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“Go, loud satraps of the night, leave us alone with darkness and ourselves”

Ranjit Hoskote is one of the major English-language poets in India. His latest collection Central Time compiles a 100 new poems that represent a mature artist at the peak of his power, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  12th Apr 2014

Ranjit Hoskote | Photo: Nancy Adajania

"(...) on white beneath the unsettled weeks
of postcards and air letters
that jam the mailbox while we're away.
Leave us the jigsaw of previous lives."
(excerpted from To the Sanskrit Poets; page 4, Central Time by Ranjit Hoskote, Penguin 2014)

Hinge groups"; the phrase sounds like something out of a science textbook or a psephologist's report. In the very near future, we might find that certain "hinge groups" hold the key to Delhi. Right now, however, Ranjit Hoskote and I are talking about "Hinge groups" because I, Lalla, Hoskote's 2011 translation of the 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded's verses, has recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Translation (English).

Hoskote's "radical break" from existing critical literature on Lalla's (as she was popularly known) verses was that he proposed a "contributory lineage" of writers and commentators who've shaped the Lalla corpus down the years, as opposed to the idea of one person — the historical Lalla — as the sole author of the verses as they exist now. In an endnote during Hoskote's introductory essay to I, Lalla, he talks about these "expert managers of cultural media (who mediate) between a more refined level of learning and the demands of the less leared, local market for their services. (...) Redfield had called them hinge groups" Rather aptly, they have been compared to the culture of open source programming, wherein millions of users worldwide edit a piece of software or a database concurrently, improving the website's performance constantly.

I, Lalla was a project spanning over two decades, started in 1991 when Hoskote was just 21 years of age, coming to fruition when he was almost 42. "When the project started," Hoskote says, "the politics of the Kashmir region was even more turbulent than usual. And as young poets, we had a great deal of anxiety about our individual styles, the concept of secularity, the process of translation... there were a lot of issues like these. The first few years, I'm not sure if I was ready to separate all of them."

The 20-odd books Hoskote published between 1991 and 2011 (that's a higher productivity rate than John Grisham, to put things in perspective) have seen him shifting roles; poet, anthologist, critic, cultural theorist and curator. Hoskote's latest release is Central Time, a collection of 100 poems, all written between 2006 and 2014. And if his oeuvre so far seems like "the jigsaw of previous lives" (see opening quote), Central Time is a ready-reckoner for Hoskote's many moods, and the cultural engagements therein. These are quicksilver poems that leap from image to image with an acrobat's strutting ease. They can be short and pugilistic, like a well-timed insult (The entirety of Electronic Nocturne is "The TV goes dead, killing all the newscasters./ Go, loud satraps of the night,/ leave us alone with darkness and ourselves.") They can also be long, elliptical, highly structured verses, like The Memoirs of Don Quixote, the longest poem of the collection. But mostly, the mastery of these poems lie in the highly erudite mischief they indulge in.

Like the poem Chimera, dedicated to Adil Jussawalla, where Hoskote discusses the problematic nature of a translation project. He ought to know — apart from his native Konkani, his ancestral Kashmiri and Hindi, Hoskote also reads German, Sanskrit, Marathi and "a little Gujarati". Jussawalla, too, is hardly a stranger to translation; his anthology New Writing In India (1974) included writers like O.V. Vijayan, Nirmal Verma and Badal Sircar in translation. Was it a result of (what must have been) a long and fascinating conversation?

The poem Chimera, dedicated to Adil Jussawalla, where Hoskote discusses the problematic nature of a translation project. He ought to know — apart from his native Kashmiri, Hindi and English, Hoskote also reads German, Marathi, Sanskrit and “a bit of Gujarati”.

"Not really," Hoskote smiles. "It's not as if we sat down to talk about translation, although we've both done quite a bit of it. In his (Jussawalla's) anthology, there were a lot of outstanding writers working outside of English, as you remember. This poem tries to talk about certain concerns that writers-in-translation typically have." Of course, it's not quite so simple as that. A chimera, for the uninitiated, is a hybrid monster from Greek mythology, consisting of body parts from three animals; a lion, a goat and a serpent. The suggestion of "distance" between the species aside, Chimera begins with another sly reference to the inadequacy of translation.

"Fear translation. The first verse grows a red beak, a blade curved and fresh as the mango it's about to bite."

parrot; the fire-breathing monster of translation begins life as a parroting upstart, regurgitating what he remembers, nervously swallowing when confronted with words that are not covered by bird-speak. Hoskote deadpans, further, that

"(...) The third is a snaking tail, de rigueur in futurist circles (this version isn't for now, you see, but for after).(...)"

We talk about each of the three major Anglophone Indian poets (his preferred term) who passed away in 2004 (Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar); Hoskote wrote obituaries for each of them, published in The Hindu. In the introductory essay to the 2012 anthology of Moraes' poems that he edited for Penguin, Hoskote wrote fondly:

"By the late 1980s, the orbit of Anglophone poetry in Bombay could be mapped around three major centres of gravity: Nissim Ezekiel's book-and-paper-strewn office at the PEN All-India Centre, on New Marine Lines, near Chruchgate; Adil Jussawalla's apartment at Cuffe Parade, (...) and Dom Moraes' apartment at Sargent Road, Colaba, or the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Apollo Bunder, where he would arrange to meet people by appointment."

The image of a young poet meeting an older, more established one is such that it's popular to assume unconditional tutelage, or some variant of the firmly traditional idea of guru-shishya. But Hoskote knows that what Harold Bloom calls the poet's "anxiety of influence" has little to do with this kind of one-on-one hero worship. "There was very little hand-holding," Hoskote says. He's currently working on a volume of Sanksrit poems in translation. ("There's a vast secular literature in Sanskrit.") It's been a while since I read anything in Sanskrit, and it's unlikely that I'll have an opinion on the quality of the translation. What I am sure of is Hoskote's curatorial attention to detail, exemplified by the epigram to Central Time, taken from Richard Sennett's Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation.

"The skilled restorer of porcelain will collect not only the visible chips of a broken pot but also the dust on the table where it rested."


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