Book Review: River of Man: Indian Poems (Claus Ankersen)

River of Man: Indian Poems (Poetry)
Claus Ankersen
Red River, 2020
ISBN (Paperback) 978-81-945093-4-9
Pp 110 | Price ₹ 230 | USD 9.99

Speaking of reincarnation,
Karma and the miracle factory
disguised as a subcontinent destined
to hold the most two-legs on the globe,
one mustn’t forget how flowers bloom eternally,
how gods play here,
their greatest feats and greatest tricks,
tricksters with fire-crackers,
one and all in gold and green.

(Claus Ankersen, ‘With Friends in High Places’)

What is it about a book of poems that won’t allow one to turn away from it till its end has been, breathlessly, arrived at? One often reads good fiction that way, with bated breath, as each line leads to another and fortunes are made and unmade between them. I have also eaten that way, dizzy and greedy with the haste of consuming something scrumptious upon my plate. I have travelled that way too, especially in a new place where every step taken has opened a new window both to the eye as well as to the mind and heart so that the knowledge of a minute ago has seemed impoverished and insufficient to what the new minute has granted. And to take the analogy deeper, I have loved that way too when each moment in love has manifested itself as a kaleidoscope of breathless colours raining their immeasurable glory upon an unprepared soul with the result that one could do nothing but be drawn into that fast-spinning vortex. To read Claus Ankersen’s River of Man is to experience each of these emotions by turns as also, at times, welded together in one wild wave of pleasure which is also the joy of self-recognition.

The book, as Ankersen writes, “is a travelogue of poems, and an introduction to India as seen through the eyes of a sojourner.” It is “a testimony of a decade-long love affair between the writer and India – a relationship in constant flux that stretches through space-time, turning present and past into an eternal now, into an ongoing meeting, an eternally blooming flower.” Unquestionably manifest in these poems is the writer’s deep love for India expressed through heartfelt odes for its beloved cities where he has forged unforgettable human attachments. ‘Ladies Night’ is an affectionate love-poem to India’s cities – Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, Chennai, and Hyderabad, and the keen observation and terse economy of expression with which the poem captures their essential urban spirit is astounding:

Auntie Delhi married an ambitious clerk,
auntie Calcutta a poet-rebel;
auntie Bombay hitched a jack of all trades,
auntie Chennai a pandit
and auntie Hyderabad found a banker.

The poem, ‘I have a Friend in India’, again, is an ode as much to the country’s geographical vastness and cultural diversity as it is to its people:

I have a friend in Bangalore
and a dozen in Mumbai.
I have friends in Delhi and friends in Agra,
friends in Pune and in Hyderabad
I’ve got a friend on the Andaman Islands,
a dive master high on life and cold beer
and a friend who lived in that
French-Indian island.

In these intensely Indian poems in the collection, one comes across an idea of India that shows a polite middle finger to armchair theorizing, both in the West as well as the East. Ankersen’s idea of India is not garnered through books, newspapers, television, cultural stereotypes or a few Indian acquaintances. Rather, it is actively sought, received, acquired, wrestled with, and built through his earnest commitment to the Indian landscape, her urban geographies, her plenitude, staggering diversity, startling paradoxes and his unconditional love for her people.  The India that Ankersen describes, loves, and swears allegiance to, across the pages of this book is an India understood as never before. Here is a wide-eyed curiosity, a deep appreciation of India’s ecological and human wealth, a keen realization accompanied by an unruffled acceptance of her shortcomings, and a philosophical desire to fuse into this river that the country represents for the poet.
Mark the opening lines of the titular poem ‘River of Man’ with which the book begins and which the poet describes as “a tribute to my friend India”:

Faced with the history of western colonialism
it would or it could be
considered improper, or merely classic
for a white man
to celebrate India:
So let’s assume
I am an Indian, I am
an Indian, aren’t we all
on this subcontinent?
After all
it’s the difference that makes
the difference
Ensconced in these lines is the grand assertion of an idea of India that has long been cherished by her people - as a land that is characterized by plurality, heterogeneity and difference. Here, as the poet says, it is “the difference that makes the difference” and being Indian, therefore, is an identity-practice that calls one merely to affirm to the idea of difference. Here is a philosophical freedom, an intellectual liberation, as being Indian is understood as “just another curiosity, just/ one more avatar/ dancing the dance of life/…/ another distinct flavour/ on the tongue, just/ another twist of the cosmic serpent.”

