Instead of assenting to Romeo’s “What’s in a name?” I must say that there’s a lot in the name, especially after experiencing the sensual treat that Dr. Vivekanand Jha’s The Dance of the Peacock is. Peacock is India’s national bird, and for very good reasons. It not only symbolizes the various hues of the rainbow colours of beauty, but also alludes to the rasas that originate in the sahriday after experiencing beauty. Like the captivating coruscations from the spread peacock plumes, this anthology has the rainbow colours of human emotions, thoughts and experiences in it. The poets given place in the anthology come from various backgrounds, states and diasporic points of origin. It is, in the true sense of the words, an anthology of English poetry from India. The poems may be said to range over the unending ground of experiences human. Every poem is pregnant with meaning, and many of them may be classed with the best in their genre. It has always been very difficult judging one’s contemporaries, especially in the field of poetry. Yet, with a lot of caution, learning from the mistakes of the past: mine and that of others, and placing the caveat lector in the very beginning that my taste is mine alone, and so is my judgement, I dip my metaphorical fingers into the honey bowl and present the same on extraction for the readerly gaze.
I liked many poems in the anthology. In no ordered manner, as they come to my mind, are few lines that spring out from my unconscious:
“The crocodile body betokens memory foot-steps into dustbins of glory”
“And yet, down the steps into the water at Varanasi,
where the lifeless bodies seem to grow human”
“I keep mourning all the times
Love-lorn like a serpent
For its lost gem”…
The process promises to yield my personal hyper-text, and to offer the heady lotos nectar and its accompanying heavenly amnesia. Yet, I can’t persist in enjoying and perpetrating this anarchy, for it challenges the most venerated invention of the modern society: personal and private ownership. Coming back to the individual poets and poems then, linear, well defined, segregated by names and endings, I take up randomly the gems of purest rays, to show their beauty in process. I begin with Ananya S Guha’s “Dusk”:
Clamour of voices turns down
as dusk descends into a beast.
I love dusk.
I love the beast,
the chameleon of changing colours.
The imagery acts as a trigger that starts a chain reaction giving rise to stifled or hidden voices of the past: the voices of tradition in which the poem falls loosely, the tradition of amalgamation of thoughts with feelings. The dusk becomes an all devouring beast, in an unconscious, atavistic hybridization of Eliot’s brown fog and Yeats’s “beast”.
The next few lines that come to my mind are from Aju Mukhopahyay’s “The Paper Boat”:
The paper boat
I set adrift
In my childhood
On the flooded road
Of a metropolis
Has just arrived
This rainy evening
At my doorstep
Mukhopadhyay’s mask of simplicity and plainness works well. It takes in the reader, at least in his first reading, to make him believe in the poem’s being some kind of invocation of the Romantic spirit, which it is, in a way. Deeper and more readings reveal layers of significations that the first and cursory one had missed. Then one comes to know the other meanings: intended and unintended. Why declare the ending of a Hitchcock movie? The poem must be tasted again and again to be fully enjoyed.
Charu Sheel Singh’s “The Gate Keeper” is one more poem that has stuck somewhere, unknown, yet definitely, in my mind. It has the elements of myths, ready-made and invented by the poet too. The various symbols that the poem uses work at two levels of the tradition of Indian classical symbols and the poets’ personally created or used ones too. On a more concretely mythical note, Harish Chandra, the keeper of the gates of the mahashmashan in Kasi that takes his name, is also the epitome of truth in Hindu mythology.
The nine fold gates into the body
beg for tales that empty their
earth. Harish Chandra the gate keeper
patrols death leading to the shrines
Jayanta Mahapatra’s “Sanskrit” woke me up from my dogmatic slumber. Since having tasted it, my views on the “dead-ness” of the language have changed. There’s a strange, sad, slow rhythm in the poem, a rhythm that tends to grow its roots into and around the reader’s mind.
And yet, down the steps into the water at Varanasi,
the shaggy heads of word-buds move back and forth
aware that their syllables’ overwhelming silence
would not escape the hearers now…
The alive and special (due to their commonness) images in Kanwar Dinesh Singh’s “Oak Trees” make the poem’s effect similar to that of a ripe Indian gooseberry that can taste anything, ranging from sweet to pungent, depending on the past memory of the taste buds and also on what is taken after it. His oak tree takes a symbolic form and transcends the limits imposed by time and space, even by its roots. The life power ascribed naturally to the things natural comes in the Indian tradition and the pantheistic Western one too:
Who says their joints are an arthritic sore,
And their gravity’s owing to the old-age?
Outwardly they appear to be somber, bore;
Inwardly each of them is an astute, incisive sage.
They seldom show up their inner blues.
Among bullying deodars they stand artfully –
With warped form, serrated leaves, dual hues,
They carve a niche for themselves cannily, carefully.
Mona Dash presents a woman’s way of looking at love and that of a man, and, in a way, the difference between a man’s and a woman’s weltanschauung in her “Love Lost”. The poignancy with which the narrator recalls her past: times and love, lends the potency of a mini-dirge to the poem: the dirge of love, life and time combined. The lines that portray the loneliness best are also those that reflect the need to get the old times and love back:
I think of these questions now
Long after he has gone
Now realising that, sometimes
There should be no questions
Now worrying that the answer
Has come and gone
The subtly woven yet strong feminist strands make the warp of the poem and the finely arrayed words its woof.
