Parthasarathy, R. 1934–

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Parthasarathy, R. 1934–

(Rajagopal Parthasarathy)

PERSONAL: Born August 20, 1934, in Tirupparaiturai, near Tiruchchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, India; married Shobhan Koppikar, 1969; children: two sons. Ethnicity: "Asian." Education: University of Bombay, M.A., 1959; University of Leeds, postgraduate diploma in English studies 1964; University of Texas at Austin, Ph.D., 1987.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English and Program in Asian Studies, Skidmore College, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866-1632. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Ismail Yusuf College, Bombay, India, lecturer in English, 1959–62; Mithibai College, Bombay, lecturer in English, 1962–63, 1964–65; Brit-ish Council, Bombay, lecturer in English language teaching, 1965–66; Presidency College, Madras, India, assistant professor of English, 1966–67; South Indian Education Society College, Bombay, lecturer in English, 1967–71; Oxford University Press, Oxford England, regional editor in Madras, 1971–78, editor in Delhi, India, beginning 1978; University of Iowa, Iowa City, member of international writing program, 1978–79; University of Texas at Austin, Austin, assistant instructor in English, 1982–86; Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, assistant professor, 1986–92, associate professor of English and Asian studies, 1992–, director of Asian studies program, 1994–98. National Academy of Letters, New Delhi, member of the advisory board for English, 1978–82.

MEMBER: Association for Asian Studies.

AWARDS, HONORS: Ulka poetry prize, Poetry India, 1966; translation prize, National Academy of Letters (New Delhi, India), 1995, and A.K. Ramanujan Book Prize for translation, Association for Asian Studies, 1996, both for The Cilappatikaram of Ilanko Atikal: An Epic of South India; British Council scholar at University of Leeds.



(Editor, with J.J. Healy) Poetry from Leeds, Writers Workshop (Calcutta, India), 1968.

(Editor) Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, Oxford University Press (New Delhi, India), 1976.

Rough Passage, Oxford University Press (New Delhi, India), 1977.

(Translator) The Cilappatikaram of Ilanko Atikal: An Epic of South India, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1991, also published as The Cilappatikaram: The Tale of an Anklet, Penguin Books India (New Delhi, India), 2004.

Also author of A House Divided: Poems of Love and War and The Forked Tongue: The Indian Writer and Tradition; translator of The Earliest Tamil Poems.

SIDELIGHTS: R. Parthasarathy is an Indian poet who writes in English. He is the author of Rough Passage, a three-part, autobiographical poem which addresses the poet's own background of both Indian and English cultures. "The dilemma, simply stated," wrote S. Nagarajan in Contemporary Poets, "is how an Indian writer can be himself when he writes in a language which is not his mother tongue or the language of his community or his tradition."

In Rough Passage, Parthasarathy attempts to reconcile his two backgrounds by imposing Indian—specifically, Tamil, elements—on English poetic structures. The poems explore the poet's years abroad, his returns home, and his general growth as an artist. Nagarajan suggests in Contemporary Poets that Parthasarathy's method proved "only partially successful" in Rough Passage, and he mentions that the verse is less impressive than some poems translated into English from other languages.

Parthsarathy told CA: "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 situation 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 150 years has escaped the bewitchment of English. Modern Indian literature is unthinkable without the English language. It is within the framework of exile that Rough Passage should 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. Part three of the work, '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 or 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, will sooner or later, 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 the tradition of that language. 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.'

"A House Divided: Poems of Love and War is a long poem rooted in the Tamil and Sanskrit literary traditions, whose resonances it tries to convey in English verse. It is set against the turbulent history of the Indian subcontinent. It draws upon myths to explore the paradox of India since the Raj and to reinforce the survival and continuity of Indian civilization in spite of the ebb and flow of conquests, striking in the process a truly epic note. The poems are located in the social and political realities of India today, in the heart of South Asia, and may be read as notes toward the story of a civilization.

"The book contains one hundred poems arranged in two parts: the inner (personal) world and the outer (public) world. The two worlds are not exclusive; they often overlap. Each part includes several sequences that focus on specific aspects of the personal and public worlds. The opening sequences in part one celebrates the erotic in the tradition of Sanskrit poetry. The erotic is seen as the creative source of poetry. It also informs three other sequences that mediate between the two worlds.

"Five of the poems investigate the uneasy relationship between Hindus and Muslims that has its origin in the Muslim conquest of India in 1192. The Revolt of 1857 and its aftermath were a watershed that further polarized that relationship. Even after independence in 1947, conflicts between the two communities continued to surface, often erupting into violence, as in 1992, when Babur's Mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya was destroyed. Two other sequences also contribute to the dialogue on the politics of conquest.

"The closing sequence, 'Srirangam,' a poem of pilgrimage to a sacred place, explores the transformative potential of the journey as a passage from individuality to community. In the book as a whole, individual and national histories blend together to tell the story of a troubled land. A House Divided is a testament that bears witness to the political uncertainties of the times in which we live. It opposes those uncertainties with the human need for community."



Contemporary Indian Poetry in English: With Special Reference to the Poetry of Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, A.K. Ramanujan, and R. Parthasarathy, P.K.J. Kurup (New Delhi, India), 1991.

Contemporary Poets, 8th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Das, Bijay Kumar, editor, Perspectives on the Poetry of R. Parthasarathy, Prakash Book Deposit (Bareilly, India), 1983.

King, Bruce, Modern Indian Poetry in English, revised edition, Oxford University Press (Delhi, India), 2001, pp. 231-243.

Kulshrestha, Chirantan, Contemporary Indian English Verse: An Evaluation, Arnold-Heinemann (New Delhi, India), 1980, pp. 250-274.

Walsh, William, Indian Literature in English, Longman (London, England), 1990, pp. 136-140.


Choice, February, 1979.

Times Literary Supplement, February 3, 1978.

World Literature Today, winter, 1978.