Ranjit Hoskote is a celebrated poet living and writing in Bombay. He has a multifaceted poetic practice that engages with art, ecology, rights, translation, and belief. Hoskote was a Fellow of the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa, a writer-in-residence at the Villa Waldberta in Munich, and won the Sanskriti Award for Literature in 1996. We caught up to speak about multilingualism, confluences, the para-colonial, ideology, and poetry.
ROBERT WOOD: Bombay, and India as a whole, is known for the richness of its languages including any number of subcultures, slangs, and inflections on establishment verse. Your work can be situated there, for it often changes registers, moves around with a keen eye and a sense of attentiveness, and all with an ability to play in many voices. Tell us about language where you grew up and how you came to be a writer.
RANJIT HOSKOTE: I grew up in a highly multilingual family, speaking English and Konkani as my first languages from earliest childhood, learning Hindi by the age of four and Marathi by the age of seven, being instructed by my mother in Sanskrit and invited to immerse myself in Urdu by her, and being navigated towards German by my father. As a child in Goa, I overheard Portuguese. As a child in Bombay I overheard, but was never attracted to, Bambaiyya, the Bombay argot version of Hindi. Unfortunately, I never picked up the Kannada that both my parents themselves learned to speak fluently as children. Through one set of cousins, who grew up in Delhi or on Indian Air Force bases, and spoke a fine Hindustani, I imbibed a preference for this beautiful register of Hindi, with its Persian and Brajbhasha emphases. Through another set of cousins, who grew up in Hyderabad, I encountered Dakhani, the southern variant of Hindustani or Urdu. Much later, in my twenties, I applied myself to learning my ancestral language, Kashmiri, lost over centuries of diaspora.
It was experientially, rather than through systematic instruction at first, that I learned how varied, kaleidoscopic, and veined with diversity all languages are. These formative linguistic experiences sustain my committed opposition to the 19th-century Romantic model that unfortunately continues to govern the received wisdom about language in India, which privileges a “standard” version as the proper form of a language, while derogating and stigmatizing all its actual spoken and written variants as “dialects” — forms somehow primitive or superseded in a process of linguistic and literary Darwinism. I reject the idea of a dialect altogether.
As for how I came to be a writer, I didn’t come to poetry so much as poetry embraced me. It was all around me, at home, in several languages. My father introduced me to the Augustan and Romantic poets with whose poems he had grown up, to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” from which he would sometimes recite. My mother introduced me to Keats and to Ghalib. At 12, I discovered my parents’ copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, which, even while it made little sense to me at the time, blew me away. All the while, I was listening to the Hindustani classical music that my parents have always loved. As early as the age of eight, I knew I wanted to participate in creating the magic of word, cadence, image, and musicality.
Participating is key, and, I think part of that is also seeing oneself, and being seen by others, as involved with tradition; one that recognizes the nation but also the imagined community’s function and purpose in global literature. It challenges monolithic hegemony and interrupts established conventions. How do you regard the importance of a local poetry culture in your city and its role beyond borders be they Indian, Asian, or the global South?
RH: I have never had the slightest patience with a national conception of culture. The diasporic history of the ethnic micro-minority to which I belong makes me suspicious of all self-enclosed, hard-edged conceptions of collective identity such as nation-state and region. South Asia is, and always has been, a subcontinent of migrations. All our languages draw on the gifts of trade routes, pilgrimage routes, invasion routes, the routes that merchants, monks, soldiers, storytellers, translators, and wanderers have charted across land masses and oceans. I take, from classical Hindustani music, the idea of a gharana — literally a “family” or “lineage” of musicians, which might suggest a hidebound, dogmatic system of training and schooling, but which in practice embraces a variety of responses to the musical experience. In a gharana, traditionally, you learned from the master but also overheard what other masters are teaching, kept a fine ear tuned to the rhythms of court and marketplace, stretched your abilities and synthesised various approaches.
I have written elsewhere that I see the gharana as an experimental continuity — and it is in this spirit that I make a tradition for myself, rather than simply embodying some primordial tradition. No tradition is primordial; all traditions are continually invented and re-invented; and the classical is simply a name we give to hybridities that we have forgotten. “India,” “Asia,” and the “Global South” are tactical constructs at best — they have a specific political usefulness in the contexts of postcolonial self-assertion, but we risk stagnation if we imagine them to be immutable grounds of identity and action. The local poetry culture in Bombay is an absorbent, dynamic one — as receptive to Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Arun Kolatkar as to Adrienne Rich and Jorie Graham, to Bhartrihari, Mahmoud Darwish, Wallace Stevens, or Li Po.
