Which is the most anthologised Indian poem in English? This question leads Karthik Venkatesh on a literary quest through the pages of some popular anthologies of Indian and Western literatures.

 

It all started with a sneaking suspicion. Was the poem “Night of the Scorpion” by Nissim Ezekiel the most anthologised Indian English poem ever? Trawling through the anthologies and looking up Bruce King’s study, Modern Poetry in English, which actually lists the most anthologised poems, I learned that “Scorpion” was locked in a seven-all tie with another Ezekiel poem, “Enterprise”. A close second, as far as Ezekiel was concerned, was “Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher” (six anthologies).

And then another surprise was sprung on me. It seems that the most anthologised poem was not an Ezekiel one, but one by Gieve Patel. One more surprise, it wasn’t his “On Killing a Tree”. It was “The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He Being Neither Muslim Nor Hindu In India”, which had figured in at least eight important anthologies. By comparison, “Tree” had figured in five. But since “Scorpion” and “Tree” probably figure a great deal more are in school textbooks, that perhaps bolsters their case for being the most-anthologised Indian English poems.

I remember the night my mother/ was stung by a scorpion … My mother only said/ Thank God the scorpion picked on me/ And spared my children.

For close to four decades or thereabouts, these lines by Ezekiel (from “Night of the Scorpion”) have been taught to generations of school children. What works in the poem’s favour is probably its storytelling tone that references Indian tradition even as it also injects modernity and science into the narration. “On Killing a Tree”, on the other hand, perhaps meets the twin objectives of bringing students face to face with an Indian English poem, as well as introducing an element of environmental sensitivity into the curriculum, which, especially from the mid-Eighties on, when global warming and environmental conservation came to be talked about, became important matters of concern and that might explain its popularity.

From the point of view of inclusion, “Night of the Scorpion” is perhaps the closest Indian counterpart to Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”, which at last count was rumoured to have figured in more than a hundred anthologies. Other likely candidates from the last century or thereabouts are likely to be Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. Of course, if one were to go back a couple of centuries or more, Keats and Wordsworth are likely to figure on the list, as well as Walt Whitman.

So much for poetry. Which short story could possibly compare to “The Soldier”, “Night of the Scorpion” and “On Killing a Tree”? Internationally, it appears that James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a strong candidate. First published in 1939, it’s rumoured to have made a hundred-plus anthologies. It’s been filmed twice in Hollywood, the second time as recently as 2013, adapted for stage and even adapted for Indian television about three decades ago as Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne.

Who is Walter Mitty’s Indian counterpart? One strong candidate is likely to be Rabindranath Tagore’s story “Kabuliwaala”. But other than “Kabuliwaala”, it is difficult perhaps to identify a single story which stands out as widely anthologised. Besides “Kabuliwaala”, Tagore’s poem, “Where the Mind is Without Fear”, is a good candidate in the poetry category for being the most-anthologised translation as it is a school textbook favourite.

Then there are Ruskin Bond’s stories set in the hills amid mist, rain and thunder—stories which seem to forever strike a chord with their sense of timelessness and have been widely anthologised. But, does any single story by Bond stand out? Maybe “The Tiger in the Tunnel” comes very close to being “the” Bond story. R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi stories, especially those featuring Swami, are also strong contenders for the widely-anthologised in the short-story slot.

In this debate, could Sarat Chandra’s Devdas get a look-in? It is, of course, a full length novel and not quite a short story. But it’s been filmed true to the original novel, at least once in the silent movie era, thrice in Hindi, thrice in Bengali (including a Bangladeshi version), twice in Telugu and once in Tamil, Malayalam and Assamese. There’s also a Pakistani version in Urdu, besides the modern-day rehashes of the Devdas theme, twice as Hindi films—the 2009 Dev.D and the more recent Das Dev—and as a web series. Surely, for its sheer ability to travel across languages, regions and generations, this work should get an honourable mention in the anthology space.

Still, coming back to anthologies, there are other interesting nuggets out there. Call it the colonial hangover, but essays by Francis Bacon and Charles Lamb still continue to feature widely in Indian textbooks. Which Indian work is likely to be their counterpart? Swami Vivekananda’s “Address at the World Parliament of Religions”, delivered in September 1893, which strictly speaking is not even an essay but a speech, is a contender. Would Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech (not an essay, again) of 15 August 1947 be anywhere close? Mahatma Gandhi’s writings probably don’t feature among the widely-anthologised, though his sayings (at least many that are attributed to him) feature in many places. In some sense, could they also qualify? And the current right-wing government notwithstanding, a story about Gandhi (the school inspector’s visit and his refusal to copy from a friend) is likely to continue being widely anthologised as a lesson in moral instruction. This story is the Indian version of the George Washington story about the cherry tree.

One is tempted to add that the 300 versions of the Ramayana (perhaps more) beat all of these modern-day contenders for the crown of the widely-anthologised, the title of the widely-travelled etc., hands down. And this factoid is likely to irritate both ends of the ideological spectrum for different reasons.

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