Indo English Poetry in the Seventies
The seventies were great years. They had a momentous impact on me. I found myself in the midst of a lot of happenings. Bangla Desh was liberated. Noor e Alam Siddiqui alias Tiger Siddiqui, Abdul Qudus Makhan, Shahjahan Siraj and Mohammad Abdur Raub, their bravery at the helm of Mukti Bahini stuck to my mind. General Niyazi was brought to my home town of Gwalior. His surrendered pistol adorns the mess at Gwalior. The boy king, His Excellency Jigme Singhe Wangchuk sat on the throne of Bhutan at the same time. I had embarked on my medical studies in Gwalior Ten years later, I watched him playing soccer with his uncle at the stadium in Thimphu.
I read yesterday that he wants to quit monarchy and give Bhutan a democracy as much as I would love to leave medicine and enter a world of creative involvements.
Anglo Indian Literature had already found roots. I was far more entranced to the Anglo Indian Community in Kolkata who I firmly believe gave the first input to culture and literature in India. Aparna Sen made “36 Chowringhee Lane” and later Tanuja with Victor Bannerjee made “An August Requiem”, a salute to this wonderful vibrant community in Kolkata.
Kolkata was swinging to the strains of such popular groups as Frustrations Amalgamated, the Forbidden Fruit and the Savages. Sushmit Bose was writing and performing music at Delhi. He released his album “Train to Calcutta” which was an instant hit.
Ananda Shankar, schooled at the Scindia School, Gwalior had the world agog with his fusion music. Years later I had to buy his Vinyl Discs from an obscure collector in Copenhagen.
I frequented the pubs in Park Street and listened in trance to two great legends, Braz Gonsalves and Pam Crain. Pam still croons at the Trincas in Park Hotel. Usha Uthup was making her presence felt. She too was singing her own compositions.
There was poetry in motion, ‘Once again the murmur of voices settled into a hushed whisper, a white spotlight cast an oval patch, soft, softly, a jingle of anklets……'. That was Kavita Bhambani Miss India in the seventies doing her catwalk at Ritu’s Boutique in Kolkata. Desmond Doig, the editor of JS and an artist par excellence had brought the hearts of young people like me to a perfect culture of Anglo Indian happenings. JS a youth journal from the House of Statesman, Kolkata dominated the Indo English Culture and Literary scene for nearly a decade. Popular writer Anees Jung took over the editorship of Youth Times. She brought out an issue on Love Poetry, a feat that got hold of poets all over the country writing in English to show case their work.
During this period I encountered love and started trying my hand in writing. I never stopped writing after that. It was difficult to accept, a small town boy from Hindi heartland in Gwalior writing love poems in English, I remained the odd chap out. From my town in Gwalior, I kept a close watch on the Indo–English Poetry movement. I read the works of Henry Louis Derazio and Post Derazio era poets like Toru Dutt, Tagore, Aurobindo Ghosh and Sarojini Naidu.
Much later, I was so excited when my wife started working on a thesis towards her PhD, ‘A comparative study on the works of Kamala Das and Sarojini Naidu’, a study she couldn’t complete. I was meeting a lot of poets from Delhi, reading my poems at Jawaharlal Nehru University Campus and got involved in a leftist literary cultural organization called ‘Hundred Flowers’.
Poets like Purushottam Agarwal, Hemant Joshi ‘Hem’ and Renuka Singh all from Delhi influenced me. I remember Renuka Singh’s ‘Solitary Seconds’ published in the seventies adorning the shelves of book shops like ‘The Book Worm’ in Connaught place and ‘Teksons Book Shop’ in South Extension, New Delhi. She teaches Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
I was peddling my book ‘Ritual Silences’ at Janpath, on the street at any price. Poetry hardly sells as they all say. R. Raj Rao had brought out his first poetry book titled ‘Fracture’ in a stenciled form. I bought his book from Manney’s Pune. Medical Doctors like Gieve Patel from Mumbai had already established their art and poetry in the international circuit while Kuldeep Singh Tuteja with a Masters in Physiology and English Literature was being regularly published by Imtiaz Dharkar, herself an artist and a poet in Debonair. Dr. Tuteja is a Professor and Head of the Department of Physiology at the Medical College in Indore. Dr. Rajen Srivastava and Dr. Hari Prakash Jain from Gwalior are my course mates, wrote poetry profusely, and shared emotions over endless cups of tea at all odd hours.