The idea of routes and families and reception seems to help us frame our daily existence too. In a lot of your poetry, and here I am thinking of the selected collection Vanishing Acts, you depict small moments in the lives of individuals that nevertheless connect to collectives of people, historical events, and large-scale social gatherings. What themes, through-lines and shapes do you see in your own work when you stand back and look at the connection between the quotidian and the structural? In other words, how do we connect the minor to the major in your symphony?
I am endlessly fascinated by the accordion-like nature of time, space, and sensory perception, which expand and contract under various circumstances — by the way in which we inhabit, simultaneously, intimate and epic frameworks, as well as multiple tenses, sometimes overlapping with other species, at other times condemned to our self-created solitude as self-declared sovereign beneficiaries of creation, a violent legacy of the contractarian philosophy of the Enlightenment that has legitimized our exploitation of the planet. I remain amazed by the continuing capacities of the human subject for passionate love, frenzied violence, an ability to sacrifice oneself for a cause, and a gift for unleashing epic brutality. History is a continuing armature in my poetry, as is art, the ability, simultaneously, to bear witness to history and to transcend it entirely. Such lines connect, for me, a detail in a Velasquez painting, a newspaper report, a bag left behind at a train station, and the refrain in a pop song from the 1980s.
How do we fashion ourselves constantly through the diverse materials we receive and discover; how do we craft our way through the minefield of paradox; how do continue to create liturgies when we are uncertain that there is anyone, transcendent or secular, listening? These questions preoccupy me and inform my poetry. And increasingly, I despair of the ability of the traditional form of the English lyric, with its personal ‘I’ and its singular and relatively narrow anxieties, to speak of the planetary crises and destinies that embrace us in an involuntary but urgent plural. I try and cut against the grain of the lyric, opening myself up to choric forms, the libretto or oratorio, to voices long suppressed or eclipsed. And the line, to me, is a furrow we cut into the given and accepted state of speech — again and again, I find myself asking how best to imbue it with laughter and melancholia, consolation and surprise. The answers come to me from unexpected sources, from various languages, various archives — from the bandish line of a thumri, a composition associated with women dwelling on love or grief; or from Ovid’s poems of exile; or from Shklovsky’s coded missives of dissent.
That sense of the various is important in the context of the types of writing we both do. And, there is an overlap between your own creative praxis and the critical positions you take in your art-historical writing. I am thinking of how you think through and critique modernism, of how you respond to the para-colonial, of how you maintain an interest in the aesthetic in and of itself while also thinking through ideology. In other words, the art history informs the poetry, and, the poetry informs the art history. Can you speak about what you borrow from each world, and, what you leave behind?
My poetry, my art-historical writing, my work in cultural theory, and my curatorial practice are all nourished by my unwavering belief in the dynamic of confluentiality — the name that my friend and co-author Ilija Trojanow and I gave, in our book, Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West, to the fluid, syncretic, transregional and astonishingly experimental energies that give birth to all memorable cultural expressions. Whether it is in Kushan Buddhism or the Jewish-Christian-Islamic cultures of the Mediterranean and al-Andalus between the 8th and 15th centuries CE, the crucible of the empire of Mali that brought African, Arab, Persian, and Central Asian culture together, in Mughal India, and in innumerable such examples, we see that inclusive, generous confluence is the rule while exclusionary, mean-spirited bloc thinking is the exception.
That said, what I take from art history into poetry is the mystery of the image and of image-making, the enigma of particular works of art, the tragic wisdom and the vibrant exhilaration that my favorite paintings, sculptures, installations, video works, and drawings evoke. What I bring into art history from poetry is the awareness of the artisanal act, the muscle memory and pragmatic experiment that form the basis of art — that awareness is a talisman against the windy abstractions and woolly generalizations that art history into which art history can sometimes lapse.
You mention my interest in the para-colonial. The great Urdu poet Ghalib is part of this narrative of a para-colonial Indian modernity, which began before the colonial encounter and continued alongside it, sometimes entangled with it, and sometimes independently of it. This adventurous and brilliant modernist in Urdu was the contemporary of Baudelaire and Whitman, but he remains trapped, for many Indians, in the unfounded notion of a Mughal mediaevalism — an unfortunate outcome of equating modernity with the European colonial intervention.
That is right, that unfortunate equation, which seems challenged by routes, daily lives, and attention to materalisms. In that way, when bringing art history and poetry together, I want to ask about the dialogue between the abstract and the real, and, some very specific touchstones, rituals, and elements of where you are. Your poetry is the work of imagination (especially in Jonahwhale), and there are elements of non-realistic word play in there as well, on a line-by-line basis. These are what we might think of as abstracting and pushing and pulling and stretching and playing with everyday speech. That is there in your art history too, and you are working on a show about M. F. Husain from what I understand, which suggests an ongoing tension between history and myth. Can you speak about abstraction and realism, fiction and fact, the imagined and the lived, and the productive synthesis between these dualities?