A very strong and haunting poem of the anthology is Raja Nand Jha’s “Poetic Homage” to his beloved, his wife. The power of his emotions is put over the page in the form of words that succeed in touching the reader’s soul and making it resonate at nearly the same wave length as that of the poet. He begins with a declaration; an invocation:
I wouldn’t let you die
Till ink’s left in the pen
I vow to write on thee,
Please grant it fulfillment.
The mature muse never lets the reader’s interest wane, keeping the parts taut and firmly together. The poem’s elegiac note is maintained throughout, yet, it is not a poem of mourning, at least not fully. The bereaved has hope that springs from his love and from his faith. The presence of the lost is so strong that it challenges the material reality, and becomes more real than mere reality.
Since thou persist
In haunting my memory
I keep mourning all the times
Fifty-spring-old in love
And the laceration from its loss-
Another woman, another poem, but so different: Seema Aarella’s “Freezing Fantasy” is in a league of its own. It’s very uncommon in its Janus like duality. It’s definitely not like the prototypical feminist poems galore that sometimes appear affected poems by poseurs. It’s an introspective, personal kind of a poem that takes one intensely felt experience set in the frame of few moments and converts it into a well wrought poem. In it there’s loss again, but the loss is not of someone else. This time round, the poet loses her own self, a part of it at least:
And the poet within was just about to
Transcend the physical and live greater ecstasies.
But you vengefully rose from the seat,
Drew the curtains over the window
And killed a beautiful evening
With the attribute of a jealous lover.
Who was it that talked about that room of their own? She was very right. Personal space and time are essential for the creative process and the creator must be allowed to exist as an individual with an independent identity. How can a non-existing entity create? That would be like going one step further from the creation of the world by God: ex nihilo. Because it’d be creation sans creator.
Syed Faizan’s “The Book of Life” is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s seven ages theme, albeit in a different way. He begins the poem musing philosophically, and very metaphysically too:
What if each breath that every being e’er took,
Has been recorded in a library;
What if each human were a secret book,
Bound in the covers of eternity.
He then goes on, posing the problems one’d have in reading such a book. Each age is depicted creating, in its idiosyncratic manner, its own kind of text. And thus goes on the life, all life, till the end.
But ‘fore we’ve written all that we would wish,
Death scrawls abruptly in one stroke “finish”.
T. Vasudeva Reddy shows how poetry may still act as a tool for social correction. In a way reminiscent of the great past satirists, he takes up the modern sadhu baba in his “Ashram”:
Saffron robe is his shining mask
to realize his cherished tainted task;
helpless religion falls an easy prey
to his sensual lips that feign to pray;
Brimming with desire his lustful eyes
greet fairer beauties, frail butterflies;
This new age sadhu has created his own dictionary and the first word he has redefined is the common noun: sage. He is not at all other worldly. His complete attention is on this world, and now. Not for him are the austere and pure ways of the yore, as satisfying his senses is all he desires. Not for him are Himalayan austerities and a secluded ashram, as he wants the best and travels by air only. On his return, his palace of an ashram awaits him. In a Chaucerian portrayal, with all the details so aptly placed at the right places, Reddy succeeds in actually showing the sadhu to the reader. The poem does not end pessimistically though:
he and his tribe to real sages are a blot,
but dark clouds can never eclipse the sun.
Khurshid Alam tells the tale of the conversion of nationalism to jingoism and war in just six lines. His well crafted poem “Border” begins with “Each border crafted on the land/ engraves a ditch in the heart”. A man made thing that is entirely external and accidental then goes on to make men enemies of one another, as “the divide cannot be unwritten”. Alam’s “The Sun” stands in complete contrast to his previous poem in its simplicity of theme and treatment of the subject. The way he makes the sun speak for himself is quite remarkable. The poem has to be taken in its entirety to be enjoyed. The sun says:
You’ll see me:
dancing along the streak
of smoke when I take
a flight from the river;
The poem ends with the sun’s going away for the night, with a promise to return. He leaves behind a token that generates trust. It’s a “shaft of light/ for the night from where I pick up/ again the next morning”.
And thus may I go on. But then, the reader’s autonomy will be compromised. And then, the pristineness of the poems will also be gone. Therefore, I hold myself from touching any more gems in the treasure that Dr. Jha has succeeded in presenting to the reader in his anthology. It’d suffice if I say that I have only skimmed the surface of the vast ocean of contemporary Indian English poetry that this anthology is. I am quite sure that this anthology will be of great service to the connoisseurs, readers, students, researchers of Indian English poetry and will prove a milestone in the rich tradition of anthologies with roots in the Indian ethos.
The Dance of the Peacock: An Anthology of English Poetry from India
Edited by Dr. Vivekanand Jha, 2013. Hidden Brook Press.pp. 538 pbk. RRP Rs. 1500/-
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