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Against the ingrained

books Updated: Jan 19, 2012 20:54 IST

Manohar Shetty
Highlight Story

Partial Recall: Essays on Literature and Literary History

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Permanent Black

Rs 650 pp 300

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra comes closest to what one may call ‘a man of letters’. He is a poet, a translator of texts in ancient Prakrit and Hindi, an academic, a discerning anthologist and editor of the path-breaking An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English. Close on the heels of his acclaimed translations of Kabir comes this collection of essays on literature and literary history.

The collection of 11 essays, written over 30 years, range from an autobiographical essay recalling his youth in Bhilai, the death of a precocious friend, and his hometown of Allahabad to an engagingly perceptive analysis on the poetry of Arun Kolatkar and AK Ramanujan, his somewhat trenchant views on R Parthasarathy to the challenges of translating Kabir. Mehrotra taught English at the University of Allahabad for several years and his disillusionment is evident. “The great betrayal of our literature,” he writes, “has been primarily by those who teach in the country’s English departments, whose job it was to green the hillsides... What happens instead are that writers die, are mourned by other writers, and the matter ends there… and the writer is now twice dead.” He adds, “Were there a literary happiness index, Indians would be at the top, the happiest people in the world: instead of the writing, all the focus seems to be on the advances a few authors get, the Man Bookers they win, the festivals they attend…” Nothing has changed since the time of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay who, in 1870, wrote: “Intelligent criticism may be said to be a thing unknown to the Native Press.”

Intelligent criticism and cogent evaluation is, however, much in evidence in these essays. A major focus has been on the life and work of Arun Kolatkar, his bilingual talent in English and Marathi, his dichotomous world of writing advertising copy and poetry as he traversed both rural and urban India. Though a close friend and admirer, Mehrotra writes with detachment about the corpus of his work and his own sense of discovery of Kolatkar’s unpublished poems.

The idea and compulsions of bilingualism, and by extension eclecticism, evident also in the poetry of Dilip Chitre, Jayanta Mahapatra and AK Ramanujan and in the prose of Vilas Sarang provide a central motif to the essays. Mehrotra reserves one perceptive chapter on Ramanujan and on the large body of his unpublished work. The celebration of bilingualism is offset by Mehrotra’s acerbic putdown of

R Parthasarathy’s rather precious yearning for his Tamil roots and his desire to break free from his ‘English chains’. To many young poets today, the idea of writing in English and being ‘chained’ to it may sound irrelevant and even a little puzzling. They will find the answer in Ramanujan’s riposte: “I think the real question is whether they can. And if they can, they will.”

Another interesting aspect is the number of Bengali poets and writers quoted by Mehrotra, perhaps an unconscious testimony to the sway of the Bengali intelligentsia at one time. A pivotal essay on GH Hardy and the parallel the mathematician makes between the beauty of maths and poetry is a good read. Mehrotra concludes: “Like all artists, mathematicians are in love with their fate.” The art of the provocative literary essay is rare in India, and Mehrotra’s book fills a part of the vacuum. With its depth, range and use of language, Partial Recall will be of interest to pupil and pedagogue.

Manohar Shetty is a Goa-based poet, writer and critic