'Writers take from what is offered to them'

Rosinka Chaudhri says poets should strive to be marginal

Photo Athar Khan/Rida Waqar February 12, 2018

KARACHI: Is modern day poetry of the Subcontinent influenced by the colonial era?

This was the main debate of the session 'Does Indian Poetry in English Have a History? Reasons for Marginality' at the ninth Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday.

During the session, Rosinka Chaudhri, director and professor of cultural studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, provided insight into the literary world of neighbouring India, with whom we have had a shared history of colonialism. Her Pakistani counterpart and fellow poet Illona Yousaf, moderated the session.

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As the poets of the two sides of the border sat together, sharing their experiences, the audience could sense the diversity as well as the similarity.

With similar history and diverse experiences, the two poets reflected how creativity finds its way. "With Colonialism in inheritance, people are often accused of trying to be like their oppressors," said Yousaf.

However, Chaudhri was of the view that poets and writers take from whatever their surroundings offer them. Giving an example of her native land, she explained how Calcutta has always been a hub of trade and cultural activities. The cultural diversity gives writers and poets the opportunity to be more creative, she said.

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She said she has mentioned some poets of Bengal in her book 'A History of Indian Poetry in English' who have created some brilliant multilingual pieces.

The British, in her view, did not want the Indians to learn their language. It was the Indians who wanted to learn English, said Chaudhri. "It [being influenced by different cultures] is not always a matter of choice with such cultural influx," she explained.

This is how languages and poetry emerge and evolve, she said, adding that colonialism was only a small part of the process.

Rejecting the idea that English served as the language of the elite, Chaudhri said some great works were also produced in local languages. She was of the view that many poets translated work from different languages and created work in different languages.

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"I celebrate marginality; it is good to be on the opposite side. State patronage cannot be productive. Poets should strive to be marginal."

Over the years, literature has been enriched with a multitude of landmark historic events, cultural evolution and societal developments giving rise to literary masterpieces, she said.