Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Of Pathare and Prejudice: Or Reading Contemporary Marathi Poetry

The recent article by Rangnath Pathare `The Impact of LPG (Liberalization, Privatization, Globalization) on Contemporary Marathi Literature (New Quest No. 169, July September 2007) is an excellent illustration of how literary criticism functions in Marathi today. Prejudice, dogmatic outlook and sloganeering politics have replaced intelligent analysis of literary texts and sharp sense of literary values. Posturing and sectarianism have replaced the critical ability to provide substantiating evidence to statements made by the critic. I intend to point out how Pathare’s assumptions are merely assumptions born out of his own limited understanding of literature and sociology of literature rather than penetrating original insights into contemporary Marathi literary scenario.

The first severe limitation of Pathare’s observation is a rather superficial understanding of extremely complex and dynamic relationship between literature and society. Assessment of the impact of liberalization, globalization and privatization is a still matter of debate among trained sociologists and economists. Demonizing capitalism is typical of a certain leftist ideology which has failed to live up to its claims of explaining persistence of capitalism long after its soothsayers had announced its collapse. The problem with this kind of leftist politics is its own inability to account for its own internal contradictions in its ideas and actions. It views contemporary society from apocalyptic and catastrophic perspective- a view which is not very scientific or rational as it claims to be. Nor is it as saintly as it claims to be on human rights issues. Besides, a huge chunk of Pathare’s article consists of this sort of `sociological’ survey of Marathi society done by person who is neither a trained sociologist nor an economist. It consists of observations which have not been backed up any evidence of sociological data or economical statistics. Hence it is an excellent example of how not to do sociology or economics. One wonders if Prof. Pathare who is probably a professor of Physics writes articles on his subject in similar way: peppering sweeping generalizations without adequate evidence, with dogmatic sloganeering.

However, more serious problems arise when such a narrow minded stance is transferred to the area of literary criticism. Its outlook is extremely reductive and deterministic. It confuses social values with literary values. Even if we accept that the dividing line between the two is often blurred, their relationship is not of simple identity. However what Prof Pathare does is even more illogical. He rails abuses on certain cosmopolitan Marathi poets like Hemant Divate, Salil Wagh, Manya Joshi, Sridhar Tilwe, and Sachin Ketkar without naming them. I wonder what prevents him from naming these new poets unequivocally. Probably he wants to be on good terms with some of them even after criticizing them. This is again very typically timid Marathi middle class attitude of criticizing someone who you want to retain as a friend. His railing is typical:

They don’t recognize any authority other than themselves. Barring one or two exceptions, their reading and understanding of the Marathi literary tradition is doubtful. Based on their pseudo-witty remarks, one tends to feel that writing poetry at deeper levels is not their cup of tea.....These are self styled dons and "Mafiosi", who live in their own shallow, illusionary universe. Obviously, nobody other than themselves and their small coterie has any reasons to question their "junky" theories or their "funky" observations. They are their own self appointed critics and thinkers. They are a new post-1990 band of postmodern flag bearers, who make use of modern means of communication like blogging on the internet or websites of their own.' (New Quest: 169, July Sept 2007 pp. 19-20)

I wonder who `appoints’ critics and thinkers in a given society. I would like to know from Pathare if the `post' of a writer and critic or thinker is `appointed' after an ad in newspaper, interview, `fixing' and all that. Probably that’s how he got `appointed' as a novelist and critic. With friends in high post in Sahitya Akademi and academia, Prof Pathare himself has managed to `post' himself as a `major' voice in fiction. I would also like to know if people require Pathare's under-the table-recommendation to get an `appointment' in literary scenario.
I feel that people like Pathare are the ones who claim to be authorities (`They don’t accept any authority’ can be translated as they don’t accept people as Pathare as authorities) are self appointed, or are appointed by their friends in academia, official institutions and award-giving organizations. Otherwise, how come after writing mediocre stuff they manage to become `reputed' and sole bearers of Marathi traditions? If we are behaving like Mafia dons, they are behaving like military Junta and rejecting them involves rejections from their chamchas and `appointment' walahs. Actually, it is people who share Pathare’s dogmas and biases populate Marathi literary establishment, literary academia, and award-giving institutions and occupy the posts of `literary critics’. Any wonder that most ridiculous thrash from Pathare’s coterie is being celebrated as `great writing' and is given prestigious prizes. Sorry Mr Pathare, we can’t help it. We don’t recognize you or your agents, or your bosses as our authorities and neither do we need your `appointments’, `awards’ or `certificates’ for the post of writers and thinkers

Besides how can you declare that someone is living in their `shallow illusionary universe’? How does one verify whether Hemant Divate’s or Manya Joshi’s universe is any shallower or profounder than Prof Pathare’s? Such a subjective and impressionistic remark itself is an indicator of Pathare’s prejudiced and naïve `critical’ (?) practice.

