Book review: Collected Poems: 1969-2014

It comes to this critic in a haze; a distant memory of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra reading poetry to a class of English literature graduates in the making, two decades ago. The memory returns on account of novelist Amit Chaudhuri’s introduction to this collection, which quotes Mehrotra’s own introduction to a book of essays from a few years ago.

Collected Poems: 1969-2014, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Penguin, Rs 399. Available at leading bookstores.
Collected Poems: 1969-2014, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Penguin, Rs 399. Available at leading bookstores.

The introduction refers to what Mehrotra calls the ‘great betrayal of our literature’ primarily by those who teach in the country’s English departments: ‘the academic community whose job it was to green the hillsides by planting them with biographies, scholarly editions, selections carrying new introductions... Little of this has happened. Writers die, are mourned by other writers, and the matter ends there.’

Poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Reading these poems, some new, others from collections published across a lifetime, one is struck time and again by the economy of his language, and his repeated attempts to get to the heart of the matter, as it were. Consider his taunting view of Indian writing in English (a tradition Amit Chaudhuri says he ‘belongs’ to), from the same introduction.

He writes, ‘After the reviews stinking of far-fetched, not to say Asiatic, phrases; after that very Indian tamasha, the book launch, which is part Monsoon Wedding and part Irish wake; after the initial print run of 1,100 or 2,000 copies is exhausted, the book drops out of sight...’

Mehrotra brings that same precision to his poetry, in his original work as well as his astonishing role of translator that, he believes, is indistinguishable from that of a poet as far as the labour involved is concerned.

A fine example of the former can be found in previously unpublished work such as the poem Mirza Ghalib in Old Age: ‘His eyesight failed him, But in his soldier’s hands, Still held like a sword, Was the mirror of couplets.’

For the latter, you can turn to his translation of Prakrit love poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satavahana Hala: ‘In her first labour; she tells her friends, ‘I won’t let him touch me again.’ They laugh.’

‘How do you write about an uncle in a wheelchair in the language of skylarks and nightingales?’ Mehrotra asks.

This comprehensive collection is an exquisite answer to that question.

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