On Hesitation

Srinivas Rayaprol, Angular Desire: Selected Poems and Prose

Carcanet, 208pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781784109257

reviewed by Mantra Mukim

‘why did you go to burma? / prickface i said/ what’s there in india?’

Arun Kolatkar’s wax eloquent question at the end of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ is definitely one of the paramount questions of Indian English poetry, to which plenty rejoinders have been delivered in the 1960s and beyond. The question brings into play one of the many concerns in early Indian English writing — that of representation. What is there in the newly-born nation that demands attention, what is there that is worth writing about, and what is the appropriate emotional and aesthetic response to the many inequalities and to the statist failures of the Sixties? Kolatkar, writing poems in both English and Marathi, answers his own question, rendering the landscape around him, mainly Bombay but also other parts of Maharashtra, in unparalleled images of street-life, migration, bureaucracy, petty work and public display of faith. The question, however, does not as urgently haunt Kolatkar’s generation of Indian poets — by which time it is already passé and, thus, can be posed rhetorically in Kolatkar’s line — as it does the generation of poets that come before him, poets that are writing both before and after the nation is born, that are as caught up in the work of imagining the new nation as they are hesitant about their place in it. Srinivas Rayaprol is one such poet, one whose work makes this hesitation its aesthetic and ethical epicentre.

This year, Carcanet published a selected volume of Srinivas Rayaprol’s prose and poetry, Angular Desire, which is nothing short of a literary event for those interested in global modernism and its liaison with twentieth-century American poetry. Although born and raised in India, Rayaprol only started writing after moving to the US, where he interacted extensively with writers such as William Carlos Williams, Yvor Winters and James Laughlin (his correspondence with Williams was published in 2018 by University of New Mexico Press under the title Why Should I Write a Poem Now). Angular Desire is a landmark anthology of modern Indian poetry, but it will also appeal to anyone interested in themes of poetic modernity, migration, colloquialism and imagism.

The strange and confusing nature of desire in Rayaprol’s poetry is a result of his own hesitant place in the Indian landscape, a landscape he only reluctantly calls home. As the editors of the volume — Vidyan Ravinthran and Graziano Krätli — point out in their excellent preface and afterword, Rayaprol’s desire remains bound to a notion of home that is as impossible to overcome as the despair it causes. His reluctance to become part the country he saw before him perhaps echoed a deeper alienation, partially heard in lines such as: ‘And yet, I suppose I cannot forget my birth, and somewhere lying deep below was a private hurt about this. What did I share with these people of my land?’ Or was it a hesitation born out of the vastness of the landscape that met his eye, that threatened the sparse poetic craft which he was, following Williams and Pound, busy exacting? The spatial uncertainty surrounding Rayaprol pushes him to develop a radically sparse language where, unlike the Victorian imitations popular among some Indian poets of the time, no attempt is made to give a complete or a holistic picture of Indian landscape. Consider the lines from ‘Oranges on a Table’ where Rayaprol gives a striking account his own desire, and by extension his poetic language, as ‘angular.’ The poem pledges itself to this ‘angular’ language in contrast to an ‘ultimate order,’ the latter being a remark on aesthetic forms seeking a holistic and ordered view of the world. This angularity brings a degree of tentativeness, a hesitation, but it is also a radical occupation of the space that one feels both accepted and refused by:

Not an ultimate order
of the orange sky

but the angular

of the stone
that blocks
the river’s run

‘What the hell did you expect?’ replied Williams on 29th January 1952 to a letter from Rayaprol, ‘Did you think that India was going to be a picnic for you?’ Despite the awkwardly reassuring correspondence, Rayaprol never settled in, and a poem written towards the very end of his career, ‘Godhuli Time,’ continues to foster his far-fetched expectations even as it paints an arresting picture of the landscape, of a grand ‘picnic’ gone wrong:

And in the distance I can see
The lighted windows of a fleeting train
That has brought me here

While my thoughts travel towards
The home that I have never had.

Another hesitation awaited Rayaprol’s poetry as he returned to India and to a double-life as civil engineer by day and poet by night: writing in the English language. As a hesitation it was neither paralysing nor debilitating; rather it allowed Rayaprol to critically revaluate the Victorian idiom, often handed down as part of English-language training in India, and expose his language to the plurality, if not the unevenness, of American and other colloquial forms of English. This hesitation brings Rayaprol a unique voice, even a wonkiness, that Ravinthran quite rightly characterises as ‘a voice that isn’t wholly and perpetually self-secure, that expresses, without undue defensiveness a hybrid intelligence informed, and deformed, by both Indian living and US writing.’ In this hesitation, Rayaprol’s poetry borrows, with a bee-like instinct, from various traditions, some homegrown, others imported. This language remains a bricolage of Rayaprol’s own aspirations. The hesitation between registers and idioms, however, is not mobilised by the anxiety of finding the ‘correct’ or ‘fluent’ version of the same language; instead it is mobilised by Rayaprol’s disquiet to find a language to represent all the possibilities of his present moment. The fragility of the present, a moment in language but also in time, is crucial for Rayaprol. In the poem ‘Letter to Ezra Pound,’ he dreams of a language that can rid itself of the hesitations of past and future, and attach itself purely to a ‘now’:

Not the shadow filled tomorrow
nor the last night’s hesitant recede
but the present.
Always the immigrant now
in the heart
where dissatisfaction builds
like sea kelp.

