Contemporary Indian Poetry in English (A Socio-Political Perspective)
Author : Shalley Mannan

Reviewed by Gurdev Chauhan

Poetry is more grounded in language than prose or fiction. Rather according to Slavoi Zizek, it torches the language to extract meaning. It is also more grounded in clay, the social and natural environment. English being a foreign language, poetry in English does not come natural to most Indians as it does when they write in their mother tongue whatever it may be, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali , Punjabi or any other. But this rule has come to have limited application in these days of internet, social media and proliferation of English language public schools. Now English is no more viewed or used as a foreign language. It is getting popular even in the North. So is the case with the literary works written originally in English. Also, perhaps in no other country so many literary books in English are bought and read as in India. So English literature has come to have more commercial stake in India as well.


So far poetry is concerned, the tradition of Indian poetry in English goes right to the beginning of the last century if not earlier. Toru Dutt, Ravinderanath Tagore, Sarojini Naido could be cited as some of the most important names although Michael Madhusudan, Henry Derozio, Aribindhu just proceeding them by a few decades. The book under review, Contemporary Indian Poetry in English , A Socio-Political Perspective, by Shally Walia, a teacher of English in DAV College Chandigarh, has taken for scrutiny the period after 1975. This watershed appears to be made more for the sake of convenience than reason. Moreover, she has selected out of this time block only six poets, three men, K.N. Daruwala, I.H.Rizvi and O.P. Bhatnagar and three women Mamta Kalia, Sudha Iyer and Imtiaz Dharkar. We see here too the choice to be arbitrary than merited.

However, she has cast a good compensating look at the overall contemporary poetic scene throwing brief but meaningful light on the poetic contribution of stalwarts like A.K .Ramanuzam, Ezkiel, P. Lal,Shiv K Kumar, Jayant Mahapatra, Adil Jusawalia and some others like Kamla Dass, Eunice de Souza, Sujata Bhatt, Suniti Namjoshi, Tara Patel but has bypassed some other notables like Gieve Patel, Pritish Nandi, Dom Moraes, Ismail Merchant and the like.

Further, we see that Shelley Mannon has tried to put male and female poets in too different categories although the gender-based treatment is against the true spirit of poetry. She says in the preface that the poets’ way of handling of their subjects differ due to gender conditioning their psyche , different cultural backdrop and way of living. We believe her. However, she is also aware and quotes as well, Victor E.Frankle’s Man’s Search for Meaning with the writer speaking of the humans ‘will to search the meaning of life’ common to both the genders.

India became independent in the year of 1947, so all six poets of this critical book may be called post-independent because their main poetic output relates evidently to post-independence period and bears the mark of that milieu. She aptly remarks that these and other poets of this era “exhibit a marked shift from the romantic to real, from clichéd and hackneyed to new and avant-garde, from conventional and from traditional to experimental.” These poets including women poets were influenced by the tedium of the modern life, its boredom, disdain, resentment, hatred, poverty, disruptive man-woman relationship and disintegration of the family. All this is true.

What takes the contemporary, especially the post-independence poets away from the existing tradition of poetry of rhyme and meter towards free verse is their down to earth modes of expression, a distinct turn from the ruling romantic idiom of life shared by their predecessors even though they were abundantly sparked with romantic nationalism of the crude type. Another thing of note, is that whereas except in the case of Rabindranath Tagore, pre-independence Indian English poets were essentially monolingual but that trend came to an abrupt halt. We see that now the tendency is to write both in mother tongue and in English. We may see this leaning working in the case of Kamla Dass, Dalip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar, Mamta Kalia and some others.

Mannon has done her homework well to bring out individual poetic traits of the poets although these are hard to single out in each case due to openness of each one of us, poets or not, to multifarious influences. In these days of rapid air traffic, internet and social media, the whole world has shrunk to impact almost everyone equally wherever he or she may be localised. But what ails her findings is that these individual persona are half chewed and what is more, these are scattered all over the book and lack cohesion expected of her deeply involved undertaking. One has to cull them in our mind to make an aggregated sense of each poet’s distinctness.

As to the cultural influence, these poets seem to amass and promote at the best a hybrid culture, an amalgamation of the East and the West. Even the progressive strains we encounter in the works of these poets owe their birth and sustenance to western values and ideologies of materialism. None in these poets is totally home grounded in the sense Rabindranath Tagore was. Of the men poets, K.N.Daruwala is most direct hitting so far the ills of the Indian society are concerned. Rizvi and Bhatnagar are more reticent and soft on the social, political and moral issues. Out the women, Mamta Kalia is blunt and well-equipped to come to terms securely with what harms or promotes the women life conditions in this part of the globe. In fact Mamta secures over the other two although Imtiaz Dharkar is most poetically accomplished and talented than all the poets put together due to her rich exposure and highly cultivated creative sense. Her poems ride high over the poetic terrain.

All said and done, Shelly Mannan can be congratulated for her wholesome discussion on matters of poetry, rather Indian poetry written in English and opening us to rich poetic merchandise at our doorstep. Poetry may be a dying art but a dying art sometimes stages a comeback. Poetry might also do, who knows?
© Author
(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Summer 2015)