Thursday, May 6, 2010

The anxiety of Indianness (contd.)

"The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil, makes a collective riposte for Indian poets writing in English. Thayil's anthology seeks to showcase a mature tradition, a canon of founding poets, and a take on the current English-language Indian-poetry scene."

This is what Michael Scharf says in the current issue of Boston Review. He adds:

"Thayil spends a significant chunk of his introduction rehearsing and shooting down vernacular critiques of Indian poetry in English: that it is a "failure of national conscience"; that it is "perpetuating colonialism in a postcolonial era"; that what it does is "essentially a conjurer’s trick" lacking a native tradition in India, inauthentic. His rebuttals dig deep into the history of the English language in India, going back to the mid-nineteenth century."

Scharf makes a third point that I found intriguing.

"Historically, vernacular literatures represent a response to literary languages that are perceived as cosmopolitan or universal.... India's regional-language speakers self-consciously positioned themselves against Sanskrit, a perceived universal, in order to define themselves and their literatures - a reaction known as vernacularization. Urdu, Persian, and Hindustani also played roles in Indian vernacularization, as did English, eventually. English itself, as a literature and as a language of statecraft, was created out of Latin’s shadow by the same process, part of a wave of vernacularization that also created written Spanish, French, and German. Bhasha writers define themselves against English as much as they once did Sanskrit and now do against Hindi, in some cases."

But Scharf's final point left me unconvinced. Citing Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih's "Blasphemous Lines for Mother", Scharf argues that the poem often "departs from standard English. Those departures - explored ironically in India by poets such as Ezekiel - turn them into identity markers." So far so Indian.

But then, he adds, "It is a transformation that requires English's relative neutrality". Requires? Not so. Writers often use "dialect" for distancing effects: against a background of "normative" Coastal-Andhra Telugu, Telangana poetry is very much an "identity marker". English then offers one more distancing tool.

Scharf adds: "Nongkynrih's poem is unthinkable in Hindi: that language still retains its connections to bhasha identity claims." Unthinkable? Not at all. You have only to see the inventively scatological uses of Hindi in Tarun Tejpal's The Story of My Assassins to see the possibilities!

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