As we begin a new year, TBR takes a look at some of the most interesting books published by Indian poets. These are original works, and each work is fresh and carries poems that have something new, something old, something interesting to say. Again and again we hear that poetry doesn’t sell, that poetry is dead. But if one were to go by the list of diverse Indian voices writing about life and its spirit, tenacity, spirituality, myth, light, silences, homes, fear, and a whole other gamut of emotions that cover the human psyche, one would be astonished at the range here. In these poems that we have curated for you, we try to bring together voices that not only have original thought, but poets who use their discerning eye to reflect into their words what they see around them through a poetic sensibility that can sometimes be jarring, sometimes artistic, and at other times political, or simply startling in its imagery and awakening. This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor is it a complete view of the poetry being written within the country, as a literary magazine, it is an attempt, a homage, an acknowledgment of the tremendous work done by poets, publishers and translators in this field.
1. Shikha Malaviya – Anandibai Joshee: A Life in Poems (Harper Collins India 2023)
Anandibai Joshee: A Life in Poems is a collection of persona poems (as well as an imagined memoir) of India’s first female medical doctor and the first Indian woman to come to the United States and study medicine in 1883. Anandibai Joshee’s life story (1865-1887) is a brief yet compelling one of struggle, empowerment, and allyship in the 19th century, one of intersectionality that resonates in the 21st century. Challenging gender expectations and crossing waters considered impure/taboo, Anandibai fought her family and society to get an education in India and then against much protest, came to America, alone, to study medicine at a time when orientalism was at its peak in the West. Anandibai’s story told through these intriguing poems in what almost seems her own voice, gives a unique dimension to the narrative. It also in many ways seems to give her agency back to where it belongs.
WHEN THEY ASK US TO POSE FOR A PHOTOGRAPH AT THE WOMEN’S MEDICAL COLLEGE RECEPTION
Forgive us if we don’t smile
the ocean’s scent still on our clothes
still on our clothes the stench of sea
we, visitors of another clime
of warmer lands are we
with pride, we wear our native clothes
silks and jewels we proudly don
saree, kimono, headdress of coins
with lyre, sash, a handheld fan
no scalpel, stethoscope or degree
three female doctors of foreign pedigree
playing dress-up for Western eyes
in our appearance, they see worlds wild
forgive us if we don’t smile
From Anandibai Joshee: A Life in Poems, HarperCollins India, 2023.
*This poem is inspired by the duplex form, invented by poet Jericho Brown.
2. Mani Rao – Bhagavad Gita: God’s Song (Harper Collins India 2023)
The Bhagavad Gita is by far one of the most revered texts of ancient Indian thought. As a dialogue between Arjuna and Lord Krishna, that attempts to explain the nature of the self and the universe, it is often seen as a daunting read.
This feeling is sometimes aggravated by the sheer number of translations, and often the complex interpretations that are available already. As a result, one senses a somewhat distance between the text and its readers in translation, given the complex nature of the text and its interpretations till now.
It is in this regard, that Mani Rao’s work comes as a breath of fresh air. Rao’s work in this regard, seeks to nudge the reader return to the source text, by including the Sanskrit original along with her translation/interpretations. She takes the reader through various nuances, becoming a guide to curious first-time readers, while bringing fresh insights for those already familiar with the text. Rao’s work has been critically acclaimed, and is mindful in its rendition of the word-play and texture of the Sanskrit original.
this wise and steady type
who can deep meditate
what’s she like how does she
walk talk sit
she ignores desires
they come & go
is happy to simply be
2.56 in bad times not down
in good times not up
passion fear anger gone
2.57 in everything wants
pleasant & unpleasant alike
neither salutes nor dislikes
2.58 can disengage sense organs
from sensuous things
completely as a tortoise
withdraws into shell its limbs
3. Robin S. Ngangom – My Invented Land: New and Selected Poems (Speaking Tiger 2023)
My Invented Land: New and Selected Poems published by Speaking Tiger Books is Ngangom’s fourth poetry collection. The book contains an admirable selection of his earlier work from the previous three collections, along with many more new poems. As always, in this collection too, Robin’s voice is gentle, yet courageous, and the silences in between palpable. Inevitably, Robin’s critique is thoughtful and anchored deeply in a poet’s understanding of what he sees around him. The poet calls his writing as an underground exercise of sorts, yet his poetry is accessible, undeniably emotional and that which touches the heart.
The new poems and the addition of the selection from his previous work, gives this volume a fair idea of the poet’s long and absorbing journey with poetry over the last thirty-five years, and yet one cannot but marvel at how fresh and relevant this poet from the hills still manages to remain. Gentle, political, and meditative, this collection is a treat for lovers of poetry who can connect to poetry that can immediately touch the heart. A collector’s item this.
