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Radical Assemblages: The Poetics and Politics of Going Online

How the Internet is Transforming the Bombay Poetry Scene

Comment internet transforme la scène poétique de Bombay
Manon Boukhroufa-Trijaud


Cet article explore le contexte indien de Bombay/Mumbai afin de montrer comment la scène poétique de cette ville a été transformée par son déplacement en ligne. La ville postcoloniale de Bombay, en se métamorphosant en Mumbai, mégapole contemporaine, a provoqué la dissolution de la scène poétique traditionnelle, la dispersion de ses poètes (dans les banlieues lointaines, les villes voisines et même au-delà des frontières de l’Inde) et la disparition de son fragile écosystème de collectifs d’édition. Et pourtant, le passage à l’édition digitale a également permis aux petits magazines d’inventer (ou d’adapter) des pratiques qui allaient alors sensiblement modifier la nature et l’avenir du recueil de poésie. Les magazines de poésie en ligne permettent en réalité une plus grande diversité grâce à un flux continu de publications qui traverse les régions et les langues, ouvrant de nouvelles perspectives. Les cercles de poésie et l’écriture collaborative relevant de la tradition de cette ville ont pu facilement se redéployer sur internet, traversant les frontières entre genres et disciplines. Poetrywala en est un exemple intéressant : cette maison d’édition de poésie basée à Mumbai a récemment ouvert une librairie en ligne pour son catalogue en pleine expansion. En somme, la scène poétique indienne contemporaine semble avoir largement bénéficié de la nouvelle proximité offerte par internet, qui réarticule le local avec le national et le mondial, permettant ainsi à de nouvelles formes et pratiques poétiques d’émerger.

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  • 1 For more details on the role of little magazines in Bombay’s 20th-century poetry scene, see Anjali (...)

1Publishing poetry is not for the faint-hearted. It is hard for young poets to find a publisher willing to take a chance on their first collections, as well as for publishing houses to survive on poetry alone. Both have to be pugnacious and resourceful if they want to go on. However, in recent years, poetry has managed to survive via a number of short-lived little magazines, protean anthologies, small and innovative publishing houses, and within the “poetry sections” of literary magazines.1 In fact, it perfectly adapted to this world’s new digital dimension. This article explores the Indian context of Bombay/Mumbai in order to show how the city’s urban poetry scene was transformed as it went online. As postcolonial Bombay turned into the modern-day megacity of Mumbai, its traditional poetic scene decayed; poets dispersed to distant suburbs, neighbouring cities, or even abroad; and the fragile ecosystem of publishing collectives disappeared. But as they moved online, little magazines kept playing a crucial role for poetry while inventing new practices – or adapting previously existing ones – that would alter the nature and future of the poetry collection.

  • 2 For instance, see poets’ websites like Anand Thakore’s (Thakore, n.d.) and Rochelle Potkar’s (Potka (...)

2While online poetry magazines are carefully curated, they also allow for more diversity owing to their continuous streams of publications from (and aimed to reach) many different regions, and written in various languages. They have opened up new possibilities for Indian poets, transforming their publishing environments, and pushing these poets to redefine both their local and global identities. In the mean time, collective writing practices and poetry circles – which had long been part of the city’s tradition – moved online quite smoothly, all the while further mixing genres and disciplines. Since it is still expensive to print colour illustrations, and virtually impossible to enhance printed material with sound, only online publications can easily provide intermedial artists with the rich, protean poetic experience they aspire to. Furthermore, many poets, rappers, and slammers now have their own blogs, Instagram accounts, or YouTube channels, where they are free to publish their own material, share their agendas, and keep in touch with their audiences inside and outside the city.2

3I will argue that India’s contemporary poetry scene has immensely benefited from the proximity the Internet offered, to such an extent that it remapped the local within the national and global, making it possible for new forms of poetry to emerge. Yet in spite of all their adaptability to this new digital environment, poets still want to publish printed books, and even the most prominent online magazines regularly publish printed anthologies of their best reads. Conversely, a Mumbai-based poetry publishing company known as Poetrywala recently opened an online bookshop for its growing catalogue.

Blurred Borders and Growing Violence: The New Challenges of Today’s Indian Anglophone Poets

  • 3 Although “Mumbai” has been largely in use since 1995, most of the poets mentioned in this article s (...)

4Ranjit Hoskote – a leading anglophone poet of the contemporary “Bombay scene”3 as well as a prominent critic – devoted his anthology, Reasons for Belonging (2002), to the new generation of Indian poets writing in English that emerged at the end of the last century; a generation he describes as a “single grouping, however widely dispersed geographically” (Hoskote 2002, xiii). At the time, even though they had dispersed to the city and the world, its actors nonetheless tried to revive the city’s poetic scene, relocating it in South Bombay, its original birthplace. They endeavoured to create a collective space for anglophone poetry through a number of new initiatives like the Poetry Circle. The fourteen authors in Hoskote’s book belong to a generation of late-20th-century poets who tended to address topical issues. Although post-coloniality was still being reshaped by globalisation, they indeed felt an urge to face the new challenges that ensued. As Hoskote himself notes in his introduction: “These fourteen poets are at home in a world in which the boundary between the local and the global has increasingly been blurred; they wrestle in their work, with the ethical and artistic dilemmas produced by such a blurring” (Hoskote 2002, xiv).

