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Ranjit Hoskote: Between the Sea and the Shore

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The many avatars of Ranjit Hoskote blaze forth in his new poetry collection. Suhit Kelkar meets the poet and curator

Jonahwhale | Ranjit Hoskote | Hamish Hamilton | 128 pages | Rs 499

OVER A FEW months in 2014, on various visits to his mother’s room at Hinduja Hospital on Mumbai’s western shore, Ranjit Hoskote felt himself awash with the feeling of “a peculiar betweenness”. He says, “I could see on the one hand my school across the road, Bombay Scottish, and the other side the sea, the presence of the sea. Something happened—this peculiar betweenness.”

His mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and they would learn later that she had only a few months to live. Even as he visited and looked after her, the feeling of betweenness became “this churning turbulence”. He says, “[It] set up memories of Colva, the beach near which I grew up, when Goa was fairly unspoilt, in the early 1970s, barely ten years out of Portuguese rule. I found myself possessed by memories of growing up in Goa, with multiple languages, Portuguese, Konkani, English, Marathi, Hindi, the presence of the sea, journeys, exchange, transcultural relations, the braiding together of different histories.”

As he took care of his mother, he would take a little time out to scribble in a pocket notebook. These jottings would become the foundation for his latest collection of poems, Jonahwhale (Hamish Hamilton; 128 pages; Rs 499) which was published recently. “The tight notes made there expanded a bit,” he says.

In the months to come, the unborn spirit of Jonahwhale occupied a “social and political” space as well. “If you look at Goa from a land-based perspective, it is a small place at the rim of a country,” he says, “If you turn the atlas inside out and imagine that the oceans are actually land, you see that Goa is at the forefront of this enormous circulation of trade routes, Jewish and Muslim refugees moving from Reconquista Spain to the East, Chinese mariners and Persian traders settling down. Your whole understanding of history changes when you look at the coast.”

In that time of betweenness, the sea and the shore developed historical and cultural resonances. He says, “If we look at history from the point of view of the sea, it is a completely different perspective. All our history is land-based... which also is one reason why we have these pathological syndromes of victimology in our country. People keep banging on and on about the Turkic raids from the northwest and how weak we were in 1000 AD. That was the same year the Cholas sent a fleet to South East Asia. It depends on where you are looking. If you look at the Indian peninsula at the dawn of the second millennium AD, you see a strong, self-confident culture open to the world.”

At some point, Hoskote also realised his latest notations were invitations to experiment with poetic form. “Partly consciously, partly subconsciously, it came to me that if I am dealing with the history of the sea, then the language itself has to explode. In the past few books, my project has been to develop more sharp, classical forms. [But in Jonahwhale] the words would spray out across the page, sometimes cascade.... This is language in the moment of its being broken apart, being remade, with many voices sometimes occupying the same page. To me, that is what the sea does. The sea invites you to invent new languages.”

The experimentation was also a result of boundaries blurring within him in recent years. “Working on this book freed me up. For many years, I have tried to keep my different careers separate. Poet, architecture writer, cultural theorist, curator... those lines have become more and more blurred in practice. Originally, there were professional reasons for the demarcation. I would speak at an architecture seminar, and the moderator would say, ‘Ranjit Hoskote will offer us a poetic view of Corbusier.’ Or then I was an art critic among poets, with critics going on about the visual nature of my images. But in recent years, I have asked myself, why should I constrain myself because of how I might be perceived?” This may have laid the groundwork for a creative process in which “a collage of fragments announces itself, and you work on threading it together”.

I was saturated in the arts. Poetry didn’t come to me. I came to poetry. It was already there. I grew up like that, with the sense that the arts are integral to life

He also encouraged his other interests to blend into his poetry, whether forms of Indian or Western Classical music, his stack of books which “informed each other”, or his passion for the work of visual artist Bruce Conner. His passion for music also influenced his formal experiments in Jonahwhale. He had begun work on a libretto years ago, with Vanraj Bhatia. He says, “Working on a libretto allowed me to think about opera and about my love of operatic music, and how does spoken dialogue ascend to music, how the recitative and the aria play off one another. I thought I should find ways of making this possible in a poem, and some of the ‘Jonahwhale’ poems are written as librettos for several voices.” Snatches of song lyrics often find their way into the poems in Jonahwhale, and in my reading, I found most of the poems were friendly to being chanted aloud.

Mapping multiple points of interest, various disciplines and references, Hoskote has provided a small series of endnotes. He says, “It allows me to extend the world to these poems without having to reduce the poems to the contexts. It’s just a way of inviting readers into the back stories of the poems.”