Even though Rayaprol declares his dissent against ‘the last night’s hesitant recede,’ he confesses to the slipperiness of the present: all fixations on the ‘immigrant now’ migrate into a new foreignness. Rayaprol’s achievement as a poet is to bear witness to the ‘dissatisfaction,’ the foreignness ‘in the heart’ that finds no antidote in language. His essay on the modernist Bengali painter, Jamini Roy, also collected in Angular Desire, reads like a comment on his own hesitant place in poetic language: ‘But then of course he has always been an artist dedicated to his work, unsure perhaps where he was leading to. But definitely in pursuit of a vague dream. . .’ He adds: ‘a certain light within his head must have been his only direction.’ It is with that spirit that Rayaprol attends to the existential certainty of the present moment, a certainty that does not purge his language of its shiftiness and hesitancy but certainly allows it to have a ‘direction.’ ‘Poem for a Birthday’ attests:

I have never risen above
the immediate moment

Monsieur Hulot, the creation of French filmmaker Jacques Tati, is often regarded as ‘a blurred man, a passer-by’ in modernity, as someone who is not offered a place in modernity, who doesn’t attempt to seize it as Naipaul’s protagonists are wont to do. As a civil engineer, Rayaprol was not merely a passer-by in the machinery of modernity, but his poetic gaze also continues to resist this charge, drawn to the ordinary and the everyday life of his subjects. In the essay ‘City of Mine,’ he writes: ‘The streets are full of ordinary people going out to their ordinary jobs on their second-hand scooters trying to satisfy their ordinary wives with extraordinary gifts, or send their children to the Convent School to hear them talk in English accent.’ The ethical value of hesitation, and specifically Rayaprol’s hesitation, lies in this ordinariness, it lies in the hesitation to become, uncritically, a part of modern infrastructure and its value system. Despite Rayaprol’s uncertain place in the Indian landscape and his suspicion of traditional customs, his poems do not displace these for an industrial or cosmopolitan modernity. In a poem titled ‘Poem,’ Rayaprol turns his keen eye towards his mother, seeing her as a passer-by, as someone excused from the altering forces modernity. Ironically, this passivity, in the mother’s case, is born out of (forced?) domesticity, rather than the kind of hesitation Rayaprol has access to himself:

In India

Have a way
Of growing old

My mother
For instance

Sat on the floor
A hundred years

Stirring soup
In a sauce-pan

Sometimes staring
At the bitter neem tree in the yard

For a hundred years
Within the kitchen walls.

In the afterword, Krätli points out how ‘the harsh reality of Nehruvian India — on the one hand, traditional life, looking backward but representing the backbone of the country; on the other, looking forward, economic planning, large infrastructural projects, the Green Revolution,’ had started to confound Rayaprol’s aesthetic vision. His poems continue to struggle with the changes around him, and neither unbridled technological modernity nor traditional ecosystems have any definite pull for him. The ‘moving eye,’ subject of Rayaprol’s aptly titled poem, ‘Pastorale,’ sees the visual material in front of it without hesitation, while the mind continues to seek something beyond its ocular grasp:

       the ground
the first broken wall of a barn
broke the rhythm that monotony
sometimes has on the moving eye.

And farther beyond
the barren cypresses
stood like planted arms.

Above all he was
the other one.

Reaching for the river’s
brown muscle he found
a single fish moving
like a black arrow.

Bones and distances
were what he sought.

It is supposedly the bare ‘bones’ and discerning ‘distances’ that Rayaprol seeks from the pastoral – both the fine detail and a view from the outside. These twin desires may or may not be found in the ‘river’s brown muscle,’ but the visual firmness of the image is what the ‘moving eye’ ‘sought’ and, having found it, the eye moves on, even more shaky than before. Rayaprol left Hyderabad for the States at a time when rakazars, a private militia, were resisting the integration of the princely state of Hyderabad in the dominion of India. He warmed up to American life in the years that followed: ‘I like the American face/ successful, clean shaven’ [. . .] ‘The kind of face/ that photographs so well in Time,’ before returning to India and to a Permit Raj, with nationalisation and austerity on the rise. The sparse economy of his poems does occasionally betray a tremor, a failure to come to grips with the ‘bones’ and ‘distances’ of the landscape. This tremor is never given a real face in Rayaprol’s poetry; rather, as in the poem ‘Yellow and Blue,’ it is hesitantly accepted and quickly attributed to a more universal extinction:

the earth being slow
in turning to dust.
Mantra Mukim is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick.