Sneha Chowdhury is an MPhil Research Scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This review was written for an MA course on Indian Writings in English at the Centre in 2015.
The Common Man Of Indian English Poetry : Master Subramanearlyunpronounceablenian is a review of the book of poetry named Life and Times of Mr S by Vivek Narayanan, published by Harper Collins India in 2012. Vivek Narayanan has lived in India, southern Africa, and the United States, and continues to divide his time between India and the States. His poems and short stories have appeared in Harvard Review, Pratilipi, The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry, International Literary Quarterly, among other publications. A prominent poet on the contemporary-Indian-writing-in-English scene, he also designs and facilitates writing workshops and co-edits a literary journal, Almost Island. In 2006 Harbour Line India brought out Vivek Narayanan’s first collection of verse Universal Beach.
At a conference organized by Almost Island, called ‘Indian Writing Now’ in the year 2013, poet Vivek Narayanan while reading out some of his poems from his second collection of verse Life and Times of Mr S also briefly talked about the book that prompted him to write the poems in this collection. Unable to recall his exact words, I shall attempt to paraphrase what he said. He said that the book Life and Times of Mr S began with a kind of reading and revisiting of a writer, G V Desani who wrote a book called All About H. Hatterr. Hatterr was a kind of a cult book in the 30s and 40s and was so because it took up a mode of English speech which was funny, parodic, something that was soon to be identified as Indian English.
Strikingly ventriloquial, eccentric and mellow, Vivek Narayanan’s Mr S, is clearly the ‘common man’ of Indian English poetry, languorously ambling around and dazedly taking stock of things around him in his notional location, Chennai. As Salman Rushdie once remarked, “If R.K Narayan is India’s Richardson, then Desani is his Shandean other” perchance, I can safely say, if Hatterr with his ‘dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose’ is the exuberant grand old man of Indian English Novel, then Mr S is his mellow other. The latter represents that genre of Indian English Literature, the novel’s hapless and often ignored other Indian English Poetry which, having long lost its claim of inventing what we variously understand as Indian English with the poetry of someone as old as Derozio, followed by Nissim Ezekiel and the likes of Arun Kolatkar to the Indian English novel, has been doggedly and predominantly preoccupied with experimentation mainly pertaining to the Indian English language.
Writing to shrug off what was famously known as a ‘Blanket English’, one that came through like the wrong side of a perfectly good woven carpet, and trying, (more often than not brilliantly and innovatively I must admit) to turn the carpet right side up by writing in an English inflected by the rhythms and timbre of other Indian languages, Indian English poets have indeed come a long away. While this incommensurability between English and other Indian languages is what characterised the poetry written by most poets writing after 1950, their poetic endeavour marked by a translation from vernacular languages to English languages, often literally or to effect tonal inflections in English (remember Ezekiel’s good-spirited Miss Pushpa T?), poetry since the 70s along with such linguistic manoeuvres, is also characterised by experimentation with different forms.
Contemporary Indian English poetry however, is distinctly marked mostly by formal experimentation, causing semantic inflections in the poems. But what about language? Vivek Narayanan at the conference referred to above also talked about incommensurability between what one wants to say and the language one speaks or writes in, with respect to Desani. And does Mr S also experience this incommensurability? Is his language also compromised? Vivek answers yes, it is. However, how do we qualify this incommensurability, this compromise? Having spent most of his life outside India like most of his contemporaries, having spoken English all his life, why does Vivek need to compromise Mr S’s language when the language he’s written in is also English? In my opinion, perhaps the language that he’s writing in, language, in which most contemporary ‘Indian’ poets, with their cosmopolitan background and upbringing write, is no longer English but a fixed Indian English. I feel the incommensurability no longer arises from an inability to assimilate the Indian into English, but the other way round that is, the English into Indian English. And it is the latter that is the cause of Mr S’s compromise.