I am especially indebted to Rajen Srivastava for introducing me to the literature of Dr. Nirmal Verma. His book ‘Wey Din – Those Days” about sudden love in Prague is a virtual prose in poetry. Hari Prakash Jain now an Ophthalmologist in Shivpuri, near Gwalior has a book of poems published and is well known in Madhya Pradesh Literary scene. He was chosen to represent at the Hindi Samellan in Mauritius.
A column called JS Blue Print in the magazine JS caught my attention. A young poet named Pritish Nandy from Kolkata was publishing a poetry journal called ‘Dialogue’. An irregular publication, it featured poets like Kamala Das and Arun Kolatkar along with Nandy’s own poetry. Pritish Nandy a young science enthusiast had enrolled in the Presidency College. Kolkata was bristling with Naxalite Movement. My grand ma’s house in Shibpur, Howrah was plastered with such slogans as ‘Off with the heads of capitalists, Naxalbari Lal Saalam’.
It was hard to be young and not be a leftist. There was a heady brew of an emerging sociopolitical change and basic emotions like love. Love poetry flourished under such circumstances in Bengal. Love was a classless urge that gave affirmation and romanticism to a Maoist movement.
Pritish started writing under such circumstances. His poem on Kolkata remains famous for its depiction of life and turmoil in the seventies –
Calcutta if you must exile me wound my lips before I go
only words remain
and the gentle touch of your finger on my lips
Calcutta burn my eyes
before I go into the night
the headless corpse
in a Dhakuria bylane
the battered youth his brains blown out
and the silent vigil
that takes you to Pataldanga Lane
where they will gun you down
without vengeance or hate
Calcutta if you must exile me burn my eyes before I go …
Pritish Nandy filled up a need during that period when Kolkata needed a young poet who could write love poetry with the imagery of an artist but who could also collude with the political environment of a changing scenario. His poetry was a breath of fresh air, almost true in an Indian environment and remained different from mainstream Indian writings of the day.
Purushottam Lal a Professor in English Literature at the Calcutta University and a well known Indo English Poet published Nandy’s poems through his Writer’ Workshop. I had the fortune of meeting him at his Lake side Garden residence where I had gone to buy early poetry of Kamala Das. Writers Workshop to this day brings out regularly Indian poetry and writings in English of poets from all walks of life and remains a representative forum of Indian literature.
Pritish wrote ‘Most of the time I am madly in love, stranger faces at stranger times’. He was in love in Kolkata and wrote the most beautiful love poetry bordering on to sensuality and erotica:
Tonight I draw your body to my lips: your hand, your
mouth, your breasts, the small of your back. I draw
blood to every secret nerve and gently kiss their tips, as
you move under me, anchored to a rough sea. I cling to
you, your music and your knees. I touch the secret vibes
of your body, I fill my hands with the darkness of
your hair. This passion alone can resurrect our love.
Tonight I surrender to the closing of wings: the
dark shall testify to this tremulous thyme:
whenever you move under me, my body celebrates
this beautiful ceremony. Within my hands, your small
breasts move into the twilight: yes, we have loved
like the wind that swirls into the seasons:
your breasts content against my proud absence,
shipwrecked into expectancy as your tongue turns
During the time Pritish Nandy was showing promise, another poet, Kamala Das from Kerala wrote love poetry and brought Kolkata within her confines. Her first book ‘Summer in Calcutta’ and later ‘The Descendants’ published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata made me feel love poetry with a difference. Pritish Nandy‘s imagery of a neo fantasy world where ‘carriages whipped out long lost promises in the dark’, Kamala instead wrote of a stark reality, a love that can be obsessive and hurtful. Kolkata remained a fertile ground for their creativity to sprout.
From the Descendants –
When I die
Do not throw the meat and bones away
But pile them up
And let them tell
By their smell
What life was worth
On this earth
What love was worth
In the end.
Another one from the Descendants –
Our bodies after love making
Turned away, rejecting
Our words began to sound
Like clatter of swords in fight.
