Parthasarathy is one of the two major voices in Indian English poetry, from South India. He has had a variegated career ranging from teaching to editing and the ambience of his poetic world has also been varied as he has moved from place to place, from Srirangam to Bombay, to Madras, to Delhi, to England and back. The disturbing and moving experiences he has had, from this extreme mobility, form the matrix of his poetry making it primarily a poetry of experience.
Born in 1934, at Thirupparaithurai near Tiruchirapalli, Parthasarathy experienced the first trauma of transplantation when he moved to Bombay to be educated in Don Bosco and later in Bombay University. He worked as a lecturer in English in Ezekiel’s department at Mithibai College, Bombay. This is the period Parthasarathy is referring to as “He had spent his youth whoring/after English gods”. He was a British Council Scholar at Leeds University where he worked for a diploma in English studies.
The year 1963-64 in England was significant for Parthasarathy as it proved to be a culture shock — “My encounter with England only reproduced the by-now familiar pattern of Indian experience in England: disenchantment” (“Whoring After English Gods”) This ‘disenchantment’, however, was extremely productive as it brought forth some of the finest poems in Indian English poetry on cultural encounter. (‘Poems of Exile’ — 1963-66). Giving up teaching, Parthasarathy entered publishing and joined Oxford University Press as its Regional Editor in Madras and later moved over to Delhi. At present, Parthasarathy is in New York State. Parthasarathy’s other interests include music, film, theatre and painting. Of late, Parthasarathy is emerging as a bilingual writer and more importantly, as a translator of Tamil and Sanskrit writings into English.
He has edited a number of anthologies of poetry, and significant among them are Poetry from Leeds (1968) and Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets (1976). He started writing poetry at the age of 16 and has published widely in journals in India and abroad, in Encounter, London Magazine, Poetry India, Times Literary Supplement and New Letters and his poems are included in many anthologies. He won the Ulka Poetry Prize of Poetry India in 1966.
Parthasarathy is also a discerning critic. His very selective prose tracts like “Poet in Search of a Language”, “Indian English Verse: The Making of a Tradition”, “Notes on Making of a Poem”, “and “How it strikes a Contemporary: The Poetry of A.K. Ramanujan” form part of Indian literary criticism in English. Statements like “A poem ought to, in effect, try to arrest the flow of language, to anaesthetize it, to petrify it, to fossilize it” and “the poet by sheer dedication to words, arrives at a truth which may otherwise be impossible for him to attain” or “poetry is an ascetic art, doing without, rather than’ doing with, indulgence” have become almost axiomatic.
Parthasarathy is the most reticent of Indian poets. The poems written over a period of 15 years have been put together in one volume Rough Passage, which is the most neatly and deftly structured poetic sequence in Indian English poetry. Parthasarathy is a conscientious and fastidious craftsman who revises his poems constantly. “He is the legendary workman who roughs out, cuts and sets his form as a scultptor would extract his art from his material”. (Saleem Peeradina) Parthasarathy thinks in images and his poems become memorable, individual images.
“A cow stands
in the middle combing the traffic”
“a storm of churches breaks about my eyes”
“Painstakingly a wind
thumbs paragraphs of bright sea.”
The prose piece “Whoring after English Gods” provides the background, “the historical and personal circumstances in which the poem (Rough Passage) eventually came to be written” as well as “the terms of reference”, Parthasarathy tells us. The various thematic strands are the social commentary, (“the epitaph of the Raj”) the poet’s cultural and linguistic predicament, search for the ‘roots’ and the poet’s problem of craft — how to make poetic use of the past, particularly the memories of the complex South Indian family network with its telescopic relationships. No other Indian poet has explored his linguistic dilemma so thoroughly and so painfully as Parthasarathy has. Understandably, there is a pervasive wistfulness in Parthasarathy’s poetry.
In his relentless self-enquiry and the confessional mode of expression Parthasarathy resembles Robert Lowell and Rough Passage is, like Lowell’s Life Studies, the honest record of the growth of a poet. The strength of Parthasarathy’s poems “derives”, as he himself puts it, “from his responsibility towards crucial personal events in his life”.