  • 4 Narenda Modi became prime minister in 2014. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is characterized (...)

5The newly globalised world order of the 20th century generated new ways of experiencing the local that encompassed diasporic movements, transient visits, and part-time residency. Connecting with the local became even more complex and versatile; a subsequent echo to the increasingly diverse sense of belonging that characterises the digital age. As the new generation of Bombay poets tried to fit in the urban landscape, they also echoed the profound transformations that the Indian city – as well as Indian society as a whole – was undergoing. The momentum created by independence all through the following decades was then replaced by an aggressive pro-Hindu nationalist policy that has strongly divided society ever since.4 In 40 under 40 (2016), their anthology of young digital poets published by Poetrywala, Nabina Das and Semeen Ali underline the concern contemporary political issues cause among these poets as follows:

Their poetry reflects the formal assurance and urbane fluency of their metropolitan location. And while they never descend to reportage, they are keenly responsive to their crisis-ridden lifeworld: a political environment menaced by violence, repression and mounting emergency; an economy dominated by global capital; a society churned by the continuing struggle between elite and subaltern classes. (Das and Ali 2016, xiv)

  • 5 See Laetitia Zecchini’s extensive work on Indian poets from the second half of the 20th century – A (...)

6The new Bombay poets had indeed to invent other ways of relating to a given city, even more so when the latter was turning into a megalopolis. Das and Ali further suggest that they have mostly “benefited from the paradoxical process of globalization, which, if it enslaves economies, can also liberate the imagination in unprecedented ways” (Das and Ali 2016, xv). As they inscribed their identity into the vast territory of the postcolonial English-speaking world, they also acknowledged the influence of previous generations of the city’s poets.5 Ranjit Hoskote speaks of the “cosmopolitanism of attitude” they reinvented: “If this poetry emerges from a metropolitan consciousness and is informed by the experiences of speed and novelty, violence and isolation, it can also overcome the brittleness of the contemporary to adapt, critically, the forms and impulses of tradition” (Hoskote 2002, xvii). This “cosmopolitanism of attitude” is reflected in their poetry, which embraces the freedom to draw from all sources available in order to “chart fresh virtual territories” (Hoskote 2002, xviii).

7As a result, these poets adopted a new posture that nonetheless fully assimilated the legacy of poets from 1960s and 1970s. Their works transformed the ways poetry can fit the city, organise its cultural networks, and bring readers together. As Ranjit Hoskote further notes, this has led to a shift towards a “virtual constituency,” which facilitated the formation of what was then nothing but a “samizdat-like [i.e. informal] network:”

An important shift […] has taken place in the sociology of Indian poetry in English. Its readership is no longer confined to the metropolitan centres, but is spread across the country […]. This virtual constituency comes together in small local groups or in cyberspace and on the subscription lists of journals. […]
The literary culture in which these poets and their contemporaries operate is a samizdat-like network of reading circles and discussion platforms, where poems circulate in photocopy and the oral tradition is re-invented. (Hoskote 2002, xix)

8Today’s Bombay poets thus build up multiple personae that actively contribute to the emergence of competing discourses. In fact: “Emphasizing their dual identity as empathetic insiders who are also critical outsiders, they counter the grand narratives of official history with dissident versions” (Hoskote 2002, xxi). Likewise, they have been able to explore new territories and create new spaces to interact with their city. For instance, rap music first appeared in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods with such rappers as DIVINE (aka Vivian Wilson Fernandes) and Naezy (aka Naved Shaikh). It proves that in today’s globalized city, talented, self-reliant, Marathi youngsters can make their ways to stardom. Thanks to such technology as mobile phones and the Internet, they can now make their voices heard on YouTube – that is to say far beyond the sole limits of the Indian city –, subsequently reaching a global audience which remained out of reach in the predigital age. Under the cultural influence of America’s underprivileged urban neighbourhoods, Bombay’s popular culture saw the rise of a hybrid language that mixes American English with Marathi, thus reviving the bilingual US-Marathi poetry of the 1970s. In a way, popular districts have become “cultural workshops” that produce their own versions of the city.

9DIVINE’s 2013 single, “Yeh Mera Bombay,” exemplifies the way a rapper can mix Marathi with English in their lyrics:

This is Bachchan’s home, Tendulkar’s batting
Ambani’s money, real slum dogs no acting, terrorists attacking
All we do is build back,
My city runs faster than Jamaicans on a race track
Pigeons, potholes and palm shades
I’m in the slums like chicken on Sundays
Rapping for the ones playing cricket on the one-way
We does [
sic] what it takes to get money in some way.
Haathon mein kitaab nahi toh haathon mein dimaag hai
Bhaarat ka raja mere shehar ke pass Taj hai
Kisiko khaana nahi sabko kaam yaar hai
Samjha na chote sabko hona kaamyaab hai
Rail ki patrii, nani ki lakdi, daftar ki makdi, gareebo ki basti
Rickshaw ki pappi, Mere shehar jaisa kuch nahi, nahi manta?
Jaa jakar puch kahi
      (DIVINE 2013)