Yes, I was thinking, lying beside him
That I loved, and was much loved.
It is physical thing, he said suddenly,
End it, I cried, end it, and let us be free
After that love became a swivel door
When one went out, another came in.
Then I lost count, for always in my arms
Was a substitute for a substitute.
Oh, What is the use, explaining –
It was a nameless, faceless crowd.
We have lain in every weather, nailed, no, not
To crosses, but to soft beds and against
Softer forms, while the heaving, lurching,
Tender hours passed in a half dusk, half dawn and
Half dream, half real trance. We were the yielders,
Yielding ourselves to everything…….
Kamala Das wrote with such passion, her poetry remains iconoclastic, defying norms yet daring you to read. I found her book ‘My Story’ at the AH Wheeler Book Shop in Gwalior Railway Station. The Autobiography is prose-poetry, like peeping into shadows, a whiff, now here, now gone.
Pritish Nandy collaborated with Kamala Das to bring out poetry collections and included her in all the anthologies he edited from 1972 to 1977.
Statesman had closed down JS and Desmond Doig left for Kathmandu. Pritish was still writing evocative poetry and had bought a Standard Herald which he included it in his poetry and whizzed around Kolkata, gathering words and feelings. He shared friendship during this period with Aparna Sen and her husband Mukul Sharma. They wrote poetry and dreamed of far greater achievements.
The then Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray and his wife Maya Ray happen to be great poetry enthusiasts and Pritish Nandy found an avid listener and a reader. But it was his friendship with Mallika Sarabhai, the well known choreographer and dancer that brought his poetry to the forefront of contemporary writings in Indian Literature.
One early morning, I found myself staring at a full page article on Pritish Nandy in The Times of India. He had launched his celebrated book ‘Lonesong Street’ and an EMI vinyl disc where he recited his poems to the music of Ananda Shankar both dedicated to Mallika Sarabhai. His poem on Kolkata was hailed by Times of India as ‘the finest poem in the past decade written by an Indian’. Lonesong Street brought out by Heinemann has the poems of Pritish Nandy accompanying the photographs of well known photographer, Dhunji Rana.
I was in Delhi by the next train buying his book and LP at Dass Studios in Connaught Place. His poems were all for a beautiful girl, I couldn’t keep it, it had to go to another girl.
When you have crossed the bustling main-streets
of an ever ever land
You reach a lonesome sand strip called a never never strand
You take the turning left and you take the turning right
And where the twilight breaks
You turn your ragged sight
Round the duskfall where it is blue
Lonesong Street waits for you
Lonesong hour is when the ashphalt cracks with a far off steps
Of a strange malhar
Lonesong hour is when wild flowers grow
with every tantrum we have shared…
Lonesong Street was made into a film, its music by Ananda Shankar drew packed crowds in Kolkata and the film festival circuit. Lonesong Street is a collector’s item. There is a picture that has stuck to my mind. A young Pritish presenting the LP of Lonesong Street to Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
At 28, Pritish Nandy became the youngest recipient of Padma Shree.
Poet, Translator, Filmmaker and Graphic Artist, Pritish was a one man factory, churning out poetry, experimenting with form, design, adding Hindi, Bengali words for that unique experience. His poetry was rejected by overseas publishers whereas Indian poets refused to include him as a part of a new poetry renaissance. I remember discussing about him in Masters Classes of Literature at the Jiwaji University, Gwalior. The professors had either not known about him or they didn’t encourage the style of his writing which was considered very unliterary. I was considered an outsider trying to pollute students of English Literature with my talk and poems.
Professor PN Laha, Late Professor of Medicine at the Medical College, Gwalior, a poet and a contemporary of Dr. Balai Chand Mukhopadhyaya, popularly known as ‘Bonophool’ once took me to the Usha Kiran Palace Hotel where I was supposed to talk on Contemporary Trends in Indo-English Poetry to a group of Rotarians who were essentially business people. After I have finished talking, one of them stood up and asked me, why I haven’t talked about Tagore. Pritish Nandy got a similar rebuff many a times, unemployed, writing poetry seventeen hours a day he knew that his poetry would gain recognition.
