Hemant Divate’s poetry is born of suffocation, with the word and the world. It comes from a pain borne with patience. Like his previous collections, his latest book, Paranoia (originally in Marathi, published under the same name), conveys a disquiet that goes beyond ennui, fear and angst. Paranoia is a state of being, in a collective sphere where existence hangs by a thread. When a riot breaks out, things go helter-skelter. Divate is quick to catch the moment in the title poem, when he writes, I only heard the ratatat of doors/ and the windows slamming shut/ and the shutters rolling and rattling down as everyone beats a hasty retreat, running frantically for their lives.
Mustansir Dalvi’s translation makes Divate’s verse come alive in English. Paranoia conveys dread and disquiet, which are the feelings of the person who suddenly finds himself in a hate-filled atmosphere. Divate wonders, Why did they suddenly stop playing ‘Mumbai Matka’/ and start playing ‘Hindu Muslim’/ in the Muzaffarnagar riots?/ How did Salman, who had just reached/ the day before yesterday, die? The feeling of hate is visceral, like a tremendous fire in the python’s belly/ larger than the fire in my head/ the human inside me was dead. The rioters are a mob of man-eaters, chomping eyes and tearing chunks of hand/ wrenched from a human body, heedless of the ways of Gandhi/As they stroll on Ahimsa Marg.
In an essay titled “After Modernism: Marathi Poetry of the 80s and 90s”, the Marathi critic, Chandrashekhar Jahagirdar, had remarked that contemporary Marathi poetry was facing a “general sense of disorientation” because of its break with modernism, the saint poetry tradition as well as folk tradition. Divate’s best work comes from this ideological vacuum, which is accentuated by encounters with a globalised market and a palpable sense of dread stemming from increasing hatred on the streets. He stays clear of purists and finds in the language of the street the “alternative expressive mode” that characterises contemporary Marathi poets, in Jahagirdar’s analysis.
For all their violent imagery, these poems are also looking for respite and succour. Even while hanging between life and death, Divate’s protagonist pauses for the vadapaowala to finish his task: for the sunny-side up on the griddle of truth/ was yet to be placed between the half-fried pao.
Also Read | A.K. Ramanujan’s uncut gems
There are other split seconds of surprise. In a moment of epiphany, which he has not found in all the philosophical and religious texts he has read, the poet discovers that the purpose of a flower is to beautify one’s circumscribed surrounding… and from that moment on, my world changed/ I changed, as I became aware of my circle of being.
Critics have described Divate as a chronicler of Mumbai, in the manner of great prose stylists such as Vikram Chandra and Suketu Mehta. In his recourse to prose for poetry, one is reminded of the Chilean poet-physicist Nicanor Parra, whose genre of “anti-poetry” eschews all lyrical flourishes. Incidentally, Divate studied Physics too. But the parallels end there.
“For all their violent imagery, these poems are also looking for respite and succour.”
Divate explores the lyrical as a way out of a depleting ethical universe, to escape the clutches of the market as well as of the peddlers of hate. His best lines are in the lyric mode, in a poem about his mother, who is afraid that the waters in the house would run dry. He writes, Like the joy that floods a poet’s mind/ after writing a good poem/ one could see the bliss on her face/ and know, at that moment, she had become water/ gurgling, flowing from a brimful well/ The bliss of the gurgling water in the well/ of her dreams turning into a gurgling river/ flowing playfully over her body.
For Divate, facts are the stuff of poetry and poetry is a fact. There is no linguistic ornament for its own sake. He prefers the familiar tongue of the street, replete with expletives. Language is turned on its head in a way reminiscent of the Marathi Dalit poets. This too is a folk idiom, something that Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre had recognised in the previous century. The colloquialisms are retained playfully by Dalvi, who sprinkles the translation with words and phrases like “dedanaadan”, “dhishum dhishum” or “faltugiri maharaj ki jai”. This marks an interesting turn in translation in a post-colonial pluriverse, where bits of the original serve to make the point better.
Hemant Divate deserves to be taken seriously in Marathi as well as in translation. He can convey fear and turmoil in a contemporary Mumbaiyya tongue, which lends it immediacy. It is in the easy capture of the moment of dread, quickly spiralling into an existential crisis, that Divate’s craft lies.
Amlanjyoti Goswami is the author of two poetry collections, Vital Signs and River Wedding, both published by Poetrywala.