10In “Mere Gully Mein,” a song featuring Naezy that was released in 2015, DIVINE glorifies the image of his everyday life in the alley of his “chawl” – a term referring to a tenement in India. In the same way, Naezy celebrates his Kurla West “chawl” in a song he put out that same year and called “Bombay 70” (2015). Thanks to their incisive flow’s efficiency and their punchlines, by 2015, both rappers had reached a large audience in their city and beyond. As was the case for Kiran Nagarkar’s characters in his novel, The Extras: Starring Ravan & Eddie (2012), they were then sought out by a Bollywood film industry that is always looking out for new talents. This resulted in the 2019 musical biopic Gully Boy. Besides, DIVINE and Naezy’s lyrics perfectly illustrate what Hoskote wrote of 21st-century poets: “By reconfiguring experiential immediacies through idiosyncratic choices of trope, rhythm and phrase, they situate themselves resolutely in an elsewhereness that provides a deeper sense of location than mere locale” (Hoskote 2002, xxiii; italics in original).

  • 6 Mostly because members found it harder and harder to physically gather, as they lived in various an (...)

11Paradoxically, because they turned the use of sound and video into a general practice, digital tools seem to have reconnected poetry with orality, and with the collectiveness of poetry circles that was threatened by the city’s sprawling urbanisation and gentrification in the early 2000s. After the Poetry Circle disappeared in 2006,6 discussions and text exchanges sprouted on such online forums as Caferati for a while, and were sometimes even followed by informal meetings at the poets’. In 2009, however, a collaboration between Bombay’s Prithvi Theatre and the Caferati group led to the creation of Caferati[at]Prithvi, a monthly open mic at the Prithvi Theatre Café. Under the impulse of such open-mic sessions, performance poetry gained ground in Bombay and quickly spread into ungentrified neighbourhoods. In the years that followed, many similar venues appeared in Bombay, such as The Habitat, The Poetry Club, and Unerase Poetry. As in rap culture, open-mic poetry sessions were filmed and posted on the Internet’s most popular and widely accessible platform to date: YouTube. Like rappers, performance poets were trying to reclaim spaces where multiple voices and discourses could be heard, challenging the official storyline of a globalised Mumbai that was oblivious of all political, social, and economic divisions.

12In other words, the disintegration of Bombay’s poetry scene in the newly globalized city of Mumbai led poets to organize into dynamic, worldwide, virtual communities. In recent years, poetry-related media have multiplied on the Internet: poets’ blogs and websites, online literary journals, poetry databases, international poetry networks, etc. Of course, the primary purpose behind these new practices tends to vary greatly: whether to foster communication with other poets, to reach their readerships more personally, or just to increase the poets’ visibility on the art scene in spite of their being geographically or politically marginalised. Still, the Internet certainly opened up new, much-welcome avenues for poetic expression to anglophone Bombay poets. In the short biographies they wrote in 40 under 40, the editors repeatedly underline the sheer variety of these new poetry websites, the great complexity of issues specifically arising from the post-globalisation era – “issues in caste, feminism, sectarianism, sexual orientation, urban decay, nation and borders” (Das and Ali 2016, ix) –, and the extraordinary range of the themes addressed by these poets, depending on where they were speaking from.

Transregional and Multilingual: The Emergence of Online Magazines

13In the 1970s, little magazines proved to be crucial for sustaining the creative dynamics of the Bombay poetry scene: they remained outside the scope of mainstream culture, and reminded journalists and columnists working for the well-established press that artistic creation could also serve a subversive function. Online publications tend to place all available sources on an equal footing – even when editorial intentions may dramatically vary –, consequently enabling the mainstream press to cohabit with underground magazines. Little magazines used to be available to a very limited audience only, but are now available worldwide alongside the most established literary magazines. It is important to note that while most print magazines have indeed disappeared, their function has not, and their online counterparts still play an essential role in the circulation of new texts and ideas. In an interview quoted by C.S. Bhagya in The Sunday Guardian, Rahul Soni, chief editor of the online magazine Pratilipi, makes it clear that Bombay’s anglophone poetry simply relocated online:

But it’s also true that an interested reader now would be hard-pressed to find magazines which dedicatedly tap into the pulse of contemporary writing in India – definitely not with ease – browsing through magazine stalls or the shelves of a neighbourhood bookstore. Is the literary journal dying a slow but inevitable death? Hardly, scoff the growing number of journals that have been leading almost secret lives on the Internet: they have merely shifted locations. (Bhagya 2013)

14These “secret lives” in “shifted locations” (in Soni’s words) are now made readily available to a new kind of reader-cum-explorer; that is to say a reader who no longer walks the city to sift through the bookstalls of Kala Ghoda – Mumbai’s art district – but uses online browsers instead: “A simple Google search for names like Pratilipi, Muse India, Kritya, Pyrta, Out of Print, Almost Island, Coldnoon, and The Four Quarters Magazine – all online literary journals steadily publishing new voices for several years now – reveals a profusion of multi-genre contemporary writing from across the country, just one click away” (Bhagya 2013).

