Nationality: Indian. Born: Tirupparaitturai, near Tiruchchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, 20 August 1934. Education: Don Bosco High School, Bombay, 1944–51; Siddharth College, Bombay University, 1951–59,B.A. in English 1956, M.A. in English 1959; Leeds University, Yorkshire (British Council scholar), 1963–64, postgraduate diploma in English studies 1964; University of Texas, Austin, 1982–86, Ph.D. in English 1987. Family: Married Shobhan Koppikar in 1969; two sons. Career: Lecturer in English, Ismail Yusuf College, Bombay, 1959–62, and Mithibai College, Bombay, 1962–63, 1964–65; lecturer in English language teaching, British Council, Bombay, 1965–66; assistant professor of English, Presidency College, Madras, 1966–67; lecturer in English, South Indian Education Society College, Bombay, 1967–71. Regional editor, Madras, 1971–78, and editor, Delhi, 1978–82, Oxford University Press; member of the International Writing Program, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1978–79; assistant instructor in English, University of Texas at Austin, 1982–86; director, program in Asian Studies, 1994–98, and currently associate professor of English, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. Member of the advisory board for English, National Academy of Letters, New Delhi, 1978–82. Awards: Ulka poetry prize, Poetry India, 1966; runner-up for the Commonwealth poetry prize of the Commonwealth Institute, London, 1977, for Rough Passage; PEN/ Book-of-the-Month Club translation citation of the PEN American Center, 1994, for The Tale of an Anklet: An Epic of South India; Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters) prize for translation, 1995; Association for Asian Studies A.K. Ramanujan book prize for translation, 1996. Address: Department of English and Program in Asian Studies, Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs, New York 12866–1632, U.S.A.
Rough Passage. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Editor, with J.J. Healy, Poetry from Leeds. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1968.
Editor, Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1976.
Translator, The Cilappatikaram of Ilanko Atikal: An Epic of South India. New York, Columbia University Press, 1993.*
Critical Studies: "Two Indian Poets" by William Walsh, in Literary Criterion 11 (Mysore), winter 1974; "R. Parthasarathy: Images of a Poet" by Roger Iredale, in Tenor 1 (Hyderabad), July 1978; "The Parthasarathy Passage: An Interview" by Ayyappa Paniker, in Tenor 2 (Hyderabad), January 1979; "The Achievement of R. Parthasarathy" by Brijraj Singh, in Chandrabhaga 2 (Cuttack), winter 1979; The Two Faces of Alienation: The Poetry of A.K. Ramanujan and R. Parthasarathy (M.A. thesis) by G.N. Devi, Leeds University, 1979; "The Unity of Design in Rough Passage" by P.D.
Chaturvedi, in Commonwealth Quarterly 5 (Mysore), 17, 1980; "The Return of the Exile: The Poetry of R. Parthasarathy" by Vasant A. Shahane, in Indian Poetry in English: A Critical Assessment, Delhi, Macmillan, 1980; "The Last Refinement of Speech" by M. Sivaramakrishna, in Contemporary Indian English Verse: An Evaluation, New Delhi, Arnold Heinemann, 1980; Perspectives on the Poetry of R. Parthasarathy edited by Bijay Kumar Das, Bareilly, Parakash Book Defoot, 1983; "Tension into Poetry: R. Parthasarathy" by Ujjal Dutta, in Indian Literature 26 (New Delhi), 1, 1983; "R. Parthasarathy: The Language of Deracination" by Sudesh Mishra, in A Sense of Exile: Essays in the Literature of the Asia-Pacific Region, Nedlands, Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, University of Western Australia, 1988; Modern Indian Poetry in English, 2nd ed., Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989; "To the End of the Marriage:R. Parthasarathy's Rough Passage" by G.N. Devy, in Living Indian English Poets: An Anthology of Critical Essays, New Delhi, Sterling Publishers, 1989; Contemporary Indian Poetry in English: Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, A.K. Ramanujan, and R. Parthasarathy, New Delhi, Atlantic Publishers, 1991; by Terence Diggory, in Writers of the Indian Diaspora: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1993; by Arvind K. Mehrotra, in The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1994; "The Ithacan Voyages of R. Parthasarathy and A.K. Ramanujan" by Rajeev S. Phatke, in New Perspectives in Indian English Literature: Essays in Honour of Professor M.K. Naik, edited by C.R. Yaravintelimath and others, New Delhi, Sterling Publishers, 1995.
R. Parthasarathy comments:
One of the realities of the literary scene in our time is that of the exile as writer who takes his language and homeland abroad with him or writes in a language other than his own. Exile is seen as a rite of passage he must go through before he earns the right to speak. Rough Passage is in the tradition of the literature of exile, where the English language and residence abroad are in the nature of attempts to situate myself more firmly at home. The dominance of English in India made us exiles in our own homeland, and no Indian writer of the last one hundred and fifty years has escaped the bewitchment of English. Modern Indian literature is unthinkable without the English language. Rough Passage states this unequivocally: "He had spent his youth whoring / after English gods." It is within the framework of exile that Rough Passage ought to be read. Exile, I repeat, is not a prison house; it is in exile that a writer is most at home.
One of the problems that the Indian poet writing in English faces is the problem of trying to relate himself meaningfully to a living tradition. The poet who writes only in English is unable to relate himself to any specific tradition. He cannot relate himself, for instance, to the tradition of English verse, and he should not. Nor can he relate himself to a tradition of verse in any one of the Indian languages. From the beginning I saw my task as one of acclimatizing the English language to an indigenous tradition. In fact, the tenor of Rough Passage is explicit: to initiate a dialogue between myself and my Tamil past. The poem attempts a redefinition of myself as a Tamil—what it means to be a Tamil after having whored after English gods. "Homecoming," in particular, tries to derive its sustenance from grafting itself on to whatever I find usable in the Tamil tradition. I was eventually able to nativize in English something that had eluded me over the years—the flavor, the essence of Tamil mores.
