Ranjit Hoskote’s latest collection of poetry, Hunchprose, sweeps through history, mythology, ecology, architecture, climatic crises, among other subjects, and reflects his erudition and his ease with each of these fields. Such diversity can be intimidating, but while the collection requires multiple readings, Hoskote’s gripping pun and shifting perspectives make it willingly, with each read highlighting a new side.
Consider the first poem, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a prose poem based on the history of the slave trade in Bombay in the 19th century and inspired by the story of a boy from South East Africa sold to a merchant by Arab slavers. Growing up in Bombay and eventually emancipated, he returned and settled in Zanzibar and rose to fame as a guide. Yet home and identity remain a challenge for him: “I should go home now, but I forget where it is. /… City of jahazis, munshis, khalasis, sarafs, bhistis, sepoys it was the only family I knew. So I called myself Bombay… ”
Likewise, the poem Train, with its verses: “ … A soul sleep elsewhere familiar / only to the cattle protected by the falling ax / and the sealed train / which is about to bump west – east across crater plains / bearing its dead weight”Runs through the arc of history from trains carrying people to concentration camps and certain death under Nazi Germany to the Partition Era that divided the Indian subcontinent, to These days. Words such as “soulsommeil” and “weight of death” show us the truth about those who look away and remain silent or mute spectators.
The poem, Glove, describes the glove of a lone porter, something any of us would have encountered. Yet the lines, “… Weapons cannot slash it / fire cannot burn it -…”Evoke the unchanging lines of the Bhagavad Gita, and turn the mundane into something rare. There are other poems with similar titles that are deceptively simple, such as Saturday, Table, Shoe, which are remembered for their powerful pun and the challenge they contain.
In this we remember the poem by Tomas Tranströmer, Allegro, and its powerful images: “I play Haydn after a dark day / and I feel a simple warmth in my hands /… The sound says that freedom exists, / that someone does not pay Caesar’s tax. /… The music is a house of glass on the hill / Where stones fly, stones crash. And the stones crash through the glass, / But the house remains whole.“
The current ecological and climatic crises are highlighted by poems like The Book of Common Birds, The Nightmare of the Lion Tamer and Endling. The last two are particularly interesting by presenting a diptych of stories, the perspective passing from the lion tamer, alone with the lion, to the lion, “… The last most famous member of my tribe. /… In its far corner huddles my tamer, / a bag of skin peeling off a spine: / mutilated by his worst nightmare comes to life.
Hoskote’s experience as an art critic and beloved curator translates into poems such as Protest, dedicated to artist Sudhir Patwardhan. The hymn-shaped poem says: “Hand to the door / fist around the stone / hand on the sign / fist around the stone… hand around the staff / fist around the stone / grasp the clarity of the edge of the flint / the breath escaping from the stone . “
Many poems are also embodiments of visual poetry in their use of spacing. Take the poem Ivory bird, a concise 12-line. The feathery indentation of each line sparks your imagination, until you can visualize the bird in your cup-shaped palm with its: “… Wings folded / paws pulled in a long neck-head-beak a pointed missile / towards the water far below or the clouds / the first cormorant / never carved / in the sky of your palm”.
The fascinatingly read Notes section shows the connection between this poem and the fact that a piece of ivory dating from the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 to 10,000 years ago) was discovered in the cave of Hohle Fels , and is considered to be the first sculpture of a bird.
Finally, a word on the intriguing title. It’s a play on Victor Hugo The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1833), as mentioned by Hoskote in a reading. The poem tackles, in a slightly satirical way, the rivalry between different literary genres and the marginalization of poetry. “He calls me Hunchprose but what is a word / between murderous rivals? /… And me, what can I offer you besides frayed knots, coiled puzzles, bones / keys of blown doors by looters… ”
The poem ends with the assertion that a poet can be as powerful as Quasimodo, the much derided, malformed, and marginalized character who is a true music maker through the bells he rings over the years: ” Call me Hunchpraise… ”
In fact, today more than ever, we need the power of poetry through the “drifting words” that “arise to sting” in this collection.
(Jonaki Ray is a poet, writer and editor in New Delhi. Her collection of poetry will be published in 2022)