The collected poems of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

01 March 2015

THEY DON’T MAKE JUST ANYBODY a Penguin Modern Classic. “Born in Lahore in 1947”—I quote from the solid paragraph of author description, bristling impressively with the italicised titles and dates of his many books—“Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is the author of four previous collections of poetry,” and “two of translation,” notably Songs of Kabir; he has also edited the “ground-breaking” (the adjective is applied only to the first of these books, but could well describe all three) Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Poets, which appeared in 1992, An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, which arrived just over a decade later, and the Collected Poems in English of his close friend and poetic peer, Arun Kolatkar. (Published in 2010, it was Mehrotra’s Kolatkar which first introduced me to Indian verse in English.) Mehrotra’s collected essays, Partial Recall, arrived in 2011, the same year as the Kabir translations; and here, finally, is his own Collected. So his importance to the world of Indian letters (which he also criticises plentifully, for its forgetfulness and vanity) is indisputable—but the verse itself remains to be analysed. What kind of poet is he?

Seeking a description of Mehrotra’s poetry, we might consider his introduction to the Oxford India Anthology, now in its sixteenth reprinting: “I have wanted to reveal through a particular choice of poets and poems the sharp-edged quality of Indian verse.” These poems dissect, can wound, and don’t match up with the exuberant, boisterous, globally marketable style of much Indian fiction in English. Salman Rushdie described his hectic chutnification of the English language; the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali found biryani the correct metaphor. Sharp-edged is something different. The verse style Mehrotra’s talking about, and which he himself practises, doesn’t stretch the language to its bursting point. Instead, it creates of the existing rhythms and grammatical elegancies of well-written English a uniquely compressed authority. What’s Indian about this verse, that is, isn’t evinced by an obvious excess, an over-the-topness which fizzes, seethes and may finally cloy; nor by a profusion of exotic details. (When these do arrive, it’s ironic: “If I told you the names of the mango / Varieties we had here,” drily remarks the disenfranchised tenant-narrator of ‘Number 16’, “you’d think I was / Speaking from an imaginary textbook / On horticulture.”) These poems resist overt displays of nationality, and have a minimalist rather than maximalist distinctiveness. Acerbic, saddened, they arrive in clear spurts and outline a bullshit-free zone.

What do we make, say, of ‘January’, from the 1982 collection Distance in Statute Miles:

Vidyan Ravinthiran is a poet and writer. His first book of poetry, Grun-tu-molani, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. His critical monograph, Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic, appeared last year.