India’s Angry Poet and Other Stories


India’s Angry Poet and Other Stories

Illustration: Akshita Monga / Arré

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light” goes the famous line from the Dylan Thomas poem that has now become fodder for pop culture. It has been appropriated by Hollywood blockbusters, and if social media is to be believed, adorns a wall in Gujarat as well. Rage and anger can be helpful for inspiration, but they can also be misleading when they become labels, like the ones poet CP Surendran has often found attested to himself. “I am not angry. A lot of people believe so. Maybe it’s my face, always a little judgmental, the stare a little fixed and accusatory. But mostly it is because anger is an easy explanation to dismiss a position,” he says. Titled Available Light, Surendran’s collected poems are evidence that it is time to efface his countenance, the intensity of his face and voice, as the measure of his diction. It is time to look deeper, because where else would a writer be honest except in his poetry?

CP Surendran’s early poetry is laced with the kind of upright immediacy and prickly rebelliousness that can easily be read as despondence, even depression. But it isn’t as if CP has not felt any of it up close, or has grown entirely beyond it. “I feel a sense of resentment against the universe. Let me pare down the magnitude of my hostility: a resentment against humans. It’s a rather peculiar word, resentment. You don’t resent a horse, or a cow (though you have enough reason in this case), or a lion. You only resent a man or a woman. I believe the human project is a bit of a disaster. Why else is the majority of the population living in a state of anxiety and want? We have enough wealth to take care of all, but…” he trails off.

Through the years he worked as a journalist, Surendran continued to write his poems. But has working in journalism affected his writing? “I think the economy of journalism has had a fair impact on my poems. I try my best not to describe a thing or a feeling in two words, if one is sufficient,” Surendran says. This economy comes out in Asthma, where he writes:

I trace my anxiety
To what I lacked
When I was born
In June

A regular trope or subject that appears in Surendran’s poems is his relationship with his father, the Malayalam writer Pavanan, who passed away a decade ago. “I don’t think I had a good relationship with my father since the age of 16. I was critical of him for no good reason. He was extremely organised and worked very hard at his writing. I have tried my best – and I still do – not to read him, because I can’t handle it. One way or the other, it causes depression in me. Even his incorruptibility and the resultant genteel poverty. I got to know him better after he passed away. The fantastic thing about death is that without it we cannot measure a man. It is terminations that measure our journeys,” Surendran says. In Eclipse he writes:

He sits in a heap, wan, a smiling slave
To Gravity
Pulling him down to the grave.

His eyes arrive at sight
Slow, hesitant, strangely bright
See the world in their leftover light

Surendran began writing in a Bombay that had already played host to the Bombay poets, and was therefore tolerant, if not a fertile ground for the cultivation of poetry in English. “The heart of the ’90s, I believe, was a less binary culture and a more tolerant attitude to offense. You wrote what you wrote, and then you retired to a bar, caught the last wrong train, woke up in some cavernous railway yard all alone, groped for your wallet in a frenzy, and began the next day, which predictably ended the same way. It was all quite systematic in that sense,” he says.

CP Surendran’s early poetry is laced with the kind of upright immediacy and prickly rebelliousness that can easily be read as despondence, even depression.

A prominent idea, a virtual thread that is woven through the title of this book and most of his new poems is the idea of light as both as a metaphor and a medium that provides contrasts. “The trope of light and dark… is not a clearly conscious strategy to justify the title of the book. It’s the cascade of days and nights, and all those shades in between. That’s what it is. It’s about the shifting mirrors of the opposing colours inside us. And I am very, very tired of misery. I think I know exactly why the Buddha remained silent for 12 years.” He writes of this light in Arrivals, Departure:

Then we came upon a place
Which was neither sea
Nor desert, but an in-between light
Flat as a mat
On which our shadows shimmered
And Slept

Surendran’s new poems suggest a more intimate relationship with his subjects. While his early work could be seen as the walk away, in his new poems Surendran firmly occupies the inside of the fence, and looks prepared to observe and contemplate. He has always had a knack for writing strange things like basketball and football into poetry, but with a renewed sense of politics that finds its origins within, and a palpable restraint on the colour that politics takes, his collection Available Light underlines his importance as a poet. But given how thankless the task of writing poetry in this country is, and that he writes fiction as well, why do it at all? “I write poetry because I can’t help it. I write because that way I stay sane, though sanity itself is hard to define in the current context when little boys are lynched for taking a cow for a walk,” he says.