Naveen Kishore is a phenomenon in our literary and cultural space. He gave a fresh impetus to translations of world literature and to cinema writing with his publishing house, Seagull Books, which occupies the same transformative space in the recent history of Indian publishing as P. Lal’s Writers Workshop did in another time and age. To say that Kishore changed the landscape of Indian publishing would not be off the mark.
Mother Muse Quintet
Kishore is also a poet: his debut book of poems, Knotted Grief (2022), has a section, “Kashmiriyat”, which was much praised by readers and reviewers. But its other sections, such as “Street Full of Widows” or “Selected Griefs”, are as good, if not better, in that the poems there are more matured.
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In Knotted Grief, grief is like a lingering lump in the throat, or maybe a lump of emotions, even blood, that does not melt away. The melancholy, it seemed to me, was like the Turkish huzun, the collective melancholy of the age that Orhan Pamuk talks of.
Mother Muse Quintet is Kishore’s second book of poems. At the outset, let me say that to write a book-length poem on a specific issue and to keep it riveting and enjoyable is nothing short of a stupendous achievement. The book, ostensibly, is a tribute to the Mother Muse, the mother tongue, and to Mother Prem. It is divided into five sections of uneven lengths, that are titled—in deceptively plain language—as “Mother Muse I”, “Mother Muse II”, “Mother Muse III”, “Mother Muse IV”, and “Mother Muse V”. The sections are uneven in length because that is how lived life is: lived experiences are not programmed by a machine.
Adam Zagajewski, the great Polish poet, who passed away in 2021 without the Nobel Prize, once said in an interview that bad things like killings, assaults, kidnappings, rapes, and so much more happened in his country too, but unlike Americans, the Polish did not shout it out aloud. They would just hint at it. Zagajewski certainly did.
In both books of Kishore, this idea is prominent as a kind of poetic vision. To me, it represents the highest artistic peaks achieved by a poet—the idea of pithiness, conveyed by the term vakrokti, or the theory of oblique expression in classical Sanskrit poetics. In literature, in poetry specifically, everything does not have to be said. One of the problems of our times is the preponderance of all kinds of politics in our lives. But it is not necessary for the poet to be the placard-carrying activist. It is the poet’s art and artistry that should move mountains.
As a reviewer, I appreciate the poetic oeuvre of Kishore, and the maturity of his thought, though he has written only two books. Let me quote from a prose poem in “Mother Muse I”:
“Build me a self. She pleaded. A whole one? I asked. One I may call my own. Self. Again. She said. I looked at her. Swiftly. Almost surreptitiously. My gaze. First taking in the dignity. The earnestness. Hers. And of the request. The controlled undertone. Not quite panic. Yet. And trust. The faith. That I could. And would. Help rebuild. Not just her self. But also her sense of being. Hers. No room for doubt. Or error. Not in her mind. Her mind that had known nothing. A will. So strong. And purpose. Now a tremor. Her mind. A sustained flicker. Twitching. In hesitation. Her own. The light squeezed out. The fog rolling in.” (p. 17)
Pregnant with possibilities
Prose poems, along with a few traditional metric forms, are often the toughest to compose. Mother Muse Quintet contains a mix of different poetic forms, where free verse mingles effortlessly with prose. The fluidity in the poem above—it could be about the real mother, it could be about the Mother Muse, or about one’s mother tongue—is a quality found throughout Mother Muse Quintet. In another untitled poem from “Mother Muse I”, Kishore says:
for a fact
I let them cut off her leg
In an effort to ease her pain?
what else was there to do?” (p. 32)
These are very powerful lines. The entire book is interspersed with such evocative lines, which are pregnant with possibilities.
“Kishore’s poems do not hide behind the intellectualism that marks much of contemporary poetry.”
Moving forward, on the next page, Kishore says poignantly, in another prose poem:
“I first learnt the language my mother spoke while I slept in her lap. In Kashmir. The first words I heard were not spoken. But sung. I heard songs. As murmurs. As whispers. As lullabies. As language that soothes. And invites the welcoming night to a child’s tired eyes. So that they may close and rest. These were my night sounds. Sounds that lulled me to sleep.” (p. 54)
At times, Kishore’s memories of Kashmir echo the lines of the great Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. “Mother Muse III” also seems to tie up with “Kashmiriyat” from Knotted Grief. Evocative lines are Kishore’s forte, as evident here: “The leaves gathered their whispers. First into a murmur./ Then into a song” (“Mother Muse V”, p. 109).
- The book is a tribute to the Mother Muse, the mother tongue, and to Mother Prem.
- The entire book is interspersed with such evocative lines, which are pregnant with possibilities.
- Mother Muse Quintet is an important contribution not just in the specific tradition of poets writing on and about Kashmir but also as a dirge for the motherland.
Dirge for the motherland
I heard echoes of Ali’s iconic poem, “From Amherst to Kashmir” (from Rooms Are Never Finished), at several places in Mother Muse Quintet but without the specific instances of Zainab and Karbala. In his tribute to Ali, ‘“The Ghat of the Only World’: Agha Shahid Ali in Brooklyn”, Amitav Ghosh quotes the poet lamenting, “why can’t we have just the good things in life? Why have all the bloodshed?” Kishore seems to be articulating similar emotions about the lacerations that the land has to undergo.
In “Mother Muse V”, towards the end of the book, there is another haunting prose poem.
“The Conversations around you. Brittle and brisk. Without meaning. Words hurriedly strung together. Shoved into a tin can. Shaken. Made to rattle in short bursts. Like gunfire at close quarters. Tweets of fate. And happenstance. Like firing squads. Immediate. Transient. Relentless and vicarious babel. Grab and shoot. Who has the time? To think? Or breathe. The normal? Now a different shade of pale.” (p. 124)
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The poet and novelist Tabish Khair once told me: “As I grow older, I think poetry should be evocative, not intellectual.” I concur with him and find an example of this in Kishore’s poems, which do not hide behind the intellectualism that marks much of contemporary poetry.
Mother Muse Quintet is an important contribution not just in the specific tradition of poets writing on and about Kashmir but also as a dirge for the motherland. One must buy and read the book, which raises many questions as it touches upon myriad issues. The way in which it melds the personal with the public is truly magical: only an experienced poet could have pulled it off, but Kishore accomplishes it right here, in his second volume.
Roomy Naqvy teaches English Literature at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. He is also a poet, translator, and recipient of the Katha Translation Award 1996 (Gujarati).