A Storm of Words

What Hindi traditionalists can’t stand about the poetry of Shubham Shree

Shubham Shree’s distinctive, feminist poetry makes her a ready target for the Hindi literary establishment. DAISY ROCKWELL FOR THE CARAVAN
Daisy Rockwell Illustrations by Daisy Rockwell
01 October, 2016

Imagine a world where the hottest degree was an MPA, a Masters in Poetry Administration. Where a single poem could send global financial markets into a spin, where poets were the envy of all, and instead of shopping for material objects people ran out to buy poems to hang on the walls of their parlours. This is the world the 25-year-old Hindi poet Shubham Shree imagines in her poem ‘Poetry Management,’ for which she was awarded the prestigious Bharat Bhushan Agarwal Prize in August. It reads, in part:

Writing poetry is bogus!
Yeah, and useless!

Unprofessional profession!
Part time!
Why didn’t I do some MBA-type thing?
It’d be a blast, man!
I’d write a poem; the SENSEX would fall
The poet Mr. So-and-So has written a poem against capitalism
The SENSEX has fallen
Chatter on the channel
This is an example of the fall of American imperialism
Will America be able to control poets inspired by Venezuela?
Assurance from the Finance Minister:
Have faith, small-time investors!

The announcement of the prize was greeted with howls of protest in the Hindi literary world, especially on social media. As the literary blogger Sushil Kumar put it (the translation is mine, as are all the translations in this piece):

this simply is not poetic language, it is exceedingly utilitarian language of the type used by magicians or advertisers, which most definitely falls under the heading of non-literary speech. To praise the linguistic features of the poetess’s work would be to accept the complete destruction of poetic language in favor of slang. Scores of English words have been forced into just a single poem like ‘Poetry Management,’ and jumbled up with Hindi … it is an attempt to disfigure and insult Hindi

Piyush Dwivedi, another literary blogger, wrote:

If its lines were to be laid out in order, the award-winning poem would immediately transform into prose. That is to say, there is nothing poetic about it, just fragmentary lines strung together in no particular order. But to leftist poets destroying Hindi poetry in the name of experimentation, this too appears to be a new sort of poetic experiment.

Social media was abuzz with critique. A friend on Twitter told me that liking such a poem would be an insult to the classical Hindi poets. Some, trying to be fair, allowed that Shree had written other poems that showed poetic skill, but insisted that this one did not, and was an insult to the very notion of poetry. Others were not so sanguine, and held that Shree’s entire body of work—some thirty-odd poems—is an absurd testament to our degraded age.

The man responsible for the prize going to ‘Poetry Management’ is the eminent Hindi author Uday Prakash, who created a great stir last year when he renounced his Sahitya Akademi Award in protest of the literary institution’s silence over the murder of the Kannada author MM Kalburgi. Prakash is known to court controversy, and to hold the Hindi establishment’s feet to the fire. In an interview about his return of the award, he asserted, “Ironically, the Hindi literature world has seldom taken any initiative for social change. It has always lacked a towering personality to take the lead. I am an ordinary person, but I wanted to get my message through.” And in his celebrated novel Girl with the Golden Parasol, Prakash portrays a Hindi department at a fictional provincial university as a bastion of casteist Brahminism, where a Dalit, or anyone of a low caste, would never be able to finish a degree.

Prakash is a member of the Bharat Bhushan Agarwal Prize committee. The prize is awarded annually to a single poem, by a young writer who has not yet published any books or poetry collections. Each prize-winner is selected by a single member of the prize committee, and this year it was Prakash’s turn to pick. (Prakash won the prize himself in 1980, the year after it was established in honour of Bharat Bhushan Agarwal, a pioneer of Hindi’s Nayi Kavita movement.) Though Prakash’s choice was probably intentionally provocative, a fuller understanding of the controversy created by Shree’s poem requires a deep look into the history of Hindi literature.

