The most important fact about this book is that it is the first comprehensive study of the subject. And its importance to the critical canon (a term King seems fond of) may remain just that. Which is a pity since King does not lack insights or an awareness of the situation in Indian English poetry. But after some meticulous research, King seems to have been forced to put together a book anyhow—and a book which would reflect the amount of research he had done. So we have a book where the ‘approach is historical, cultural, sociological and literary’ as the author himself claims.
To begin with, King’s knowledge of and interest in the publishing history of Indian English poetry and the groupism that developed within it, and his awareness of the personal details of the lives of these poets get the better of his authorial judgement. He wants to share everything with us and as often as possible. With the result that the second, third, and fourth chapters become repetitive and gossipy without being interesting.
The major facts that King states here can easily be gathered from the three appendices to the book, and the rest is trivia. The one important pronouncement he makes in the introduction and repeats in the course of these chapters, no doubt based on well researched facts, is open to question. And that is that Indian English poets ‘tend to be marginal to traditional Hindu society not only by being alienated by their English language education but also, more significantly, by coming from such communities as the Parsis, Jews and Christians, or by being rebels from Hinduism and Islam, or by living abroad.’
That’s a curious statement in more ways than one. It assumes that there is a traditional Hindu society which is homogeneous and central to Indian culture. So King is actually saying that these poets are marginal to Indian culture because they belong to religions other than Hinduism. More curiously King implies that Hinduism and Islam are one when he states that some of the poets are marginal to this ‘Hindu society’ because they are ‘rebels from Islam’. Thankfully, but unknowingly, King accepts that Islam is part of Indian culture! I cannot understand the assertion that a person gets automatically alienated through an English-language education. King should know through his study of Africa that being abroad doesn’t seem to change Indians very much!
And with that one facile judgement King throws away the basis and need for examining the significance of much of modern Indian English poetry which retreated into a cocoon of self-made and comfortable ennui in the name of alienation. Personal failures to come to grips with social reality have been turned by academic alchemy into gold medal winning products of an alienating, westernizing social and educational system.
These early chapters are noteworthy for ‘A proof-reading error so glaring that one looks at the name of the publishers once again. I refer to the title of the third chapter where an apostrophe finds its way to turn the plural ‘poets’ into a possessive. The other fact that remains is King’s insistence on using the phrase ‘Indian English-language poetry’.
In the latter half of the book King slates about twenty poets for discussion under seven chapter headings—‘The Poet’s India I’, and ‘II’, ‘Women’s Voices’, ‘Two Bilingual Experimentalists’, ‘Experimentalists II’, ‘Exile’, and ‘Return’. Ezekiel, Ramanujan, Shiv Kumar, Eunice de Souza, and Melanie Silgardo are all included for discussion in more than one chapter and this leads to a certain diffusion. For what can you say about a poet’s India that will not be relevant when you discuss her again under ‘Women’s Voices’? Ezekiel’s case is more extreme. There is another chapter titled ‘Ezekiel and His Influence’. Here King takes about fifteen pages to describe all of Ezekiel’s major works. He then takes about two pages to describe the poetry of K D Katrak (who is not in King’s canon of major writers) and then concludes that Ezekiel has influenced all younger writers! Conceptually, this chapter with this focus is wholly unnecessary as the whole book is about Ezekiel and his ‘beneficial’ influence on modern Indian English poetry.
Almost every poet discussed by King is studied by him in terms of adherence to or departure from Ezekielian aesthetics. But neither Ezekiel’s aesthetics nor his poetry come up for evaluation. This seems to me to be a major flaw almost crippling the book. And King even refers to Peeradina’s criticism of Ezekiel’s later poetry as lacking content but does not discuss or comment upon it. This lack of willingness to evaluate extends to all the poets discussed. King aims to be descriptive without being evaluative. But curiously he is willing to pass judgement on poets he does not discuss —to cite just one instance, Madhusudan Dutt is dismissed as an ‘insignificant nineteenth-century writer’, and this while discussing R Parthasarathy’s turning from English to Tamil!
This unwillingness to evaluate poets under discussion unfortunately gives an air of arbitrariness to his choice of poets as the best of the moderns especially when he has nothing much to say about some of them. A case in point is Shiv Kumar. Kumar finds his place under two chapter headings (‘The Poet’s India I’ and ‘Exile’). And this poet who in his most famous poem ‘Indian Women’ has them plaiting their ‘mississippi-long hair’, has only two pages devoted to him in the first and half a page in the second chapter. Either he is worth discussing or he is not. But the way the book is written he seems to be there by default.
Another disappointment in this book is caused wholly by a chapter heading. Chapter X is titled ‘Two Bilingual Experimentalists: Kolatkar and Chapter’. But neither of them is studied in terms of their bilingualism. The focus is firmly on their English language poems and the relation between their English and Marathi works is not studied. A pity this since King need not have raised our expectations at all!
But there are a lot of good things in this book. The fifth chapter, ‘Poetics and Criticism’, puts together a coherent account of Exekiel’s views on poetry and how it has been worked on by others. He also shows how the poetry and views of poets like Chitre, Mehrotra, and Mahapatra differ from Ezekiel’s concepts and provides the bases for a discussion of their works. His discussion of individual poems is often perceptive and reading of ‘difficult’ poets like Mehrotra and Mahapatra should motivate further discussion. And for once A K Ramanujan’s poetry is not read as undistilled nostalgia. The other good thing is that poets like de Souza, Silgardo and Shetty come up for serious discussion. But for many the best thing about the book would be that it was written at all, to assert that it is no funny matter ‘that Daruwalas and de Souzas should write poetry’ (de Souza, ‘My students’). But a certain disappoint-ment remains. There is a good book in all this, only King hasn’t managed to write it.
G.J.V. Prasad is on the faculty of the Centre for Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.