Poet and curator, Ranjit Hoskote has brought out a new poetry collection titled Hunchprose. Published by Penguin Hamish Hamilton, the book includes eclectic poems offering readers a chance to ponder on their surroundings, and simultaneously look within themselves. His previous books, The Atlas of Lost Beliefs, Jonahwale, and Central Time, have won critical praise. Excerpts from an interview with Hoskote:
What led you to title this collection Hunchprose?
I have always loved the form of the dramatic monologue, in which the protagonist directly addresses the reader. In the title poem of this book, ‘Hunchprose’, a narrator who practises a subtle, reticent art shares with the reader his anxieties about being marginalised by more flamboyant rivals. This narrator proposes a playful defence of poetry against reportage, fiction and non-fiction, the numbing flows of data and the circulation of fake news. He claims attention for poetry, which is still capable of memorable performances of memory and anticipation, which can both praise and sting to great effect.
Hunchprose elaborates an ars poetica, a meditation on the role and place of poetry even as it engages with the cataclysmic urgencies of our historical present, the political, cultural and ecological catastrophes that we have brought down on ourselves. The neologism ‘Hunchprose’ is inspired by the figure of Quasimodo, the bell-ringer in Victor Hugo’s grand novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, who, despite being deaf and hunchbacked, coaxes the most beautiful music from the bells of Notre Dame.
When and how the poems for Hunchprose start coming together?
I worked on Hunchprose with focused intensity, from March 2019 to February 2020. Entirely new poems emerged during this period, while fragments and notes written down in my poetry notebooks over the years also found shape and definition. I was seized by a sense of the imminent, as though great and terrifying changes were underway. The climate catastrophe has been a preoccupation for many years, and that awareness was present throughout the time I wrote this book. The brutal trifurcation and lockdown of Kashmir during 2019, also shook me enormously, given my ancestral connections and close literary engagement with Kashmir.
I found myself dwelling on my long-standing concerns, and experimenting with my language and my spectrum of literary resources to articulate these — home, belonging, displacement, the confluence of cultures, the environmental meltdown, the tearing apart of societies by hate, the shifting relationship between authority and dissent. At the heart of Hunchprose is the survivor who is simultaneously hostage and explorer, lost pilgrim, healer in search of forms of remedy against multiple traumas, storyteller walking at the edge of a new alphabet. Hunchprose is haunted by these questions: What will outlive us? What is the legacy we will leave behind, which will nurture, mend and inspire future generations?
What was your experience writing about the poems on Bombay, especially Sidi Mubarak Bombay and Haji Ali? Could you tell us how poets can include more about their city in their work?
I don’t regard myself as a ‘city poet’. I love Bombay, where I was born and have lived most of my life, but my consciousness was formed much more by my early childhood years, which were spent in the midst of nature in a 1970s Goa unspoiled by tourism. The cities where I have lived, and which I love, appear in various guises in my poems — not only Bombay, but also Berlin, Venice, Margao, and Vienna. I don’t believe poets necessarily have to write about the cities where they live, in a programmatic way, as though they were ethnographers. If their surroundings come organically into the work, that’s wonderful. But it doesn’t have to be a mandate.
What fascinates me is the shimmering edge where the city passes into sea or sky, or where the seemingly watertight present opens up to reveal plural, sometimes unacknowledged pasts. ‘Sidi Mubarak Bombay’ is a prose poem, told in multiple linguistic registers, by a historical figure — an East African child slave who grew up in 19th-century Bombay, was freed and returned to Zanzibar, then became a remarkable guide to several Victorian explorers, who would never have achieved their goals without him. We have long known Bombay as a cotton city, we have come to accept that it was an opium city, but we have not yet acknowledged its involvement in the horrendous global slave trade from the 17th to the 19th centuries. My poem opens up that sinister history, yet focuses on the resilience and heroism of the enslaved person. ‘Haji Ali’ is permeated by the presence of one of my favourite shrines in my home city, the dargah of a Sufi saint, built on a tidal island — which is now endangered by an ill-considered infrastructure project, the coastal road.