I am aware of the hiatus between the soil of the language I use and my own roots. Even though I am Tamil speaking and yet write in English, there is the overwhelming difficulty of using images in a linguistic tradition that is quite other than that of my own. I believe that an Indian poet who thinks long and hard enough on his own use of language, even if it is English, sooner or later will, through the English language, try to come to terms with himself as an Indian, with his Indian past and present, and that the language will become acclimatized to the Indian environment. Further, if the poet has access to an Indian language, even though he may not write in it himself, he can gradually try to appropriate that language's tradition. This would mean reconciling ourselves to Tamil English verse, Kannada English verse, Marathi English verse, and so on—all segments of a pan-Indian mosaic that we recognize as the literatures of India. When that happens, the severed head, Indian English verse, will no longer "choke / to speak another tongue."
"Stanzas: A Tale of India" (1999), a long poem as yet in typescript, is rooted in the Tamil and Sanskrit literary traditions, whose resonances it tries to convey in English verse. It dwells on the paradox of India since the Raj in an attempt to map the turbulent history of the subcontinent, striking in the process a truly epic note.* * *
R. Parthasarathy published the collection Rough Passage in 1977. In the mid-1990s he prepared a second collection, Indian Summer, for publication. Rough Passage is divided into three sections—"Exile," "Trial," and "Homecoming." The preface recommends that the work be read as one poem, as an autobiographical poem in fact. The sequence is initiated by the tension felt by the poet between his Tamil heritage and the environment in which he grew up, that of the English language and of Pax Britannica, which produced a feeling of displacement in him and in many of his generation. The dilemma, simply stated, is how an Indian writer can be himself when he writes in a language that is not his mother tongue or the language of his community or his tradition. Parthasarathy's solution is to write what he calls "colored" English poems, poems whose outer form is English but whose inner form is Tamil.
In Rough Passage the attempt is only partially successful. Although there are discernible Tamil elements in many of the poems, they do not make the immediate impression that, for example, Pound's Chinese translations do. The Tamil that Parthasarathy favors is not the contemporary idiom which has been debased by the cinema but rather its ancient form. He has translated into English verse an ancient Tamil epic, the Cilappati-karam of Ilanko Atikal, which has been highly praised by both poets and scholars for its fidelity and its poetic qualities. One may say that the translation fulfilled a biographical need or urge.
The title of Parthasarathy's second collection, Indian Summer, serves to remind us of his residence in the United States and of the fact that he is now middle-aged. In a note to the collection Parthasarathy quotes dictionary meanings of the phrase "Indian summer" to justify the title. In the American context it calls attention to the collection as a work of his maturity, and in the Asian context it evokes India but discourages nostalgia by alluding to the oppressive heat of the summer there.
Parthasarathy speaks of his dissatisfaction with the structure of Rough Passage and its representation of "the poet's" growth. He looks upon the second collection as a spiritual exercise (Latin exercitia spiritualia, Sanskrit sdhana). In a note Parthasarathy explains that the sequence has a circular structure and that it moves from the outer (puram) to the inner (akam) world, these being the two great categories into which poetry in Tamil is classified. Akam has as its focus the individual within the matrix of familial relationships, and puram is centered outside this matrix and explores the relationship between the individual and the world around him. Themes of exile and homecoming, central to Rough Passage, are thus of secondary importance in Indian Summer. As his note goes on to say, "The end of the rough passage is now in sight: home (both the physical home of 8 Salem Drive, Saratoga Springs, New York, and India on the one hand, and the spiritual home of poetry and asceticism on the other)."
The antidote to the feeling of displacement recorded in Rough Passage consists in returning to traditional India and what it stands for. In this sense Parthasarathy claims that, although it includes many poems from Rough Passage, Indian Summer is a national poem embodying the spirit of India: "Individual and national histories blend together to tell the story of a troubled land." Parthasarathy's claim raises the difficult question of whether there is a single spirit of India. In one of the poems, for example, the poet declares that we must escape from time and that we can do so if "the word" can "absolve" the object. (He speaks of "the abomination of objects.") It may be submitted, however, that the escape from time also includes escaping from the past, from tradition, and that the object can be "absolved" only by dissolving it, which happens when the object, or the world, is perceived as maya. (See, for example, the Indian novelist Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope.) To deabominate the object, or to sanctify it, we need the prelapsarian word, for the poetic word cannot semantically function without the object. Parthasarathy speaks of "the domed word" as the "high byzantine saddle" for this lowly donkey, the object. "But the donkey will kick and protest: 'I carry the saddle.'" Perhaps the clue is in the word "domed." The poetic word must merge and lead to the silence above, the silence into which words, after speech, reach.
In 1973 Nissim Ezekiel, himself a distinguished Indian poet writing in English and a critic and an editor of several poetry magazines, praised Parthasarathy's poetry for the meticulous use of words, controlled rhythms, careful choice of poetic images, authenticity of feelings, and relevance of concerns to contemporary India. This was high praise, but it was well deserved. In Indian Summer the conflicts that were the theme of the early poetry have abated, and in spite of an occasional tired figure ("cut the air with a knife" or "Streets unwind like cobras") Parthasarathy's second collection provides further proof of Ezekiel's praise.