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On Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Essay by Andrew Schelling

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is a midnight’s child. He was born in 1947 shortly before August 15th when the British withdrew from South Asia, leaving behind two fragile countries—India and Pakistan—headed for civil war. His mother had traveled to Lahore, Pakistan, for his birth. When her son was a few weeks old she returned to Dehradun, in the Himalayan foothills of India, where Mehrotra’s father practiced dentistry.

Some of Mehrotra’s finest poems return in memory to a historical, almost legendary Dehradun. The city was originally the dehra-dun, “the camp in the valley” for a 16th century expanding Sikh empire. It is today a city of considerable size. Dehradun enjoys or suffers about the highest annual rainfall in all of India, which makes it terrific for certain agricultural crops. Lychees and basmati rice formed the original economy. In Mehrotra’s poems the lychees and other flora, as well as a wealth of birds, seem to be doing just fine. The buildings, roads, and other artifacts of human enterprise look bleached, withered, soggy, rickety, crumbled, or dilapidated. The sign for his father’s dentist office is peeling and broken.

One reason to go to his poems is to hear some good modern words about lychees, as well as mangoes, pumpkins, papayas, fruit bats, jackfruit, the Rangoon creeper, civets, magpies, honeysuckle, parrots, hoopoes, and myrobalan trees. The biosphere seems dizzy with interesting species and subtropical crops. Counter to what Herodotus heard 2500 years ago on his travels though, “there are no gold-digging ants here.” And—bad news for REI’s worldwide search for raw goods to make into socks and long underwear—there are also no “trees that bear wool instead of fruit.”

Yet for all this nothing in Mehrotra’s poetry sounds alien to an American ear.

Mehrotra writes in English. It might be more accurate to say he writes a North American inflected Anglo-Indian dialect, one of the elegant and cosmopolitan possible tongues in current use. He never went to school at Oxford or Cambridge, those massive imperial centers that educated Tagore, Gandhi, Salmon Rushdie, and other Anglicized Indian writers. Instead, he went to North America, to Iowa State’s Writers Workshop, where he met a troop of unconventional poets, among them another cosmopolite poet-translator, Anselm Hollo.

At the age of seventeen Mehrotra had set himself up for a poet’s hard luck life, founding the small magazine damn you / a magazine of the arts. The title riffed off Ed Sander’s New York ‘zine full of contraband and piracy, Fuck You, which had appeared a couple of years earlier in 1962. This nod by a young Indian poet to an American Beat elder was telling. Mehrotra wanted to avoid the sort of English poetry that came out of Oxbridge. “How do you write about an uncle in a wheelchair in the language of skylarks and nightingales?” Though the Beats were early influences he set out on his own personal quest, for a language and a poetics durable enough to walk in for decades. He located surrealism, he writes, “as though I’d said to myself that since I cannot write about those things in English, let me do so in French.”

Writing Indian poetry in international English—or in Marxist-Freudian dream French—gives Mehrotra a huge range, more expansive than the fields where most North American poets work. (Almost everyone in India speaks more than one language, often fluent in a surprising number; translation is the work of everyday life.) Like his friends Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre, Mehrotra holds translation close to his poet’s heart. A third of his Collected Poems consists of his renderings of other people. From the first century erotic anthology Sattasai of the Satavahana Dynasty, to fifteenth century razor-toothed bhakti poet Kabir, to nine twentieth-century Indian poets writing in regional tongues. Though he did not intend his book to do so, it encapsulates a short history of India’s poetry. It never goes far from archaic, fragrant, flower-and-tree shamanic sexiness; or from a well-studied loathing of sham religion and contrived politics.

His Kabir poems provide a clue to Mehrotra’s own mischievous play. “Born in Benares into a family of weavers,” he writes sagely, summing up the old poet’s character in one sentence—“Kabir chose to die not in the holy city of his birth but, in keeping with his contrarian views, in the miasmic village of Maghar, about which the legend was that those who die there are reborn as asses.”

In fact Mehrotra’s translations of Kabir, the best-known Indian poet outside India, are the best you will find. His Kabir is colloquial, raunchy, a wise-ass, enviably clearheaded, and just plain wise. “I live in Fearlessburg, / Kabir the weaver says.” He peppers his poems with humor and paradox, intending to disrupt rational thought, and usher his listener or reader into powerful, non-conventional states of mind. The term given to Kabir’s outlandish ciphers and turned-over imagery is ulatbamsi, upside-down speech.

Another poem warns that you better quit fooling yourself, because soon “You’ll be delivered to Deathsville.” These townsites of Mehrotra’s Kabir—Fearlessburg, Deathsville—seem to lie on a different train line than Robert Bly’s Sufi-ized Kabir. Bly’s can sound a bit loopy: too many tavern stops, a few over-rich metaphors. In fact with Mehrotra’s pointed versions, Kabir suddenly emerges as what a few of us long suspected: one of that brave troop of dissident international poets, salted with honesty, which includes Blake, Akhmatova, Mirabai, and Rimbaud.
Mehrotra’s own most recent poems, up through 2014, are understated miracles of minute observation. Hardly a whiff of his early surrealism remains. I think the world’s own weird jamming together of conflicting realities might be enough. Partly it is because India sits on an edge between the archaic and the post-post-modern. Partly because the largest human presence in the poems is now Mehrotra’s mother, an invalid with wandering mind, maybe demented, possibly alert to unseen intelligences.

‘Where’s Mama? Where’s Papa? Where are my sisters?’
‘They’re dead,’ I tell her, matter of factly,
As though reporting an incident in the street.
‘Is that so,’ she says, her mind somewhere else.

These poems hold an intensely reserved emotion. They seem Objectivist in presenting the detail and holding back comment. Often I suspect the poet’s mind is literally “somewhere else,” but where? He looks piercingly at a broken bird egg on the ground, the toil of worker ants, or the mating games of the paradise flycatcher. Hidden ciphers in his words align with old billygoat Kabir’s unsentimental concern for living critters. In Mehrotra’s human realm these include an egg pedlar and an ear-cleaning man. The most recent poem in his book, or at least the final one of the new poems, finds paradox and a strangely “upside-down speech” buried inside a wild range of English, British, and Indian words.

There’s tawny in mulligatawny, a ling in lingerie...
A squirr in squirrel, a devi in devil.

Kabir used to skim a narrow edge between reason and nonsense that I think goes far deeper into the psyche than surrealism. Like Zen koans his poems don’t just avoid rational thought, but find ways to upend it and place the reader into rare and powerful states of mind. So do many of Mehrotra’s poems. Crushing together “non-sense” with the idiotic cheers of monarchism, and the lingering horror of nationalism, he writes, “The goat is dead, long live the baa.”

You could pack lines like that with your lunch and travel the planet.

Andrew Schelling is an American poet and translator. An ecologist, naturalist, and explorer of wilderness areas, he has travelled in North America, Europe, India, and the Himalayas. Schelling lives in Boulder, Colorado. He teaches poetry, Sanskrit, and wilderness writing at Naropa University.

This essay first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #21