For Mehrotra and some of his contemporaries, the spatial perspective on modernity and the appetite for moving sideways explains much—for instance, why Kolatkar could choose to speak in Williams’ diction in Jejuri; why Ramanujan could reach for Marianne Moore when translating from the ancient Tamil; why Mehrotra, as both a poet and translator, could fashion affinities with the Surrealists, with Pound (in his translations of Prakrit love poetry), and with the idiom of the American comic book (the recent Kabir translations). In his penchant for making the canonical uncanonical, in his inversions of linear progression, and in his assumption that literature is a space rather than an inheritance, Mehrotra is akin to Borges. “A borrowed voice sets the true one/free,”
A long essay by Amit Chaudhuri, in the September issue of The Caravan, called The Sideways Movement, addresses and traces the issues of an indigenous tradition of Indian English writing, tailoring the Emperor’s clothes, so to speak, to suit one’s purpose. Chaudhuri shares how an essay written twenty years ago, by poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, The Emperor Has No Clothes, created a commotion by accusing most Indian English writers of the time, of adopting English and its traditions, without any innovations or customizations. In that infamous essay, Mehrotra made statements such as:
(Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” Chandrabhaga, #7, 1982.)
Barring a few, most Indian English writers acquire the language they write in and seldom lick it off their mothers’ teats. …. This whole question of multilingualism should be looked at less jingoistically if it is to have any meaning, as I think it does.
Mehrotra was brave, in calling a spade a spade, urging writers at that time to take the medium of English and make it their own.
Chaudhuri goes on to examine the implications of Mehrotra’s essay, which was re-released as part of a collection, in 2011, called Partial Recall. Looking to other poets such as A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Nissim Ezekiel, and R. Parthasarathy, Chaudhuri pieces together a trajectory of modern Indian poetry which is multi-layered in its influences and varied in their stance of what constitutes ‘Indian.’
Set aside time and a scholarly bent of mind to get through this essay;)