Dom Moraes on srinivas rayaprol – Poet whom no one discovered
As has been pointed out, there are no “mute inglorious Miltons”. But in India there is certainly a prodigious waste of talent; and Srinivas Rayaprol may have made a difference to poetry in English given a more encouraging setting, writes DOM MORAES.
In the 1940s, what is now thought of as Indian poetry in English hadn’t started. There were books of verse by people such as Fredoon Kabraji, who referred to himself as a minor Georgian, some 30 years after that movement had ended in England. There were others: Adi K. Sett. V.K. Gokak. Humayun Kabir. Most of them had their volumes of verse published at their own expense: most of these volumes were bad. But for me. an adolescent who read not only Auden, Eliot, cummings. Dylan Thomas et al. but also the French symbolists. Rilke, Lorca. and the Italians. starting with Montale. this was all very disappointing. Nissim Ezekiel returned from England a bit later and introduced some sense of discipline and criticism into Indian poetry in English. But even before him I was amazed when a magazine started to appear from Secunderabad. East and West edited by a poet who spelt his name in lower case, like e e cummings, srinivas rayaprol. I remembered this publication for a number of years. and the editor also.
l have never met the editor: but this was the first Indian poet. Tagore apart. who appeared to have international connections. Tagore knew some of’ the best Western poets of his time. Pound, Yeats. and Frost. Rayaprol or rayaprol seemed to have become acquainted in America with people like William Carlos Williams. Yvor Winters. and James Laughlin. At about this lime. when I was 15. I met Laughlin in Bombay and he mentioned rayaprol. He mentioned him with affection. I cannot say that l greatly liked rayaprol’s work: but as an editor he published such people as Henry Miller and Williams. and a number of unknown young Indian poets. That they have remained unknown can hardly be said to be rayaprol’s fault. He seemed passionately engaged with literature. and few others in India were. East and West closed down, as most literary magazines do, and for years I heard nothing of its editor. But some time in the late ’80s. I had a long talk with Bruce King, the Canadian critic then writing on Indian poetry in English.
King and his wife Adele. who became good friends of mine, knew that C.R. Mandy, who edited The Illustrated Weekly India in in the late ’40s and early 50s, had published the work of a number of Indian poets in it. They also knew that Nissim Ezekiel had been Mandy’s assistant editor and that later Ezekiel. as editor of Quest, a magazine financed by the International Cultural Congress, like Encounter in the West, had also published a number of new Indian poets in English. However, Bruce had not at the time heard of rayaprol, or East and West. After this he researched into both. and I think now sees Royaprol as a seminal figure in Indian poetry written in English in this century.
I have now been sent a book of his selected poems, recently published by the Writers Workshop in Calcutta. This in itself is no great recommendation. but reading the book I realised how very little I had really known about the poet. For example, I hadn’t realised that Rayaprol (he has. in this volume, adopted the more usual way of writing his name) was the son of an engineer, has himself become a civil engineer for the government, and has, he says, reached the top of his profession. I had also not realised that he is nearly 70. The poems in this book arc uneven in quality, but they are also very unlike any other Indian poetry produced in English over the last 50 years. and this may be a virtue. It is time, perhaps. that a history of lndian poetry in English should be written. If it should be. Rayaprol’s name deserves a very honourable mention. His contribution as a poet may not have been great, but as an individual, within this history, it has been unique and praiseworthy.
Rayaprol has written an interesting preface to his selected poems. He emerges from it as a likeable man. “Why do I write?” he inquires. “Because I like to write. because the words which I use convey the meaning and feeling which l wish to convey, and the reader wishes to understand. Primarily the need is mine, I need to write just like I need to eat or sleep or fornicate. As far as readers are concerned, a majority of one is OK by me.” After a while he adds, “… as the years have gone by and I am safely ensconced in the world of wood. I have realised rather painfully that I am no longer the genius I thought I was. But now that there is such a spate of lndian English writing, and handsome books of poetry are coming out every year, I no longer am part of the scene. I no longer wish to talk of the I. On the verge of 70, I do not have much more to live for ……” These are the remarks of an intelligent and gifted man who cannot be entirely satisfied by having become a successful civil engineer.
The first poem in the book, which I assume was recently written. speaks of himself in the sixties: “Friends made way to companions/ Sons and daughters crossed my path/ Grandchildren played with me/ As with a toy that often went out of order / Here now, on the verge of seventy / Unsatisfactory husband. irate father / Ugly, old, much misunderstood man / I begin to philisophise on my failures / And sprout platitudes / That have lost all meaning / On a life that is almost over / With too little to show.”
This may not be great poetry. but it is good because it is true to itself. In fact, had Rayaprol not apparently abandoned poetry in his search for professional success – though as a civil engineer he may have seemed slightly eccentric – the role he has played in Indian poetry in English might now be quite different. Much of his failure to achieve it may have been because of the town where he grew up. Secunderabad may be an admirable place, but Rayaprol describes it bitterly as “a second class city.”
Indian poetry in English has always been produced in the large cities: Bombay. Delhi, Calcutta. Madras. Had Rayaprol lived in one of these it is possible that he would have found encouragement and incentive to continue as he began. That he failed to do so is attributable to the circumstances in which he lived; and this makes one think of all the possible talents that may be going to waste in the provincial towns of India. Books are not available, the companionship of equals may not be available.
Nothing, obviously, can be done about this situation, at least not at the moment. If the British had not come here and left Indians with the desire to write in English, there would be no situation to be resolved. But they came and went, and left the desire behind. Shortly after this, the economic and cultural policies adopted by India contradicted all that the British had left and isolated the country as effectively as Japan and Korea had isolated themselves from the rest of the world in the 19th Century. Rayaprol was one of the victims of this syndrome.
Only fairly recently, he seems to have made a return to active literary life, by translating Telugu short stories and poems into English This is work that badly needs to be done. It is time, also, that Rayaprol was accorded more recognition for his role as a pioneer of modern Indian poetry in English. Except by a very few people, he has never been recognised at all. This should be amended, and very soon. He deserves to be honoured.