‘The battle is to validate the material’

A brief history of Eunice de Souza’s anthologies of Indian literature.

Melony Bethala

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In his introduction to The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets Arvind Krishna Mehrotra discussed the history of Indian English poetry and the editor’s role in shaping a national literary canon. He acknowledged his own ambitions for the book in stating that, ‘[t]o edit an anthology is an opportunity to revise the literary map, bring neglected work back in circulation, and shift the emphasis from certain poets to others’.[i] Mehrotra’s statement about ‘neglected work’ does not exaggerate the conditions of publication in India; rather, he refers to the importance of anthologies in increasing the dissemination of Indian poetry on the subcontinent and internationally. After India’s independence from British rule in 1947, almost all of the publications by poets writing in English were produced by small publishing houses and collectives that were established and funded by the poets themselves. Mehrotra was a founder of the journal damn you: a magazine in the arts that ran in Allahabad from 1964 to 1969 and, as editor, he helped to create a close-knit group of poets writing in English, a position which likely led to his role as the editor of Twelve Modern Indian Poets.[ii] Other publications in the post-independence period included journals such as Kerala Kavita and Quest,[iii] as well as Poetry India and Opinion Literary Magazine,to name a few.[iv] There was also a number of small, but influential, publishing houses such as Clearing House, Newground and the Writers’ Workshop which welcomed new writing in English.[v] Although each of these ventures produced magazines or collections of a high quality and established connections among writers in the English language, the magazines closed and books went out of print quickly due to lack of funds. Mehrotra’s desire to bring the work of certain poets back in circulation suggests the importance of anthologies not only in reproducing poems that would otherwise be inaccessible to readers but also in recreating a conversation among the poets included in the anthology.

     Twelve Modern Indian Poets was the second major anthology of Indian poetry produced by Oxford University Press after independence; the first was Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets edited by the poet R. Parthasarathy in 1977. The publication of these anthologies by a British publisher based in India meant that the books would inevitably reach an international audience and therefore, Mehrotra’s selection of poets would shape the growing canon of Indian poetry in English. Mehrotra ‘shifted the emphasis’ on poets by placing the work of well-established writers such as Nissim Ezekiel, Jayanta Mahapatra, A. K. Ramanujan, Keki Daruwalla and Arun Kolatkar alongside a ‘younger generation’ of poets who were first published by the small collectives in the 1970s and 1980s including Dom Moraes, Dilip Chitre, Adil Jussawalla, Agha Shahid Ali, Vikram Seth, Manohar Shetty and Eunice de Souza. In juxtaposing prominent poets with a new group of writers, Mehrotra hoped to draw connections between poets from different generations and to suggest some of the ways in which Indian writers have localized but also pushed the boundaries of the English language.

     As Twelve Modern Indian Poets was such an influential book in reaching audiences in India and abroad, Mehrotra’s selection for the anthology is particularly important to consider. Firstly, the introduction acknowledged Mehrotra’s choice to exclude the work of two significant poets, R. Parthasarathy and Kamala Das, on the basis that their work was already well known.[vi] For reviewers of the anthology, such as K. Narayana Chandran and Tarun Tejpal,[vii] the omission of these poets allowed the reader to take ‘another look at the current English poetic scene in India’, which suggests that Parthasarathy’s and Das’s poetry was outdated. These writers were colleagues, friends and mentors of poets included in the anthology; therefore, their absence from the book suggests a sense of insularity, but also rapid growth, within the community of poets writing in English. The blatant omission of these leading writers is particularly concerning in the case of Das, who was one of the only women in a male-dominated group of poets to publish in the years following independence, a statement that was well-captured in the fact that she is the only woman poet to appear in Parthasarathy’s anthology.

