In a literary landscape dominated by prose and the prosaic, poetry has become an imaginative-aesthetic rarity; a kind of aesthetic insertion that is at a discount amidst the prosaic sensibility of the present. To write poetry in such a scenario is an act of aesthetic heroism, of formidable literary conviction and courage. Rowing Together, a bilingual poetic collaboration by Sukrita (English) and Savita Singh (Hindi), exemplifies this aesthetic conviction. By establishing a dialogue across languages, the poets usher in an inter- language creative space that apart from recognizing and accommodating linguistic pluralism also encourages democratic-aesthetic reciprocity. Translation, as a trans-creative act emerges as a mutually empowering critical tool. This spontaneous act of creation and critique, when harnessed in tandem across languages, augurs well for Indian multicultural literary ethos. Rowing Together offers us that hope. The present anthology contains fifty six poems, divided into eight thematic sections. Though the ratio of poems by each poet varies across these sections both poets contribute almost an equal number of poems to this anthology.
The titles of the sections—viz., ‘Being’, ‘Creating’, ‘Othering’, ‘Seeing’, ‘Nurturing’, ‘Reflecting’, ‘Suffering’ and ‘Dwelling’—and their sequencing in this collection is very suggestive. It not only indicates their poetic purpose but also foregrounds poetry as an enterprise demanding responsible planning. Poetry here emerges as an act of continuous probing and understanding, not a final verdict on life. Each poem derives its poignancy from its rich but fluid evocation of moment, mood and milieu. Together these varied experiential perspectives get translated into a quest, which is at once subjective and objective. The simultaneity of this inward and outward glance at life saves these poems from being maudlin mandates on women’s lives and turn, if not all, but quite a large number of them into nuanced mediations on life. The existence of two distinct poetic sensibilities, dwelling on similar thematic concerns converging across cultural-linguistic differentials further add to and extend the substance and significance of these poems.
The warp and weft of all eight poems under the section ‘Being’ is woven around a sense of wonder that constitutes the very core of any sensitive being. These poems ‘celebrate’ the possibilities of being/life, its manifold certainties and uncertainties. If in ‘Voyage at Ten’ Sukrita’s poetic persona is awestruck by the ‘awesome expanses/of the deep blue oceans/and the graying sky’ and the possibility of ‘failure of/ the engine . . . [and] Blue death’, and remains in that very mood of conflicting possibilities in ‘What If’, she also revels in those insights and truths ‘that circle the light/Rising slowly/over the river of experience/panting and huffing’ that are ‘so white’ as to simply mesmerize/blind her. It is in these intense moments of living and realization that one understands oneself (‘Seasonal Sadness’) and identifies with the other (‘When the Snakes Came to the Shelter’). Savita Singh’s poetic selection in this section, though expanding on similar issues, nevertheless anchors them more pragmatically in woman’s search for identity. Wrenching love out of its sentimental moorings she turns it into a tool of ‘womanist-empathy in ‘Of Love’ and ‘Whose Woman Am I’. This pragmatism—a quality that she shares with her co-poet—however does not make her oblivious of the beauty and mystery that surrounds those moments ‘that [fill] up all emptiness/Like some definition of being’ (‘Some Definition’).
Poetry is not only an aesthetic tool or a repository of human essence. It is also an existential proposition or at least an aesthetic tool for existential—social and individual—intervention. In the sections that follow, the poets of the present anthology seem to acknowledge and enact this potential of the poetic. While the initial concerns continue to reverberate, these now get enmeshed with the socio-political, historical and cultural concerns within which the poets are located existentially and ideologically. Rowing Together thus emerges as a complete package—a multi-dimensional exploration of life.
Of the six sections that follow, viewed from the above vantage point, two in particular, that is ‘Suffering’ and ‘Dwelling’ stand apart from the point of view of creative responsibility and rigour. ‘Suffering’ is a section that offers poetic window to social, communal and historical atavism that threatens to suck the contemporary in a vortex of perpetual violence. In ‘The Hunt’, a dirge for the unborn victims of Gujarat, Sukrita strings together a collage of violent vignettes to foreshadow a surreal reality/world that awaits us all if we fail to act now. History, especially women’s history continues to inform all other poems of this section; a history full of ruptures, emotional and physical, yet retaining a continuity of violence that always surrounded the resilient women. ‘Dwelling’, the last section of this anthology, contains poems that seem to anchor the vision of Rowing Together within an undying optimism. It is an optimism that accrues from a life lived and not the life merely romanticized.
The significance of this collection lies in its cohesive evolution of diverse thematic foci. However, at the level of form some of the poems, at times, seem to suffer from what may be termed as creative drag, an inadvertent fall out of the academic/translator in these poets hindering the spontaneity of creative idiom, idea and image. At times this creative anxiety/drag tends to hinder the organic development of some of the poems. At such moments the theme and form, and the attendant language, especially in translation, fail to cohere. At other times the beauty of the original is marred for want of more nuanced translation. But such lapses are few and far between and, when ever they exist, are more than compensated by the honesty that inheres in the very fact of both the original and translation existing in close proximity, and thus offering a sensitive reader—at least one equally adept in both Hindi and English, to gauge the poems first hand not only as creative but also a critical take on each other.
Poetry, as a creative praxis, usually emerges as a subjective act of creation, a creative dialogue with the self. It is not to deny the social dimension of the poetic act, but initially this act enacts itself through aesthetic negotiation of the self with its surroundings. It is the quality of this initial trigger—its emotional and intellectual sweep—that apart from constituting the warp and weft of any poetic credo also defines the possibilities and potentialities of this creative act. Understood thus, the poetic act, apart from its other inherent possibilities, can also be seen as an attempt to expand the limits of the poetic trigger. In Rowing Together, the poets, in embarking upon a joint poetic journey through mutual translation, not only get under the skin of each other’s poetic experiences, but in the process experiment, improvise, comment upon and expand each other’s poetic sensibility across languages. Cutting across Hindi and English, the resultant poetic profusion ushers in a unique poetic credo that simultaneously shares, creates and critiques.
Anup Beniwal is Professor of English at GGS IP University, Delhi.