Hill, the ancient ones speak of a time
when the gods, tired of heavens,
descended to earth, and with lustful fingers dipped in
primeval clay, moulded your torso and breasts.
They scooped the clouds and
Poured them over diaphanous cliffs
To fashion your silver hair.
With subterranean instincts
You have seen habitations, and
Generations of children come and go.
When you descend in green bends to the town
you bring garments of fog, mushroom and hampers,
rare flowers and wild birds,
until the day I died and took birth
in your sanctified woods.
During the festive season when the cold
gathers holly leaves, and
lips of boys and girls meet in benison
I felt as lonely as you and heard your voices,
Pipes and maidens and
Foxes barking in the distance.
Hill, you have preserved from ruin
hearts like mine becoming lost
with civilisation’s shoes, for clouds
come home as they find you.
4. Anupama Raju – Bitter Gourd(Copper Coin 2023)
Anupama Raju’s Bitter Gourd is in many ways both subtle and dramatic. From the simple acts of everyday living, the poet brings forth deep archetypal patterns and a joy that manages to lie beneath the surface of the act of living and life. Cleaning a house, cooking a meal, all of it finds colour in these poems and through Raju’s keen eye. The poems though placed in the mundane are often sensuous, and weave within their texture, the aroma and joy of intimacy through lived experiences, the proximity of smells, of breath and its vulnerability. In these poems, you find love, like a prayer- in a slow heartbeat, anchored in the knowledge that in spite of all the ups and downs, as an emotion it is home.
If all poetry is protest
I protest poetry, this word
that could’ve been
blood, home, privacy,
hate, wound, gun,
identity, freedom, heresy.
I protest metaphors
of love, dark alleyways
where a woman could’ve been
If all poetry is protest
I protest ordinary longings,
lines that could be wrinkles
gathered over years of silence
on a face I know well.
I protest sentiment where
should have been a question:
Why do I write?
5. Jonaki Ray – Firefly Memories (Copper Coin 2023)
Mixing the personal and political, part memoir and part travelogue, Firefly Memories by Jonaki Ray tries to give voice to those who are perceived voiceless—people of colour, women, children, migrants, immigrants, prisoners, and refugees. The book is divided into four parts. The first and the last draw parts draw upon Ray’s own life and that of her family. Somewhere in the middle the poems are inspired her travels. The poems seem to fluidly rise from the familiar, crossing over to the larger, to an unknown world as if. Most of all, this book is meant for all those who are looking to belong, and, ultimately, searching for a place they can call home.
Talk about Trees
after Adrienne Rich
Firs, pines, elms
that line the meadow blinded with flowers
where she came herding horses
that map the lands
where her family doesn’t belong.
Don’t talk about the lesson
the “natives” taught the outsiders
the battle they staked
on her limbs, her mother doubling
over her child’s blood-soaked uniform,
the neighbours who spun contrary tales,
the citizens who argued about the truth
that changes colours with every revolution.
Don’t talk about her eyes
that even half-shut in death
remain hard to look away from
Her face that resembles those of others
in other lands in other states in other regions and religions
so that Delhi becomes Kashmir becomes Louisiana
becomes Michigan becomes Florida becomes Kerala.
Talk about trees because they, like children,
still believe in the sky. Still grow. Still love.
Talk about trees because some day
we will talk about the unspeakable.
6. Manjiri Indurkar – Origami Aai (Tranquebar 2023)
Tender, intimate, at times nostalgic, the poems in Origami Aai capture that deep-rooted sense of home a mother embodies. They peel back the layers of an often-terrifying world, but also offer rare solace as Aai —playful, supportive, wise or cautionary—holds her own in the face of it all. This debut collection ushers in a powerful new voice—startling and original, also, unafraid and vulnerable.
These days, it’s hard to write
about stranger things like the night
jasmine flowers, and love,
so let’s not do that yet.
Because the time isn’t right.
How can I talk of love,
when this planet keeps newborns
hidden in cocoons that eat them
a little, each time they move?
When ants go to sleep, wherever
they go to sleep,
what do they dream about?
I give myself a scar today,
I carve out a name I cannot spell
and honey drips out of my leg.
Is that why your leg looks swollen?
Ma asks me.
The insides of my flesh
Look at all the ants I am attracting,
some yawning, for I woke them up
before coffee could be served.
The babies that come out of these cocoons
are often missing limbs.
They are reared for certain purposes.
There’s no free will on this planet.
