Aesthetic Negotiations by Sunil Sharma

Preface by John Thieme
John Thieme
To read Sunil Sharma’s poems is to embark on a journey that trawls through many cultures, a journey to find, in Matthew Arnold’s words, ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’.[1]Arnold’s touchstones for culture had a strong Christian bias and were mostly from Western sources. Sharma’s verse often engages in dialogues with the West, but it takes a broader, more cosmopolitan perspective on whatever his highly individual mind touches. So to call his verse ‘cosmopolitan’ needs qualification. ‘Cosmopolitanism’ has been something of a buzzword in Western intellectual circles in recent decades, to the extent that its force risks being diluted, particularly when its iterations are associated with its near-relative, globalization. Sharma’s poems are not cosmopolitan in this sense: they belong to an older, more eclectic and open-minded tradition of cosmopolitanism. Treading their own path, they avoid concessions to fashionable trends that can all too quickly generate into empty clichés.

As an editor, Sharma brings cultures together through his work on the journal Setu. Setu is the Sanskrit word for ‘bridge’ and, although his poetry is more concerned with contemporary situations and debates than with classical Indian culture, Sharma’s cosmopolitanism bridges cultures in much the same way that the Sanskrit cosmopolis did historically. According to Sheldon Pollock, two major expansive cosmopolitan systems emerged simultaneously at the beginning of the first millennium (C.E.): Latin and Sanskrit. In Pollock’s view, they were remarkably similar in seeing ‘literary communication […] as unbounded, unlocated, unobstructed – writing of the Great Way instead of the small place’.[2] Latin’s influence, as Pollock sees it, spread throughout the first millennium, with the Christian church supplanting the Roman Empire as its promulgator. In contrast, he says, the Sanskrit cosmopolis ‘never sought to theorize its own universality […], never demarcated [its space and power] in any concrete fashion’ and, unlike Rome, never made any attempt to transform the world into a metropolitan center. In fact, no recognizable core/periphery conception ever prevailed in the Sanskrit cosmopolis’.[3] So, in Pollock’s account, the two cosmopolitan systems operated in radically different ways: Sanskrit through an untheorized praxis that opened up egalitarian dialogues across borders; Latin initially through travelling as ‘the language of a conquest state’ and subsequently as ‘the language of a missionizing and later a conquest church’.[4]

Sunil Sharma
Arguably these two forms of cosmopolitanism have continued to flourish in different incarnations across the centuries and continue to do so today. In the age of globalization, ‘Latin’ models have been dominant, particularly in hegemonic American discourses (though at the time of writing it is difficult to know whether any form of the ‘Great Way’ will be retained, if American turns inwards). Yet a kinder, more inclusive form of cosmopolitanism, of the kind that Pollock associates with Sanskrit conceptions of universalism, has continued to thrive alongside it, albeit as a secondary player on the global stage.

Sharma’s verse is very much in the Sanskrit tradition of the ‘Great Way’: an inclusivist counter-form of globalization, which is arguably better described, inGayatri Spivak’s term, as‘planetarity’.[5] His poems travel far and wide: to London, Male, Iowa, Egypt, Paris, China, Hawaii and a host of other places. They converse with writers, artists and thinkers from many eras and places: Heaney, Pound, Dante, Kafka, Socrates, Baudelaire, Eliot, van Gogh and Sappho among them. Emily Dickinson and Martin Luther King inhabit poems about America; ‘The Ode to Joy’ is heard in a Mumbai elevator.

This inclusivism is firmly egalitarian, and in poems set in Mumbai and Delhi, there is a recurrent concern with the marginalized, particularly those who have been dispossessed by the ever-expanding corporate consumer culture of these two megacities. Sharma’s Mumbai poems offer a grounded horizontal view of ‘a city going vertical’, a city where pavement dwellers have been displaced by the municipal corporation. A madwoman is seen to be in ‘perfect / Sync with the elements, / While young executives,/Rush to offices …’. A street dog, struck in a hit-and-run accident, suffers a slow death, while passers-by inured to blood, turn a blind eye. In Delhi, the fog that can close the city down for days makes hell an everyday reality rather than a mythic construct. A distressed boy, who has survived the bomb blast that killed his mother and siblings, dreams of solace through the intervention of a fairy godmother.