One figure who is missing in Jonahwhale is Jonah himself, but Hoskote points him out in the unspoken flesh of the poems: “Jonah makes an appearance as different things. The mariner who’s rendered himself an outcast, for example. The castaway who is also the driven captain chasing bloody redemption. For me, the whale is also the system.” He considers Jonah a most interesting figure. “[Jonah is] a peculiarly atypical prophet,” he says, “For one thing, he is always trying to run away from God’s mandate. He gets into trouble, is redeemed, gets into another quarrel with God, is rebuked, takes a tangential route to enlightenment. [He’s] a very contemporary figure.”

He links the story of Jonah and the whale with a childhood memory of Miramar beach, Panjim: “[At Miramar, there is] a piece of public sculpture for children to play. It’s a large fish with an open mouth. You can walk into it and there’s a door cut into the side. I used to play in it, and was fascinated by the experience of literally being inside the whale.”

The business of searching for influences and references in a poet’s particular collection is dicey; in a manner of speaking, his entire life has been the coral reef for his shoal of work. Hoskote, 48, grew up in a family that loved the arts: “I was saturated in the arts. Poetry didn’t come to me, I came to poetry. It was already there. My mother was deeply committed to literature. She read in several languages. My father always had his favourites and his curriculum. It was not a programme. [Moreover], music was strongly present in the family. In the larger extended clan were filmmakers, musicians, listeners. And crafts—my mother was profoundly concerned with India’s traditional crafts: textiles, terracotta. So I grew up like that, with the sense that the arts are integral to life.”

On one of the buoys marking Hoskote’s formative process is the name of TS Eliot. Hoskote says, “Then, when I was 12, I found my parents’ copy of Eliot’s Selected Poems, which of course at that point I didn’t understand but which shook me up.”

Cross-training is my most preferred mode of renewal; work across one discipline that you are inside of, and work in another that you are less familiar with

Hoskote spent his early childhood in Goa. He was fortunate in that his parents placed him in a progressive school named Manovikas. His family moved back to Bombay in 1976, and he was culturally shocked by Bombay Scottish School, finding it “colonial”. When it was time for college, his parents were unusual in that they wanted him to go to art school. But he didn’t. He says, “I blundered into science for two years. I wanted to do architecture, and the only way you could do that is through two years of science. I hated it, then took a gap year, in which I read, travelled, and saw exhibitions including Charles Correa’s Vistara, which has been an inexhaustible experience for me over the decades.” In his gap year, in 1986, he decided to study the social sciences. He returned to Elphinstone College and pursued sociology and politics and economics. During this period, he began writing art criticism for The Times of India.

Hoskote’s journey as a poet was furthered during his gap year, when his father took him to see Nissim Ezekiel. Then onwards, he met with the other major Bombay poets. He says, “The first thing [Nissim] said was: ‘Be prepared for harsh criticism’. He identified the things that worked and the type of things that did not work [in my poetry]. But he left it for you to do. All [the major Bombay poets] were like that. They were like Zen gurus. They were just as likely to whack you over the side of the head. All of them, Nissim, Dom (Moraes), and Adil (Jussawala), were informed by some kind of Victorian forms of upbringing, so none of them were into pampering people. They taught by example or pointing to things, which is a great way to teach.”

Ezekiel pointed Hoskote to the Poetry Circle, a group of poets that had formed in 1986; these poets critiqued each other’s work constructively. Hoskote says the Circle helped him grow as a poet.

Ezekiel also published a poem by Hoskote in the PEN journal in 1987. But that was not his first poetry publication. He says, “[That was] in 1978, in the Poetry Corner, a feature in the Free Press Journal.” Various books followed, collections of poetry, cultural writings, writings on art.

Despite his prolific career as a writer, Hoskote says he is far from jaded. “I renew myself through shifts of emphasis. For instance, when I am curating an exhibition, there might be weeks when I am thinking architecturally, spatially, infrastructurally. That produces a change in gear. Music and travel are very active forms of self-renewal for me. Conversations with people who are not in my disciplines, or in related disciplines but different perspective. Cross-training is actually my most preferred mode of renewal—work across one discipline that you are inside of, and work in another that you are less familiar with or do not customarily work in.”

Hoskote says he has been planning to write a novel for years, but it has assumed other forms. “I make notes and it leaks into other things that I am writing. It takes different forms, it vanishes into other things I do. Dara Shikoh has fascinated me for a very long time. Those are the concerns that lie at the core of my work at any time—the idea that borders are porous, consciousness is kaleidoscopic, cultural history is richly hybrid, and origins are always mixed and it is good for them to be mixed.”

Today, Hoskote, in his trademark jacket, linen shirt and trousers, is also to be found making keynote speeches at literary festivals. He has also witnessed with interest the rise of performance poetry and spoken word performances in India. He says, “I don’t believe [page poetry versus stage poetry] is a binary. Poetry begins in an oral tradition, it begins with shamanic performances, it begins with epics, and travelling cycles of stories and poems, and all the great scriptures are written as poetry. I don’t buy this page versus stage argument at all. It becomes an excuse to entrench oneself in an unnuanced position, while missing the opportunity to learn from one another across the barricades.”