    The second point to note is that among the twelve poets in the collection, Mehrotra chose to include the work of only one woman, Eunice de Souza, because her poems had ‘the sharp-edged quality of Indian verse’ that he believed defined contemporary Indian poetry in English.[viii] De Souza’s succinct and candid poems certainly have an intense and perceptive quality about them, and she did not object to being included in the anthology. However, de Souza took offense at the omission of her female contemporaries, and five years later she edited her own anthology Nine Indian Women Poets (1997), also published by Oxford University Press in India, as a response to Mehrotra’s book.[ix]  De Souza’s interest in discovering and anthologizing writings by Indian women led to a transition in her literary career. Alongside her five collections of poetry, she has now edited ten anthologies on historical and contemporary perspectives of Indian literature. Today she is perhaps as well known for her work as an editor as she is for her poetry.

    In discussing the publication of Twelve Modern Indian Poets and the problematic lines of inclusion and omission that Mehrotra drew this seminal anthology, I hope to illustrate how intricate, personal and mutually dependent the relationship is between Indian poets writing in English and the publishing industry and to suggest the crucial role that anthologies, and those who edit them, have played in shaping this growing field within Indian literature. Eunice de Souza, like Mehrotra, Parthasarathy and several poets before her, became interested in editing an anthology because she believed that certain writers deserved to have their work read and acknowledged by an international audience. She responded to women’s lack of agency in publishing processes and the formation of a national poetic canon by editing her own anthology Nine Indian Women Poets, which did include the work of Kamala Das and herself. The anthology focused on a young generation of writers who began publishing in the 1980s and 1990s. Like previous Oxford anthologies of Indian English poetry, it not only denoted those considered to be ‘significant’ poets writing during a particular period of Indian history, but, being representative of literature in a country where poetry in English would be inaccessible either in print or language, these anthologies delineated the fine line between what was considered to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poetry, what was worthy of going back into circulation and what was not, and in doing so, have shaped our own understanding of which poets are part of the Indian literary canon.

    The publication of de Souza’s Nine Indian Women Poets helped to bring the women poets included in the book to an international audience, which is due to the critical focus of the anthology as well as the fact that it was produced and marketed with Oxford University Press. The introduction of the anthology discusses a history of Indian women’s poetry in India, and de Souza argues that contemporary women writers must create a new language for themselves unlike the detached, conservative mode of writing practiced by pre-independence poets such as Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu.[x] Unlike Mehrotra’s anthology which excluded Das, de Souza acknowledged Das’s achievements as a contemporary writer working within a largely male community of poets to produce and publisher her poetry, and the collection includes poems by writers who had only recently established their careers, such as Mamta Kalia, Melanie Silgardo, Imtiaz Dharker and others. Nine Indian women Poets brings critical focus to the work of younger generations of writers including Sujata Bhatt, Charmaine D’Souza and Tara Patel who published their first collections in the late 1980s and early 1990s. De Souza’s desire to demonstrate diversity of women’s writing in India is evident in the fact that she includes writers from vastly different religious and cultural backgrounds such as those of Catholic, Parsi, Hindu and Muslim faiths.[xi] At the time of the book’s publication in 1997, Smita Agarwal had not yet produced a collection, and the poems in the anthology were selected from her unpublished manuscript.[xii] De Souza’s inclusion of her work helped to establish Agarwal’s career as a poet, and Agarwal herself has since become an editor, having published Marginalized: Indian Poetry in English in 2014.

     De Souza’s selection of the women in the anthology not only created a means of communication between each poet and the editor, but it also established a literary community of Indian women poets writing in English, which was crucial in bringing critical attention to their poetry.[xiii] Editors of anthologies attempt to group writers together based on a particular style of writing or themes in their work, and Matile Martín González notes that being part of a ‘community’ is particularly important when looking at the work of women writers who may not ‘have the right literary and personal affiliations necessary for inclusion in an anthology’.[xiv] By including the work of women from various religious and geographical backgrounds, De Souza created associations between the writers and indicated the diversity and individuality of Indian women poets writing in English.