15Online publications also make it possible for contemporary poets to reach a large audience without having to face the constraints of printing and paper magazine distribution, if only because they require a much smaller financial investment. In most cases, authors are not paid for their online contributions, which unfortunately tends to reposition them as amateurs in the literary trade, but this is not new. Before literary magazines started going online, poets Manohar Shetty and Eunice de Souza already complained about the way well-established magazines treated authors. Because little magazines were distributed outside the mainstream circuit, they were initially considered subversive. It was not uncommon for a famous poet to contribute to those magazines for free, as Arun Kolatkar did when he sent “The Boatride” for young Arvind Krishna Mehrotra to print in his magazine, Damn You. In the same way, today’s most marginal poetry websites often operate thanks to the generous contributions of poets, who either give or exchange their pieces. Likewise, online magazines often launch their very first issue with the publication of texts written or procured by their founders. In so doing, they tend to disseminate the characteristics of the digital age such as the absence of any apparent concern for hierarchy. The technical flexibility offered by online publishing policies greatly contrasts with the difficulty Arvind Krishna Mehrotra had to face when he produced his hand-crafted little magazines, for example. At the time, magazines were often sold in person during events held across the city in venues like the Samovar Café. Digital publications simply cannot share the same characteristics nor rely on local connections only. They must compensate for the flatness of the screen, the verticality of scrolling, and the lack of direct interaction with other potential readers; they do so by designing highly attractive, user-friendly websites – when their creators can afford it, at least. But such professional skills come at a cost, thus recreating a hierarchy between poorly-designed, amateur websites and those able to secure the necessary fund to hire professional web designers.

16Online journals also happen to meet the specific needs of India’s publishing sector. While in the past, Bombay poets would seek publication within their cooperatives only, they can now easily create online platforms to showcase their own work and that of others, thus meeting their own need for greater visibility and diversity themselves. In 2010, Indira Chandrasekhar launched Out of Print in Bandra, precisely because she wanted her short stories, which had only appeared in foreign magazines so far, to be published locally, in India: “The Indian voice in English discovers new strength, direction, and relevance in the context of the contemporary climate of the subcontinent, [...] and the more platforms there are for this writing, the better,” she explains (Bhagya 2013). The linguistic or political divisions that had long plagued the Indian publishing sector inevitably made the process discriminatory. By contrast, the Internet stood out as a place where freedom of speech was preserved.

  • 7 In my PhD thesis, I showed how today’s new generation of poets both perpetuate and transform the co (...)

17Since Muse India was created in Hyderabad in 2005 and Pratilipi in Bangalore in 2008, the number of Indian online literary journals has exploded – whether English-only, multilingual, multi-genre, or specialized – fostering new practices and, potentially, new traditions. But the sudden visibility of literature afforded by these media raises unexpected issues: as India’s poetry in English further deterritorialises, some people worry it might lose what made it so unique and dynamic during the previous century: the collective expression of a shared local experience.7 Even if Bangalore and Hyderabad stand out as the cutting-edge leaders of India’s e-culture, India’s publishing industry encompasses a vast territory that also includes Kolkata, Bombay, and Delhi, and even extends to much smaller, isolated towns such as Shillong.

18Most literary journals are also digitizing their archives as they go online. An increasing number of professional literary journals like The Four Quarters Magazine now publish special issues about one specific literary genre, which they entrust to guest editors with a special interest in that genre. Nabina Das – a poet, novelist, and anthologist for Poetrywala who was also the special editor of the magazine’s second issue – explains that there currently is greater balance in the power of print magazines and that of digital ones, as both are now equally prestigious: “Writers get noticed for good writing. And I’d consider both online and print attention to my work equally honourable and desirable. [...] But the notion that it’s easier to get published in an online journal is not correct” (Bhagya 2013). Digital literary magazines all offer the possibility of submitting texts for publication directly online, so their popularity tends to be gauged by the length of their waiting lists and the number of texts they can subsequently afford to decline and let other online magazines publish.

19Editorial choices become increasingly important on the Internet, and a new hierarchy is therefore beginning to appear between regularly published magazines (whose editors enjoy a certain notoriety) and magazines that are only able to provide occasional print publications. Indeed, some online journals choose to publish printed anthologies and special issues as well. For example, Helter Skelter published six anthologies in print. As they become more visible, poets move from one magazine to the next, their poems appear in anthologies, and a publishing house eventually publishes their works in book-form, thus granting them traditional print distribution. But this is not so different from what T.S. Eliot described in “What is Minor Poetry?” (1957): poems still move from magazines to anthologies, then to broader anthologies representative of a period, in the hope of changing their status from minor poet to major poet (Eliot 2009, 35-40).

20Today, there is a wide range of Indian online literary journals with their own poetry sections and their diversity, in terms of both content and readership, is absolutely striking. Muse India has subscribers in more than forty countries. Here is what G.S.P. Rao, editor of the pioneering magazine, said about his debut in The Sunday Guardian: “We all felt that time was ripe to launch a web journal that would showcase Indian literature – writing in English as well as translations from all regional literature – to a pan-Indian and a global readership on the net” (G.S.P. Rao in Bhagya 2013). The contents of these magazines are either multi-genre, like Muse India, which publishes fiction, poetry, reviews and translations, or extremely specialized, as is for example the case with The Mithila Review in Asian Science Fiction or Coldnoon, a quarterly journal edited by Arun K. Chatterjee that focuses on travel writing alongside poetry, non-fiction and literary criticism. Pratilipi, a multilingual, multi-script magazine, tends to focus more on translation. Kerala-based Kritya is a bilingual Hindi-English magazine that was created by poet Raxi Saxena. Open Road Review is interested in global literature, while The Bombay Review, New-York/Mumbai, with its very glamorous site, is a bimonthly magazine with overt diasporic ambitions.