I met many students thereafter who did their PhD on the Poetry of Pritish Nandy. In ‘Strangertime’ he wrote ‘Poetry has come out of class rooms of English literature, of professors talking pedantic wisdom to a group of students who drowsily think of escapades, sexual or otherwise’. 'Strangertime' was an anthology of major players in the love poetry scene, include such senior poets like Nissim Ezekiel, Keki Daruwala but also my favorites like Arun Kolkatkar, Eunice Desouza, Bodi Prasad Padhi and off course Maqbool Fida Hussain. 'Strangertime' was a beautiful book brought as a paperback by Hind Pocket books and was available at AH Wheeler Book Shops in the Railway stations.
Pritish defended love poetry saying 'Love poetry is the only poetry that can be read and imagined’. Every one of us has encountered love, a love that never reached its destination. A love poem is therefore to be read again and again, somewhere there you may find the fragments you lost in one rush lonesome hour. 'Strangertime' brought accolades to him as he exposed the Indian poets writing in English in such a cheap edition.
By this time Pritish had been published far and wide. His books include –
- Of Gods and Olives
- On Either side of Arrogance
- I hand you in turn my Nebbuk Wreath
- From the outer bank of Brahmaputra
- Masks to be interpreted in term of messages
- Madness is the second stroke
The poetry of Pritish Nandy:
- Dhritarashtra, Downtown : Zero
- Riding the Midnight River
- Lonesong Street
- In Secret Anarchy
- A Stranger Called I
- The Nowhere Man
- The Flaming Giraffe – Poems by Sunil Gangopadhyay
- Shesh lekha: The last poems of Rabindranath Tagore
- The poetry of Kaifi Azmi
- Krishna, Krishna
Among all his books, I specially enjoyed reading ‘Riding the Midnight River”.
Nandy’s experimental style and all he could ever do with words to produce a different poem is there.
Tonight when the sunflower cries
Bring the whisper of night flower in your dreams
And listen to the whistling whip as a lone carriage
Carries windswept promises into the dark
Tonight when the sunflower cries I shall unopen this gypsy love
And ride midnight river to your eyes
Where an autumnal lust will declare your absence in my skies.
Tonight when the sunflower cries……
Riding the midnight river, we reached a new dream called summer.
The strength of Pritish Nandy’s poetry derives from a language that is breakaway and yet simple, sensitive and universal. And that perhaps explains his large following. Mulk Raj Anand in his tribute to Nandy describes him as “the harbinger of the new Indian consciousness” It is this identification of his concerns with the root metaphors of his time that has impulsed such wide interest in his work.
The years 1976 and 1977 gave us two beautiful books from Pritish Nandy. Published by Arnold Heinemann; they were ‘A Stranger Called I’ and ‘The Nowhere Man’. Both these books had short poems and photographs by Nandy and Dhunji Rana. Pritish Nandy found solace in the Poetry and Lyrics of John Lennon and Paul Simon. He was inspired and wrote love poetry with a difference.
He is a real nowhere man,
sitting in his nowhere land,
making all his nowhere plans for nobody.
Doesn’t have a point of view,
knows not where he is going to,
isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere man, please listen,
you don’t know what you’re missing;
nowhere man, the world is at your command.
– John Lennon
is tapping on my forehead,
hanging from my mirror,
rattling the teacups,
and I wonder,
how long can I delay?
we’re just a habit
And Iam habitually feelin’ kinda blue.
But each time I try on
the thought of leaving you,
I stop and think it over.
– Paul Simon
The Nowhere Man brought a poetic style which was more prose in content, yet bereft of a lyric or rhyme, there remained fluidity, a silk saree wrapped around a flawless skin.
When you first came, quiet as the rain
that never fell, in the sunlight that never
shone, I whispered words I had never known
and now shall never forget. These words
have grown into secret songs. We have
known and loved, and shared what only
lovers can share in lyric guilt. There can be
nothing simpler than this love of ours,
nothing truer when this darkness flowers.
If only you could reach me, I would take
me along with you. We would listen to
the frenzied wings battering at the wind;
We would watch the trees go down on their
knees before the evening sunlight on the
hills. And before my hands can memorize
the Braille of your beautiful movements,
I shall assume whatever promise there is
in silence and allow your slender body to
Wrap itself around me. Your eyes return my words
more beautifully than the silence of rain.
