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What makes the poetry and politics of Anvar Ali, winner of this year’s Kerala Sahitya Akademi award, so engaging?

Anvar Ali, 56, is arguably the most interesting voice in Malayalam poetry today. His third volume of poetry, Mehboob Express (2020), the first in a decade, is a collection of intensely political poems that carry the pain and burden of our times. In step with his generation of poets, Ali has a sharp eye and ear and is tuned into his immediate sounds and surroundings. Yet, like in all good writing, there is an exceptional and universal vision that gives him a visceral quality to his best poems. The politics that has shaped the inner and outer worlds of the poems in Mehboob Express also makes Ali a pan-Indian voice, who happens to be writing in Malayalam. Earlier this week, Mehboob Express was chosen for this year’s Kerala Sahitya Akademi; two years ago, Ali, now a sought-after lyricist, won the state award for the best film lyrics.

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The collection takes its title from the poem, Mehboob Express – Oru Jeevitharekha (translated into Hindi by the late poet Manglesh Dabral as Mehboob Express: Ek Prabandh and into English by AJ Thomas as Mehboob Express: A Monologue). Ali started on it by composing a four-line ditty about children imitating the sound of the running train — kollathe pappadam, gandan pappadam (like do daskaden in the Kurasawa film) — and it stayed in hibernation on his cellphone for a couple of years. Thereafter, slowly, lines started getting added and it began to take the shape of a narrative poem. He believes that the changing political landscape influenced the laying of the track on which the poem began to move.

Mehboob Express (2017) can be read as a conversation between Mehboob and his younger relative, in person and over letters mailed from different parts of India, and narrated by the latter. The conversation begins on a passenger train, when Mehboobkka (ikka means elder brother) is visiting home on a summer break, and the train grows into a metaphor that maps the Subcontinent. The train winds through a landscape of history and memory, capturing a land caught in chaotic violence and wounded by numerous Partitions. It recalls their grandfather, who was managing Mahatmaji’s pan Shop in Lahore, fleeing the newly created land of the pure for home “on a steam-locomotive that howled its way to Delhi” to the rattle of “pakistan partition, Pakistan Partition”, braving guns and swords, taking the Hindu name Dakshinaamoorthi. Mehboobkka was in Siachen when the 1984 Sikh riots burned down the country. He is on the move — in Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Gangtok — as political upheavels — the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in 1989, the emergence of BSP and Dalit empowerment, the Hindutva mobilization and destruction of Babri Masjid, the Gujarat riots, Kunan Poshpora, the rise of gau rakshaks and the Akhlaq lynching — reshape the contours of society, politics and communal relations and turn it for the worse. Mehboobkka’s letters and emails (“emails are unseen trains”, says Mehboobkka) chug along on the tracks of history, recalling a country hurtling to disaster as it embraces a majoritarian agenda and weaponises faith. By now, Mehboobkka, a pensioner, is dreaming of reopening Mahatmaji’s Paan Shop in Kochi. The conversation tails off as they step off the new Metro line — “a silent train that utters nothing” — and Mehboobkka disappears along the footpath that winds beyond the migrant workers waiting for the next contractor train into a flat that had sprouted, like wild grass in marshland. “The national anthem of silence boomed”, Ali writes. With subtle references to history, slogans marking resistance, devastation and desolation, images and memories that offer paths to redemption (Mahatmaji’s Paanshop, for instance), Ali draws the map of a pock-marked Republic and leaves us to reflect on the fate of a nation where, in Carl Sandburg’s words, “hope is a tattered flag.”

Two decades earlier, Ali had written another narrative poem that offers a melancholic picture of a nation that failed to stay true to the ideals of its founders. Raghavan of Ekanthathayude Ambathu Varshangal (Fifty Years of Loneliness) is representative of a generation that became comatose as the country lost its bearings soon after Independence. The distance from Raghavan to Mehboob — from melancholy to utter despair — is the distance that the nation has traveled between 1997 and 2017. Ali’s own poetry has become increasingly punchy and polemical in the past few years as the nuances and ambiguities of his early works make way for a defiant and strident tone. Blame it on the times and the honesty of an individual sensitive to the new India built on the debris of Gandhi’s and Nehru’s Bharat. Indeed, Ali has written that “we are on the magnetic belt of another time”.

Ali’s politics is also an extension of his aesthetics — or the other way. In the history of Malayalam poetry — the canon is mostly upper-caste male Hindus and its vocabulary and idiom is mostly drawn from a Hindu register – Ali is an outlier. His generation of poets, who came after two waves of modernismo that dominated the poetic landscape for nearly five decades from 1950s, has privileged a micropolitics and unearthed provincial echoes, inheritances and registers. Ali has broadened the vocabulary of poetry by consciously drawing in from his own personal and communal experiences, words and sounds, to sculpt a new language that emphasizes the diversity of the Malayali society.

It is this sensitivity to language that marks Ali as a trailblazer. Friend and fellow poet Anitha Thampi says that Ali’s authenticity lies in his explorations of him, in transforming the language of poetry in Malayalam. “Poetry is a language art,” she says. Ali has carried forward the poetic language, constantly experimenting with its structures, drawing from Malayalam’s rich legacy of story-telling and narrative poetry, the careful molding of poetic metres, cross-fertilization of the vocabulary by borrowing from popular culture, street talk and community lingo, using classical modes as well as parody, leaning on cinema and performance traditions to energize the art.

Ali’s train travels among different time zones and social spaces, connects with past traditions, respects inheritances and legacies, but is constantly renewing the language of poetry. And that’s what makes his poetry exciting.

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