The Setting of Cups

A tribute to the writers and editors who nurture our work.

The Setting of Cups

“The heart must be curbed lest it become angelic” is the opening line of Saleem Peeradina’s poem “Heart’s Beast,” which appears in Future Library (2022), the Red Hen Press anthology of contemporary Indian writing. The book is one of a recent bonanza of three anthologies on my shelf that mark the 75th anniversary of India’s independence in 1947.

A heart that holds back is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the world of Indian poets. Just the sheer size of these anthologies — Future Library, edited by Anjum Hasan and Sampurna Chattarji; Converse (2022), edited by Sudeep Sen; and the three-inch-thick Penguin Book of Indian Poets (2022), edited by Jeet Thayil — points toward generosity.

A few years ago, I wrote a review of Peeradina’s poetry collection Final Cut for the Missing Slate. I mentioned that, in 2003, shortly after graduating college, I spent a few days with Saleem and his wife, Mumtaz, at their home in Michigan. I recalled the mornings: I would rise from a rich, kind sleep to a cup of brewed Indian chai made at daybreak and set out for us on the kitchen table by Saleem.

That setting of the cups — their simplicity and beauty — seemed to exemplify the poet and his work. At the time, he had finished Meditations on Desire, in which the inner life of passion was juxtaposed against the brevity of the poems. There was a simultaneous restraint and romance in that book that followed the tradition of Indian devotional poetry and song.

Peeradina was born in 1944 in Bombay and died on Feb. 12, 2023, in Michigan. He was a Bombay poet, and yet at some point in my reading of him, I placed him in the urban-pastoral tradition of American poetry. He himself had edited a 1972 anthology of contemporary Indian poetry published by Macmillan. I was not born then, but these were the books that found their way into our high schools, where I read Peeradina, Mahapatra, de Souza, and many others.

During that visit in 2003, Saleem re-published a short story of mine that had appeared in International Gallerie in India about the Kargil War. It was my first American publication. It was also my first time in the rural Midwest, with its fallow fields, the Scandinavian faces in the classrooms mirrors of the ones I’d seen during travels in Norway. We were Mumbaikars, speaking a mix of English, Bambaiya Hindi, and Urdu. Mumtaz and he were fine hosts. Since that visit, we’ve only spoken on the phone. Last year, his voice was feeble, the Parkinson’s affecting his vision. The soft light of his soul was dimming.

The setting of cups is not unlike the gathering of writers in these three new anthologies, which I am grateful to find myself included in. New and established poets sit side-by-side in their pages. Some have died, but they are still in conversation with one another, as if still at the table being served hot cups of chai. I am slowly climbing the hundreds of stairs, pausing to greet strangers and familiars.

In Saleem’s passing, I also feel thankful for the poet-editors who illuminate the path of other writers. The literary community involves caregiving for the written word, for the imagination of others, for ideas. It is often volunteer work, a service.

The week of Saleem’s passing, I read this beautiful obituary in by the journalist Salil Tripathi, which captures the sweep of Saleem’s work. Salil used to serve as volunteer chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison committee.

I am sad to lose another friend. I think of Eunice de Souza on the cover of Thayil’s anthology, inviting conversation with her smile. In the photograph, she has a cigarette in her hand, one of her beloved parrots perched on her head.

In “Rumor of Birds,” Saleem Peeradina writes:

“…you live, love, breed, and die at full tilt
claiming only a bit of earth and infinite sky.”

Leeya Mehta is interim director of the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center.

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