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Voices of the Present : Critical Essays on
Some Indian English Poets


Published by: Book Enclave, Jain Bhawan, Opp. N.E.I. Shanti Nagar, Jaipur-302006 pp. 267, 2006, Price Rs.695/-, ISBN: 81 8152 132 3

This is a unique book. A rare one. Also one with an important national mission.

In the current day India when each person is busy carving a space for herself or himself and in the creative world where many are busy pulling down each other or somebody else, R K Singh, an active writer and a poet scaling newer peaks, has devoted a considerable time in researching about Indian English poets. He has avoided ideological or literary or regional filters (or blinkers!) in selecting persons. He has made a detailed study of the work of about 100 Indian English poets from 50’s up to the present. He has made a critical assessment of their work from the literary, philosophical, and social contexts.

In addition, he has shown some of nuggets of golds and pearls of beauty and wisdom through brief quotes and/or brief summaries of some of the works amongst these thousands of poems explored by him.

In his prefatory note, R.K.Singh informs the reader that he considers his present book as complementary to the earlier four books (of different authors brought out by the same publishers) which aim at promoting studies on less known/new talents in Indian English writing. He would feel rewarded if it could motivate scholars and researchers to explore some new poets in depth for postgraduate and doctoral studies.

As he further expands this idea in the last Chapter 20, one notes that the social and perceptional barriers in Indian English writing are at present heavily loaded against many good Indian English Writers and poets, residing in ordinary cities and towns of India. His mission is to open the space for all Indians so that the multidimensional nature of the Indian ethos can be seen in its totality without selective filters. More on it later.

Of the 20 Chapters, 19 are devoted to reviews and critique of poems by different Indian English poets (IEP). Of these, 15 Chapters deal with one individual IEP each either in totality of his work or selected facets of his poetry. The poets are: Krishna Srinivas, I K Sharma, O P Bhatnagar, Laxmi Narayan Mahapatra, Niranjan Mohanty. Shiv K Kumar, Gopal Honnalgere, D S Maini, I H Rizvi, Dwarkanath H Kabadi, D C Chambial, P C K Prem, P K Joy, S L Peeran and R S Tiwary.

The titling of these chapters beautifully summarises the essence of each IEP as it emerges in the details of the chapter, e.g. ‘I.H. Rizvi: A Social Romanticist’, ‘Krishna Srinivas : Quest for Reality’ etc.

Two Chapters (7 & 8) are exclusively devoted to women IEPs. The newly emerging feminine expressions of world view have been sensitively brought out. While one chapter explores expression of anger and sexuality, the other chapter deals with certain other facets of their work “filling the empty internal spaces”.

Chapter 19 explores the contributions of persons with scientific and engineering backgrounds such as Dr A P J Abdul Kalam and other poets. The author is able to understand their imagery created with different sets of filters and is able to translate them into a language more easily understandable by persons of literary background.

Chapter 16 explores many poets (men and women) of the 1980’s and 1990’s and their quest for the present. The author quotes Octavio Paz, who while delivering Nobel Lecture on Dec.8, 1990 very aptly and poignantly describes the essential drive of all these poets : “… The search for the present is neither a pursuit of an earthly paradise nor that of a timeless eternity: it is the search for the real reality.” A quote from A.J. Thomas given in the book : “Here we are: / Living in a world / where light punctures the eyes / sound pierces the ears / and touch scalds the skin / and truth outspoken / corrodes the tongue.”

R.K.Singh points out through many examples how “through sex, a very real presence, Indian English poets have been revealing hypocrisy, meanness, inner complexes, twisted nature, self-estrangement; the world that is beneath our world, the dilemmas that block and fuel our lives, the self-existence consumed by our own self-contradictions….” The eleven pages of this Chapter are full of exciting descriptions and brief quotes from various poems and has 33 references to give choices for the reader to pursue further quests in IEP.

Similarly, the Chapters 7 & 8 on women IEP jointly contain 77 references. An example of Joyshri Lobo : “….since when have I become / A piece – decorative, useful, / To be given an occasional rub, / Cleaned and varnished, / Discarded when age mellows the glitter / And dust dirties the once smooth surface ?”(‘Lament of an Indian Woman’).

In the chaper on women poets filling other spaces, the author points out that “several new collections that I could lay my hands on demonstrate women poets’ sensitivities and struggles that appeal for their lack of pedantry, moral commentary, or unnecessary romanticizing.”

In Chapter 17, which highlights A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and others, the author is happy about the development that IE poetry has a sizeable number of poets with non-teaching, non-literary, professional backgrounds. He has described about the writings of a few of them including The Life Tree by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. There are thirteen references.

