Hyphenations: Of Poets, Cultures and Continents

ZEE JLF@The British Library

Daljit Nagra and Guillermo Rodríguez in conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam

Acclaimed British-Punjabi poet Daljit Nagra read from his work and spoke about the puzzles of identity and cultural hyphenations in his writing. Nagra’s 2013 work Ramayana is part of a truly personal journey; a way to understand his parents’ value system and the traditional Indian value system as a whole, including the negative and positive aspects of family loyalty. He said he had emerged from the process with a greater knowledge and respect for Indian traditions, and a new epic poem that he described as a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ – energetic, racy, exuberant, funny.

Nagra cited this as an example of hyphenation: between old and new, engaging contemporary language in re-telling the most ancient of stories. His focus encompasses both high and low culture, academic thought and folktales, to form a world-view that is anthropological in its broadest sense. British Museum, his new collection of poems, is a further example of this: a celebration of the cultural impact of uneducated Indians, who introduced England to Indian food and corner shops, as seen through the eyes of the son of Punjabi immigrants, with a white wife and two daughters.

Guillermo Rodríguez, author of When Mirrors Are Windows: A View of A.K. Ramanujan’s Poetics, examined the legacy of the late Ramanujan, whose profound and prolific output has influenced the literary instincts of generations of Indian readers and academics. Rodriguez’ ‘worthy tome’ pulls together both his published and unpublished work. For Rodriguez, Ramanujan’s most important contribution was to render an unknown tradition – South Indian texts – into English, so it could be discovered and appreciated by Western as well as Indian society. His lasting impact lies in his willingness to see literature and poetry as a network, made of mirrors and glass, which reflects for outsiders and refracts for insiders.

– By Paula Van Hagen

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