Online Poetry Collectives: The Rise of Multi-Genre, Multidisciplinary Writing

21Although poetry at sangam, a website developed by Priya Sarrukai Chabria (fig. 1), does not quite function as a magazine, it has become an important poetry platform thanks to the updates on poetry-related events (such as the latest releases and poetry prizes) it provides, the numerous national and international poets whose poems appear on the website in English, and the fact that poetry at sangam often publishes or republishes major critical essays – as was the case with Mustansir Dalvi’s essay, “On Translating Hemant Divate’s Poetry,” which was first published in 1989 and published again in 2014.

Figure 1. Screenshot of the “About” section of poetry at sangam.

Figure 1. Screenshot of the “About” section of poetry at sangam.


22“Poets and their Mothers”, a thematic section of poetry at sangam curated by Sumana Roy, presents thirty-one poems illustrating a vast range of contemporary Indian poetry (Roy, n.d.). In addition, Sangam House – an actual bungalow located in Bangalore – is a residence for writers from India and beyond. All of this accounts for the beneficial effects of combining a poetic and critical digital database with actual premises where meetings can be organized for poets and translators. These new worldwide connections create new critical and creative possibilities for poetry that deserve to be explored and expanded.

23Another interesting example is Vayavya, the extremely well-designed blog launched by young poet Mihir Vatsa in 2011. As mentioned in the “Archives” section, it was aimed as “an alternative publishing place for young poets and artists” (Vatsa 2011-2021) – that is to say, as yet another option to the publishing houses in Mumbai and New Delhi. An eponymous magazine was also launched online in 2013, bringing together painters, photographers, and poets. Its twenty-fourth issue featured two young Bombay poets alongside a review by Jennifer Robertson of Dion D’Souza’s collection Three Doors (2016) – an interdisciplinary practice reminiscent of the tradition of poets writing about poets, and of the special deep-rooted affinities between poets and painters (Robertson, n.d.). Vatsa’s website has now become a meeting point for India’s young generation of English-language poets, painters, and photographers. “Links,” a subsection that references other online poetry magazines, further illustrates how a network of artists can be created online (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Screenshot of the “Links” section of

Figure 2. Screenshot of the “Links” section of


24Interestingly, the website also collaborates with Aainanagar, a bilingual Bengali/English website founded by Nandini Dhar as an online little magazine in the tradition of Calcutta’s little magazines from the 1990s. Their collaboration resulted in the publication of five chapbooks called FIVE, namely: one by Arjun Rajendran – the poetry editor for The Bombay Literary Magazine –, one by Usha Akella – a young poetess from the Indian diaspora who studied at Cambridge University and the University of Texas at Austin –, another one by Manjiri Indurkar – the poet and founder of AntiSerious, a magazine from the small town of Jabalpur –, and the other two by Dhar and Vatsa themselves. The collaborations between diaspora poets and local poets fostered via FIVE now stand as the avant-garde of contemporary Indian poetry in the globalised world:

Conceptualized by Nandini Dhar and Mihir Vatsa, editors of Aainanagar and Vayavya, FIVE is the final product of a creative collaboration started two years ago among five Indian poets. In the course of its completion, FIVE saw the poets assume simultaneously the roles of a friend, a mentor, an agony aunt, and an editor to each other while developing raw manuscripts into a neat set of chapbooks. From realities rooted in provincial culture and the diaspora to the speculative and the carnivalesque, each poet brings a distinct voice to the project. FIVE, as a unique undertaking by a collective of poets on both sides of the Atlantic, breaks boundaries in more ways than one. (Dhar 2013)

25In many ways, literary websites and online magazines enabled the small groups scattered across the country to become a solid community. Another example is the group associated with the Pyrta Journal of Poetry and Other Things, which started in June 2010 and whose editor, Janice Pariat, left Delhi to settle in Shillong to launch the magazine right after she met a group of local writers: “On meeting a dedicated group of writers and poets, both well established and hesitant young voices, she decided she wanted Pyrta to be a space which would showcase their work alongside others from the rest of the country and the world” (Bhagya 2013). In this magazine, special attention is paid to graphic design: the different visuals accompanying texts are extremely elaborate and help give a strong graphic identity to the magazine. The magazine’s geographical marginalization eventually led to an artistic community finding its common ground online.

Almost Island: A Website, Publishing House, and Literary Collective

26Among the many specialized online literary journals in existence today, Almost Island is a particularly interesting example that illustrates India’s online poetry scene. Its editors make a very comprehensive use of the media available, publishing poetry both online and on paper, as well as essays that contribute to the contemporary scene’s critical debates. The website was born in 2007 out of a collaboration between Sharmistha Mohanty, Rahul Soni, and Vivek Narayanan, as a response to India’s nationalism and nativist policy (fig. 3). In an interview conducted by Urvashi Bahuguna, Narayanan explained why they had felt the need to take the new cartography of India’s contemporary literary scene into account and to redefine the word diaspora not as a relationship to a centre, but as a multi-localised presence born out of multiple belongings:

Diaspora can no longer so easily imply any centre or reference place but [is] more just a deep cluster of ideas, a historical conversation that’s important for all the creativity it’s produced, and still relevant to mark, because the particular and the subjective (i.e. the opposite of “objective”) are sources of knowledge, and because, well, evidently, regardless of what we’d like to believe, we have not yet ironed out all racial, national, and ethnic hierarchies! So these things stay while we work them out, complicate, exchange properties, intermingle them. (Narayanan in Bahuguna 2013)

Figure 3. Screenshot of the introductory paragraph of Almost Island’s “about” section.