SHUBHAM SHREE'S POETRY is an especially apt target for the Hindi establishment’s ire. Thanks to her distinctive, feminist poetry, which appraises patriarchy with a mocking eye, the young poet was no stranger to controversy even before this August. Consider, for instance, this extract from ‘Just for you, Simone,’ Shree’s heart-felt meditation on how reading the feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex “ruined” her “purity”:

What have you done to me, Simone?
I was walking along
perfectly steady
on that path

awaited me

What you did was wrong…
you shoved me right in the middle of the path
to be “used”
such a dirty word

Tell me, Simone, why’d you do a thing like that?

Less meditative and intellectual is ‘My Hostel Cleaner Has Refused to Throw Away Sanitary Napkins,’ her forthright complaint of a poem, which deals with the stigmatisation of menstruation in a patriarchal society that celebrates hymns to semen—such as those in the Rig Veda. The poem, as might be expected, was not greeted with universal praise. “If you read the poem carefully, you’ll see that it alludes to patriarchal society with extremely debased and vulgar thinking,” Sushil Kumar asserted.

The portion of the poem that perhaps caused the most offence was this:

What I don’t understand is
underwear holding semen
finds a special place on the clothesline
It’s “pure” the moment it’s washed

What’s thrown in some
anonymous corner
is the clothing wet with blood
that emerged from a vagina
with utmost pain and anguish

My hostel cleaner has refused
to dispose of sanitary napkins
There’s an intellectual dispute afoot
are they better wrapped in newspaper?
Covered up so nothing shows?

They should be disposed of neatly
in the trash
They shouldn’t be left
uncovered here and there

Our offended critic went on to observe:

The deeper meaning of the poem leads us to make the conclusion that in order to respect women we must also love their menstrual rags, whether or not they are disposed of neatly in the dustbin, and even if they’re left uncovered! This is the beauty of Shubham Shree’s poetry that our learned critics are going crazy for!

Shree humorously anticipated such chauvinistic critiques with a light-hearted aside in the poem:

I know this poem is really weak—
just like a menstruating woman
But what to do—

Other poems such as ‘My Boyfriend’—which she proposes as an essay for a “Class Six Moral Education Curriculum”—have Shree’s sense of humor on full display too. The poem’s lines have comedic effect, but with the preface that they are intended for moral education, they also become, as the English-language writer Annie Zaidi has observed on Twitter, “quietly subversive”:

My boyfriend is a two-legged boy human
He has two hands, two feet, and one tail
(Note—I’m the only one who can see his tail)
My boyfriend’s name is Honey
At home, he’s Babloo, on his notebooks, Umashankar
His name is also Baby, Sweetie-pie, and Darling
I call my boyfriend Babu

'POETRY MANAGEMENT' contains quite a few English words: acronyms such as SENSEX, MBA, SMS, RBI make an appearance, as do words such as “part-time,” “channel,” “Reliance Digital Poetry,” “drawing room” and “imported.” Consider these lines from the Hindi original:

log drawing room mein kavita tangenge
arre vaah bahut shaandaar hai
kisi Sahitya Akademi wale ki lagti hai
nahin ji, imported hai
asli to croron dollar ki thi
hum ne duplicate le li

(People will hang poetry in their drawing rooms
Ooh, it’s so lovely!
Seems like something by someone from Sahitya Akademi!
No, sir, it’s imported
The original is worth millions of dollars
This one’s a copy)

As I began to research reactions to the poem after translating it into English for a blog I contribute to, it seemed to me more and more that people were bothered not by its content, but by its use of language. To throw in English words at all might not have been a crime, but to have thrown in such crassly pedestrian terms and acronyms was, for many readers, downright offensive. So too the use of slangy and casual forms of Hindi speech—words and phrases such as sala, and chup be, and Bombay-style grammar such as apun to hero ho jayenge.

Some critics complained that the poem is the work of a leftist, which it is—what could be more leftist, or Marxist, than deploring the state of a world in which writing poetry won’t pay the rent, and holding an MBA is next to godliness? But I have not seen the actual leftist content of the poem critiqued.