‘A Stranger Called I’ was more autobiographical. The poems were shorter and had a mystical content. The poems appealed to the young Indian who knew love from an Indian point of view, passionate yet conservative.
Good bye is not always a great exit line
There are still simpler ways of saying ‘You are wrong’
The sign on your window says you are lonely
The void in my heart says you are gone
There is still someplace unknown where we can drift
And watch the spring time grow
In silent praise of our love
We as strangers would recognize and know.
It hurts to say, I am sorry
So let’s use unfamiliar words
The summer has gone
The ground has gone cold
The old road calls me back again.
Another time we meet as strangers, friends
Or who knows as lovers again.
Turn, turn, turn to the rain again.
It has been raining since morning
And Carol King has been blowing
my mind since then……..
General Ershad, former President of Bangladesh wrote love poetry. He presented me with a collection of his love poems in English published by his wife while he was in prison. General Ershad was well known for reciting his poems at SAARC meets and in the company of Head of States. But it was Pritish Nandy who found the best poets writing in Bengali and the most popular ones from Bangladesh and translated their work in English for the first time. Bangladesh Poetry came into limelight after the liberation. Pritish translated the Urdu ghazals and shayaari of Kaifi Aazmi. Kaifi himself an authority on English literature permitted Pritish to translate his works. The book was dedicated to none other than Shabana Aazmi. The feather on his cap was the translation of Kobi Guru Rabindranath’s last poems. Shesh Lekha or Last poems, its translation was granted by Kobi Guru’s institution, Vishwa Bharti University, Bolpur, Bengal.
Pritish Nandy was keen on Science Fiction and an UFO enthusiast. He topped the Science Talent Search Examination during his school days. It was natural for him to write science fiction stories which were included in many anthologies and published as a collection in India. His science fiction stories have an Indian essence. It was like sitting in the Kolkata planetarium watching the galaxies as his stories unfold.
Kushwant Singh, the editor of Illustrated Weekly of India had retired and the mantle was passed on to Pritish. Kushwant Singh, an authority on Sikhism, a poet and a writer in Punjabi, Urdu and English, remains one of the greatest living legends in Indo-English literature. His humor unsurpassed, is his column ‘With Malice Towards One And All’, published weekly in English and Hindi in the Times of India since more than twenty five years.
I had the honor to be included in his serial, when he wrote about me and my poetry on his visit to Bhutan. ‘Are you a Poet’, he asked me. ‘Yes I am Sir.’ What kind of poetry do you write, he queried between sips of whisky in a foggy evening at an altitude of 10,000 feet. ‘Always Love Poetry Sir’ came the quick answer. He frowned, looking at his glass he whispered; it must be these beautiful Bhutanese girls….. Does His Majesty write poetry? I think so Sir; it is the poetry of keeping this heavenly kingdom for ever, the last Shangri La.
I attained instant fame, nirvana, the Royal Dashos took me as their own and my pages of poetry continued growing even as I left the high altitudes of Bhutan after many years of stay and shifted instead to the altitudes of Arunachal Pradesh. Shri Gegong Apang, the former Chief Minister, a homeopath and a poet, insisted that I should stay and practice in his constituency of Along. Thus continued sessions of poetry of and on in the Circuit House of Along, jottings during his tours from Delhi and back.
Along is a beautiful place and so was the hospitality of Assam Rifles. I continued my obsession with the Chinese borders, with its culture, people and folk lore. I think, it might have something to do with James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon’. I searched for a perfect poem in rain and snow and wondered of a monastery that hid solitude of belief.
Pritish came down to Bombay to take over the editorship of the illustrated weekly of India. He changed the format and made it into a newspaper. The magazine collapsed and went finally into extinction.
I remember an article Pritish wrote on Rekha, the reigning beauty queen and film actress. He spoke in poetry of the dark damsel with alluring eyes, words that leapt out, kindled with her sensuality. Rekha remains ever beautiful; films that could never match the words of Pritish Nandy. He started the Pritish Nandy Communication, a film production company which made films with themes off the mainstream cinema. His recent film Shabd (Words) about a poet and his marital relationship didn’t do well in the box office although it featured well in the Film Festivals. I had to leave the movie theatre in the middle of its screening. His magic of words which had garnered audiovisual support for nearly thirty five years had finally reached an end.
