In front of an 'unwiped' mirror or cheval-glass
2014 will be remembered as a very promising year for English poetry for lovers of poetry in India; excellent books of poems by Ranjit Hoskote (Central Time), Arundhathi Subramaniam ( Travelling with God; Eating God (Ed.) and translations of verse by Joy Goswami, Sampurna Chattarji ,K Satchidanandan, Manglesh Dabral and Hemant Divate have already hit book stores there this year. Moreover, the publication of a long overdue collection of poems by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is like the icing on the cake; it will, with a bit of luck, put an end to the anxiety of followers of Mehrotra's poems about his tryst with his muse.
One may reproach Arvind Krishna Mehrotra for not being as prolific as a poet as he could have been. Mehrotra keeps his readers awaiting his works periodically. Thirty-four 'new' poems written in fifteen years and only four collections (Nine Enclosure, 1976, Distance in Statute Miles,1982, Middle Earth, 1984, and The Transfiguring Places,1998) over a period of forty-five years (1969-2014) prove his reticence and make his readers await his work again and again. But, sheer volume can never be a concern for an outstanding writer like him. Certainly, Mehrotra writes far less compared to other poets of his time; but one can never accuse him of recycling themes!
Collected Poems (1969-2014) has a stimulating introduction to Mehrotra by Amit Chaudhuri, another celebrated novelist, critic and poet, who discusses the sense of time and history in Mehrotra's poems pointing out that the poems' speaker's “sense of time, the world and of himself” is not is not unrelated to his sense of history and his fitful yearning to figure out his place in it. Indeed, this book begins with the extraordinary new poems Mehrotra has been writing in the last fifteen years; that the poems occur where they do in the collection doesn't necessarily indicate they are either a culmination or a fresh start-instead, they provide us a new opportunity to follow the poet's shifting perspective on his location, the real, and history.
In reading some of the poems from the anthology, one is reminded about what Ginsberg had once said: “Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does.' What Mehrotra witnesses in front of an 'unwiped' mirror and the smell of chloroform wafting along out of the old coat used by his long-dead dentist father are no longer private affairs because of the way he has transmuted such moments into poetry.
“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.” - (“Approaching Fifty”)
'In the middle/Of a forest,/A house of stone.
Bats in rafters, / Bat dung on the floor,/ And hanging from a nail
A dentist's coat/Smelling pleasantly / Of chloroform.
I saw him last, / Who passes before me/In the cheval-glass.” - (“The House”)
I am reminded of what William Gibson once intoned: time moves in one direction, memory in another.' Interestingly, in Mehrotra's poem 'Bharati Bhawan Library, Chowk, Allahabad,' time and history are effectively used as two key motifs: past and future. The poem opens with a line which was already a thing of past in Bharati Bhawan Library: 'A day in 1923, / The reading room is full.' Time moves and the readership in library declines over the years. A familiar research scholar from Cambridge University, England, who visited twice to the said library in Allahabad for scouting the reading habit of the Indian in the colonial period, has found that reading room was no longer as full as it was during the British Raj. The passage of time has been portrayed by Mehrotra level-headedly through the pages of newly arrived books turning brittle and the spines are missing for overuse of the books.
A day in 1923. / The reading room is full./In pin drop silence,/The regulars turn the pages/Of the morning papers.
The books/Are still on the shelves./Their pages brittle/And spines missing./New readers occupy the chairs,/Turning the pages /Of the morning papers./Turning pages too,/But of dusty records/In a back room,/Is a researcher from Cambridge, England./It's her second visit,/ And everyone here knows her./She is looking at Indian reading habits/In the colonial period. (“Bharati Bhawan Library,Chowk, Allahabad,” p.9)
Apart from his own poems, Mehrotra includes in the volume poems by well-known poets in Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, including Vinod Kumar Shukla, Dhoomil, Manglesh Dabral, Shakti Chattopadhya, Pavan Kumar Jain that he has translated. Most of these poems are evocative and will instantly connect with readers for their unambiguous content and disarming style.
“I have two hands, two feet, / Two ears and two eyes.
But the best part is / That there is one nose and two nostrils, / One mouth and thirty-two teeth,/
And..and, / Okay, let me tell you then. / There's also this thing that is hanging.
No, there is no tail. / Only monkey have tails.( 'Tail', - Pavan Kumar Jain)
Another short and moving poem by Vinod Kumar Shukla has a heartbreaking thought that could be the signature lines of our contemporary era.
On the day of the riot, / When everyone's at home,/ Behind locked doors, / Scared, I want to / Go out into the city. / By appearance I don't /Look particularly Hindu / Or Muslim- / If a Muslim kills me, / Don't mistake me / For a Hindu /But take me for a Muslim; / If a Hindu kills me, / Don't mistake me / For a Muslim / But take me for a Hindu.- ”('On the day of the riot')
Those who have stayed with Mehrotra over the years will be attracted anew by the cover portrait of the young poet: Jean-cladded, bohemian, Beatle-like, with a king size cigarette stuck between his fingers against the snow white beard of an old and saintly-looking man .it reminds us, once more, about the perennial movement of time and that 'time does not change us, it just unfolds us.' And to conclude, Collected Poems (1969-2014) by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is the kind of book that arrives on the readers' shelves as a breath of fresh air and thus must be experienced immediately.
Manu Dash is a bilingual writer in India. He edits a triquarterly literature magazine called The Dhauli Review which can be accessed at www.dhaulireview.com. His latest edited anthology is 'Wings Over the Mahanadi, (Poetrywalla, 2014).