Across the lines of these poems, diverse geographical locales rub shoulders with one another. Howrah Junction (“the belly of the greatest fish of all of Bengal”), Sarat Bose Road, the Rabindra Sarovar Lake, Haus Khaz (“where all true seekers must escape”), Khan Market, Connaught Circle, Jogeshwari, Church Gate, the Tata Theatre, Birdsong Café, Asangaon,  Adyar, the Broadlands Hotel, Pondicherry, the East Coast Road, Injambakkam, Jamshedpur, Sakchi – all combine to weave for the informed Indian reader a dense narrative of cartographic intimacy. Though yielding to the dazzle of India’s glamour spots, Ankersen does not fail to recognize and record her unfortunate economic paradoxes. If there is surprise over Nariman Point, “the most expensive address/of the subcontinent”, there is also the awareness in ‘At Madam Badam’s’ that away from the glitter of Pali Hill, “in a makeshift hut three generations old/ beneath a flyover near the airport,/ a girl is reading Shakespeare.” Similarly, amidst the golden lights of Juhu Beach, the poet does not fail to see “a diamond/ uncut youth in the shining eyes/ of a street child curating the rich/ with the swift accuracy/ of urgent necessity.”

Most of the poems in this collection were written, as Ankersen states, during “an almost 5000-km train ride from Bhubaneshwar to Kolkata, Kolkata to Mumbai, Mumbai to Hyderabad and Hyderabad to Delhi.” Unmistakable here, therefore, is the inquisitiveness, the urgency, the precarity and the honesty that characterizes transit. Fluidity, the reader realizes, is an essential hallmark of this collection. Like a meandering train journey, these poems record places, cultures, conversations and insights as being perpetually in flux. Distinct to other interpretations of India, the cultural anthropologist in Ankersen captures the country by its rhythm, its flow, its movement and its essential tick observed from a smorgasbord of geo-cultural locations. In fact, what dominates River of Man is this essential focalization of pace through place. Within the marginal spaces of the local train, the metro, the pavement, the bus, the cab, the auto-rickshaw and the bike that these poems covet, wisdom comes from no idealist meta-narrative of enlightenment but constitutes, like the compound eye of a butterfly, an aggregation of the mini-narratives of ordinary people – pedestrians, fellow-passengers, cab drivers, mendicants, cobblers, coconut-wallas and so on. And in all these geo-cultural and human encounters that Ankersen’s poems celebrate, there is an unbeatable, heart-warming honesty. One, in fact, will be hard put to find in these poems a blind or unjust veneration of India. The poet is as perceptive as he is appreciative, and the strength of his critique is surpassed only by the steadfastness of his love.

Note, for instance, the poem ‘Fair Share’ where the poet describes how his white skin while earning him privilege, also makes him vulnerable to higher prices on the Indian subcontinent:

My skin embodies the double-bind
of post-colonialism –
I get special treatment
and pay extra,
the first I never tire of and
the second gets to me.

In ‘That Love Shit’, he writes about how in the East and West, matters of the heart and the bowels are “inversely proportionate”. While in the East, “matters of the heart are private”, “matters of the bowels” are “freely shared,/ a cleansing on display” and concludes with the idea that “perhaps these are simply/ different aspects of the same/ … / as two sides of the same coin”. In ‘Real Strangers’, the poet again describes with stark honesty the experience of meeting a fellow Westerner travelling in India:

“Most Westerners hate
to feel deprived of their position
as lone monads among colourful strangers
when meeting a fellow white.”