The collection brilliantly, albeit loosely, ties together a narrative about Mr S’s life, exploring his relationship with his family members, combining different forms of narrative. While formal registers are often missed when one reads poems in an anthology which always upholds a certain politics of representation often surrounding the language in India, a collection like this which actually tells a story using different forms, so much so that the form actually affects the semantic import of the narrative, ones attention never shifts from the formal registers. The narrative is in no way uniform because it is infused with several short pieces and short succinct fragments that are scattered across the narrative and appear at random. All formal and linguistic inflections however point to Mr S’s struggle in coming to terms with an Indian identity with its attendant assortment of other identities inextricably attached to it, namely caste, class, regional and linguistic identities, while at the same time, ventriloquially betraying the poet’s struggle with writing.
The first poem, perhaps the best in the collection, with its characteristic elusiveness sets the tone for the rest of the poems in the collection:
WAKING IN THE SIMULTANEOUS PRESENT
Enter in the very mist of awakening’s wrangle
A sudden but not unusual recall
Of being alone
In the afternoon another life a code
In the noisy determinedly disinterred burr
Of the brain.
Does it matter if it counts
As a dream? In that mild
Afternoon he walks happy and
In the morning of this poem he wakes […]
The additive effect
Of more than one happiness is somehow sadnesses:
Afternoon already coming
To this place
From that one […]
Master S himself
Is not quite cracking the code
Of the succession
That is he (reality
my favourite movie
…except that it never begins)
The semiotic importance of the spaces, the arrangement and the order of the sentences are coterminous with the dazed and confused gait of Mr S ambling around the city in the afternoon, sometimes tired and unhurried, at other times surprised and fast. Words seem to follow Mr S’s confused steps, pouring out in quick succession in an incantatory alliterative ‘determinedly disinterred burr of the brain’ and follow him into the ‘morning’ of the poem. The best moment in the poem arrives when we see phrases ‘to this place’ and ‘from that one’ placed parallel, marking the simultaneity of the afternoon’s departure from S’s life and its onset in the poem, signifying its approaching closure. It leaves us with the question- where does Mr S’s reality lie? Can he crack the code? To what extent do the poems provide credibility to S’s life? Most of the poems in the collection struggle with these questions.
In ‘AREA OF MR S’, Vivek meticulously combines different sensory experiences, visual and olfactory (of space fried/ likewise in recurring Saffola-/or zigzags of inextinguishable shops and/ quickly expandable multicoloured goods”) and prosaic expressions suddenly turn into childlike rhyme with brilliant imagery (“the dusty mess of a square, the underclothes/ of scooters parked unaware) in keeping with Mr S’s volatile mood. Words are futile, even those engraved in stone against Thiruvalluvar’s ancient statue because everybody lives ‘unacknowledgeable past(s)” in an “ashen indeterminate age” and Mr S ambles on.
The short prose piece titled ‘MR S’S NATIVE’ betrays the anxiety and the consequent incommensurability discussed above:
“‘Sir, where is your native?
Which is to say, short for native place, which is simply to ask not where you have come from, nor where you’re coming from, but
Come from […]
Shall nativity be allied with birth or shall it be carried to its limit in genes, one direction and genes the other? […]
Are you indeed eligible at the razor edge of spoken language? Can it still be your native if you are by virtue of indelible travels, no longer native?”
Vivek’s perceptive mind grasps the otherwise ungraspable fine tonal and semantic differences between “where you have come from”, “where you are coming from” and “where you come from” signifying a semblance of finality in ones arrival to ones native place, a sense of in-betweenness in the continuous ‘coming’ and a sense of alienation in “where you come from”, respectively. Will the razor edge of spoken language shred to pieces his indelible travels? Perhaps the most important testimonial of the incommensurability between English and ‘Indian English’ is the poem ‘FATHER OF MR S’ where the poet writes, “My dear Appa, would you mind very much/ if I borrowed your memory?[…] Ah but I speak/ your English, wear your pants; why/o why must I feel useless/amidst your life’s unlikely reach?”(emphasis mine)
‘SEPARATION ANXIETY, AKA FRANKENESSENCESTAIN’ is his reworking of a sestina. The last stanza with the envoi reads:
I wire the jaw movable ventriloquizing
how brittle kisses for her the glass of
Her thighs her underlit mound the twin clouds
Of her breasts the crescent of her bum
And from the smoke of the gone her double
Wrapped in sheets ruses in the underlit room
Under her sheets brittle as the blue clouds above
It is a brilliantly translated and reworked rendition of the sestina, where the spaces almost have an illusory effect on the reader. From the way the fragmented phrases are arranged at random, one can hardly discern their meaning. For all we know, “the twin clouds” could very well be either “of her breasts” or “of her bum” and “My shadow” could either be “under her sheets brittle” or “as the blue clouds above”.