The fifteen Chapters on individual poets are done very thoroughly exploring every significant aspect.. R K Singh has very skillfully explored the nuances and the origins of their Indian imagery, even while all these poets are equally well versed in classical English poems and influenced by some of the great English poets of the past. R K Singh is able to identify some of these confluences in their literary works, philosophical explorations and poetic imageries. It is also clear from many examples he has given that these authors have greatly enhanced their perceptional and literary capabilities because of their scholarship in Indian languages as well. In the case of a few authors R K Singh also points out a few specific (not widespread) deficiencies in some of the work and how they are not limitations given the whole canvas they have covered and excelled. He has also a few poets who have brought in the perspectives of Islam and Christianity as practiced in India, thus deepening the Indian cultural perspectives.

It is not a surprise that R K Singh has positioned the Chapter 1 on Krishna Srinivas, the doyen and Bhishma of IE poetry. He has borne the torch (and is still bearing) for IEP by giving them an avenue to reach an international level. His own recognition by the name through a Padma Award came too late. His epic “Five Elements” deserves some of the highest awards of the world, probably held back because of his simple origin as an IE poet. R K Singh has devoted 32 pages for him. The author compresses his contributions beautifully in two sentences : “Krishna is an epic genius, condensing and recreating in his poems the profound knowledge and wisdom of all people and all ages for people everywhere today. It is not through the big canvas of classical epic structure but through poems of short length – readable in one sitting – that he creates these subtle epic effects.”

It is understandable that R K Singh has not devoted any chapter on himself though he has a great creative record : 13 poetry books. His poems have been anthologized in over 140 publications and translated into French, Russian, Spanish, Romanian, Chinese, Japanese and several other foreign and Indian languages. It is worthwhile for some of the readers to read the forty full-length articles on his poetry recently published as a book New Indian English Poetry : An Alternative Voice : R K Singh edited by I K Sharma (2004). Some glimpses about R K Singh’s work can be seen in Chapter 19 on R S Tiwary.

I do hope that Voices of the Present will stimulate many active IE poets to take some time off their own creative work and other employment related pressures to take up a greater cause. Review the work of other IE poets referred to in this book or otherwise and publish them and doing out newer books.

This is required in the larger cause of “a process of collective discovery, affirming its richness, sensitivity and cultural complexity” that has been proven through the potential of IEP’s and the assimilative genius of Indian people. It is what has been described by Mahatma Gandhi that we can keep our windows open to outside winds but not blown off our feet.

In every field, Indians all over India have approved this Indian-ness even during the period of liberalisation, globalisation and emigation.

However, the effects of the political economy of the past and centuries of feudal domination have some oppressive characteristics against the urges of ordinary Indians aspiring to rise up. The observation by R K Singh that “many new Indian English poets have been suffering a deliberate neglect, not only by the governing-elites-cum-cultural elites of India but also by the media and academia…….” is true in several other fields ranging from agriculture, artisanal work, small scale industries, science, technology and “non-elite” academic institutions.

For example, a simple calculation of numbers of professionals in the USA or in India working for global multinational companies (MNC’s) will indicate that millions of them have come from ordinary “mushroomed” colleges of India and are not from a few elite institutions who can train only a few thousands every year. However, the media-myth, elite statements or government attention is only about a few elite institutions. Going back to 100 years ago, the great Tamil poet Mahakavi Subramanya Bharti had to struggle all his life to publish and to live. Even later due to the peculiarities of the Tamil elites’ acceptance of his great talents did not come forth immediately …. Now after decades of his death, he is a hero in Tamil Literature. This is the fate many Indian Language Writers (ILW), except for those who hit the jackpot through writing for films (script or lyrics), suffer.

But the consoling feature is that despite such an oppressive environment, so many IL and IE writers continue to flower and spread their beauties and fragrance albeit to a limited space. The publisher of Voices of the Present deserves to be congratulated for supporting the noble cause with very good attention to printing and format and a good cover. A glossary would have helped.

All those interested in Indian ethos and culture, in whatever form and content they understand these concepts, could do something positive by reading such a book and also supporting Indian English poets of their choice. Young students of research in humanities (not just English but also those who study history, sociology, psychology, education, culture etc) could choose the writings of such non-elite IEPs for their researches, writings etc.

Then they can discover the “real reality” described by Octavio Paz, the Nobel Laureate, in the context of India and Indian people.

Reviewed by:
--Dr Y.S.Rajan