    Though Nine Indian Women Poets was extremely successful in bringing attention to the work of women writers, it received mixed reviews from critics and readers of Indian English poetry. Makarand Paranjape, writing for World Literature Today, criticized not only the aim of the collection in focusing on women’s writing and bringing attention to the fact that all the poets wrote in English.[xv] He believes that of all most of the seventy-eight poems included, they are all ‘quite weak’ except for about ‘two dozen or so’ poems.[xvi] In contrast to this, Vibha Chauhan praises de Souza’s efforts as an editor in her review of Indian Journal of Gender Studies, stating that de Souza ‘feels that the note of protest in the poetry of these women provides a context that is truly supportive of the poetry of contemporary women poets […] challenging, for example, what is seen as masculine domination sentimentalised into virtue.’[xvii] De Souza’s experience as an editor has altered the canon of Indian literature to include the voices of women writing in English as well as those writing in regional languages. King notes that in terms of English-language poetry in India, the assessment of lasting quality comes from poets and reviewers rather than editors and academic critics.[xviii] It is evident that editors do have a significant role to play in shaping the poetry canon, and for that reason it is important to consider poets’ roles as editors, especially in relation to women’s writing. Geetha Ganapathy-Doré states that, ‘In recent years, an increasingly high number of women are slowly and steadily asserting their competence in the editorial and publishing sectors in India.’[xix] This, Gillian Gualtieri argues, came as a result of feminist criticism in the 1980s, which sought to recover ‘lost’ literature by women writers in order to canonize their work.[xx] De Souza’s efforts as an editor follow in this feminist tradition, which can be seen in both her literary and critical anthologies.

    Speaking of her work as an editor and a poet, de Souza acknowledges the importance of looking at women’s individual merit when reading their poems, insisting that it is more difficult for women than men to write about their own lives.[xxi] She states that, ‘The battle is to validate the material to begin with—the stuff of women’s lives, women’s experiences, not to “transcend” being a woman’.[xxii] De Souza challenges the Indian publishing industry by focusing on themes that would typically be considered unacceptable for publication. One such example of this is her anthology of feminist criticism and creative writing on the theme of Purdah (2004), which goes beyond the social norms of women covering their faces and bodies as well as the separation of men and women in social spaces to consider all the ‘elaborate codes of seclusion and feminine modesty used to protect and control the lives of women’.[xxiii] The comprehensive volume brings together a number of critics and creative writers who offer historical, social and literary aspects on the theme of purdah. The introduction of the critical anthology explores cultural intersection of purdah in both Hindu and Muslim cultural practices, and she discusses the historical implications on women’s rights to own property and how it even affects marriages. De Souza’s political interest in representing women’s writing and the bringing their experiences out of silences in history is implied throughout this introduction and in particular through a brief anecdote about a time that she visited a co-educational college and found that her own poetry had been banned from the classroom because of references to ‘sexual and bodily functions such as menses and pregnancy.’[xxiv] One of the students responded to this exclusion by reading a poem about the experience of reading de Souza’s work and how she wished she had defended the poems to her peers and teachers.[xxv] This story suggests two levels of purdah, or silencing—one in the sense that the books were censored by the education system and second in the fact that education remains closely linked to the practice of purdah, preventing women from reaching an equal financial and education status as men. De Souza’s book on Purdah brings historical, critical and personal accounts of silencing and humbling women out of a place of seclusion to international audiences.

     Yet other volumes such as Women’s Voices: Selections from Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century Indian Writing in English (2002) recover ‘lost’ work by women writers, for de Souza and Lindsay Pereira compiled a range of ‘letters, tracts, diaries, magazine articles, speeches, autobiographies, short stories, novels, [and] biographies’ of women writing during the pre-independence period.[xxvi] De Souza’s work as an editor aligns with her own efforts as a poet to depict the challenges women face in Indian society, and in this volume she argues for a ‘re-writing of history on the basis of texts and anthologies which have been published in the area, and further research into other forgotten or ignored names.’[xxvii] This historical collection of women’s writing is particularly important because it focuses on non-fiction writing and their own engagement with the world. The anthology discusses the fact that the women were ‘political activists, diplomats, legislators, doctors, writers. They published and were feted abroad. They travelled extensively. At home they often took risks in their personal lives.’[xxviii] Through an array of letters, articles and personal files, de Souza and Pereira recover from history the silences surrounding women’s writing in the pre-independence period. Without this anthology on Women’s Voices in India, readers outside the subcontinent may not become aware of the diversity and complexity of experiences women faced in a period of transition and change in Indian history.