Figure 3. Screenshot of the introductory paragraph of Almost Island’s “about” section.


27The website’s founders felt they needed to devise a different critical approach to suit this new reality. The originality of comes from the fact that the editorial trio shares all decisions: a unanimous agreement must be reached before the new issue can be released. Another difference from other existing websites is the choice of publishing long texts. Narayanan explains that he prefers to make his own selection of fifteen pages in a critical work that he took the time to read in its entirety, rather than speed up the editing process through multiple collaborations:

Someone called us a “slow journal;” I see what they mean. We didn’t want to be the sort of magazine that had thousands of writers in every issue, the Internet already does that kind of plenitude very well. Instead, with most of the people in the journal, we’ve already been reading them for at least a year before we publish them. [...] I regularly read whole manuscripts, several dozen or even hundreds of pages of work by that writer, before making a selection of fifteen to twenty pages or more. In this way we try to make a place for more serious, unique writers, writers you have to slowly teach yourself how to read, rather than rookies or one-hit wonders. (Bahuguna 2017)

28Almost Island is not just an online journal with a reputation for publishing difficult experimental authors. An annual meeting called “Dialogues” during which Indian and international writers can meet in person in New Delhi to discuss literature completes the biannual online publication. The debates, which are organized around a large table, focus on questions of form, craft and literary practices. They provide an opportunity for very specialized literary discussions in a relatively intimate setting, during three-day live meetings held at the India International Centre. While daytime sessions are usually devoted to subjects such as “The persistence of the personal lyric in poetry” or “How does fact push the imagination further?”, evenings are dedicated to readings by authors. Clinical psychologist and cultural critic Ashis Nandy – who published seminal essays on colonialism, cosmopolitanism, and Hindu nationalism – is a regular participant. In 2017, the 10th anniversary “was attended by writers, translators and scholars like Allan Sealy, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Chinese poet Bei Dao, Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec, Joy Goswami, Manglesh Dabral, translator Margaret Carson, literary scholars Emily Sun and Jared Stark” (Daftuar 2018).

29As a result, the “Dialogues” are not – like traditional literary festivals – a series of short interventions, book launches, and food stands. Evoking his first participation in 2006, Allan Sealy compared the experience to “discovering intelligent life out there in the cosmos” because the sessions are “cloistered and monkish, yet international and informed, with an eclectic energy” (Daftuar 2018). Mohanty also underlines the unique, intimate nature of the “Dialogues:”

The Bengali poet Joy Goswami spoke to us about his life and work in 2010. He grew up in a very small town in Bengal and his parents died early. The story of his journey from near poverty to poetry and then finally to Kolkata was riveting. I will never forget him telling us about his mother dying in his arms and how the eyes of the dead remain open. Raul Zurita read in 2015 with his translator Anna Deeny. Of course, Zurita is a luminous poet and as he read the intensity kept building. At one-point Deeny turned away and I realised she was crying. When Zurita finished the entire audience had tears in their eyes. Joy Goswami said to me, “What can I say to him after hearing this? Nothing. The only thing to do is touch his feet.” And he went forward to do exactly that. Zurita, unfamiliar with the gesture, was surprised, wondering what Goswami was doing. For the cynical and for sceptics this may seem improbable. But the fact is that these things have happened at the Dialogues. We have had very, very deep, critical, sharp as well as moving conversations. (Bahuguna 2017)

30Creating the conditions for intimate discussions is quite different from organizing lectures on a stage in front of a large audience, as is done in most festivals. Mohanty explains why this was important: “Literature is not a performing art and it requires a certain degree of quietness and closeness for things to unfold, for writers to speak genuinely and slowly about their work and their lives” (Bahuguna 2017).

31Almost Island also contributes to shaping the canon of Indian literature by publishing seminal texts online like, for example, Adil Jussawalla’s long 2010 interview by Narayanan and Mohanty entitled “Before and After: an Interview with Adil Jussawalla” (Jussawalla et al. 2012), and his 1986 Singapore speech “Being There: Aspects of an Indian Crisis” (Jussawalla 1989, 2010). Not only did Narayanan and Mohanty offer the poet the possibility of recapitulating his poetic itinerary by asking him about both his older and more recent works in the interview, but they also showed the coherence of his thought by republishing his Singapore speech, ten years after the publication of his collection Missing Person (1976), thus giving readers an opportunity to take stock of his importance as a poet and an intellectual. When after thirty-five years of poetic silence, Jussawalla wrote Trying to Say Goodbye (2011), a collection that would receive the Sahitya Akademi award, he understandably turned to Almost Island Books – a house that had only published five authors so far.