So how do I talk of love?
A baby was born without
He talked in whistles
and they all understood,
his lack of tongue makes him
a good container.
He holds inside him a lot of data
required to run this planet,
where I can’t write about love.
This planet of thirteen moons
where I have been exiled
is where death comes to die.
Babies are dropped head-first on to
the ground, so that they crack their
skulls and their brains can grow in size.
Babies with big heads and no limbs
are efficient janitors, and excellent computer
programmers. They’d give automatons a
run for their money, if automatons had
Birds don’t fly here, they might rip
apart the cocoons and disrupt the process
The last time it happened, a bird was sentenced
to death. I hear that’s better than
living on this planet, unless they
find a purpose for you.
It has just been discovered that I
am turning into honey.
I am the nourishment this planet
I will be dropped (head first, because
that’s the rule) in my mother’s shiny
cup, that she has put out for drying.
If I break the china, I’ll be exiled again.
If I break my skull, I might finally
what people write, when they write about love.
7. K. Srilata – Three Women in a Single Room House (Sahitya Akademi 2023)
The poems in K Srilata’s Three Women in a Single-Room House are part of a larger conversation about difference, about the difficult yet joyous work of care and nurture, and about the richness of female lineage. In narrating inter-generational stories of trauma, survival and resilience, the poems bear witness to the lives of ageing women, to the despair of the young trapped in systems not of their making, to the forging of new selves over old ones. Every area of human life becomes the subject of the poet’s empathetic gaze – from a child whose grandmother sews her a dress two sizes too large, to a young woman with autism proudly declaring that she is married to marbles buried in the playground of a school that has been turned into a temporary vaccination camp during covid. A rich collage of experience, Srilata’s poems are intimate and heart-warming, luminous manuals for living.
The Physiotherapist Asks
Where exactly are you hurting?
Her strong hands are eyes
probing my knotted muscles,
by way of circles,
close but not quite there yet.
They hold their secrets, my muscles.
Captured, they will not sing.
separate and dignified.
Where exactly are you hurting?
a woman about my age,
leads her to it.
She holds her heart.
8. Sukrita – Salt & Pepper, Selected Poems (Paperwall 2023)
Salt & Pepper, Sukrita’s selected poems, present an eloquent, word-induced silence articulated with a remarkable ease. In the centre of the multisensory, reflective silence dwells memory that pesters and heals, and shapes a deeper understanding of self and existence, taking one beyond the mere unmasking of a past. What adds luminosity to Sukrita’s densely textured poems, is the layered and fluid exploration of life-experience, without any sense of closure or finality.
Of Creative Anxieties
In the process of writing
I am ahead of myself always
And there’s no looking back
The rest of the time
I am stalking myself
and there’s no looking ahead
The issue is
That of keeping pace…
9. Jennifer Robertson – ‘Folie á deux’ (Everybody Press – Fall 2023)
The poems in Jennifer’s debut collection ‘Folie á deux’ redefine the authorial ‘I’ by subverting it. Jennifer focuses on language as the subject rather than self. As a poet, she’s drawn to polyphony and achieves it by using montage, fragmentation, hybridity, interpolation and disjunction.
One of the key preoccupations of a set of poems in the collection is to highlight the role of women, who were often relegated to the status of being the muse, not celebrated for their own creative prowess or agency to affect change.
In many poems the dichotomies and complexities are revealed through a poly-vocalic impulse by bringing attention to the archaeology of lost sounds — aural interventions in her dedications to Clara Schumann and Fiona Apple — both woman musicians, trail blazers separated by a century.
Jennifer orchestrates a communion of sounds, at once mystical, spiritual and enigmatic. Most of these poems are revisionist poems with a twist — where Jennifer keeps the women’s vulnerabilities intact while allowing music, colour, cadence, stutter, and silence to speak for itself.
Klimt’s Adele Dusts the Gold Off Her Alabaster Skin
She spells furnace incorrectly. Obsession can be many things: sacred, profane, and benevolent, like the colour yellow, like breaking a line
Yellow: an enjambment, a caesura, a pause.
Incisions are always yellow. What’s the colour of Faye Wong’s dream in Chung King Express? Gamboge, ochre, citrine or smoky quartz? Orphan and giraffe yellow, she says. Then, there is the yellow that returns to town as a stranger, the amnesic yellow. She remembers the colour of smallness around the neck of a yellow throated sparrow and the word Komorebi, a light that streams through the leaves in a Terrence Malick film—the spiritual yellow.
Yellow, the colour of Kafka circling like a moth around Malena’s letter. A light that burns his head, yellow: the dissipating flame yellow, the camouflage yellow, the fire opal yellow — as fervent as Rimbaud’s breath yellow. A spider that travels a lot.
