Themes that will never ever leave us: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
Set language politics aside and you will find that there is, indeed, much to admire in early Indian poetry in English.
English is often spurned by bhasha warriors as a mark of mental slavery. But Sarasvati rules every field of knowledge. She will not shed her grace on those who approach knowledge with complacency or ego. This fact is discussed in spiritual discourses.
For instance, Krishna was asked why he let Duryodhana win the game of dice. His answer was that Duryodhana summoned ‘vivek’ (knowledge and skill) by asking Shakuni to play for him. Just so, if clinically viewed, Babur summoned ‘vivek’ to play for him via the Turkish gunners.
The British, in turn, summoned ‘vivek’ to outwit others in the game. When they shared their vivek with Indians, that vivek effected irreversible changes. So it’s interesting to look at older generations of ‘English-medium’ Indians. The English language was as new to them then as it is, perhaps, to New India today.
For example, take Early Indian Poetry in English, 1829-1947, an OUP anthology from 2005 edited by Eunice de Souza, a famed poet and literature professor who passed away this July.
It was a regular thing after Independence to laugh at early Indian English poetry as copycat effusions. Some of those poems are indeed tedious to read today, but no more so than certain other poems of that period.
Nor is it true that every poem written in a bhasha is automatically ‘good’. In fact, the themes of early ‘English-medium’ poets were usually Indian. Though expressed in the new language according to its rules and formats, their cultural concerns were their own.
Kasiprasad Ghose wrote in ‘To a young Hindu widow’ in 1830,
‘Is this the all, or should it be / The all that here to thee is left?
And must the world remain to thee / A scene of every charm bereft?’
Toru Dutt wrote of weeping with her siblings in ‘Sita’, 1885:
‘Not in vain she weeps - for lo! At every tear she sheds
Tears from three pairs of young eyes fall amain’.
Greece Chunder Dutt wrote in 1887 in ‘The neem tree’ that
‘The withered Neem that stands forlorn / Beside the house where I was born
Is dearer to my heart / Than every tree that wins from air
Fresh leaves to clothe its branches bare’.
Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, brother to poet-politician Sarojini Naidu, wrote in ‘The cow’:
‘…some people will somehow / talk of me as the holy cow
But those who call me that, sometimes / Are guilty of the worst of crimes’.
G Annaji Rao, whose poems in Kannada and English appeared in newspapers, wrote in 1928 in ‘Our disinterested rulers’,
‘Never think, Annaji says / These blessed ones have come in vain
Until they leave our shores / Their ceaseless aim is wealth to gain’.
Indian poetry in English can also be brilliant, as in Until the Lions by Karthika Nair (Harper Collins, 2015). These ‘echoes from the Mahabharata’ are written as though by the women in the epic. The poetry is accessibly authentic, has great literary merit and is rooted in the Indian soul. It has vivek.
I daresay that bhasha warriors would be so absorbed in reading it that they’d forget to fight.
(The views expressed are personal)