32The Internet has undoubtedly provided Indian poets with a fluctuating space that is open to the most diverse literary projects and impervious to urban and territorial constraints. Online publications often combine virtual and material formats, and even initiate physical interactions that can be experienced live or archived online. They have made it possible to foster and maintain connections between poets living in different parts of India and the world, and to produce alternative narratives that challenge dominant speeches – wherever they come from.

The Mumbai-Based Poetrywala Foundation: A New Model of Print-on-Demand Poetry

33The Poetrywala Foundation, the aforementioned publishing house founded by Hemant and Smruti Divate, is now the cornerstone of Bombay’s poetry scene. Their ambitious editorial policy is based on three aims: discovering new poets, perpetuating the works of well-established ones, and filling in editorial gaps by republishing texts that are no longer available. Every year, Poetrywala publishes several collections in Marathi and English. The foundation indeed deliberately encourages poetry in both languages – a choice which clearly sets them apart from separatist and exclusionary practices – in an attempt to contribute to a new poetic cosmopolitanism in Mumbai.

34Hemant Divate, a Marathi poet, has shown great interest in the transformations that globalisation has brought to the art world in general, and poetry in particular. To some extent, it allows a wider and faster circulation of texts and authors, but it also creates expectations and anxiety:

Globalization and its effects have always interested me. It makes me anxious, but it excites me too. […] [Today,] communication is instantaneous. It’s the same with travel; it becomes easy now to accept an invitation to a literary event abroad because getting there is so straightforward. When I was a student, even the journey from the city’s suburbs to the centre was long and troublesome! All of those things, and the pace of change, have had an impact on me and I’m still trying to make sense of it all. (Bird 2019, 570)

35Not only does it help disseminate the Bombay poetic scene outside the city’s limits, but in return, it also offers new technical possibilities to bring together communities from other places as well. This, I think, is what led Hemant Divate to imagine Poetrywala as both an online publishing house and a bookshop. The Poetrywala Foundation is a branch of the larger media company called Paperwall Media & Publishing Pvt. Ltd, also managed by the Divates; it does not have a physical bookshop, and most of the sales are done via the foundation’s website.

36A very special feature of Poetrywala is the fact that international shipping costs are already included in the prices of the books. This testifies to the international readership targeted: the goal is to connect anglophone and vernacular readers beyond local and national borders. Conversely, it is also possible to find books published by Poetrywala in local independent bookshops like Kitab Khana, which opened in 2010 in Mumbai’s Fort district. Poetrywala is not disengaged from the city’s poetic scene, and in fact, organizes many poetry events – such as readings, launch parties, festivals – that are widely advertised on the website:

Poetrywala organised a poetry festival at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences two years ago. We invited a small selection of poets, both those we published and those we did not. Our audience comprised two hundred poetry enthusiasts. In two days, we managed to sell books worth Rs 70,000. The booksellers who ran the festival store told us they had never seen such sales even at major festivals for poetry. Our festival turned out to be a one-off event since we couldn’t manage to secure sponsors for the next year’s edition. Despite such eventualities, I think there is definitely a space for a smaller, more focused literature festival. (Divate 2020)

37Such a model is not only the result of editorial imperatives, but also that of financial and practical ones. Publishing poetry is not a very lucrative business, and storing books in a city like Mumbai is extremely expensive. Such difficulty resulted in a shift to digital printing technology in 2009, which has allowed Poetrywala to print on demand, thereby avoiding storage issues altogether:

Before digital printing, books had to have print runs of at least five hundred copies, a large number when it comes to poetry. Since they inevitably took time to sell, storage was always a challenge. We would (and we still do) keep our stock of printed books at our home. Fortunately, our books manage to sell, so the problem tends to diminish after a while. (Divate 2020)

  • 8 It should be noted that this overall number of prints is comparable to that of other poetry publish (...)

38Paradoxically, smaller print runs – an average of 200 to 300 copies as opposed to the 500 copies or more that used to be printed when a poetry book was first released – have increased the overall number of prints for each book.8 Apart from a three-month period during which they stopped completely due to the Covid-19 crisis, sales picked up and have now reached their normal level again. Moreover, thanks to digital printing, publishers can easily restock when new orders come in, as Hemant Divate explains:

Our print runs are much smaller, and we are now able to promptly reprint a book when our stock falls to ten units or so. Print on Demand ensures that the books are fresh and easily available. Generally speaking, 300 to 500 copies is a good enough number for any poetry collection in the nascent Indian poetry reading market. With very few exceptions, this number remains constant even if the collection has been published by a major publishing house. (Divate 2020)

39These practical and financial constraints have not, however, prevented them from paying close attention to the design of their books. Although Poetrywala operates with small staff, Hemant and Smruti Divate cooperate with graphic designers for each new publication, in an effort to do justice to the work of the poet they propose to publish:

We have a couple of cover designers who work with us on weekends or during their free time. But mostly over a weekend Smruti and I sit with one of them and finish it. We also involve poets in designing the cover. It’s important that each cover is different, and represents the poet’s own voice. It’s a mark of respect to the poem to have a carefully crafted cover, one that complements the poems; it is the church part of the church, if you like – the first thing that strikes a reader and makes them stop to consider reading the book. (H. Divate in Bird 2019, 571)

40The Divates have thus succeeded in overcoming the constraints of publishing poetry in a postcolonial megalopolis; they have built an online bookstore that is at once anchored in the city and distributed internationally, with a transnational catalogue, as underlined by Hemant Divate: “I am also happy that through Poetrywala we are crossing barriers and boundaries of languages and nations. We are publishing poets in many languages translated into English and making more and more poetry available to readers across the globe” (Bird 2019, 571).

