WE SHOULD FORGET ABOUT INDIA,” said poet and critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. He was speaking as a member of the audience at a panel discussion on ‘The Art of Criticism’ at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year. The consensus on the panel was that literary criticism has let us down—for several reasons, but especially because our critics have not learnt how to make connections from book to book, how to revisit the past, and how to create a larger conversation about literature.
Over lunch the following day, I asked Arvind to elaborate. “We are perpetually starting on a clean slate which is why we’ll all go down the same hole. Which is the hole of forgetfulness,” he said. Arvind thought this was true especially of fiction writers in English, who have rarely felt bound to each other. “There is nothing known as new fiction. But there has been a new poetry. Poets are able to think of themselves as part of a tradition. Few novelists were enthusing younger writers but the poets were. Many younger poets turned to the older poets when they started writing poems.”
I had sought out Arvind to talk about Clearing House, the poetry publishing collective which he, along with poets Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel and Arun Kolatkar, started in Bombay in the mid-1970s. I saw a Clearing House book for the first time in the late 1990s when the Cuttack-based poet Jayanta Mahapatra sent me his The False Start (which the collective had published in 1980). Its khaki cover featured a stark image of two sheets of crumpled paper. The book’s unusual squarish size and its elegant font, the simplicity of the design and the wide space given to the poems on the page, the lack of any form of advertisement in the whole, and the beauty of the yellowing pages—all gave it an air of fragility, an aura of having come out of a set of circumstances that was now history. I have been curious about Clearing House ever since.