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The Poetry of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Hello folks!

This is an introduction to the poetry of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (AKM). He was a poet, essayist, translator, critic, professor and editor.

‘what about long term policy? general objectives? that’s not even funny. besides, we wouldn’t know. the basic point is that all of us write — more or less — and would like being read. hence d.y. [damn you].’

This is part of the introduction of a magazine he started in 1960’s called ‘damn you’. Those were the days when anything British was considered toxic, even the language. But AKM’s magazine was a reply to swadeshi hardliners. Whether he had to physically confront them, we do not know but to publish a magazine knowing that it won’t sell and that too in a city like Allahabad was an act of pure love for the English language.

Last night a line appeared, Unbidden, unsigned: It had eight memorable Syllables. I’ll keep you, I said, falling asleep. It’s gone now, And I write this to requite it, And to mark its passage.

To write something about a forgotten line is like filling spaces for the sake of filling spaces. It was necessary for the poet to write something and he did — about what he couldn’t write. What is it that made it necessary for the poet to write? What was the purpose of writing this anyway? Nobody knows. It might be the satisfaction one gets by paying attention to details or by not considering anything worthless — not even the forgotten line. Or an old spider:

As crazed yellow butterflies Thronged the young willow In the garden And the clean morning light Cut through the fruit trees Like a knife, The old spider, From his hummock In the verandah, His fangs on the ready, Through the camouflage Of leaves and ropey stalks Of potted climbers, Looked on.

Amit Chaudhuri in his introduction to the collected works of AKM writes, ‘what Mehrotra captures so memorably…is the experience of being present in the world without explanation’. This, indeed, is an appropriate definition of his poetry. But there is something beyond the simple realisation of being in this world the poetry of AKM alludes to — its manifestations across space and time. His poem Approaching Fifty captures it beautifully:

Sometimes In unwiped bathroom mirrors, He sees all three faces Looking at him: His own, The grey-haired man’s Whose life policy has matured, And the mocking youth’s Who paid the first premium.

AK Mehrotra was born in 1947 in Lahore. His father was a dentist (the fact he alludes to repeatedly in his poems). He spent most of his life in Allahabad and Dehradun. He retired as a professor from Allahabad University.

He belongs to the group of ‘Bombay Poets’ who shaped modern Indian English poetry. He started a publishing collective called Clearing House along with Adil Jussawalla, Geive Patel, and Arun Kolatkar. Kolatkar’s Jejuri that went on to win the Commonwealth Poetry Prize was first published by Clearing House.

AKM, like his contemporaries, was inspired by the Beat generation poets and started off by writing long sentences like Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti etc. but soon shifted to writing shorter poems stuffed with meaning. For eg.:

I am Ganga Snow from the mountains The keeper of water I am plains I am foothills I carry the wishes of my streams To the sea I am both man and woman I am paper boats for children I am habits for fishermen I am a cloud for shaven monks I reflect all movements I am the bridge I am the fort and the archer Taking aim I am the great dissolver of men I give life and I take it back

Every line of this poem has a scope for expansion. For example: why is Ganga cloud for shaven monks? Because they live in Himalayas. Snowfall from those clouds result in glaciers which melt to become rivers. In the series of definitions Ganga gives of itself, AKM thought it unnecessary to get into the details and that is the beauty of his poetry. It always says more than what is visible. There’s always a scope of filling the blank spaces in his poems with your own imagination:

The next one will come from the air It will be an overripe pumpkin It will be the missing shoe The next one will climb down From the tree When I’m asleep The next one I will have to sow For the next one I will have To walk in the rain The next one I shall not write It will rise like bread It will be the curse coming home

What is he talking about in this poem? What will rise like bread? We don’t know. Maybe he’s talking about the next poem he’ll write.

AKM is also known for his translations. In Songs of Kabir, he has translated Kabir’s poetry into modern American idiom:

I’d say this Through a megaphone If I had one: Look at these men Shaven heads, Great big earrings, Ash-smeared bodies, But inside they’re empty As a house that’s been Cleaned out by thieves. And look at these others In the best part of town, Who forget that when death Slips its noose round their necks To drag them through the streets It won’t be pretty. I live in Fearlessburg, Kabir the weaver says. Its builder? Rama.

This is the translation of a 15th century poet Kabir, with words like ‘Fearlessburg’, ‘megaphone’ and expressions like ‘best part of town’. But those who are familiar with the works of Kabir would know that this is an appropriate translation of the 15th century bard. The essence of Kabir is not lost in translation though it is not the literal translation of his poems.

AKM has also translated Prakrit love poems. The narrators of these poems are mostly women:

He finds the missionary position Tiresome, and grows suspicious If I suggest another. Friends, what’s the way out?

These poems are a part of Gathasaptasati which is perhaps the earliest anthology of secular Indian verse, and dates from the 1st-2nd century CE.

He has also translated modern Hindi poets like Muktibodh, Nirala, Vinod Kumar Shukla etc. His Collected Poems 1962–2004 is a testament to the development of Indian English poetry which still, is not as celebrated as the Indian English novel but that doesn’t make it, in any way, inferior to it. Poets like AKM have set a perfect example for the next generation Indian English poets. They have redefined the poetic imagination and have owned the English language to make it as Indian as, say, Hindi.

His poems are an appropriate representation of the state of Indian English poetry today: quiet, brilliant and content in their own universe. They might not need your attention but they certainly are paying attention to the minutest detail of your day to day life.

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