He remains a Rajya Sabha, Member of Parliament, representing the Shiv Sena in the Indian Parliament.
Debonair, a journal with playboy like centre spreads of beautiful Indian women in various stages of undressing remained popular as pinups in the senior and postgraduate medical hostel in Gwalior during the seventies. Its articles written by intellectuals about a new emerging India remained unread. I was attracted to the beautiful Imtiaz Dharker and her poetry selection for Debonair.
Born in Lahore, Dharker grew up in Glasgow and now divides her time between London and Mumbai. She writes in English. She has written three books of poetry, conceived as sequences of poems and drawings. Home, freedom, journeys, geographical and cultural displacement, communal conflict, gender politics – these remain the recurrent themes in her poetry.
An Islamic lady, she questioned the validity of moments entwined by her faith that she is born with, freedom that she aspires, love she meets in her poem –
At The Lahore Karhai
It’s a great day, Sunday,
when we pile into the car
and set off with a purpose –
a pilgrimage across the city,
to Wembley, the Lahore Karhai.
Lunch service has begun –
‘No beer, we’re Muslim’ –
but the morning sun
squeezed into juice,
and ‘Yaad na jaye’
on the two-in-one.
On the Grand Trunk Road
thundering across Punjab to Amritsar,
this would be a dhaba
where the truck-drivers pull in,
swearing and sweating,
full of lust for real food,
just like home.
Hauling our overloaded lives
the extra mile,
we’re truckers of another kind,
looking hopefully (years away
from Sialkot and Chandigarh)
for the taste of our mothers’
hand in the cooking.
So we’ve arrived at this table:
the Lahore runaway;
the Sindhi refugee
with his beautiful wife
who prays each day to Krishna,
keeper of her kitchen and her life;
the Englishman too young
to be flavoured by the Raj;
the girls with silky hair,
wearing the confident air
This winter we have learn
to wear our past
like summer clothes.
Yes, a great day.
A feast! We swoop
on a whole family of dishes.
The tarka dal is Auntie Hameeda
the karhai ghosht is Khala Ameena
the gajjar halva is Appa Rasheeda.
The warm naan is you.
My hand stops half-way to my mouth.
The Sunday light has locked
on all of us:
the owner’s smiling son,
the cook at the hot kebabs,
Kartar, Rohini, Robert,
Ayesha, Sangam, I,
bound together by the bread we break,
sharing out our continent.
are ways of remembering.
Other days, we may prefer
Imtiaz also draws black and white sketches on the edge of reason. “Everything starts with the image: sometimes as the line of a poem, sometimes as something I see as a visual, a drawing. No, that’s not always true. Sometimes a poem can start with an idea and that can in turn spark off a drawing.”
Imtiaz Dharker remains one of the few Indian Poets who have blended their poetry with drawings and cinema.
Madhya Pradesh was entering an era of culture and art under the stewardship of its Chief Minister Shri Arjun Singh. Ashok Bajpai, a Madhya Pradesh cadre IAS officer and a poet took over the Chairmanship of an Art and Culture Complex called Bharat Bhopal in Bhopal built under the direction of the famous architect Charles Correa. It was showcasing the best of art, poetry music and dance in Madhya Pradesh. It hosted the first international poetry festival at Bhopal. I read my poems for the first time to an international audience.
During those ensuing years I met many Indian Administrative Service Officers and Officers from the Indian police Service who were actively involved in writing poetry. Shri PK Lahiri, former Chief Secretary, Madhya Pradesh Government and his wife Ratna Lahiri were those few who were deeply engrossed in Creative Writing and supported all those who associated with it.
Poetry never ends. From the seventies, we all moved ahead, known, unknown, poets, artists, musicians, dancers in a massive movement for that common aesthetic experience.
I was dancing the other day in East London, South Africa, at my Polish friend’s house. The song was a Russian interpretation of Mary Hopkins’s – ‘Those were the days’ –
Through the doors there came familiar laughter
I saw and heard you call my name
Oh! All my friends are older but no wiser
For in our hearts the dreams are still the same
Those were the days my friend………