Saturday, July 4, 2009


Virus Alert: Poems by Hemant Divate, translated from Marathi by Dilip Chitre, Mumbai: Poetrywala, 2004, pp. 76, Rs. 100/-

Is English translation of contemporary Marathi poetry a part of Indian English Poetry? Or does translation from non-English Indian languages occupy a separate compartment? Following this rather controversial query can lead us to the cultural sites haunted with spectres of history, sociology and politics. These spectres usually remain usefully masked and only reveal themselves at uneasy moments in intensive discussion of Indian Poetry appearing in English. The unequal status of Indian Writing in English vis a vis writing in other Indian languages mirrors the asymmetrical and hegemonic status of English language in India and this discrepancy surfaces when we probe deeper into the ideological sore.

If one examines ` Virus Alert’ poems by Hemant Divate, one of the prominent contemporary Marathi poets, translated into English by Dilip Chitre in the context of these old haunting debates, it will offer us fresh insights into tortuous relation between poetry and politics.

If we are to hypothetically consider English translation from the bhashas at par with Indian Poetry in English, a collection like ` Virus Alert’ is a rarity in Indian writings in English. Going by the canons of Indian English poetry, something like

` Dhullu is switching the TV on and off with the remote

He’s telling me to switch on one channel after another

Till his favourite channel is found

Any moment soon after

He begins to hate the channel..(p.2)

Would be considered `too loose’, ` too direct’ and less informed by the Anglo American modernist aesthetics of formal precision, irony and mythopoetic imagery. The chances of a longish, directly confessional and often flat poetry like that of Virus Alert of being rejected by the established canons of Indian English poetry are great.

Yet one cannot fail to acknowledge that there is something unsentimentally honest and humane in these poems which make them attractive in spite of being ` quite different’ from the `acceptable’ norms of Indian poetry in English. The themes of the poems as well as their treatment differ from the ones usually found in Indian poetry in English.

Chitre in his Foreword suggests that anxiety and panic seems to be the most common themes of Virus Alert. However, it seems that the central theme of the collection seems to me is inability to come to terms with what the City like Mumbai has done to you:

“ One is just a domesticated animal kept by this city

The one that sniffs around the city the whole day long

Day by day

One’s turning into a fuckin’

Unprinted roll of newsprint thats found defective

Or the key number in the material of an ad

A pimp, a pimp, a pimp...( p.12)

Or consider how the poem whose title says it all ends:

“ and Hemant Dayanand Divate

Belongs to no one anymore

He belongs to the e-universe

And here too he gets waylaid and screwed

But he hardly lets out an `e’ from his mouth

He utters` Aai-ee-ga!’

(And here too he gets screwed, p.19)

The metropolis of Mumbai transformed by globalization transforms the speaker, who sometimes signals his intimacy with the poet, into something he never was. It decontextualizes him, uproots him, dehumanizes him and what is left is only the memories of thirty one years.

The speaker is always afraid of losing his individuality, not to mention his sanity, under the cultural bulldozer of globalization:


Am forgetting


No trace remains

Of colour, form, speech, touch, or meaning

To me

There does not remain

God, parents, relations

No remainder

Like caste, class, religion, nationality, language, script

Breath, mind, body and soul

I am reaching out

Beyond birth and death

I don’t know



The standardization and homogenization of culture that globalization threatens people is a real danger, especially for the poets.


While reading the poems of contemporary poets

You do not

As the blind in the parable

Of Chakradhara do

Feel the whole elephant

But feel it as though it were a piller, a wall, and so forth

And therefore perhaps

If a poem

By one of you is

Passed around as anyone else’s

It wont add a whit

To language.


The speaker is paranoid and self obsessed hypochondriac who worries about poetry being bedridden in this time of great cultural crisis.

The Poem Should Not Be Bedridden

Word constipated poem

Its skin’s become prickly

Its restless, itchy

Slowly, its sores will fester

Begin to stink as well

Language languishing as through under a curfew

Words silent as though prohibited from assembling

With this sort of strict patrolling

One cant even curse meanings



The sense of urgency, fear and the feeling of being a misfit in the culture pervades Hemant’s poetry. Unfortunately the poetry written in English is too busy trying to conform to the modernist conform to sense this cultural `emergency’ and voice the dilemma of the person trying to cross the street of contemporary Mumbai.

The contemporary poetry translated from non-English Indian languages will often be loaded with concerns, which are not merely aesthetic or academic. Though both Indian Poetry in English and Indian Poetry in English translation use the same medium of English language, they exhibit distinct texture, styles and obsessions. Though the chances of poetry like that of Hemant’s remaining on the margins of the Indian poetry in English, the very accessibility of such poetry in English is bound to affect the sensibility of Indian readers of poetry in English. A point to be noted is that both these traditions can co-exist and something fruitful may emerge from mature and unprejudiced interaction among them.

Hemant’s poetry will definitely appeal to younger readers of poetry in English translation for its freshness and unsentimental directness.

This Review Appeared in The Dhauli Review, Sept 2008

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