I also wonder if there is anything wrong with the use of ` modern means of communication like blogs and the internet. However, I think that Pathare’s technophobia owns something to the emancipating power of technology. The internet and technology offers a space for expression outside the dogmatic, feudal and parochial Marathi literary culture. Technology thus becomes a liberating force. When the local puddle becomes bondage, reaching out into the global domain is refreshingly empowering, especially for those who dare to think differently and write differently. This does not of course mean that there is no digital divide or social inequality. It means that technology is a powerful tool which can be used as well as abused. It means that for a creative and independent thinking it can be used as a means of articulating oneself.

Pathare has labelled these writers as Postmodern but fails to explain exactly what he means by that and what features of postmodernism does he find in their writings. The term `postmodernism’ is a weird term as Appignanesi and Garrett (1999) point out. He points out how etymologically the term is self contradictory and problematic. The term `modern’ is from root `modus’, which means `now’. Postmodern, then would mean ` after now’, which means something which has not yet arrived and will never arrive!

Marathi critics have a curious way of periodizing the twentieth century Marathi literary history. The conventional literary history marks the late nineteenth century the beginning of the `modern’ literature (which is in keeping with many other Indian literatures), and the phase after BS Mardhekar (c. 1940s) as `Modernist’. For some critics, like Chandrakant Patil, the phase of rise of little magazine movements in the sixties marks a new phase in Marathi literature, which is termed as ` Sathottari’ or `the post-Sixties’ borrowed from the friendly neighbourhood of Hindi literature. This phase is set off as a rejection or rebellion against the modernism of the 40s. This term is however is extremely problematic. The first problem is that the earliest little magazine movements began in the early fifties, with Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar and others starting the cyclostyled little magazine named `Shabda’ in 1954, so it is not really `post-Sixties’ at all. The second, and more serious problem, is that some of the important preoccupations of the so called `post-Sixties’ can be traced back to Mardhekar himself. The preoccupations like amalgamation of international modernist movements with the Bhakti traditions, or with idea of alienation or the depiction of dark subjectivity and explicit sexuality, which is common in the writings of Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar, Bhalchandra Nemade( whose famous novel `Kosla’, shows clear impact of JD Salinger’s `The Catcher in the Rye’, in spite of his xenophobic version of nativism), Namdeo Dhasal ( who co-founded Dalit Panthers inspired by the Black Panther’s movement in America), Vasant Abaji Dahke ( the dark surreal vision of Kafka is a major influence on his works) and others are prominently present in Mardhekar’s poetry. Hence, people who want to depict the post Sixties movement as a `nativist’ rejection of the earlier modernist phase (termed `Satyakatha’-Modernism disparagingly by the little magazine wallahs after the name of a reputed literary magazine which published the works of early modernists as well as the early works of Chitre, Dhasal and Kolatkar) have not read their literature carefully and critically.

Recently, a controversial position is taken by Sridhar Tilve (1999), who claims the post-Sixties little magazine is a third `modernity’ (or alternatively `postmodernism’) and the new generation of poets who deal with social and cultural problems of post liberalization phase are the poets of `Fourth modernity’ (`post-post modernist’, by Tilve’s arithmetic, the first phase being the late nineteenth century , the second phase being the early modern phase of Mardhekar, Vinda Karandikar etc and the third phase is the `post modern phase’ of Chitre, Kolatkar etc.) The debate over the terminology is largely futile according to me, because in India, no period exhibits complete break with the preceding period and at the same time there is no period in which there is some discontinuity with the previous period.

The point here is that the term, `Postmodern’ used by Pathare is used not as a historical category in literary history but as a derogatory label from a parochial point of view. I find Lyotard’s discussion of the term `postmodern’ very useful in this context. Lyotard defines post-modern as precisely the avant-garde spirit to question received dogmas, parochial and received norms of literature. If questioning the received dogmas and established norms of literature is postmodernism in Lyotardian sense then postmodern even predates modernism. In the Indian context, this spirit can go back to the Bhakti period which was a period of intense questioning of norms and customs. It is not limited to Sanjeev Khandekar or Manya Joshi.

However, Pathare is not alone in Maharashtra to resist the experimental and the new. This prejudice is deeply ingrained and widely held. Another and more insidious attack on the new avant- garde in Marathi comes from Nitin Rindhe (2006). He believes that the present generation of Marathi poetry, whose cultural and social context is that of globalization is bifurcated in their attitudes on the basis of the economic class and the regional location. The poets based in metropolis belong to the class which has benefited from globalization and hence, they uphold globalization directly and indirectly. They are not critical of globalization. The poets based in non-metropolitan locations have not benefited by globalization and therefore they are critical of globalization. The conclusions he draws from his argument is that the poets and critics like Hemant Divate, Sachin Ketkar, Manya Joshi and Saleel Wagh lack sensitivity and celebrate globalization. He complains that the poets and critics who come from metropolitan location consider the poetry from non-metropolitan location `backward’ and `inferior’. Thought the argument is attractive, it is deceptive and fallacious. It is simply based on his ignorance of the poetry written by the above poets. He assumes that it is the sacred duty of poets and poetry to criticize globalization. In short, his criticism is NOT descriptive but NORMATIVE. He imposes his own ideas of the poet’s duties on the poet. No contemporary critic, Sridhar Tilve or Sachin Ketkar or Saleel Wagh has called non-metropolitan poetry as being `backward’ or `inferior’ just because the poets come from non-metropolitan location. Likewise, one only has to read some poets like Hemant Divate or Manya Joshi or Saleel Wagh carefully to realize that they are not celebrating globalization but are actually expressing their own perception of the crises created by globalization. Thus, in the face of a widespread tendency to run down the new experimental avant-garde in Marathi, I urge its detractors to read it closely first before attacking it. The close textual reading precedes close contextual reading and the critical estimate of literature can only come after careful double reading.

