Ranjit Hoskote offers an “extended hymn to the waters” with Jonahwhale
In an attempt to retrieve the unacknowledged narratives of the ocean, poet Ranjit Hoskote is out with his new collection titled Jonahwhale, a work which he describes as an “extended hymn to the waters” that sustain us. It’s more about the journey than the actual destination in this Mumbai-based writer’s latest.
“Jonahwhale is inspired by the experiences of orientation and disorientation that happen in the course of the voyage. How are languages broken and re-made in passage? How do people encounter the strange and how are they transformed by it?” he asks, adding that these questions inform most of the vision behind the work.
Water, water everywhere
Structured in three sections, the book is a reminder of our inheritance of what Hoskote calls, ‘mixed legacies’, which in turn are responsible for the multiplicities that make up each one of us. A literary work that pushes the boundaries of how we perceive history, water and in turn the world around us, Jonahwhale also stands apart for its experimentation with the very form in which it is written.
“Throughout the book, I re-tune and re-tool the shape of the poem — sometimes, it explodes across the page, like shrapnel; sometimes, it assumes the form of an off-sonnet; sometimes, it’s a libretto for several voices — every now and again, it embraces diverse languages, including Awadhi, Braj bhasha, Konkani, and Greek.” Ask him why he chose water as a running metaphor for the collection, and he says, the origins of human life lie in the oceans, adding that his concerns about increasing human interference in natural cycles and anxieties about ecological catastrophes also informed his work.
“In the book, it is figures like Jonah, Ahab, Glissant, and the lascar or jahaazi who incarnate these concerns. Poetry is not an abstraction for me, or a vehicle of ideas – it is the lived cadence, the rhythm that crests, shatters, and rises again,” Hoskote elaborates.
Having grown up on Ghalib and Keats in addition to Augustan and other Romantic poets, Hoskote describes his childhood as having been creatively inclined from the very outset. While his parents’ copy of Eliot’s Selected Poems, discovered when he was 12, sits on his desk “like a talisman”, the 48-year old author also names Bhartrihari, Czesław Miłosz, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, Dom Moraes, Charles Simic, Faiz Ahmed Faiz as well as Yves Bonnefoy, Ruth Padel, George Szirtes, Eugenio Montale, Agha Shahid Ali, Jorie Graham, and Keki Daruwalla as some poets he keeps coming back to.
Hoskote had also previously translated works of a 14th century mystic poet. “Lal Ded is part of my heritage, as a member of the Kashmiri diaspora… I wanted to share the beauty and perennial relevance of these poems with my readers,” he says. Among some of the projects that he is considering taking up are translations of the works of three Sanskrit poets he admires — Bhartrihari, Amaru, and Bilhana — in addition to selected poems of Ghalib, he adds.