     Alongside these significant anthologies on Indian women’s writing, de Souza has since published other anthologies such as Early Indian Poetry in English (2005) and The Puffin Book of Poetry for Children (2005) which was co-edited with Melanie Silgardo, among other books on historical and contemporary Indian literature. De Souza’s career as an editor is inextricably linked with her interest in depicting communities and observations of the world in her own poetry. Eunice de Souza’s prolific career as a poet and editor of Indian literature demonstrates the intricate nature of the Indian publishing industry and the important role that editor play in bringing Indian literature to international audiences.

[i] Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, The Oxford Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1992), 8. 

[ii] Bruce King, Modern Indian Poetry in English: Revised Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 9.

[iii] Anjum Hasan, “‘Your Missing Person’: Clearing House and the Bombay Poets,” The Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture, November 1, 2010, Accessed March 18, 2015.

[iv] King, Modern, 9.

[v] Hasan, “Missing,” 3 and 4.

[vi] Mehrotra, Twelve, 8.

[vii] K. Narayana Chandran, “Review of The Oxford Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets,” World Literature Today Vol. 67, no. 4 (1993): 893; Tarun Tejpal, “The New Literary Map,” India Today, January 3, 2013, accessed May 29, 2016. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/book-review-twelve-modern-indian-poets-by-arvind-krishna-mehrotra/1/307490.html

[viii] Mehrotra, Twelve, 8.

[ix] Eunice de Souza, Nine Indian Women Poets (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), 5.

[x] De Souza, Nine, 1–3.

[xi] Renate Papke, Poems at the Edge of Difference: Mothering in New English Poetry by Women (Göttingen, University of Göttingen, 2008), 67.

[xii] De Souza, Nine, 60.

[xiii] Matilde Martín González, “Gender Politics and the Making of Anthologies: Towards a Theory of Women’s Poetry,” Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature 18 (2006): 60.

[xiv] González, “Gender,” 60.

[xv] Makarand Paranjape, “Review of Nine Indian Women Poets,” World Literature Today 72, no. 4 (1998): 898.

[xvi] Paranjape, “Review,” 898.

[xvii] Vibha Chauhan, “Review of Nine Indian Women Poets,” Indian Journal of Gender Studies (1999): 343.

[xviii] King, Modern, 61.

[xix] Geetha Ganapathy-Doré, “Editing and Publishing by Indian Women in India and Canada,” Wasafiri 14, no. 28 (2008), 12.

[xx] Gillian Gualtieri,“Canonized Women and Women Canonizers: Gender Dynamics in The Norton Anthology of English Literature’s Eight Editions, Gender Issues 28 (2011):104.

[xxi] Nishat Haider, “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Indian English Women’s Poetry,” in Gender Issues: Attestations and Contestations, ed. Rajul Bhargava (Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2010): 31.

[xxii] Haider, “Gender,” 31.

[xxiii] Eunice de Souza, Purdah: An Anthology (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[xxiv] De Souza, Purdah, xviii.

[xxv] De Souza, Purdah, xviii.

[xxvi] Eunice de Souza and Lindsay Pereira, Women’s Voices: Selections from Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century Indian Writing in English (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002): xi,

[xxvii] Eunice de Souza, “Recovering a Tradition: Forgotten Women’s Voices,” Economic and Political Weekly, April 26, 2006:1642.

[xxviii] De Souza, “Tradition,” 1642.

Melony Bethala is studying for a PhD in literature at the University of York. Her research compares the work of Anglo-phone Irish and Indian women poets, and she is particularly interested in institutions which affect women’s writing. Her poems have appeared in The Honest Ulsterman, The Narrator, When Women Waken, Abridged and A Thoroughly Good Blue.