Meena Alexander, Indian poet, writer and scholar, passed away on Tuesday, November 21 in New York, aged 67.
Winner of the 2002 PEN Open Book Award for her poetry collection Illiterate Heart, Alexander has been hailed as one of the greatest contemporary poets. She is also well known for her other works like Fault Lines (1993) and Raw Silk (2004).
Alexander was born in Allahabad, India in 1951. When she was five, her family moved to Khartoum, Sudan. There, she studied English and French literature. In 1969, she moved to England where she earned a PhD in English in the year 1973, after which she returned to India and taught at many universities, including the University of Delhi. It was here,during her five-year stay in India that she published her first three books of poetry. She moved again, this time to New York where she pursued her career as an author and professor.
Alexander has published more than ten collections of poetry, two novels, a memoir and several essays and works of criticism. She is the recipient of awards and honours from several foundations,including Fulbright Foundation and Arts Council England. Her 1991 novel, Nampally Road was the Village Voice Literary Supplement Editor’s Choice.
Her poetry, which has been translated into many languages, speaks about both, home and homelessness— settlement and migration, the events, oftentimes violence, preceding them and the emotions following them. Maxine Hong Kingston had remarked about her that she “sings of countries, foreign and familiar, places where the heart and spirit live and places for which one needs a passport and visas. Her voice guides us far away and back home. The reader sees her visions and remembers and is uplifted.”
In her poem Where Do You Come From? she writes—
“On board white people would not come near us
Were they scared our brown skin would sully them?”
The impact of migration is huge on her poetself; it can be clearly seen in a number of her poems, including Krishna, 3:29 AM, where Alexander writes beautifully—
“You’ve lost one language, gained another,lost a third.
There’s nothing you’ll inherit, neither per stirpes nor per capita
No plot by the riverbank in your father’s village of Kozencheri
Or by the burning ghat in Varanasi.
All you have is a writing hand smeared with ink and little bits of paper
Swirling in a violent wind.”
Even though her writing deals with serious and dark issues as these, Alexander’s style is sensual and benevolent—
“You lean sideways, touch my cheek—
Let’s live in Kochi by the sea
Find a house with a white balcony,
I think the angels will call on me.”
Meena Alexander, a ‘passionate outsider’ and a‘compassionate insider’, is survived by her husband, David Lelyveld and two children, Adam Kuruvilla and Svati Mariam and a great legacy of lyric poetry.