Bhatt, Sujata

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BHATT, Sujata

Nationality: Indian. Born: Ahmedabad, 6 May 1956. Education: Goucher College, Baltimore, Maryland, B.A. in philosophy and English 1980; University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1986. Family: Married Michael Augustin in 1988; one daughter. Career: Lansdowne Visiting Writer/Professor, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Spring 1992. Freelance writer and translator. Awards: Alice Hunt Bartlett award, 1988; Dillons Commonwealth Poetry prize, 1989; Poetry Society Book Recommendation, 1991, for Monkey Shadows; Cholmondeley award, 1991. Address: c/o Carcanet Press, 4th Floor, Conavon Court, 12–16 Blackfriars Street, Manchester M3 5BQ, England.



Brunizem. Manchester, Carcanet, and New Delhi, Penguin, 1988.

Monkey Shadows. Manchester, Carcanet, and New Delhi, Penguin, 1991.

Freak Waves (chapbook). Victoria, British Columbia, Reference West, 1992.

The Stinking Rose. Manchester, Carcanet, and New Delhi, Penguin, 1995.

Point No Point: Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.


Critical Studies: "Sujata Bhatt in Conversation with Eleanor Wilner," in PN Review (Manchester), 19(4), March-April 1993; in New Statesman Society (London), 8(353), 19 May 1995; by Sarag Maguire, in Poetry Review, 85(2), Summer 1995.

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Sujata Bhatt's is unabashedly a poetry of confession. Born in India, educated in the United States, and living in Germany, Bhatt has found her most compelling subject in the vast disparities of these worlds. Yet she never exploits differences simply to point a neat or ironic juxtaposition, nor is she content with an easy nostalgia. Instead, her best poems wonderingly, and often poignantly, attempt to form an authentically hybrid imaginative whole from experiences that of necessity resist coherence.

Bhatt's poetry insistently returns to a ground note of exile, as when a Bremen flower stall is filtered through the mature speaker's memory of a childhood garden in Poona, India, and simultaneously registered through the eyes of the speaker's half-German newborn daughter ("At the Flower Market"). In the earlier "Go to Ahmedabad," "home" is formulated by an eloquent mnemonic: "for this is the place/I always loved/this is the place/I always hated/for this is the place/I can never be at home in/this is the place/I will always be at home in." In "Devibhen Pathak," one of many poems about Bhatt's ancestors, the poet-speaker meditates (in Germany in the 1980s, we are to assume) on the gold necklace adorned with a swastika, for Hindus a potent religious symbol, that she has inherited from her grandmother: "Oh didn't I love the Hindu Swastika?/And later, one day didn't I start wishing/I could rescue that shape from history?" The interrogative mode permits Bhatt to assume a persona that is simultaneously sincere and wry, and her habitual sensitivity to place is amplified here by the translator's attuned ear for cultural idiom.

An important set of Bhatt's poems anticipates and answers the criticism frequently leveled against Indian poets in English—that genuine poetry cannot be written in a foreign language. The word "brunizem," referring to a prairie soil common to Asia, Europe, and North America, and from which her award-winning first collection takes its name, signals Bhatt's powerfully organic concern with language. Thus, we read in the title poem of the volume,

   The other night
   I dreamt English
   was my middle name.
   And I cried, telling my mother
   "I don't want English
   to be my middle name.
   Can't you change it to something else?"
   "Go read the dictionary." She said.

Bhatt's method in these poems moves swiftly from the discursive to the imagistic, as in "A Different History":

   Which language
   has not been the oppressor's tongue?
   Which language
   truly meant to murder someone?
   And how does it happen
   that after the torture,
   after the soul has been cropped
   with a long scythe sweeping out
   of the conqueror's face—
   the unborn grandchildren
   grow to love that strange language.

The long poem "Search for My Tongue" bravely struggles with similar problems:

   You ask me what I mean
   by saying I have lost my tongue.
   I ask you, what would you do
   if you had two tongues in your mouth,
   and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
   and could not really know the other,
   the foreign tongue.

In this ambitious experiment in bilingual poetry, English and a remembered Gujarati (the "mother tongue") are pitted against each other in urgently escalating typographic and dialogic conflict. Resolution comes only when the conversational cadences of Bhatt's English freeze into the staccato, extralinguistic rhythms of an accompanying tabla: "I can't (dha)/I can't (dha)/I can't forget I can't forget/(dha dhin dhin dha)" [with the Gujarati script omitted and typographic exactitude sacrificed].

In her second volume, Monkey Shadows, Bhatt finds in the monkey—at once bestial and human, inarticulate and expressive, a dissected object in a laboratory and a living denizen of a childhood garden—a versatile emblem of liminality. Her method is cross-mythologizing, informed by two distinct literary traditions, for in her work Eurydice and Demeter coexist with Hanuman and Ganesh. Other significant poems sketch the emotional localities of a specifically female experience ("Marie Curie to Her Husband," "Clara Westhoff to Rainer Maria Rilke," "Written after Hearing about the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan," "White Asparagus"). Less successful, I think, are her later poems after paintings—"Rooms by the Sea," "Sunlight in a Cafeteria," "Portrait of a Double Portrait"—which seem arch and mannered in a self-conscious writing workshop style.

Bhatt's unrelenting confessional self-examination, with a passionate and fluid free verse line as its unit, announces a new direction in Indian poetry in English, a movement away from the rhythmic control and ironic detachment of a Nissim Ezekiel or an R. Parthasarathy. Finally, no one poem does justice to the complexity of Bhatt's talent, which makes itself known from the accretion of sensory detail sifted through an engaged and vigilant consciousness. She has mastered, and possibly exhausted, her chosen form, the memorializing of intensely lived experience.

—Minnie Singh