Those who believe that climate determines social behaviour should take a closer look at the American state of Wisconsin. This is cold in winter and cold in summer. In December, the snow lies high upon the ground; in May, the wind from the lakes cynically neutralizes the rays of the mid-morning sun. Yet despite its deeply inhospitable climate the people of Wisconsin are full of the milk of human kindness. It was Wisconsin which, in an age of buccaneering capitalism, produced those caring and socially sensitive politicians, the La Follettes, father and son. The State has been in the vanguard of the environmental and labour movements. Its universities have always been centres of progressive thought. It was at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin that Jayaprakash Narayan first became a socialist. Continuing the Indian link in Madison is Velcheru Narayana Rao, whose official title is Krishnadevaraja Professor of the Languages and Cultures of Asia. It is fair to say, however, that it is one language, his own, that is his main interest, not to say obsession.
For many years now Narayana Rao has been the greatest living authority on Telugu language and literature. His work has focused on the medieval and early modern periods. Among his many books are some co-authored with those other great scholar-translators, A. K. Ramanujan and David Shulman. His most recent book, however, is rooted firmly in the modern world. This is his Twentieth Century Telugu Poetry, a work that distills fifty years of intense personal engagement into a series of finely translated and carefully sited verses.
‘There’s no theme, no word that is prohibited in our poetry—dirty clothes, bazaar streets, dogs, donkeys, stinking sewers, factory siren, machine guns, poverty, sick old women—all of them—everything under the sky is welcome here’. Thus the poet Srirangam Narayana-babu (1906-62). ‘Even s-s-s-stammered words have a place in m-m-m-my poetry’. Thus Narayana-babu’s friend and contemporary, Sri Sri. The world of Telugu poetry is capacious, and
so must be the world of its translator. In this book one finds poems for all tastes. There are poems of marital devotion (a husband offering his wife verses as an inadequate substitute for gold), of romantic love (a courtesan preening at being cherished), and of plain old lust. There are poems steeped in religious imagery, and poems that polemicize against belief in the supernatural. There are poems that celebrate epic heroes such as Rama and Krishna, and there are poems that speak of the humdrum life of farmers and clerks.
In his preface, Narayana Rao suggests that ‘poetry seeks its own argument and literary practice finds its own world’. However, ‘at the same time it is deeply influenced by the political, social and ideological contexts that surround it’. His own aim in the book was to ‘select the best poems from the century, no matter what the ideological persuasions of their authors’. Or, as he puts it in an illuminating afterword, ‘there were long stretches of time when literary critics were swayed by the power of ideologies or sheer personality politics. But in the end, poetry has prevailed. The lesson of the twentieth century clearly is that poets cannot be judged by their beliefs, philosophies, politics, or personality traits’.
So the principle of selection was literary rather than political. Still, this being the twentieth century, there is plenty of ideological poetry here. Except that, this being Narayana Rao, there is no one ideology privileged. There are poems shaped by the epoch of Gandhian nationalism, poems shaped by the challenge of Marxism, and poems shaped by the new identity politics—whether Dalit, feminist, or Muslim. One of the most powerful poems in the collection is Khadar Mohiudddin’s ‘Birthmark’, which anatomizes the fate of being a Muslim in free India, where ‘long before I was born/my name was listed among traitors’, where circumstances ‘make me a refugee in the very country of my birth’.
There are political poems here, but also anti-political poems. Consider thus Revathi Devi’s ‘God’, which rejects all kinds of blind faith, secular as well as spiritual. It asks God to ‘save’ her from devotees of Gandhi, Mao, Freud and Sartre, but also from devotees of Viswanatha and sundry Babas. If ‘then I become your devotee for saving me from them’, the poem ends, ‘no, God don’t save me/I will save myself’.
Narayana Rao ends his own book with a lament. Telugu writers, he says, are parochial in their ignorance of the other languages of India. That may be true, but as his own quite wonderful anthology shows, in other respects his poets are not parochial at all. They move easily and skilfully between the worlds of the village, the province, the nation, and the state. Gandhi and Van Gogh are as much part of their cultural universe as are Ganesa or Gaddar.
I was struck by the number of verses here which reflect upon the craft of poetry itself, which meditate on how and why poets write. In ‘This is About Us’, Varada and Arudra exchange notes on the meanings of poetry in the machine age. Their conclusion is akin to that of their translator, namely, that poetry provides its own justification. ‘The oyster doesn’t make the pearls/with the jeweller in mind. The poet doesn’t make poems/ with the reader in mind.’
The poets of the Andhra country take themselves very seriously indeed. Indeed, from this volume one gets the sense that they are treated with the same exaggerated respect as that once enjoyed by Urdu versifiers in northern India. Telugu poetry is ‘memorized, recited, and quoted in conversations. People argue about poems and the status of poets… Newspapers carry poetry and poets stand at the forefront of social or political action’. This visibility has its downside. For ‘in the process of serving its role as public voice, poetry has, sometimes, lost its literary role. Even good poets have written bad poems just to make a public point…’.
Twentieth Century Telugu Poetry is the product of a long life’s love affair with language. Among its selections are the oral version of a famous poem heard by Narayana Rao in Madras in 1955; and an obscure printed pamphlet picked up by him in a shop in Hyderabad in 1997. These poems, and many others, were taken back by him to Madison. It is an appealing image: the scholar in his cold Midwestern office room, his mind warmed by the words and smells of his native Deccan. Narayana Rao will dispute this, but I think that he has given us non-Telugu speakers as much nourishment with these poems as he himself gained when first reading them in the original.