41All in all, the Internet has proven a remarkable asset for contemporary poetry in India, keeping poetic traditions alive while generating new ones. It has enabled poets to resume collective practices and to regain a visibility that had been threatened by the transformation of the city itself. Displacing poetic activities online has helped poets expand and connect their artistic communities, building bridges not only across languages and borders but also across genres and disciplines. Indian poetry in English has blossomed into a new virtual territory, where it continues to foster freedom of speech and to cultivate dissenting voices without ignoring the hardships of India’s contemporary reality. These new online cartographies are significantly remapping the local and the global, offering new perspectives for Indian poetry in a globalised world, raising new issues that will need to be explored in years to come once sufficient material has been gathered, such as the effect of digital publication on Indian poetry’s readership, its impact on poetic forms and themes, the multiple influences at play, all of which are redefining contemporary poetry.

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Zoya Akhtar (dir.). Gully Boy. AA Films, 2019.

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Bahuguna, Urvashi. “In the Age of Litfests, This Model of Intimate Literary Exchange is a Vastly Different Experience.”, 10 December 2017,

Bhagya, C.S. “The Literary Corner of the Internet.” The Sunday Guardian, 4 May 2013,

Bird, Emma. “‘Now I’m a Real Mumbai-Wallah!’ An Interview with Hemant Divate.” The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 55, no. 4, 2019, pp. 570-582.

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D’Souza, Dion. Three Doors. Mumbai: Poetrywala, 2016.

Daftuar, Swati. “Almost Island is ‘Anti-Litfest’ in its Emphasis on Serious Literature.” The Hindu, 17 March 2018,

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Divate, Hemant. “How a Poetry-Only Publishing House is Dealing with the Pandemic (and how it grew).” Scroll, 21 July 2020,

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Divine. “Yeh Mera Bombay.” Prod. RJV Ernesto and Sez on the Beat. YouTube, uploaded by DIVINE, 2013,

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1 For more details on the role of little magazines in Bombay’s 20th-century poetry scene, see Anjali Nerlekar 2016.

2 For instance, see poets’ websites like Anand Thakore’s (Thakore, n.d.) and Rochelle Potkar’s (Potkar, 2022); or the Instagram accounts of such rappers as DIVINE (DIVINE 2022) and Naezy (Naezy 2022).

3 Although “Mumbai” has been largely in use since 1995, most of the poets mentioned in this article still refer to their city as “Bombay” as an act of resistance to Shiv Sena, the Indian pro-Marathi, pro-Hindu party. This both regionalist and ultranationalist party is responsible for the change in the city’s name. As a result, these poets are commonly referred to as the “Bombay poets.”

4 Narenda Modi became prime minister in 2014. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is characterized by populist, nationalist, and pro-Hindu policies. It is an ally of Bombay’s Shiv Shena (see note 3).

5 See Laetitia Zecchini’s extensive work on Indian poets from the second half of the 20th century – Arun Kolatkar and Adil Jussawalla, in particular (Zecchini 2014) –, and on modernism as an international phenomenon (Zecchini 2016).

6 Mostly because members found it harder and harder to physically gather, as they lived in various and increasingly distant neighborhoods of the ever-expanding Indian city.

7 In my PhD thesis, I showed how today’s new generation of poets both perpetuate and transform the collective expression of a shared local experience as initiated by the Bombay poets in the second half of the 20th century.

8 It should be noted that this overall number of prints is comparable to that of other poetry publishers in India. For example, Make Me Some Love to Eat (2020) by Madhu Raghavendra, published by Red River, sold more than 400 copies; Paresh Tiwari’s Raindrops Chasing Raindrops (2017) – also published by Red River and which won a prize in the United States – has sold over 300 copies. First collections Balconies of Time (2017) by Amit Shankar Saha and Green is the Colour of Memory (2018) by Huzaifa Pandit – both published by Bitan Chakraborty’s publishing house, Hawakal – sold extremely well: 195 copies in just one year for the former, 160 copies in only three months for the latter (with an additional 7 copies sold in the United States). Like Poetrywala, these publishers rely primarily on online sales (see Gupta 2018).

9 All web sources last accessed 1 September 2022.

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Manon Boukhroufa-Trijaud, « How the Internet is Transforming the Bombay Poetry Scene »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 33 | 2022, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2022, consulté le 01 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Manon Boukhroufa-Trijaud

Université Paris-Est Créteil

Manon Boukhroufa-Trijaud (manonbt[at] recently completed a PhD from the English department of Sorbonne Université. Her research focuses on 21st-century postcolonial identities and her dissertation was entitled Bombay, ville-paysage dans la poésie anglophone de la ville des années 1950 à nos jours (Bombay as a Cityscape in the Anglophone Poetry of the City from the 1950s to the Present Day). She is particularly interested in the Bombay poets, and in how globalisation influences poetic, editorial, and translation practices on the postcolonial urban art scene.

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