An Indian poet’s bid to breach “fortress” Oxford

May 15th, 2009 | By editor | Category: City Culture, Featured Articles, Opinion, The Literary world, Viewing News

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra:
One of the “angriest voices” in Indian poetry.

Hasan Suroor

It’s a long shot but if he’s able to pull it off, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, professor of English at Allahabad University, will be the first Indian in 300 years to be elected Oxford Professor of Poetry when a successor to the current incumbent Christopher Ricks is chosen on Saturday.

Prof. Ricks is stepping down at the end of his five-year tenure.

Despite its “lousy” salary (£6,901 a year) which prompted the outgoing Poet Laureate Andrew Motion not to put his name forward , it is regarded as the most important position in British poetry after laureateship and has been previously held by stalwarts like W.H Auden, Mathew Arnold and Seamus Heaney.

Prof. Mehrotra started off facing two formidable rivals: the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott; and Ruth Padel, one of Britain’s leading poets who has made a major contribution to establishing links between poetry and science. Her academic credentials are further burnished by the fact that she is the great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin.

However, in a dramatic move this week Mr. Walcott pulled out of the race following attempts to smear him over allegations of sexual harassment relating to his time at Harvard University in 1980s. Angered by what he described as “low tactics” used by his opponents (a reference to a dossier containing lurid details about his past anonymously sent to voters), he said: “I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role or to myself.”

That leaves Prof. Mehrotra with just one rival to contend with; and with the biggest beast of the race gone that should be good news for him. But the buzz is that Mr. Walcott’s withdrawal may actually help Ms Padel more. For, a lot of liberals who were said to be torn deciding between a black and a woman candidate are now likely to plump for her.

But whatever the outcome — and his prospects are, at best, modest — Prof. Mehrotra has already established a record of sorts by simply throwing his hat in the ring. He is not just the first Indian but, by all accounts, the first Asian to compete for this high-profile job. A late entrant to the race, Prof. Mehrotra’s candidacy (plotted by Amit Chaudhuri and Peter D. McDonald, a fellow at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford) surprised many with some asking: “But Arvind who?”

For although well-known on the subcontinent (one contemporary hailed him as one of the “angriest voices” in Indian poetry), in the insular world of Oxford his name is a bit of a blur. Forget the insular Oxford even the supposedly cosmopolitan Guardian referred to him as a “little known Indian writer.”

His supporters acknowledge that a lack of visibility is a handicap, especially considering that Ms Padel is very much an “insider” with strong links to the British literary establishment and particularly to Oxford University. In fact, she has made her Oxford links one of her USPs.

“My scholarly links at Oxford with classics, anthropology and modern Greek go back 40 years, so I bring several extra perspectives to poetry,” she says.

Besides, she has led a vigorous campaign with some of the country’s biggest names in literature and science backing her. Prof. Mehrotra, on the other hand, is seen pretty much as an “outsider” — and on his own.

Prof. Mehrotra, however, sounds remarkably sanguine.

“In an election, anything can happen,” he says cheerfully.

Does Oxford’s insularity “worry” him?

“No, it doesn’t worry me. All societies are insular. There are some great American writers who would struggle to publish in Britain,” he points out.

Keen though he is on the job (“anything to get away from Allahabad!”), it is not something he would lose his sleep over. Saturday is also the day when Indian election results would be coming and he says he would be probably too busy watching those to worry about the election in Oxford.

So, what made Prof. Mehrotra take the plunge?

He says it was entirely Amit Chaudhuri and Peter McDonald’s idea.

“It would not have even crossed my mind.”

Asked what he hoped to bring to the job if elected, he said at present it was “too Eurocentric” and he would like to broaden its scope.

Messrs Chaudhuri and McDonald say that he has “much to say of value — of urgency — on the matter of multilingualism, creative practice, and translation [in both its literal and figurative sense], issues that are pressingly important in today’s world”.

“He is not an easy ‘post-colonial’ choice, for he emerges from a rich and occasionally fraught world history of cosmopolitanism; but he is proof — as critic and artist — that cosmopolitanism is not only about European eclecticism, but about a wider, more complex network of languages and histories,” they say in a statement supporting his candidature.

Meanwhile, there is outrage over the Walcott affair though Ms Padel’s reaction had a sting in the tail. While dissociating herself from the anti-Walcott campaign she rejected the charge that he was “smeared.”

“I have no idea who the people are who did it. I feel I should point out that what they did was not a smear…The papers [relating to allegations of sexual harassment against him] they sent out were published fact,” Ms Padel said.

Ah, the politics of poetry.

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