One wonders, however, if the critics are so repulsed by the appearance of English and slang in an award-winning Hindi poem that they are missing out on the entire joke. As the Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral observed in his commentary to accompany my translation of ‘Poetry Management’:

Reading between the lines, it scoffs at the insensitivity of the world around us, which is highly competitive, management-oriented and opportunistic. It brings to light the futility of managing poetry in the world of business management. We can hear the lamentation of poetry itself beneath the comical façade of the poem. As in many of her other poems, here too Shubham breaks away from the traditional, accepted, ‘literary’ mould of poetry, and tries to create a structure that is ‘non-literary’ and ‘non-poetic’, and is more prosaic, more functional and theatrical. What we get in the end is an intense critique of our times, where the MBA has become the central concern of the humankind.

Perhaps those upset by Shree’s use of English words might want to consider why she uses them. In the lines quoted above, she is poking fun at the everyday speech of a bourgeois populace besotted with crass materialism. What would it look like, she invites us to ask, if such materialism was transformed into a love for poetry? Her answer is gloomy: people would still use the language of capitalism to discuss poetry, acquire poems to display on drawing room walls, discuss prices, prize the imported product over the domestic.

And here, perhaps, the vigilant reader has noticed something else to do with imported language, a slippage between the original poem and the translation: whereas in the Hindi version the last line reads “hum ne duplicate le li,” in the translation I have not used “duplicate,” instead choosing “copy,” which is more common in this context in English. “Duplicate” has been wholly imported into modern Hindi, and enjoys a particular usage of its own there. The word is extremely popular, and even supplied the title for a Shah Rukh Khan film, where it describes two doppelgängers, or humshakals, both played by the star.

In fact, whether literary gatekeepers like it or not, Hindi, in its spoken form, has been a melting pot for all manner of languages since its inception as the lingua franca in the military camps surrounding Delhi during the early years of the Mughal Empire (known then variously as Hindi, Hindavi, Urdu and Rekhta). Hindi is chock-full of words from all manner of languages, local, national and international. “Duplicate” is as much of a Hindi word as “humshakal,” just as the German “doppelgänger” has become a part of English—another linguistic melting pot—and would always be chosen over “duplicate” to describe in English an individual who looks exactly like someone else.

Ramchandra Shukla included or excluded works from his history of Hindi literature based on thematic, not linguistic, criteria DAISY ROCKWELL FOR THE CARAVAN

In English, however, it would be rare for a poem that used slang or common words from another language to be greeted with widespread horror nowadays. This is partly a function of English being used all over the world, and therefore impossible for a small group of guardians to control anymore. But I would argue that the aversion to seeing “non-Hindi” elements in a Hindi poem goes deeper than mere preference of usage. To understand the roots of the issue, it might behove us to take a trip back in time, to the early twentieth century in the erstwhile United Provinces, where the guardians of Hindi were working furiously to cobble together a glorious literary past for the language.

THE FIRST HISTORY of Hindi literature was published in 1929, written by a professor at Banaras Hindu University, Ramchandra Shukla, who was also a member of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, or NPS—the Society for the Propagation of Devanagari. Shukla’s history was a masterful achievement, which created a foundational narrative for modern Hindi literature—that is, literature written in the language then known as Hindustani, or Khari Boli (“standard speech”), in the Devanagari script, rather than in Nastaliq, the Urdu script. The creation of modern standard Hindi as a language, and of a literature written in that language, was a nationalist project that attracted a number of groups and individuals in the early decades of the twentieth century, including the Arya Samaj, the NPS, Mohandas Gandhi and the renowned Hindi-Urdu writer Premchand.

Khari Boli had only begun to be written in the Devanagari script at the beginning of the nineteenth century, at the behest of John Gilchrist, an instructor at Fort William College in Calcutta. The first author to take up the project was one Lallu Lal, a munshi employed by the college, who wrote out his seminal Premsagar in Devanagari; the work was published by the college in 1805. The literary use of Khari Boli in the Devanagari script continued to be spotty up until the end of the nineteenth century, but things changed with the publication of Devaki Nandan Khatri’s romantic fantasy Chandrakanta, in 1888, and its popular sequels.