Many of your poems, even in this collection, are dedicated to artists. You also curate art exhibitions. How do you find balance between the two and what inspires you to write poems on artists?
Let’s put it this way. Many of my poems are dedicated to my friends, or to figures across time and space who have inspired me, or with whose creative practices I find close affinity. Among them are artists, architects, film-makers, musicians, and fellow poets. This reflects the textures of my life since my teenage years, as I grew up among practitioners of various arts. My relationship to the various arts has always been starfish-like, radiating in different directions from a common centre. I dedicate poems to particular individuals for various reasons — to celebrate a long-term friendship or collaboration, to honour a specific work, to hold in mind shared experiences, or to express the sheer joy of a shared journey.
Do paintings offer you certain notes for poetry as well?
Particular works of art that have been of vital importance to me have, over the years, come into my poems — among them, the murals and sculptures of the anonymous Neolithic artists of Altamira, Hohle Fels and Bhimbetka, Anselm Kiefer’s installation, Zweistromland, Rene Magritte’s painting, The Empire of Lights, Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with a Man killed by a Snake, Mehlli Gobhai’s sombre, luminously dark abstract paintings, Anju Dodiya’s Golden Orioles, and Ranbir Kaleka’s video installations, to name a few. These works don’t offer me notes – they are sources of inexhaustible mystery, and summon forth pensive and joyous engagement.
Mirza Ghalib remains a constant figure in your poetry. How did this 19th-century poet come to create such an impact on you?
I have always felt that Ghalib is our contemporary — a poet pursuing his art while also caught up in the maelstrom of public life, living through the end of one empire and the rise of another, surviving revolution and the threat of execution — a poet intimately familiar with precarity, yet soaring regardless. My mother, who loved Ghalib’s poetry, introduced me to it when I was very young. I absorbed it gradually, of course, first through its cadence and musicality, and later through its layered, guileful meanings. Ghalib has made several appearances in my poems – in ‘Ghalib in the Winter of the Great Revolt’ from Vanishing Acts, and in ‘Monsoon Evening, Horniman Circle’, ‘Night Runner’, ‘The Memoirs of Don Quixote’, all from Central Time (2014). For over a decade now, I have been working on a translation of a selection of ghazals from Ghalib’s divan.
Take us through your childhood influences, the ones that speak to you right now.
During this extended period of pandemic and lockdown, I’ve found myself returning constantly to the music that my parents played when I was a child, as they listened to their 45 rpms and LPs on their Garrard turntable. Their taste was eclectic, and ranged from the overture to Khachaturian’s ‘Spartacus’, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Slavonic March’ and Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ to Vilayat Khan-saheb’s raag Yaman, Bismillah Khan-saheb’s raag Durga, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan in concert, to Emilio Pericoli singing ‘Al Di La’. This experience of diverse forms of listening, of tempo, cadence, atmosphere and colour calibrated in different ways. I find it especially nourishing as a poet now, working at different scales and in different tonalities.
Tell us about your experience of writing poetry in the pandemic.
Early in the lockdown last year, my wife and I decided that we would treat this period of indefinite uncertainty as an extended writing residency. This shift of perspective allowed us to look with renewed curiosity and empathy at our immediate neighbourhood, our city, our people. It also enabled us to retain our sanity, and gave us a sense of purpose that carried us through, in the spirit of — one of my favourite expressions — Trotzdem! (Regardless!).
I am now focused on what follows Hunchprose feeling my way towards ways of writing about expanded states of consciousness, the sense of standing at the edge of a cliff, of being adrift, of being at large in a disordered world. I have been translating several authors, including Mir Taqi Mir from the Urdu and Amaru from Sanskrit.
As a multilingual person who reads in several languages – among them, English, Hindi, German, Urdu, Marathi, and Kashmiri I have been increasingly, as I remain solitary in the pandemic, been opening the doors of my chosen language of expression, English, to the lessons I have absorbed from my other languages.
Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton
Cost: Rs 499, Pages: 224