Assume, for the sake of argument, that you live in a “flawed democracy” ruled by a behemoth of a political party which employs a person whose prime job is to create and spread propaganda on a daily basis. Now suppose one day you were spending some quiet time outraging on Twitter and you found that this person has published a long cycle of poems that exposes the futility of hankering for political power, that shows how meaningless life can become in a city built around a centre of power. Imagine if this worthy presented to you verse that is haunting, that is elliptical yet unambiguous. Lines like:
There is pity in no one
There is shame
in no one
No one thinks
those who think once
don’t think again.
Close your eyes and visualise this scenario. I am guessing that you shook your head, scoffed, and continued scrolling down your Twitter timeline. And yet, some 40 years ago when Shrikant Verma, Congress spokesperson, Rajya Sabha MP, and close adviser to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency published Magadh, it was praised as a landmark in Hindi poetry, even by writers like Krishna Sobti who otherwise kept political power at arm’s length as a matter of principle.
Rahul Soni’s excellent English translation of this work, first published in 2013 and recently reissued in a new edition by Eka, does little to address the cognitive dissonance that emerges between the persona of the poet and the poetry. By the end of it, I was left wondering what the plain-speaking Adam Gondvi, who wrote couplets like “Tumhare filon mein gaon ka mausam gulabi hai/ magar yeh aankde jhoothe hain, ye daava kitaabi hai” (In your files everything is rosy in the village/ but these statistics are fake, this claim is academic), would have made of the celebration of a poet who denounced the poisoned chalice while continuing to drink deeply from it.
Even Bashir Badr, known for his alacrity in bowing to the powers that be, had the self-awareness to once say: “Ji bahut chahta hai sach bolen/ kya karein haunsla nahin hota” (I really want to tell the truth/ but, what can I do, I am scared). Ghalib is known to do almost everything better than almost everyone else and he comes to mind too with “bana hai shah ka musahib, phire hai itrata/ vagarna shehr mein Ghalib ki aabroo kya hai” (He’s become the Shah’s man, he swaggers about/ otherwise he has no standing in this city). There is no such attempt to triangulate the self in Magadh. Archimedes is reported to have said: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.” Verma tries to move the earth without standing anywhere. This elision of the poet can work in some situations, is probably required in some others. Here it comes off as less than honest.
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Arguably, it is unfair to let the figure of the poet overwhelm the poetry, so let us turn to the poems themselves. There is undoubtedly substantial poetic merit here. Verma uses names of places from the ancient world—Magadh, Kosala, Vaishali, Hastinapur—to create a space that is somewhere in between the real and the mythological. His cast of voices is diverse enough to keep the reader interested. The themes are important and timely: the futility of power, the transience of life, the intellectual suffocation that is the sine qua non of totalitarianism. It shows us how the play of power hollows out our lives:
the council is unnecessary
everyone has already been judged
before they are born
“Rahul Soni’s translation makes us feel like he ingested Verma’s Hindi original intravenously.”
The most interesting and challenging formulations to be found in this volume are the self-contradictory ones. For example:
The truth is that
every road goes to Ujjaini
no road goes to Ujjaini.
When we are confronted with language like this, the world turns grey and a sense of overpowering helplessness begins to take hold. The power of this poetry is that along with the inevitability of death, it is able to establish the inevitability of logical contradiction and the impossibility of arriving at meaning. These aspects of the poems are more powerful than their commentary on the transience of political power. They appear fresher. It is also here that Rahul Soni’s translation shines. But not just here. Soni’s translation makes us feel like he ingested Verma’s Hindi original intravenously. It feels like it went straight into his bloodstream and exploded into his mind in English. There is an exhilaration in reading lines like these:
No one is old in Kapilavastu/
the fear of being old
means only this
that no one should be old in Kapilavastu
- When Shrikant Verma, Congress spokesperson, Rajya Sabha MP, and close adviser to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency published Magadh, it was praised as a landmark in Hindi poetry.
- While the poetry is exhilarating, there is a cognitive dissonance between the persona of the poet and the poetry.
- But the translation by Rahul Soni is an uncommon achievement, and for this alone the volume deserves to be read.
Undoubtedly, this translation is an uncommon achievement, and for this alone the volume deserves to be read. One regrettable feature about this edition is the amount of baggage it carries. There are 10 voluminous endorsements by 10 extremely worthy people, a foreword by Apoorvanand, an afterword by Ashok Vajpeyi, a translator’s note by Soni himself, and an essay by Mantra Mukim that appears to be animated by the anxiety that “some readers… overwhelmed by the readability of these poems... might finish the collection without having been able to properly interpret it”. This pudding has been overegged.
Soni’s translator’s note is heartfelt and to the point. The pieces by Apoorvanand and Vajpeyi are interesting though not substantial. But Mukim’s essay is, unfortunately, an outright embarrassment. It contains some shocking blunders. He suggests that all Hindi poetry prior to the first decade of the 20th century was devotional. What then of the Riti Kavya written for at least 300 years up to the 19th century that focussed on courtly love? Many talented poets wrote in this style, including ones like Bihari who wrote the Satsai that is still read today and was immortalised by the Guleri painters of Nainsukh’s school. Arguably some echoes of this period can be found in a few poems of Magadh as well, especially the ones dealing with courtesans.
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Mukim also says that the Dwivedi period was the beginning of the formalisation of Hindi. It is widely accepted as the second period of formalisation, with the first period being inaugurated by the Nagari Pracharini Samiti and “Bhartendu” Harishchandra. Egregiously, Mukim repeats the lazy formulation that Chayavaad was “inspired” by European Romanticism. And here we were under the impression that Postcolonial Studies had successfully recentred the discourse.
Some of these claims may be matters of opinion, but there are factual errors too: Mukim says that Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi established the influential magazine Saraswati in 1900. The year of establishment is correct, but Saraswati was established and owned by the publisher Chintamani Ghosh, who employed Dwivedi, then working as a telegraph clerk, as editor in 1903. How did such basic mistakes make it through the editorial process? I can understand that the publisher or the translator felt that a history of Hindi poetry needed to be included in this volume to provide a context that is not particularly well known to English readers, but by publishing this error-ridden essay they have done a great disservice to the cause they set out to serve.
If we ignore the icing and focus on the cake, if we ignore the poet and focus on the poetry, this translation is a rewarding read. Soni has demonstrated that translation can work to enrich the idiom of the target language. Indian English poetry is undoubtedly richer with this contribution. But the translator and publisher need to work together to clean up their editorial act before the next edition.
Amitabha Bagchi is an award-winning novelist and translator.