Shukla did not wish to include works in what is now known as Urdu in his history of Hindi literature, and performed something of a sleight of hand, arguing for the inclusion of a variety of medieval literatures going all the way back to the tenth century. What language were these texts written in? All different ones, as it turned out: Braj Bhasha, Bhojpuri, Rajasthani and even Punjabi. Many of these had been known as “Hindi” in the past, as the term originally referred to most north Indian languages, including Urdu.

The system Shukla employed for inclusion into the history of Hindi literature was thematic rather than linguistic. Literature had to meet certain thematic standards to be included. Not only was Urdu literature kept out, but even Ritikal-era poetry, a courtly literature written in Braj Bhasha, that Shukla deemed too decadent. The quality that all Hindi literature shared, he believed, was a sense of purpose, a shared goal to improve the lot of the poor and downtrodden of society. The work of medieval saint-poets such as Surdas, Kabir and Shri Ramanand fit these criteria well, as did the writings of Guru Nanak, even though he wrote in Punjabi. These aims also dovetailed perfectly with those of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Movement, which had its first meeting in Lucknow in 1936, under the chairmanship of Premchand.

Shukla’s classificatory system, and his construction of Hindi literature as something defined by particular themes and literary features, rather than simply as literature written in Hindi, continues to serve as a basis for canonical thinking today. Make no mistake, Hindi writers continue to write in all kinds of different ways about all kinds of different things, experimenting, pushing boundaries and writing in new genres, but the notion that critics can deem certain works “not Hindi literature” according to certain rules persists.

I first came upon this notion when researching the Urdu and Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk in the mid 1990s. A prominent Hindi author, who made it clear that he bore Ashk a personal grudge, explained to me that Ashk’s work was not Hindi literature (and by implication, not worthy of study). “Hindi literature is about villages and cities,” he explained. “Ashk’s literature is about kasbe”—towns. At the time, I was confused as to how literature written in Hindi could be deemed “not Hindi literature,” but since then I have seen this formulation in many contexts. Assertions that Shree’s work “is not poetry” are rooted in a belief that whilst it is right and proper to write poetry as protest or to aid in the uplift of society, one must do so using certain rhythms, metres and types of language. It must be rooted in the tradition, as established by Shukla and continued by critics up to the present. ‘Poetry Management’ is considered an insult to the classical poets because their work defines what Hindi literature is and what it aspires to be. In fact, the history of Hindi literature is still being created, as are its rules of inclusion. Shree’s use of slang, common English words and free verse are seen as encroachments on this project. For purists, language reflecting the reality of the development of Hindi should be kept at bay as it degrades the entire tradition.

INTERESTINGLY, after I translated ‘Poetry Management,’ I saw several comments on social media declaring that my version sounded better than Shree’s. The original poem’s English had been deported back into English, its slang had become English slang, and so, it seemed, Hindi literature was no longer defiled. A few days after the translation appeared, Mangalesh Dabral told me that criticism of the poem had subsided sharply, and that some prominent critics had removed their more negative posts. Why, I asked—how had the translation changed anything? “The postcolonial mindset,” he suggested.

This may be true—turning the poem into English gave it legitimacy that the conferring of the award somehow did not. ‘Poetry Management’ was no longer the insolent ranting of a young woman who wants us to love her discarded sanitary napkins, nor a fresh publicity stunt by Uday Prakash, but now a widely appreciated work in English. This translator was left with mixed feelings.

As for the poet, it should interest those on social media accusing Shubham Shree of writing ‘Poetry Management’ as a publicity stunt, showing a shrewd MBA-style business sense, and generally attempting to attract attention, that she declined to be interviewed for this article. “Hindi mein likhne ke liye Hindi se bachna jaruri hai aur likhte reh paane ke liye likhne ki duniya se,” was her only comment—“One must avoid Hindi to write in Hindi, and to keep writing, one must avoid the literary world.”