The contemporary Indian poet’s latest collection of poems deals with maritime narratives and their influence on time, memory and language.
“Machhli jal ki rani hai, jeevan uska paani hai”
Even as earthlings, the significance of water and its inhabitants is ingrained very early in us. But as time passes, we talk less and less of the aquatic world — its mysteries, its creatures, and its constancy that links the transience of all space and time. Jonahwhale, a collection of poems by contemporary poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote puts the spotlight back on sea and its life.
Talking of the book’s intriguing title, Hoskote, author of five books of poems, says: “The title, Jonahwhale, came to me quite early in the process of writing the poems that went into this book. It emerged while I was thinking about the currents coursing through a number of the poems, which has to do with maritime history and the way in which the ocean produces new languages, sets up ethical quandaries and marks a new horizon of challenges and possibilities for humankind, which is usually seen as a land-bound species. Once the title announced itself, it brought a directive shaping energy to the volume.”
The eponymous Jonah, Hoskote says, is a reluctant Biblical prophet who defies the path that God lays down for him, only to return to it after various tribulations. “[It] has fascinated me since I first heard his story as a child. He is the archetypal survivor, both annihilated and rescued by the whale. In my book, you cannot tell the two apart — the person and the situation, the species and the ecosystem.”
Divided into three sections, the poems in the book flow like a narrative unlike those usually heard in the contemporary times, and fall somewhere between striking the right rhyme while aiming to sound deep. “Stories can be told in different ways. For me, it’s not necessary to follow the classical arrow of time, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The best stories are those in which you find yourself in the middle of the narrative, and gradually figure out what the connections are. Jonahwhale is indeed structured as a narrative, but it functions like a tapestry or a mosaic or a kaleidoscope — it invites readers to piece the narrative together for themselves,” he says.
We ask what the poet’s connection with the maritime is, and he recalls his experience of the Indian Ocean. “I was born on its shores, in Bombay, and grew up there and in Goa. I have lived most of my life in Bombay, which is an island — with the vast, percussive, mutable presence of water as a constant,” he says. Stressing on the ocean being a force that has linked eras and connected continents since time immemorial, he says that often the food we think to be Indian: red chillies, amaranth, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, the chikoo, papaya, and capsicum, “came to India from South and Central America, a vast transoceanic transmission made possible by Portuguese and Dutch exploration. By the same token, the ocean is also an archive of tragic histories that have formed our world — colonialism, the empire, slavery…”
For Hoskote, poetry is also a way to engage with issues that concern our times. “Poetry is not an escape from the present. Like all art, it’s a way of confronting, embracing and engaging with the present. At the same time, it cannot lapse into mere slogan or comment. Sometimes, poetry has to move back into the past to approach the present. In Jonahwhale, for instance, I draw on the histories of the ocean, and on the figures who navigated these waters, creating new languages and forms of belonging as they did — such as the lascar, the jahaazi, and the dragoman — because these are foundational to our modernity, our present.”