Indian poet-diplomat Abhay K is out with a larger collection of Indian poetry combining his earlier anthologies of a hundred poems each. The resulting book is The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems covering English poetry as well as English translations of poems written in 28 Indian languages. His objective behind the project is two-fold: to get all readers to make their own anthologies of great poems, and to introduce them “to the rich world of Indian poetry offering the distinct tastes, smells, colours and moods of a unique and ancient civilization”. The poems do indeed bring out all these experiential dimensions of India but the anthology is richer for being a poet’s effort to bring together the work of his peers and predecessors to be showcased together as a compendium of great pieces coming from India.
Abhay foregoes the easy path arranging the collection according to any of the conventional criteria of language or chronology: for a project covering so many languages and so many centuries, that kind of arrangement would have been the logical thing to do. Abhay stays true to the title of his book: it’s a book of great poems arranged alphabetically (according to the titles). Readers unfamiliar with Indian poetry will look at the individual numbers without the regular placeholders of time and place. So better known poets like Ghalib and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore appear much later in the book.
Consequently, one sees the poems for what they are, without needing biographical details of the poet or the times in which it was written; for example:
There is nothing in this world
Half as beautiful
As a soul that hurtles
Its own shattering
Abhay includes one of his own poems as well as poems translated by him, including this translation of a well-known Sanskrit poem:
how lucky you’re all that you recall
the games you played with your lovers,
those moans and laughter, syllables of sweet pain
When my lover unknotted my dress
I swear I remember nothing afterwards
This is the well-known contemporary Urdu poet and film-maker Gulzar translating Ghalib:
Ah, Ghalib, the magic of your words and your ways with mystics!
You would have been a saint — if you were not addicted to drink.
The book well represents different aspects of Indianness. Here is one of its struggles with modernity, showing that India perhaps isn’t all that different from the rest of world after all:
I left my mind in the office accidentally while heading home.
My hands still hanging from the bus-strap.
My eyes still scanning the office files;
my mouth stuck to the telephone.
And my feet left standing in a queue, no doubt.
That’s how I returned home today, without my body.
Vision of a bodiless life
is the essence of Indian philosophy
But is the exhaustion weighing down the bodiless me
also a part of it all?
While some poems have the landscape as the subject, others talk about the questions of poverty, caste, and class:
We know all about it when a rich man has a rash,
But whoever hears about a poor man’s nuptials?
Some, like this well-known one by Tagore, are explicitly about India as a country:
Where the mind is led forward by thee
into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom let my country awake.
There is much to relish in the poems on universal themes like love, grief, death, or separation. Like this one:
This hour of meeting you
is bright as day
green as grass.
Yet, sure as death
is our parting.
The poems are not just from varied poets, periods, and languages; they are also from diasporic poets as well as from poets writing about Tibet in India. Abhay’s anthology, therefore, stems from a much broader understanding of what India is. This gesture towards inclusion helps justify the “great” in the title. It might lead readers to make their lists of poems that they can keep coming back to.