Poetry International Poetry International

Editorial: 1 December 2010

November 18, 2010
In our penultimate issue of PIW this year, Indian editor Arundhathi Subramaniam introduces a stunning selection of poems, some from the PIW archives and some new to our pages. All centre around the wide-ranging theme of ‘migration’.
Migration is a theme rich with resonance. It brings with it a host of associations: nostalgia, hope, loss, dream, exile, home, rootlessness, flux . . . In fact, all that comprises the marrow of poetry.

In the Indian context, of course, the immediate – if unfortunate – association with the word ‘migration’ is the Partition of 1947. The cataclysmic hacking of the subcontinent into two countries – which left a million homeless and half a million dead – remains the ugly shadow side of the birth of Indian Independence. Generations afterwards continue to experience the aftermath of that brutal event in various ways.

In this issue we hear the anguish and humiliation of a first-person account. A few years before her death, Popati Hiranandani (1924–2005), a leading Sindhi writer of her time, had a discussion with poet Menka Shivdasani about what it means to be a Sindhi in India today, damned to a life of eternal landlessness, having been offered up in the ‘yagna’ or sacrifice of political gain. The interview is published here for the very first time. Also included here are two of Hiranandani’s Sindhi poems (translated by Menka Shivdasani and Anju Makhija) that reinforce the trope of exile and desolation, as the poet dreams of a truer, simpler, more anchored world. It is a dream softened by memory, no doubt, but no less urgent and painful for that reason. These Sindhi poems also mark the introduction of the twenty-first language into the India domain.

The publication of this issue seemed like the right occasion to revisit some previously published poets as well, so I’ve compiled an archive tour of migration-themed poems from across PIW domains, as well as the Indian domain. It includes Hindi poet Kedarnath Singh’s poem, ‘On Recalling the Year 1947’, featured on this domain years ago. The poem poses a series of fiercely unrelenting questions of those who choose to live in a state of wilful historical amnesia about the trauma of Partition. There is also poet Keki Daruwalla’s English poem, ‘Migrations’ (featured on the very first edition of the India domain) which speaks of journeys geographical and chronological, historical and personal.

Another kind of migration is implicated in the poems of Indo-Fijian writer, Sudesh Mishra (the second new PIW poet in this issue). Mishra traces his roots to the Indian immigrants shipped to Fiji in the early part of the twentieth century to work as indentured labour. Vigorous, lively, enraged, alive to multiple levels of inequality, these poems are full of a bitter irony and comic despair. The condition of being “forever in someone’s tourist brochure”, “a stranger estranged by his own strangeness” cannot be wished away. And there can clearly be no simple artistic or spiritual resolution to this trauma: “I have learnt to measure human art / Through the eyes of slaves in a carrion cart”.

In contrast to this experience of violent dislocation is migration born of a greater level of choice and agency. But even here, the effects are often deeply unsettling in their own way. Punjabi poet Ajmer Rode (featured on this domain some years ago) has a couple of evocative poems, ‘Waiting for Rusty’ and ‘Mustard Flowers’. Each presents a figure of a parent: a Punjabi mother trapped in a basement room in Canadian suburbia (whose flood of complaints – “Everyone is so indifferent here, / no one to talk with, children have no time, / TV all English” – gives way to a resigned evening wait for a streetside dog); and a father who sits on a bench at the bus stop, dreaming of the mustard flowers of his village.

New York-based Vijay Seshadri, the third new poet in this issue, also speaks of the fraught legacy of migration. Born in India, he moved to the US as a child. His parents’ decision to make the “long journey to another civilisation” was no doubt largely fuelled by their desire to offer their son a better life – “to see me have a great academic career in science”, Seshadri guesses.

There is no easy nostalgia in these poems, and no easy optimism either. The journey towards integration and authenticity is a long one, and Seshadri’s poems seem aware of the fact that it will never be without dark nights of anxiety and ambivalence, the burden of history and the “pressure of the nothingness”. But then, as he says in one of his poems, perhaps “only the complicated, ambiguous victories / are worth having”.

Read on and discover how poets – of diverse generations, languages and immigrant experiences – speak of the many varied ways there are of feeling adrift without ever really giving up the voyage.
© Arundhathi Subramaniam
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Gefinancierd door de Europese Unie
Elise Mathilde Fonds
Stichting Verzameling van Wijngaarden-Boot
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère