IT IS OFTEN ASSUMED THAT to write in or be translated into English makes one “global,” and that to write in a “regional” language is to be more finely attuned to rural, small-town, or at least non-metropolitan India. The regional has two great signposts: language and space. But what if these signposts do not coincide? What of the writer in English who addresses the interior, or the writer in Malayalam who speaks from the metropole? And this doesn’t even begin to exhaust the possible permutations of a writer’s idiom, location and audience. How should we approach the matter of a writer’s relationship with geographical belonging and estrangement, and the literary consequences of it?
Two recent poetry collections—Jayanta Mahapatra’s The Lie of Dawns, and K Satchidanandan’s The Missing Rib—offer an occasion to examine these questions. Mahapatra’s collection consists almost entirely of poems written in English; though he has published extensively in Oriya, this book contains only one poem in translation. The Lie of Dawns is the most comprehensive collection of Mahapatra’s work to date, featuring poems from across a span of 35 years that the poet selected himself. Mahapatra came to poetry relatively late; he was over 40 years old when his first book of poetry, Svayamvara and Other Poems, came out in 1971. But he has been prolific since—according to the Sahitya Akademi, he has published 39 books in total. The Lie of Dawns gives us a fair measure of the range and cadence of the poet’s oeuvre, with many lyric poems and the occasional longer poem, showcasing the sense of inborn melancholy and remembering that is central to his work. It is particularly interesting to examine Mahapatra’s relation to the town of Cuttack, in Odisha, where he has lived almost all his life, and which produces in his poetry a dialectic of alienation and belonging.
Satchidanandan’s collection is a work of translation from Malayalam, rendered into English by the poet himself (though he does, for a few poems, thank a fellow translator). Satchidanandan—who is very vocal on many causes, ranging from free speech to environmentalism—is perhaps Kerala’s most widely acclaimed poet today. He has written influential works in Malayalam on many topics—for example, on post-structural feminism. Yet his equally deep engagement with English through his prose writings in that language, and his excellent translations of his own poetry, make it difficult to characterise him as either a monolingual or bilingual writer. While some of Satchidanandan’s older contemporaries have been rightly acclaimed as bilingual—such as the poets Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre, both of whom wrote in Marathi and English, and also translated their own verse between the two—what does one make of a poet who translates into but does not often compose in that second language?