This is the plain of language, stretching around us a vast desert of ordinary everyday use. Here grocers and mechanics, milliners and millionaires, make free use of words, wearing them out, grinding them into fine dust. Oases punctuate these lone and level sands: the novel, the play, the poem, anything that uses the dust as loess, as fertilizer, to bring forth new meaning. This is a conceit, a poor thing but mine own. Another conceit: I have always thought of Ranjit Hoskote’s poetry in terms of architecture, an alien architecture, that belongs in this plain—who would dare challenge its reasons for belonging?—but not of it. You can see how beautiful it is, how startling, how ambitious, but equally, you’re a bit perplexed.
Which is why Central Time marks a radical departure. It is still recognizable Hoskote—like Dom Moraes and Keki Daruwalla did before him, he inhabits history as to the manor born—but it is as if the poet is now willing to step forward and declare himself.
I don’t know how to say this more clearly. I have never read poems in which Hoskote was so clearly present. This is complicated by the fact that I know him, he is a friend of long-standing, so I have never felt the need to root among his poems for the person. I was not surprised, for instance, to see I,Lalla, his translations of Lal Ded; I had heard them often. I was startled by these poems because I felt suddenly Ranjit had broken out of some kind of self-imposed exile from his own poetry. It’s as if in these poems he has let go of the formal devices of ventriloquism and replaced them with passion-filled apostrophes. In ‘Tidemark’, he writes and the line is lucid and lovely:
Water draws a line around the things we loved.
I pluck dead birds from the wash and burn their feathers.
This is where I belong, in tidal water
Drawn up over my feet like a shell blanket.
I hate this city on the sea, but I will die here.
What moved me so much? I think it was that for the first time I did not draw back from a Hoskote poem with a sigh of profound gratitude for the gift of such demanding verbal beauty. Here I read and said, “I know. I know,” at each line.
It’s not as if it’s all like that, of course. Here’s Ghalib, an old friend from the Hoskote canon, but this time he’s invoked at Horniman Circle. There’s Bihzad, the Persian miniaturist, whom we have also met in Orhan Pamuk’s work. But he has been joined by Mr Kohinoor of Britania Restaurant in Ballard Estate. Richard Serra’s works evoke responses but so do shop signs in Tardeo. I feel at home here, I know my way about. But as if to reassure you that the old magic is still at work, you get this magnificent and simple poem, ‘Couple’:
Sharers of skin, dreamers of one another’s landscapes. Thieves of one another’s thoughts, rivals for destiny’s attention.Convicts serving time in the prison of one another’s arms.Savage antagonists marooned on a planet no wider than a bed.
The taste for aphorism is unquenched: There’s never enough light /by which to say: Write. (‘Interior, South Avenue’); The greenest things happen when you’re not looking…(‘The Soloist Performs with an Orchestra of Events’); It drives dead slow, the mind that’s going nowhere. (‘The masonry of detail’). There are ninja maestros, blindfold palmists, armed dwarfs, spies and detectives. There are centaurs, a “zero tiger of noon’, a bird on a branch of the fury tree, a bird as big as India and a Giant Malabar Squirrel which is actually a Giant Malabar Squirrel.
And there are those closing lines: thump lines, I call them in my head, the lines that close a poem so skillfully that you feel they must have been predestined. Just try this one, without knowing anything else about the poem:
Strophe upon strophe They strike us, the waves.
You see? That’s what poetry should do, strike us like waves, strophe upon strophe.