Ranjit Hoskote’s latest poetry collection, Hunchprose, sweeps through history, mythology, ecology, architecture, the climate crises, among other subjects, and reflects his erudition and ease with each of these areas. Such a diverse range can be intimidating, but while the collection does require multiple readings, Hoskote’s striking wordplay and shifting perspectives makes one do so willingly, with each reading throwing light on a new facet.
Consider the first poem, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a prose poem, that is based on the history of slave trading in the Bombay of 19th century, and is inspired by the story of a south-east African boy sold to a merchant by Arab slavers. Growing up in Bombay and emancipated eventually, he returns and settles in Zanzibar and earns fame as a guide. Yet, home and identity remain a challenge to him: “I should go home now, but I forget where that is./ …City of jahazis, munshis, khalasis, sarafs, bhistis, sepoys that was the only family I knew. So I called myself Bombay…”
Similarly, the poem, Train, with its lines: “ …a soul-sleep elsewhere familiar/ only to livestock curtained from the falling axe/ and the sealed train/ that’s about to bump west — east across cratered plains/ carrying its deathweight” treads the arc of history from the trains carrying people to the concentration camps and certain death under Nazi Germany to the Partition era that divided the Indian subcontinent, to the current times. Words such as “soulsleep” and “deathweight” show us the truth about those who are looking away and remain mute, or muted, spectators.
The poem, Glove, describes a lone baggage-handler’s glove, something any one of us would have encountered. Yet, the lines, “…weapons can’t slash her/ fire can’t scorch her — …” evoke the immutable lines from the Bhagavad Gita, and transform the mundane to something rare. There are other poems with similar deceptively simple titles, such as Saturday, Table, Shoe, that remain in memory because of their powerful wordplay and the defiance contained in them.
In this, one is reminded of Tomas Tranströmer’s poem, Allegro, and its powerful imagery: “I play Haydn after a black day/ and feel a simple warmth in my hands/ …The sound says that freedom exists,/ that someone does not pay Caeser’s tax./ …Music is a glass house on the hillside/ Where stones fly, stones crash. And the stones crash straight through the glass,/ But the house remains whole.”
The current ecology and climate crises are brought out by poems like The Book of Common Birds, The Lion Tamer’s Nightmare, and Endling. The last two are particularly interesting in presenting a diptych of narratives, with the perspective shifting from the lion tamer, alone with the lion, to the lion, “…the last, most famous member of my tribe. /… in its far corner cowers my tamer, /a bag of skin peeling off a spine: /mangled by his worst nightmare come to life.”
Hoskote’s experience as a valued art critic and curator comes through poems such as Protest, dedicated to artist Sudhir Patwardhan. The hymn-like poem goes: “Hand at the gate/fist around the stone/ hand on the placard/ fist around the stone… hand around the baton/fist around the stone/grip the flint-edge clarity/ of breath ebbing from stone.”
Many of the poems are also embodiments of visual poetry in their usage of spacing. Take the poem Ivory Bird, a concise one at 12 lines. The feathered indentation of each line makes your imagination soar, until you can visualise the bird in your cupped palm with its: “… wings folded back/ legs pulled in long neck-head-beak a missile pointed/ at water far below or the clouds/ the first cormorant/ ever sculpted/ in the sky of your palm”.
The Notes section, which makes for a fascinating read, shows the linkage of this poem to the fact that a piece of ivory dating back to the Upper Paleolithic Period (40,000-10,000 years ago) was discovered in the Hohle Fels cave, and is considered to be the earliest carving of a bird.
Finally, a word about the intriguing title. It is a play on Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1833), as mentioned by Hoskote in a reading. The poem addresses, in a slightly satirical manner, the rivalry between the different genres of literature and the marginalisation of poetry. “He calls me Hunchprose but what’s a word/ between murderous rivals?/ …And I what can I offer you except fraying knots coiled riddles scrolled bones/ keys to doors that were carted away by raiders…”
The poem ends with the assertion that a poet can be as powerful as Quasimodo, the much derided, malformed, marginalised character who is a true creator of music through the bells he rings through the years: “Call me Hunchpraise…”
In fact, now more than ever the need is for the power of poetry through the “inkdrift words” that “spring up to sting” in this collection.
(Jonaki Ray is a poet, writer, and editor in New Delhi. Her poetry collection is forthcoming in 2022)