to lose. It becomes symbolic of a woman’s beauty, strength and independence.

The charismatic Amit Shankar Saha’s bestselling debut book, Balconies of Time (2017) is a volume of ethereal compositions. A soft melancholy pervades his words, the effect of which is that of a mellow evening when the clouds are painted with streaks from the setting sun. The short piece “The Last Tea” is quiet and picturesque. The reader becomes the observer of nature along with the poet. There is a sense of leaving behind precious memories: “The last smoke from the oven/and the last tea.

Amit transmutes universal tragedies to personal and personal tragedies to universal. In “Aleppo” he mourns the violent deaths and destruction in Syria and Afghanistan, his sorrow and rhyme reminiscent of a twenty-first century Omar Khayyam.

On the blackboard of life
so much chalk dust we wipe.
But in the palimpsest
everything is inside.
(Hidden) In the layers
live all those who have died.

Very different in theme and style is the erotic poem “Discovering Guilt,” which, by using similes that are simultaneously temporal, tangible, and geographical, elevates the act of lovemaking to a cosmic level.

Your navel quivers like a seismic center
And fills with quakes the sinning quilt,
Imagine, imagine also all the guilt.

In the final analysis, these gifted poets have kept the torch of Indian English poetry burning bright. As I have mentioned before, the scope of this essay is limited and does not allow me to discuss all the stars in the sky. A few honourable mentions would include names such as Ananya Chatterjee, Mallika Bhaumik, Ipsita Ganguli, Uttaran Dasgupta, Raghavendra Madhu, Aditya Shankar, Namrata Pathak, amongst others. It is indeed heartening to witness the garden of Indian English poetry in full bloom, tended by a multifarious, and marvellous, symphony of voices.

WORKS CITED

1. Agrawal, Vinita. The Silk of Hunger. Authorspress, 2016.
2. Ashok, Linda. whorelight. Hawakal, 2017.
3. Das, Nabina. Into the Migrant City. Writers Workshop, 2013.
4. Das, Nitoo. Cyborg Proverbs. Poetrywala, 2017.
5. Dasgupta, Sanjukta. Lakshmi Unbound. Chitrangi, 2017.
6. Lahiri, Gopal. Tidal Interlude. Shambhabi, 2015.
7. Poddar, Kushal. Scratches Within. 2016
8. Ray, Sharmila. Scrawls And Scribbles. Hawakal Publishers, 2016.
9. Saha, Amit Shankar. Balconies of Time. Hawakal Publishers, 2017.
10. Sen, Sudeep. Fractals. Gallerie Publishers, 2015.
11. Sengupta, Kiriti. Dreams of the Sacred and Ephemeral. Hawakal Publishers, 2017.
12. Sengupta, Kiriti. The Earthen Flute (Edition 3). Hawakal Publishers, 2018
13. Sethi, Sanjeev. This Summer and That Summer. Bloomsbury, 2015.
14. Sivakumar, Srividya. The Heart Is An Attic. Hawakal Publishers, 2018.
15. Thayil, Jeet, ed. 60 Indian Poets. Penguin Books India, 2008.

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Jagari Mukherjee is a poet and writer from Kolkata, India. She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Pune, and was awarded a gold medal and several prizes by the University for excelling in her discipline. Her writings, both poetry and prose, have appeared in several newspapers, magazines, journals, anthologies, and blogs. Her first book, a collection of poems entitled Blue Rose, was published in May 2017 by Bhashalipi. She is DAAD scholar (2005), Bear River 2018 alumna, and winner of the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2018 (book review).

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