Attending an Ode to the Oceans – The brilliant works of Ranjit Hoskote

Shravan Iengar says...

Ranjit Hoskote is a leading Indian poet, who has authored over 30 books, and is a seminal contributor to Indian art criticism and curatorial practice. In his encounter ‘What The Sea Tells Us’ he discussed the aspect of research in poetry, usually not a field one associates the art with, and his book, Jonahwale, which brings out the connections between the sea and colonial practices, its role in colonial-era literature, the character perspectives who break away from a Eurocentric worldview of the past.
The talk starts with his own experiences with his own perspective on his cultural identity, and the cultural interactions that India has inherited across 5,000 years which has a global inflow of ideas, religions, thoughts, language, conflict and dialogue, nourished by this kind of interaction and hybridities of many cultures.
His experience as a translator brought to the conversation the idea that languages themselves aren’t as monolithic as we assume them to be they seem, and especially English, with words borrowed from South Asia, and in its archaic state, roots from Norse and Anglo-Saxon, it shows these stories of movement, travel and cultural interaction.
The first poem read out in the encounter, ‘Ocean’, touches on the story on Jonah. The spread of cultures and the translations of works offered several exchanges of cultures, with Eastern knowledge feeding the Renaissance, showing how stories and knowledge aren’t rooted to one culture. As we look at non-western sources of information, with the tale of Jonah being told as that of Yunus in Islam, and the imagining of the giant sea monster as a vast fish. ‘Ocean’ has someone like Jonah as an inspiring figure in the background, who is an unlikely prophet, in that he does the opposite of what God told him to, always questioning God and forming his own epiphanies.
‘Ahab’ brings out a side of the captain in ‘Moby Dick’ as capitalism gone mad, and his destruction of nature of profit jumps to the modern era, as a monster of today’s time as well. He dies in his mad desire to defeat nature and enslave his crew, as Melville points out the Sultanism in his behaviour.
‘Lascar’ is a poem that brought up the perspective of a much ignored group of sailors in colonial times, the Lascars or Lashkars, who were significant in their positions and a lot of sailing terminology comes from their own language being fitted with Latin spellings and English phonetics and syllables.
‘Cargo and Ballast’ is an elegy and a lament for the lives affected by the Atlantic slave trade, and the abhorrent conditions that the slaves faced on the ships, and he elaborates on how this isn’t as far away and long ago as we imagine, with Bombay formerly being a slave depot for this trade, and India’s own issues with caste and colourism against African immigrants.
Overall, the talk was full of maritime history, cultural links across the world, and beautiful poetry which made it an absolutely brilliant experience to watch.