I have been reading Debasish Lahiri’s’s poetry over the past few years. He has sent me his poems in a steady stream from Kolkata where he lives and writes, and from his various journeys both East and West and I have been struck by their many-layered intensity. It is therefore a pleasure to see his debut collection. First Will and Testament (2013), published and it is hoped that his work might reach an international audience. Like his many physical journeys, Lahiri’s collection embodies metaphoric journeys a poet makes through his imagination, undertakings that are metaphysical and philosophical, embodying a quest and pledge to comprehend and will life’s experiences, transformed and translated into verse, despite the anguish and agony evident in the process.
Where does one place Lahiri’s poetry, as the work of an Indian poet writing in English? Indian English poetry, the product of the Indian Renaissance, has gone through various phases as a result of the colonial encounter. Inevitably, one can see the influence of Romantic, Victorian, and Georgian poetry in a steady journey that reflected English poetic models and inspiration. Beginning with the patriotic fervour of Henri Derozio and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the revolutionary passion of Sri Aurobindo Bose, the wistful nostalgia of Toru Dutt; the lyrical mastery of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (even when he transposed the sonnet and blank verse to Indian soil), and the mysticism of the early twentieth century Rabindranath Tagore, it emerged as the voice of a subject nation. All these poets were bilingual, so the flavour of Indian speech and literary rhythms, the knowledge of Indian myths, legends and traditions transformed their poetry, imparting a distinctive Indian flavour.
With the advent of World War I, as Gandhi’s leadership in the decolonisation struggle gained momentum and India moved towards independence, poets writing in English found themselves responding to the economic crisis, to famine, to communal tension and violence, to divisive politics, with irony, satire and metaphoric versatility; these responses situated these poets firmly in a modern and later, postmodern, world; they were responses that were recognisably Indian yet with a universal appeal. Today they no longer feel as R. Parthasarathy did, “My tongue is in English chains”; they do not share the agony of Raja Rao on writing fiction: “the telling has not been easy. One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own.” Today Anglophone Indian poets do not find the “telling” difficult. Despite English being read by only a few million of India’s billion plus population, and poetry read by an even smaller audience, English no longer has the ideological resonances that it did in colonial times. As an official Indian language and recognised lingua franca, as the language of a thriving publishing multimedia industry, it is part of a global network of communication. Intrepid small presses and prestigious bigger publishing houses like OUP India and HarperCollins India and poetry platforms like Arawali, publish anthologies that compellingly bring together old and new voices. English is one of India’s multilingual expressive vehicles with poetry as a powerful tool in a confident market of creative productivity.
Lahiri’s emergence must be understood as belonging to an arc of English language poetry, a meeting of East and West on the respective poets’ terms, part of an urbanised elite from India that includes the likes of Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Anjana Basu, Vikram Seth, Eunice de Souza, and others such as Sujata Bhatt, Meena Alexander, Debjani Chatterjee, Nalini Paul who write from adopted homelands abroad. From the intriguing title, First Will and Testament (also the title of a music track from Iron Front), Lahiri plunges readers into his opening section on “Deaths and Entrances” with direct questions , testifying to the collection’s confessional probing, as the “perishable… cold wind” awakens the versesmith, “to brave the coldness of the coming clime”.
Lahiri is both observer and performer, the critic and artist, the outsider and insider, both voyeur and victim on journeys that lead him to unmapped and unmarked territory; “every word is a quest” looking for “ten million lost addresses”.
Preoccupation with the craft of writing permeates each section, but most poignantly in “Along Came a Writer” and “Love’s Lost [a play on “Last”] Will and Testament”:
Pick up the pen when nothing means anything to you
Write down that wordless, vacant terror of truth,
Read it with the tired candour of disbelief,
Remember it like words[.]
These moods capture the self-imposed task of the poet to trust in the creative process, even when confronted with ennui; at its completion, the poet can discover meaning of the “truth” and cherish it. The compulsion to look beyond the artist and the audience, which circles to the title of the collection in the sixth section, appears as
I give my song to you
Like a book with its skin broken
As I gave myself to the song
Of your absence.
Lahiri’s inspiration from classical Europe is evident in the Hellenic echoes of Keatsian rhapsody, in Greek and Roman art and architecture and in composers like Handel and Hayden. Poetry becomes a continuum and both poets and artist are part of the same canvas of expression. We follow the writer in retreat, impelled into creativity for a personal search that leaves the applause behind a curtain of silence where the self stands alone in “Beethoven’s Journey” in “Lost Opus”
Beethoven, on a dark night
Ignored the starlight,
And in the stillness
Of fugitive darkness
Rode dark waves of melody.
In the final section, “Exits and Survivals”, self-doubt appears; yet the writer reaffirms the shaping and pain of poetic creation. The dedication of the votary at the Juggernaut Temple, spurred “With new desires for the material”, makes offerings at the shrine, accompanied by “hopeful prayers”.
Lahiri’s collection signifies the journeys he has made through time and space, in indigenous and foreign cultural mythology and history which all come together in his poetry not in a chutneyfied or biriyanised form, but one in which the fluidity of metaphor rather than the rigidity of poetic form find expression. This is a poet who is not afraid to move beyond regional boundaries.If the complexity of the compositions can make meaning elusive, the “fugitive words” that Lahiri chases, tethers and shapes have emerged from the heart of a city where agony and creativity find expression again and again. So “Kolkata: Waiting Daylong” remains the ultimate muse for the writer.