I love your trope of a constant push-pull. This, to me, is the key and productive tension in sensory perception, the way we make sense of our world, and the way we shape language. As a rule, although I love the work of Rothko and Agnes Martin, I distrust abstraction, and yet it is handy when we reach for large-scale explanations or ways of knitting particulars together into pattern. I enjoy the sensuous and the real, yet recognize that these can drift in a flux of perceptions without an organizing principle to bring them together into a constellation. In language, I enjoy bringing otherwise disparate registers together, rubbing them together to generate sparks.
Bakhtin, with his celebration of heteroglossia, is my patron saint here. I enjoy sparking elevated speech and everyday speech, the vocabulary of the artisan and the vocabulary of the saint, the playfulness of the jester and the high seriousness of the scholar off against one another. And we are all centaurs, are we not — one half of us anchored substantially in our animal, instinctive knowledge of the real, the other half full of hope, foolishness, uncertainty, and the desire to reach beyond ourselves?
I love the idea of being centaurs (or maybe cosmic fish, or even wearers of Golden Fleece). Shifting somewhat, your translation of Lal Ded is so evocative, so able to mediate and hold in its hands the twins I mention above as well as life and death. Tell us about your process of translating as well as the role Lalla plays in your work. Why her and you? Why then and now? And what’s next for you as a translator?
I came to Lal Ded, or Lalla, as an act of devotion and a gesture of establishing a strong bond with an ancestral homeland long lost to the vicissitudes of history. Lal Ded was a 14th-century Kashmiri woman mystic, a poet whose verses — or “utterances,” as I translate the word vaakh, which was her chosen form, a quatrain — continue to resonate for the people of Kashmir, both at home and in the Kashmiri diaspora. To me, she embodied a region, a language, and a literature that my people had lost, and which I wished to reclaim. I was 22 when I embarked on my translation of her poems, and nearly 42 when I finished it. Those 20 years marked a journey from skepticism about the religious imagination to a joyous awareness of its emancipatory potentialities, from a fascination with a single figure to the knowledge, arrived at through research, comparative study and the making of a concordance, that the historical Lalla’s signature had acted as a magnet and talisman for generations of anonymous contributors who had composed in her name, investing what I call the “LD corpus” with their own experiences as Hindus and Muslims, women and men, scholar-scribes and artisans or peasants, Pandit reciters and Sufi teachers, lettered and unlettered, including representatives of almost every group in the Valley of Kashmir. In Lalla’s utterances, we find an extraordinary range of tones, moods, moments and imagery — from yogic symbolism to earthy wisdom, ritual Tantric performances to pithy spiritual instruction, commentary on social solidarities to an insistence on the solitary nature of the quest.
As a translator, I am currently working on a book that brings together three Sanskrit poets of love from different periods: Bhartrihari, Bilhana, and Amaru. I have also been wrestling with a selection of ghazals by Ghalib, which I have — alas — temporarily abandoned in favor of what I call my ‘Mir Project’, which developed out of my love of the poetry of the 18th-century Mir Taqi Mir, the only poet who Ghalib acknowledged as his equal if not his superior. I put out a series of Mir’s she’rs or verses on Twitter, each post including the Urdu original in diacritical Roman, my translation of it, and an image chosen from the treasuries of Mughal, Safavid, Rajput and Adilshahi painting.
Finally, I also think it is necessary to highlight the political commitment you have made, and, continue to make in today’s India. This covers every aspect of your output, including poetry, criticism, translation, and your continued involvement with PEN International, which you have maintained for a very long time. How do you read the situation now? And what is the ideological commitment we make as writers to a world of polytheism, human rights, ecological safety, and the other materialist demands of our present moment?
India, as you know, is now fully in the throes of a populist authoritarianism, a form of fascism that is no less fascist for enjoying the support of enough Indians to assure electoral victory. The mere mechanism of elections, as we have now seen, is no guarantee of democracy — when the media can be manipulated, public spectacles staged, the majority infused with an irrational defensiveness, the minorities subjected to dramatic threats, and when the foundational charter of the Indian Republic is being subverted in spirit and fact, if not yet in letter. The situation is not greatly different in the US, Turkey, Russia, the UK, and large parts of Europe. Meanwhile, as a mindless ultra-nationalism is promoted and identity politics privileged over solidarity and the right to dissent, millions of individuals lose their rights, and the planet hurtles towards the ecological catastrophe of the Capitalocene. As writers, we must continue to draw attention to the abyss over which we’re dancing.