India won her independence from the British empire 70 years ago. Yet, her relationship with the English language, and with English literature continues to be a contentious issue. For a lot of Indians, speaking in English feels like an unpatriotic act, reminding them of the English Education Act of 1835. In the discussions leading to the Act, Thomas Babington Macaulay had erroneously but convincingly proven the “superiority” of the English language, making claims that Indian languages were unfit for scientific education. English would have to be introduced in the higher education system in India to impart knowledge in the sciences and the arts. He considered the extant literature in regional Indian languages, as well as in the classical Sanskrit and Persian languages, inferior to the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Macaulay’s recommendations in 1835 have had implications on the country that Indians are only too acutely aware of, even after nearly two centuries.

However, for another group of Indians, the English language came a weapon of power, and a means to establish one’s identity. Dalits, and other disenfranchised sections of the Indian society, who were denied access by upper-caste Hindus to the “holy” Sanskrit language and literature, started writing in English. For them, English being an alien language, did not have roots in the ancient Hindu system of casteism. English was a casteless language, and a tool of fighting back against centuries of majoritarian oppression.

English, being a non-native language, was also effective in dismantling certain linguistic hegemonies of dominant groups in the nation.

Additionally, English helped unite a nation that speaks over 19,500 languages (including all dialects and variations). For a burgeoning section of upper, and upper-middle-class people in the country, English is no longer a foreign language, but an everyday reality today.

However, even in 2020, despite being a casteless language, English has not been able to transcend its class boundaries in India. Yet, those who speak and write in English in India, have made the language their own, playing around with it, enriching the language with loan words from Bangla, Hindi, Punjabi, and other vernaculars. 

Through the Poets Reading Poets series we wish to introduce you to certain Indian poets writing in English. Lists, like most canons, are subjective, and should never claim to be exhaustive. We hope this list becomes a point of entry into the much wider world of Indian writings in English.

Bilingual Readings: 

While we are going to focus primarily on Indian poets writing in English, we considered giving our audience a taste of some important Indian poets writing in other Indian languages as well. We have curated poems by Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali), Nabarun Bhattacharya (Bengali), Neerav Patel (Gujarati), Alok Dhanwa (Hindi), Himant Divate (Marathi), Sanket Mhatre (Marathi), and Jaya Prabha (Telegu) for this section.

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“This Valley of Death is Not My Country,” Nabarun Bhattacharya, translated from the Bengali by Somrita Urni Ganguly; read by Somrita Urni Ganguly. The Bengali poem was published in 1972. The translation was published in 2019.

“Ostracised Flowers,” Neerav Patel, translated from the Gujarati by the poet; read by Mandakini Bhattacharya. The poem was published in 2006.

“Girls on the Rooftops,” Alok Dhanwa, translated from the Hindi by the poet; read by Abhay K. The translation was published in 2019.

“Looks,” Jayaprabha, translated from the Telugu by Velcheru Narayana Rao and A K Ramanujan; read by Nishi Pulugurtha. The poem was published in 1988. The English translation was published in 1993.

“Native Place,” Sanket Mhatre, translated from the Marathi by Rochelle Potkar, read by Rochelle Potkar. The poem was published in 2020.

“Prayer 1” and “Prayer 2,” Himant Divate, translated from the Marathi by Dilip Chitre, read by Sufia Khatoon. The translations were published in 2003.

“The First Sun,” Rabindranath Tagore, translated from the Bengali by Somrita Urni Ganguly, read by Koushiki Paul. The poem was composed a week before Tagore’s death, on July 27 1941.