Among the longer pieces, most of the poems are moving testimonials of Vivek’s consummate craftsmanship, and even though some of the prose pieces at times seem diffuse and unnecessarily wordy, together they keep up with the sense of in-betweenness and confusion that the opening poem foreshadows. Poems such as ‘NIECE OF MR S’ and ‘VIMALA’ with verses such as “no one remembered themselves/ or where exactly in the face of that morning wind/ they were, that fresh smell/ in the air and probably the planet/itself had forgotten with no duties except to spin/happy like the toy it was.” And “Sharer of scar: the first/ birth water yet unknown till we met/ repeating the planet…what/ we have between us is what you a decade ahead/ made for us” respectively reveal a sensitive and compassionate mind at work.
Finally, the one poem that none should miss is the brilliant ‘ON THE NECESSITY OF SPEAKING OF CASTE’ in which Vivek mocks the upper caste tendency to rave and rant against casteism and draws our attention to the seamier truth that caste has indoctrinated us in such a way, that without caste we’ll be condemned to inhabit spaces “cursed acre by cursed acre”:
First the dreaded fear of caste, wearing its little corset…
It stains your vision, corrugates your fucking body, bawdy
As it is and cursed and with
No language to speak of itself outside of itself
…you cut away that plaster cast but your limbs
Occupied the same space they did before
Always the coast of saying too much versus the inland of saying little
…death-salve of total re-polarity; for yank that one thread
Of caste and the whole shebang unravels
And no word is sacred:not culture, not history,
Not ancestry, not identity, not community, not kismet
Not daddy mummy
Thatha paati aham veedu vandi mooku paatu
Chappal apple application beating nadai sakkarai confuse
…Mr S cool it, with that pathetic irritating upper-caste self-flagellation
The longer pieces are interspersed with several shorter pieces, for example the series of six poems titled ‘HIS OBSOLESCENCE’. These poems are interesting in the way they directly engage with the poet’s struggle with writing, often symbolically interlaced with instances from Mr S’s narrative. The first poem in the series for example reads, “That he might one day, slough off this hokum of him/ merge into a purity of form,/ That in this emerging the world was still remaindered in the texture of its husk.” This poetic crisis, the inability to neither remain satisfied with experimentation nor let custom stale art and poetry is what most of the poems in the series are about. Vivek employs the vocabulary of economy and capitalism, like ‘fetish’, ‘surplus’ etc to express his disillusionment with capitalistic forces that suppress art by giving it little or no space for expression.
Several short fragments are strewn across the narrative. The memorable ones, ones that will always stay with me are “Here/ in the place of writing/ the taps / always hissing”, “Each of the faces you find finds yours” and “Google is a perennial tree that gives no flowers”
Therefore, as ‘Master Subramanearlyunpronounceablenian’ declares himself through the poems, “with hope of some true some different some less cynical alliance”, let us grant him the space he needs, because as the common man of Indian English poetry, like his common brethren, they urge us to “look how far we’ve (they have) come in these few years/ begging as we (they) do for business as usual.”
 Jeet Thayil talks about it in his Introduction to The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. He laments, “The new ground they(the poets) were instrumental in mapping ended up being claimed for fiction.” Page 23.
 Conceded Keki N. Daruwalla in 1980. From the Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English chapter ‘Poetry since Independence’