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The gentleman poet

Unlike mediocre poets who are defensive, Salim Peeradina unselfconsciously acknowledges early influence. To him, being a poet means being part of a collective enterprise, putting the language into new uses.



Peeradina: `Writing in English brings privilege.'

WITH HIS elegance and poetic, almost melancholic, charm, Salim Peeradina, could do very well for the part of Prince Salim in a stage version of Anarkali. Indeed, much of Peeradina's poetry, some of which he read out at an evening at the Alliance Français recently, has that aura of old world romance; the last collection of his poems, Meditations on Desire, was a series of 64 almost haiku-like poems on the subject.

Peeradina belonged to the generation that followed what we might well call the Founding Poets of Indian poetry — including the legendary Nissim Ezekiel — written in English, often a kind of Indian/Indianised English.

Speaking of early influences, Peeradina, with his hallmark frankness, says: "Influence is too `heavy'; imitation is the right word. One imitated. Imitated Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas, A.K. Ramanujan, Ezekiel, Jussawala and so on."

Unlike the mediocre poet, who cries foul if you dare so much as suggest influences, Saleem Peeradina not only talks without self-consciousness about these things but also admits that publishing was never a problem. There was The Illustrated Weekly of India, Poetry India, and Opinion, "which even paid the poets generously, an unheard of thing".

Those were heady days and Peeradina remembers that to be a poet then meant feeling part of a collective enterprise as in unison they went at the English language, putting it to new and exciting uses, sometimes "chutneyfying" it.

The advantages that these poets enjoyed came not only because they wrote in English, but also because they lived in the cities, where they had easy access to audiences, to the presses and to publishing.

"Even today", Peeradina says without the defensiveness of so many an Indian writers in English, "writing in English brings privilege. There are so many good writers in the vernacular, in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Assam, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, indeed everywhere you go in India. We need more translations; more workshops, more occasions for writers to meet, for readers to get access to these works."

Peeradina himself has translated poetry into the Gujarati and his own poems have been rendered into Italian and Urdu. He has also tried an experiment of building on the first lines of old Hindi songs (which he loves). These are songs of subversion, he explained as he read some of them after first singing a few of the original lines, for they turn inside out the meaning of the original. However, they seemed more often to echo the feeling of the songs themselves — songs such as "Lag ja gale ke phir yeh hasin raat ho na ho" — feelings of loss, pain, surrender, and endless romance. His own poetry, Peeradina explained, was in the Eastern, the Indian aesthetic mode which did not use distance but rather believed in a whole-hearted display of the emotions.

It is varieties, varied voices, different voices that he had always sought to bring to the front, whether in workshops organised by him or in his own classes where he makes it a point to put the emphasis on non-Western literatures also.

This need for such an emphasis had made itself evident during the days after college, when going out into `real' life, Peeradina had read voraciously Russian, Chinese, and other literatures.

In these early years, he taught middle school for a year and then joined Kirti College in Bombay as a lecturer, following which for the next two years he taught in America. After a stint at IIT in 1975, he taught in Bombay till '87, after which he has lived and taught largely in the United States. He is now Associate Professor at Sienna Heights University.

Living in America but visiting India regularly, Peeradina talks of how chance meetings, being recognised by those with whom one has lost touch, letters from friends of yesteryears, all this is "what one lives for now". Once an avid letter writer, he now uses the e-mail with just as much passion.

At the end of a pleasant evening of listening to Peeradina's poetry, the audience had many questions, all of which he answered with pleasing grace. Asked what the poet's role is, he said: "The poet is allowed to talk of hidden things — scary, repressed, suppressed things. I myself am a poet of details; I observe the external and internal world in depth."

"Is it possible to learn to write poetry? " asked one earnest young man, to which the poet said: "Finally what you write depends on the quality of imagination: on talent, on the gift for words, on your grasp of the craft, and lastly on critical self-judgment and good editing. I myself edit all the time, never let loose a poem on the world till I am sure I can be proud of it."

Peeradina is a gentle poet, a poet of silences as much as words, one who believe that as much can be suggested as said. As one of his poems goes:

I have said all there

Is to say.

The rest is strictly

Between you and me.

KALA KRISHNAN RAMESH

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