Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (born 1947) is a poet and critic of repute. He is the author of four books of poems and one of translation (a volume of Prakrit love poems recently reissued in Penguin Classics). His Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1992) has been a significant and influential work in Indian poetry. He has edited several books of translation and critical writing, including An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English (2003). In 2009, he was nominated for the chair of Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.
The selection of poems in this edition includes work from his very first book in 1976, from his second and fourth collections (1982 and 1998) as well as a sample of recent work. It is interesting to see the patterns of change and recurrence in these seven poems that span four decades. A flowing surrealism seems to incline towards a leaner, restrained lyrical poetics in the later work. What remains constant, however, is a sense of the mysterious, the poet’s continued engagement with poetry as a form that deals with the unsayable. Quiet, laconic, sometimes deceptively throwaway, a Mehrotra poem leaves the reader on the verge of larger revelations; the poem’s strength is that these are never articulated.
In a poem entitled ‘The Death of a Sunday Painter’, for instance, a weekend painter is brought to life in a few spare strokes: we learn that he smoked a cherry-wood pipe, that he knew about cannas; that when an essay on literature is read out to him, he listened with a certain courteous attention. There is a fitting air of understatement to the close of the poem; it works not just as effective poetry but as a fitting tribute to a man of some taste and discernment; not a trailblazing artist perhaps, but a man who mattered in his own way to those who knew him.
I followed the truck on my bicycle
And left early; his friends sat all afternoon
In the portico of a nearby house.
The cities of Allahabad and Dehra Dun, the smell of university libraries and seminar rooms, the whiff of colonial history in old clubs and billiard rooms – these are the images that pervade Mehrotra’s poems. This selection also includes some of his family poems, which, to my mind, are among his finest. ‘To an Unborn Daughter’ remains a personal favourite. It combines a lightness of touch, an attention to detail (see the sudden poignant particularity of the “close-bitten nails and light-brown eyes”), a tone both wistful and whimsical, with that sense of the unspoken that pervades so much of his poetry. The last line is subtle and elegantly poised: “I think she wanted to say something.”
The Transfiguring Places, Ravi Dayal, New Delhi, 1998, ISBN 0-81-7530-019-1
Middle Earth, Oxford University Press, New Delhi , 1984, ISBN 0-19-561604-9
Distance in Statute Miles, Clearing House, Mumbai, 1982
Nine Enclosures, Clearing House, Mumbai, 1976
The Absent Traveller: Prākrit love poetry from the Gāthāsaptaśatī of Sātavāhana Hāla. Penguin India, New Delhi, 2008, ISBN 0-14-310-080-7
As Editor and Anthologist
Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad, Penguin India, New Delhi, 2006, ISBN 978-0-143-10118-5
A Concise History of Indian Literature in English, Palgrave Macmillan, New Delhi, Houndmills Basingstoke Hants, 2006, ISBN 978-0-230-22852-8
The Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, Permanent Black (Orient Longman, distr.) / Columbia University Press, New Delhi / New York, 2002/2003, ISBN 0-23-112810-X
Periplus : Poetry in Translation, edited by Daniel Weissbort and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, New York, 1993, ISBN 978-0-195-63234-7
The Oxford India anthology of Twelve Modern Indian poets, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1992, ISBN 0-19-562867-5
Varnamala, Kavitayan, Open Space India, Outlook India, The Poetry Center at Smith College: Websites with more poems by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Outlook India: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra explores A K Ramanujan’s poetry, Indian English literature, etc. in ‘The Emperor's New Clothes’
Outlook India: Amit Chaudhuri and Peter D McDonald explain why they took the initiative in nominating Arvind Krishna Mehrotra for the position of Oxford's Professorship of Poetry