To the poet, this sharing of space with a “distant cousin” is disturbing as it amounts to an invasion of “a private exotic fantasy.” ‘Delhi Pressed into Prelude’ presents an account of the poet meeting the Rush Hour on the Delhi Metro and the immense human isolation that he finds reigning the crowd which is “swallowed by the blue light/ from the screens and the tapping/ of the fingers.” Here, as the poem observes, it is not people who travel but telephones “with each their own meat-avatar/ in electronic leash” and “the pressed faces, the lines,/the herd mentality, the lemming-behaviour,/ the empty look across the seat,/ the baloney talk”, all disgust the poet deeply. ‘The Click-Step Dance’ documents the inescapable selfie-culture that haunts us wherever we travel in India - “Sightseeing is done/for the selfie/ Without the click/ it never happened.” On trains, people sleep with smartphones close to their heart so that the poet comes to realize in ‘Hooked’ that “the smartphone is man’s best friend/ and most essential belonging.”
But it is, perhaps, in ‘Elementary Driving’, that one comes across one of the best descriptions of the Indian confusion:

Driving in India is like a videogame,
he tells me, everything will come at you
at any time from any side, in any form –
truck, taxi, donkey, elephant, horse and snake,
gods, kids and bicycles, two-wheelers, buses,
and everything in between.
But you only have one life.

Consisting of sixty-five poems that are divided into three different sections, River of Man offers an excellent documentation of India’s everyday urbanity. Progressing through the book in a linear fashion, one can hardly miss undergoing a fertile cinematographic experience that is established for the reader both by the visuality of the text’s language and the rich textuality of its visual production as a book. A word must be here spoken for the publishing house, Red River, New Delhi, whose superb designing of the book makes the postmodernist distinction of the work from text a trifle challenging as well as unwanted. The poems, interspersed by photographs clicked by Ankersen himself in his travels across India, become in this book a powerful as well as aesthetically pleasing metaphor for what the poet himself describes as ‘time-travel’. While the poems grouped under the first section, ‘I Have a Friend in India’ contextualize the book’s setting, the second section, ‘Everything is Collected in One Place’ zooms in upon physical places, expressing geo-cultural love for India’s staggering cartography and demography, with the third and final section, ‘Always Room for One More’ attempting to poetically capture the subcontinent’s essential everyday spirit as expressed in collective thought and practice.

As a travelogue of poems, River of Man is intensely autobiographical , evaluative, searching and forgiving, its greatest accomplishment lying, perhaps, in the fact that it brings into the heart of even the native Indian reader, an India hardly seen or understood in the way these poems embody. Ankersen’s language is marked with felicity, grace and sculptural majesty. His tone constitutes a remarkable blend of humour, satire and undiluted affection as he talks of India and her people, never allowing the reader to forget that he is now avowedly one of them. The energy of his images in poems like ‘Run’, ‘Cheek to Chaat’, ‘Give me More’ and ‘Everything-is-Here-Theme’ essentially capture the Indian spirit of zestful though careless accommodation, and the beat of his lines is the beat of everyday life in a forever changing India that accompanies the reader long after the poems have been read:

Swipito ergo sum, clickity ergo sum,
Whatsappme ergo sum, influence ergo sum


Basudhara Roy is the author of two books, a monograph, Migrations of Hope: A Study of the Short Fiction of Three Indian American Writers (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and a collection of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019). She has been an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University and has earned her doctoral degree in diaspora women’s writing from Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Basudhara’s areas of academic interest are diaspora writing, cultural studies, gender studies and postmodern criticism. She lives and works in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.

1 comment :

  1. Such a vibrant and intensive review which slowly unravels the poets feelings and enriches us and captivates us and compels us to read the book and from the pages of the book know the poet.
    Dr Kauser Tasneem, jamshedpur

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