In a particularly telling trope, the ghost of a young woman who has been raped and murdered haunts a well-lit apartment in a New Delhi gated community. The suggestion and it is one that recurs through the volume, is that the rapid materialist expansion that has bulldozed shanty towns has also destroyed the time-honoured values of an older, gentler India, coming close to consigning them to oblivion. Yet the past lives on as a wraith that stalks the uncaring present. The phenomenon may not be uniquely Indian – a Delhi waste-picker evokes a similar figure in Victor Hugo’s ‘impoverished’ Paris and the mood of urban anomie is frequently reminiscent of the Eliot of The Waste Land– but several poems read as elegies for a vanishing India. Birds search for trees amid the urban high-rises; a homeless old man remembers a long-dead mother in village India; a puppet show brings memories ‘of a happy childhood in a small town, decades ago’; the moon reminds a young migrant of ‘a lost home in a far-off Indian village’. This is an India remembered with love and nostalgia, but in the present even a rural river can be polluted, and a tribal bemoans the loss of old songs, as well as the damage to the environment, flowing into the countryside from the toxic urban world.

Such social poems figure prominently, but, reflecting the collection’s title, Sharma is also deeply concerned with aesthetics and the cross-cultural transformative power of poetry, which emerges as a timeless discourse that bridges the apparent gaps between peoples and places, looms large. Thus in ‘Will Shakespeare – 40’, the poet persona imagines himself inhabiting the skin of various Shakespeare protagonists. The poem ‘Travels’, is explicit about the capacity of the creative imagination, to create something new. Elsewhere this credo is put into action as poem after poem demonstrates poetry’s capacity to provide alternative visions of experience, akin to those of supposedly crazed artists such as van Gogh.

The poems move between the social, the philosophical and the aesthetic. In the ostensibly philosophical poem, ‘Cognition: Self and the Universal’, which deals with the formation of individual subjectivity, these strands come together, Sharma reflects on how the ‘mature Self mirrors the altering realities of a changing India’, with the transmutations of both being informed by the ideologies informing other nations. So, the personal and the public, the national and the international are far from discrete, and linking these element sis the figure of a versifier, who ponders the way images are culled from words to fashion new modes of apprehension and who longs for human values in an age when technology and environmental despoliation are threatening the very life-blood of existence. Sharma’s rich poetic, which achieves many of its most striking effects through imagery, enables him to bridge divides and in lamenting the loss of older discourses he goes some distance towards reinstating them. It is in this sense that he is a contemporary Sanskrit exponent of the ‘Great Way’, responding to the exclusivism of the modern world.

[1] Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963, p. 6.
[2] Sheldon Pollock, ‘Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History’, in Cosmopolitanism, ed. Carol A. Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 22.
[3] Ibid., pp. 26-7.
[4] Ibid., p. 24.
[5] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, p. 77.
Bio of John Thieme:
John Thieme is a Senior Fellow at the University of East Anglia (UK). He previously held Chairs at the University of Hull and London South Bank University and has also taught at the Universities of Guyana and North London and, as an annual Visiting Professor, the University of Turin. He has held honorary positions at the University of Hong Kong, the Open University (UK) and the University of Warwick. His books include Postcolonial Con-Texts: Writing Back to the Canon, The Arnold Anthology of Post-Colonial Literatures and studies of Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul and R.K. Narayan. His most recent critical book Postcolonial Literary Geographies: Out of Place was published in 2016; his novel The Book of Francis Barber is forthcoming in 2017. John was Editor of The Journal of Commonwealth Literature from 1992 to 2011 and is General Editor of the Manchester University Press Contemporary World Writers Series. His creative writing (fiction and poetry) has been published inArgentina, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Italy, The Netherlands, the UK and the USA.It includes the stories ‘The Word’ and ‘Apples’, previously published in Setu.