She remembers the dictionary yellow: glistening, bulging, curvy yellow. What strikes her is the ferocity with which one yellow colludes with the other, stripping everything down to the negligée — the language of insolence, like the time when Nicole Kidman gets stoned and talks about her obsessive, erotic fantasy in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick fills the bathroom with a hazy, dreamy blue; almost an irreverent stream of lapis- lazuli but she is all yellow.
A svelte lie entering the sun, unaware that gold melts at 1064.18 °C.
10. Bibhu Padhi – This Damp House (Red River- 2023)
Bibhu Padhi awakens us with his intimate sense of belonging, of quiet comfort with the world in which he lives. Haunting, evocative, dense with images and musicality, these poems remind us of what can emerge through a poet’s vision of the world. Bibhu Padhi’s new collection treats loss and loves, frail bodies and weary shadows, with equal attention. The poems acknowledge life’s hurts—‘decades of a wound that wouldn’t close’. But they remind us, we are not alone, but are surrounded by ‘possible friendships with things/that have been far from me’, in this beautiful world where ‘words fly like house sparrows’, and fireflies are ‘glowing messages of love’.
THIS DAMP HOUSE
Today, the weather is clear.
The sun is strong enough
to dry up our clothes.
I look at the damp house
and think of its inmates
who spend much of their time
praying for dry interior
cleaning up cobwebs
in the walls’ corners.
Who built this house?
is still haunting the house
like a chronic disease?
There’re no answers.
Only the smell of damp air
enters the body of whoever
enters the house, sticks
to the available skin.
Sometimes, on certain nights,
a lean cry is heard through
its solid brick-and-cement walls—
a cry that disturbs the night,
diminishes its presence, wakes us
from our much-needed sleep.
11. Translated from Tamil by K Srilata and Shobhana Kumar – i, Salma: Selected Poems (Red River- 2023)
Salma’s writing stands out for its audacity and boldness in engaging with language, ideas, society, and politics. Her life is as dramatic and inspiring as her writing has been. This book seeks to bring alive the richness of her vocabulary as well as her perceptions of what life and creativity mean to her through the translations of her selected poems by K SRILATA and SHOBHANA KUMAR, an in-depth interview with CHANDANA DUTTA and essays written exclusively for this book by her closest friends — MEENA KANDASAMY, PERUMAL MURUGAN, and KANNAN SUNDARAM.
Story of the Deep Night
Irandaam Jaamathu Kanavu
On the nights
following the birth of my children,
in the midst of my nakedness
so familiar to you,
an old, unblemished beauty
and are disappointed.
You are revolted, you declare,
by my fat body,
and its stretch marks.
Your own body, you say,
Buried in the deep valley of silence,
my voice moans and sighs.
It’s true your body
is unlike mine.
Loud and open,
you proclaim yourself.
Before this perhaps,
you have had children
and by others.
Since you have remained
unmarked by their birth,
you can be proud.
But what of me?
These birth marks cannot be mended,
neither can my decay.
After all, this body is not a piece of paper
to be cut and pasted.
There is no restoring it.
Nature plays false,
much more to you.
Wasn’t it with you that it began—
that first phase of my downfall?
Stranger than night this deep night,
that breeder of dreams.
so peaceful in the picture
that hangs on the wall,
visits my bedside in the deep night,
12. Sarabjeet Garcha – All We Have (Chair Poetry Books 2023)
Sarabjeet Garcha’s All We Have, is in some sense, a deeply philosophical, lyrical and spiritual book of poems, culled from the discerning eye of the poet from his observing of life around him. In these roof-like poems we come face to face with a spiritual philosophy that stirs something within us to re-read, rest, return, remember and rehabilitate our relationship with life and the living. These are poems with a deeply visionary experience, and quietude the hallmark of all the poems here.
She didn’t do it to see
if her brother could keep
his promise and appear
before her the moment
she thought of him.
The night was so calm
as if the whole village
had gone to sleep
much earlier than usual,
dreaming of an age
in which unearthly light
would wash the lanes
and flood their homes
so when the dwellers
emerged they would glide
a few inches above
the ground. That night,
as always, Nanaki kneaded
wheat flour for only Nanak.
Hundreds of miles away
he smelled the phulkas
his sister was slowly circling
on the griddle while she
saw him sitting cross-legged
on the mud-plastered floor
asking for a phulka:
Just one more.
In the morning when Nanaki
emerged out of the kitchen
the whole village, they say,
saw her glide inches
above the ground.