Over the past few years the Mumbai poet Ranjit Hoskote has staked out a remarkable territory somewhere between a highly metaphoric and symbolic and a playfully disjunctive language. This writing (in English) has made him one of the most fascinating of contemporary Indian poets. In reviewing his 2014 volume Central Time, I concluded, “Hoskote has not only created a major new work of poetry but has suggested an alternative to the threatening world in which we daily face our lives.” His slimmer new volume, Jonahwhale, both continues to provide linguistic shelter in a world of terror and horrors, and pushes his language even further to reveal just how talented he is.
The very first lines of “The Churchgate Gazette” suggest that terrifying world:
Last word on the subject, I promise.
I walked into the train station and it was terrifying.
Like nerve gas had laid the architecture out flat,
the tall glass columns bloodshot and the booking clerks
slumped over, all dead at the till.
Even a “plaster Gandhi,” the symbol of pacifism, becomes a kind of threatening figure:
You missed the last train, it said, he said,
you missed the last and only train that was save
for a man who’s left half his life behind.
As critics have observed, there is something “Waste Land” -like about this poem, with its dead clerks and eerie atmosphere suggesting a feeling of Eliot’s “hurry up please it’s time.” Yet Hoskote’s ending is far more surreal that anything Eliot might have written, breaking up syntax while turning inward:
Break, ice, for me,
Let me fall through stinging water
in my skin of rust and flame.
I’ve jumped from a tree
That’s branched into the clouds.
It’s sucked up all the reality
I’ve watered it with.
Its fruits are red and wrinkled.
I plunge into drowned gardens
where I walked once.
Sinking, the water stroking
my crown of leaves
as it comes apart,
dark tribune, archaic clown,
I open my eyes.
Whatever achievement the poet might have previously accomplished, signified by the crown leaves, is mocked as he comes to a new perception about his personal failures. Even though he has promised us that this is the “last word” on the subject, we already know we are in for far more troublesome moments. After all, this is a collection that interweaves the stories of leviathans such as Jonah’s whale and Melville’s Moby Dick. It is a bleak and worrisome landscape of doubt and loss.
Some of these moments represent an almost comic view of his condition, as in the invocatory “The Atlas of Lost Beliefs,” wherein he his lists a number of those beliefs, among them:
…apsaras, kinnaras, gandharvas, maends,
satyrs, sorcerers, bonobos, organ grinders,
stargazers, gunsmiths, long-distance runners,
gravediggers, calligraphers, solitary reapers…
The list continues for 11 more lines, ending with “women who run with wolves.” He later takes us into remarkable new worlds, for instance in the beautiful poem “Ocean,” which begins with the Melville-like line, “my name is Ocean,” and introduces us to larger-than-life figures such as Ahab, in the poem of that name). In the latter, the man in constant pursuit laments of his voyages: “If only I’d harpooned this monster on a page.”
Like a maniacal tour guide, Hoskote takes us into wasted provinces in “the kingdom of shadows” (“The Heart Fixes on Nothing”); rivers that sometimes run in your veins (“And Sometimes Rivers”); and a world which “empties itself”:
You shall build your citadels on silt said the preacher
and sink your pride in spice currents
take your parakeets and painted cormorants
with you but leave the coconut palms and the Inca silver
leave behind a bloodful of curses
The figure in “Sycorax” wakes up trapped in a tree truck, “speech slurred, though all I’d drunk / was berry-blood.” A wonderful version of the Melville novel depicts the character Redburn, temporarily on shore leave, as he recounts the dangerous world of Liverpool, where he encounters Indians and other crew members from various ships.
“Cargo and Ballast,” dedicated to Édouard Glissant, warns us from the start that “Everything will be used against you,” and continues with another version of the “Noah-boat Jonah-boat”:
The captain’s seasick
The mate’s a safe pair of hands
but he’s sulking.
Let the drunk passenger handle it. He was
a slave-captain before. Leave it to him.
What shall we do with ‘em?
Throw ‘em in!
The end of this poem shifts into another magic listing of sins suggesting what “the everything” that will be used against “you” includes:
Beginning with chalk, sulphur, ochre earth, jagged bamboo,
ratooned cane, and the blades and axle shafts of words that
are javelined at you and you turned into birdcalls,
passwords, anthems, spells.
It is as if the “you” — the poet and reader together — is certain to be tortured by the language of the poem itself.
So many of these early poems feel like such startling revelations that the book’s second part, “Poona Traffic Shots,” good as it is, simply can’t match the wild adventure of the first part, “Memories of the Jonahwhale.” Yet, in the final section, “Archipelago,” containing many lovely poems, Hoskote once again exploits his ability to combine memorable images with a sophisticated moral vision in which terror and odd beauty meet and dance hand in hand. “Aperture,” in memory of Diane Arbus, for example, begins with the question:
What would the knife-grinder want
with a broken spoon and a pair of melons,
a Japanese bowl spangled with an iron glaze
and three dried lilies?
He’s waiting for the little boy and girl
standing hand in hand
to cross the chalk line between kerb and street
and go off like rockets
And, in another tour-guide-like stance, the poet humorously relates his “Eight Rules for Travellers to Thebes”:
Beware of babies left on hillsides with their feet pierced.
Don’t fight with old men where three roads cross.
At 49, Hoskote might be described as mid-career. Yet his work is so excellent that we suspect that he will soon be (if he is not already is) among the greatest anglophone poets of his country.
Jonahwhale (2018) by Ranjit Hoskote is published by Penguin/Random House and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.