'These My Words': The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry

Published: 20 November, 2012 15:58 IST | Lindsay Pereira |

An anthology like this must be an astonishingly complicated task for any editor to approach. For one, justice must be done to the rich seam of poetry in regional languages that goes back a couple of thousand years

Then, one must take into account what scholars of the Vedas ( like Vaman Shivram Apte, in The Practical Sanskrit Dictionary) have differentiated as s'ruti ( what is heard) and smr. ti ( what is remembered).

One must also incorporate not just the religious Bhakti movement but also the ancient tradition of love poetry in classical languages like Tamil. To their credit, then, Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo rise to the task with finesse.

These My Words

For French philosopher Denis Diderot, poetry needed to have something in it that was ‘ barbaric, vast and wild.’ For the American critic Babette Deutsch, it was important because ‘ no less than science’ it sought a hold upon reality. She believed the closeness of its approach was ‘ the test of its success.’ In India, poet A K Ramanujan often mentioned the ‘ intertextual’ nature of our literature, moving between oral and written, referring to older stories and other versions. This is most obvious when one looks at interpretations of the Ramayana, for instance, happily included within these pages.

Somewhere between these myriad approaches to an ancient literary art form lies something primal: a need to evoke or provoke an emotive response using nothing but language as a tool.

Shunning the banal chronological approach, de Souza and Silgardo collate their selection by the way poets approach everything from what a poem ought to be, to how they deal with the big questions of love and death. For the reader who chooses to flip through at random, the pleasant surprises are many. This critic, for instance, was moved by everything from Kalidasa’s work in Sanskrit (‘ Is poetry always worthy when it's old? And is it worthless, then, because it’s new?’) to Ramanujan’s translations of Tamil bhakti poet Nammalvar (‘ Remembering only my faults, my lord doesn’t show me any grace’) and much writing of great beauty in between.

There was Marathi poet Shobha Bhagwat’s opinion on husbands (‘ Where can one find a husband who likes his wife?’), Imtiaz Dharker, writing in English, on Mumbai (‘ Which other city hands out two different calling cards, one with the left hand, the other with the right?’), anonymous Gujarati folk songs, Kamala Das’s translations of Malayalam poets Unniyarcha and Aromal Unni, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz on ‘ The Morning of Freedom, 15th August 1947.’ The breadth of work represented is extraordinary, from the Tamil Hindu devotional form to Buddhist monk Vidyakara’s love poetry from Bengal, Dilip Chitre’s translations of Tukaram ( as poignant now as when they were first published in 1991), modern Urdu literature and representatives of the pan- India Progressive Writers Movement founded in 1936.

At the end of their introduction, de Souza and Silgardo mention the need for further anthologies, praying to God for strength if they should choose to do them. We hope this strength is granted to them.

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