Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a Delhi-based poet and professor of linguistics and English at the Indian Institute of Technology. Described by poet Keki Daruwalla as the author of “the first significant volume of post-modern poetry written by an Indian”, she has published three books of poetry: The Hyoid Bone (1992), The Ayodhya Cantos (1999) and most recently, Yellow Hibiscus (2004).
Nair studied in Kolkata and England, and obtained her doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1982. Widely recognised for her work in the areas of linguistics, cognition and literary theory, she has taught at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the National University of Singapore and the University of Washington at Seattle. Her creative and critical writings are taught on courses at universities such as Chicago, Kent, Oxford and Washington.
Her ‘polyphonous’ literary style seeks to connect her varied interests in literary theory and cultural studies. She claims that the impulse to turn out “fat academic volumes and fragile books of verse” is the same in her case – to discover the limits of language. Her ambition, she says, “is simply to write and research, whatever the genre and whatever the odds”.
In 1990, Nair won the first prize in the All India Poetry Society/ British Council competition. Her work has since appeared in Penguin New Writing in India (1992), Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets (2002), and several other anthologies. It has also been translated into languages as varied as Swedish, Macedonian, Bengali and Hindi.
There is much to admire in Nair’s poetry: the technical refinement, the range of allusion and the verbal energy and ingenuity. It is intellectually rigorous poetry and Nair has no qualms about admitting it. In an interview with Manish Chand of Tehelka, she says, “The belief that literary criticism is jargon whereas poetry is pure transcendental experience is simply false. You have to address literary problems in your poetry – for a writer like me this crossover is inescapable.” In the same interview, she also says, “To introduce complexity back into the world is as much a task of the writer as aiming for an ideal ‘simplicity’. For me, every piece of writing has to begin with a puzzle, a conflict or a conundrum. It’s only when light falls on a different landscape that a fresh insight is granted – something which creates an aperture or an opening.”
This edition features a review of Nair’s latest book as well as six of Nair’s poems. Nair comments: “I feel very strongly that although my poems are written in English which is definitely my ‘first’ language’, in cultural terms they are often ‘translations’ from a Bengali-speaking context.”
On reading this work, you realise how unfair it would be to slot it as poetry written by the academy for the academy. Nair’s poetry is never pedantic. It is certainly ambitious, but is able to do justice to the breadth of its ambitions. There is a spirit of verbal adventure and playfulness, the ability to judge the weight and texture of words, the startling image placed with an adroit feel for word architecture and design, a capacity to mix the parodic and the lyrical, to combine the social, the mythic and the personal.
Poet and critic Adil Jussawalla’s perceptive remarks about her first book would probably still hold true of Nair’s work: “The dextrous wordplay and deconstructions of Nair’s poems notwithstanding, what finally emerges from them is the sense of a trapped meaning that is harrowed and hounded like an animal until finally and only finally, it breaks for open country. She uses words as some folk dancers use sticks, to suggest both confinement and/ or open space, depending on how the sticks are angled.”
Also on this Site
A Poetry of Masks and Games and Laughter
A Review of Nair’s latest book, Yellow Hibiscus, by Anjum Hasan.
The Hyoid Bone. Penguin, New Delhi 1992.
The Ayodhya Cantos. Penguin, New Delhi 1999.
Yellow Hibiscus: New and Selected Poems. Penguin, New Delhi 2004.
Literary Theory and Cognitive Linguistics
Lying on the Postcolonial Couch, 2002.
Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, Culture, 2003.
Rukmini Bhaya Nair Homepage
Bio-sketch, research, publications, books, reviews, awards, poetry, interviews etc.
Sawnet – Bookshelf
A bio-note and writing available online.
Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s poem, ‘Digital Delhi: Six Snapshots’ (Poetry International, Special Double Issue: English Language Poetry From Around The World, Issue 7/8, 2003-4).
Penguin Books India Authors Home
About Ayodhya Cantos and White Hibiscus.
Singing a Nation into Being
Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s essay on the role that national anthems pay in the construction of the modern state.
A Palatial Tome: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
Review by Rukmini Bhaya Nair.
Is Astrology Different for Feminists?
Essay by Rukmini Bhaya Nair.
Dawn Quilt – British Council Arts
‘First Light’, poem by Rukmini Bhaya Nair.