To illustrate what I said, I will look at two poems written by Hemant Divate and Manya Joshi to verify if the said poets are actually celebrating globalization uncritically. Both the poems can be found in ` Live Update: An Anthology of Recent Marathi Poetry’ (2004). Both the poems are translated by me.

In the poem titled ` Shopping at Mega-Mall’, the speaker realizes that he has turned into a commodity a consumer item and is being displayed in the mega mall.

I am Whisper Sanitary Napkin
Lying on the first rack
And I am dreaming of living very close to a young girl
Absorbing her juices.

Or that I am a Huggies Nappy Pad on the second rack
And I am accumulating the excreta as I snuggle
some infant
Who I look after tenderly
For five to six hours.

Or I am a high-priced toilet soap
Camay, Yardley or Lux International

The consumer becomes the consumed; the subject becomes the object, not just any object but an object to be sold in a flashy wrapper as the entire world turns into a one huge Mega-mall. This indeed is a dehumanizing predicament.

Or I am the television
And the entire family is sitting in front of me
Eating and surfing my channels
Or that they have switched me off
And have left me alone in this room
Or that I am a foot wipe
Costing twelve bucks
Given free with a purchase
Of upholstery
Good looking
Yet my master coming out of the bathroom
Is wiping his wet feet on me

Or that I am a broom
With which the folks
Are causally cleaning their floor
Or dusting away cobwebs.

My mistress drops me
While using me
And dreams of a vacuum cleaner.
She spits on me
Even if I touch her husband's body
By mistake.

This sense of commodification of self is also an awareness of being used, abused and used as a foot wipe. The last stanza quoted above is almost an example of Dalit poetry, where the owner of the broom spits on it dreaming of vacuum cleaner. The consciousness of the dehumanizing, asphyxiating and sinister aspects of globalization pervades poetry of many contemporary poets like Hemant Divate. However, it goes undetected even by people who call themselves trained readers of poetry like Pathare and Rindhe, which puts a question mark over their ability to read contemporary poetry or for any poetry for that matter.

Manya Joshi’s poems often touch upon the segregation of human being from a human being in the age of `communication’ revolution. His poem ` An Announcement for Mr and Mrs Limaye’ can be read as an expression of alienation in the `global village’:

An Announcement for Mr. & Mrs. Limaye


Mrs. Limaye aap jahan
Kahibhi ho forein
Mulund station par chale aaiye
Wahan aapke pati
Aapka intezaar kar rahe hai


Maalik who is sabka ek
Bang everyone
O Shirdi king Sai Baba bang bang

People lose their way
People lose each other
People make civil statements
On a superbuiltup world


In a public local train
There is an unimagined itchiness
On your private emotions
You mentally advertise it to yourself


Mr. & Mrs. Limaye
Hiding behind popular philosophies
Wait for
Each other
Facing each other.

The poem which mixes up registers and languages expresses how people lose each other and are alienated from one another. In spite of being a very small world, a married couple travelling in Mumbai suburban train fails to recognize each other on the crowded railway platform. Manya Joshi’s perception of the predicament of alienation in the `super built up’ world is not celebratory. It is a rather agonizing situation from which even Sai Baba cannot save us. However, the critics who attack Manya or Hemant for lack of sensitivity fail to respond to the sense of crises and suffering implicit in their poetry, primarily because they are deeply prejudiced against these poets before hand and secondarily because they simply don’t know how to read a poem.

Poetry need not be sloganeering in order to be `political’. The expression of personal anguish needs only to be situated in the historical context to be realized as political. Social is nothing but the individual contextualized. However, setting off with biases and dogmas and wanting to straight-jacket certain writings even without reading them closely is a sign of substandard critical practice. Needless to say, it is fairly widespread in Maharashtra and Prof Pathare’s essay is just one example of it.

Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by G Bennington, B. Massumi, Manchester University Press, 1984

Nitin Rindhe, `Aajchya Kavitetli `Navta’ ani Samikshakanchi Gochi’, Abhidhanantar,, Mumbai, April-June, 2006

Richard Appignanesi, Chris Garratt , ` Introducing Postmodernism’, Icon Books, 1999

Sachin Ketkar ed. And trans. ` Live Update: An Anthology of Recent Marathi Poetry’, Poetrywala, Mumbai, 2004

Sridhar Tilve, Teekaharan, Shabdavel Prakashan, Kolhapur, 1999
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