Through my Window

From the earth and the sky

Print edition : December 12, 2014

Mangalesh Dabral. Photo: V. Sudershan

Joy Goswami. Photo: PTI

H.S. Shiva Prakash. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

ONE of the dubious privileges of senior writers is that they get a lot of books as gifts; I said “dubious” for many reasons. While, at times, they are just a selfless expression of a deep and lasting friendship, very often, sadly, they come with expectations, about your writing a review, making a comment in some context, giving a feedback, writing the introduction for the next book, recommending or short-listing it for some award or other recognition—all of which you find impossible to fulfil. Many of the books are also in languages you do not know and have no time to learn either, making you wonder what to do with them. Having been given as a mark of love or respect, you find it unkind to throw them away; and you have no space left at home for books that you are sure not to read. So you want to play the benevolent donor, but again, it is easier these days to find donors of books than those who will ungrudgingly receive them, forcing you, though with great reluctance, to have recourse to the time-tested modes of dispensing with books: leaving them in the obscure parts of the hotel room where you were staying (not a good option as the books may follow you: “Sir, you forgot to take these books!”) or the airports you leave from (not packed, but open, as unclaimed packets might cause a flutter if discovered) and, as a last helpless resort, leaving them to the sensibility of the rag-picker. But certain other books share their fate not because you do not know the languages in which they are written, but because you know those languages. Yet there are others too, offered to you with no expectations, that invite you to keep them, to read, remember and celebrate them. Let me talk about some such books published in 2014 that I received recently: because of constraints of space I am confining myself to three books of poetry, the genre closest to my heart.

Critiquing progress

Mangalesh Dabral is undeniably one of the finest poets writing in Hindi today, in the generation that follows Raghuvir Sahay, Shamsher Bahadur Singh, Kedarnath Singh, Kunwar Narain and Vinod Kumar Shukla. The first collection of the English translations of his poems, This Number Does Not Exist, Selected Poems 1981-2013, has just been brought out by Poetrywala, Mumbai, a unique publishing house dedicated to innovative poetry. Mangalesh has been an important presence in Hindi poetry since the publication of his first collection Pahar Par Lalten (Lantern on the Mountain) in 1981 that was followed by four more, including the latest, Naye Yug Mein Shatru (Enemy in the New Era, 2014). He has also published four books of prose: two books of literary essays, one of conversations, and a travelogue about his days in Iowa as a resident writer.

Widely translated, represented at poetry festivals, anthologised and awarded, Mangalesh has also translated into Hindi the works of Ernesto Cardenal, Pablo Neruda, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Zbigniew Herbert, Bertolt Brecht and Yannis Ritsos, among others. His native mountain town, Tehri in the Himalayan foothills, is a recurring presence in his poetry. One may do well to recall, as Manohar Shetty does in the brief “Afterword” to the collection, the staggering fallout of the Tehri dam project that drowned the entire Tehri town along with more than 100 surrounding villages, displacing about 12,500 families, dislocating around 100,000 people, some of whom resettled in the shabby New Tehri, a concrete jungle, far from the fertile original town with its exotic opulence (“This is not it, my city is now an empty feeling”).

Dabral critiques this kind of “development” that sends into exile huge masses of people from their rich, verdant habitats and their traditional lifestyles and familiar occupations: a critique that is never loud, sentimental or atavistic, but painful, subtle and ironic. It is often a feeling of emptiness, a sense of vacant places in one’s memory left behind by all kinds of losses. It just tells us, “Go inward, feel the moist spot, touch,/see if it still remains there or not in these ruthless times” (“Touch”). “Things get lost but their places remain/moving with us all our lives, /We move elsewhere, leaving our homes, our people,/the water, the trees. /Like a stone, I had washed away from a mountain,/that mountain must still have a little place left”; “Look back a bit, brother,/how the doors shut themselves/behind each one of them/a room utterly forlorn”(“Song of the Dislocated”). The destiny of these destitute people resounds in the “domestic darkness of the hearth” where your helpless words are “spread/like grain gathered in the famine”. The poet identifies himself with the missing boy “eating bread somewhere in anger”.

The 52 poems in the collection together reveal a dissenting poet who refuses to be persuaded by the plea for “progress” that only leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the poor. The poet finds life a strange kind of begging, roaming and knocking on random doors, asking for the alms of money, favours, abilities, love, restiveness and birth itself (“Asking for Favours”). He can hardly forget his village home. He recalls how, when he was a child, his father had brought home an electric torch from which an old woman in the neighbourhood wanted to light a fire: “After all these years that light from the torch/the granny’s demand of fire and father’s helplessness keep returning/like a poem in the irony of our time” (“Torchlight”). The poet’s wish is that the truth of a simple sentence like “we are human beings” remains with us, so too despair that generates hope, words that refuse to be caught, childishness in love and shame in poets. “Reality these Days” is another interesting poem where the poet says reality today is so dazzling that it is difficult to look right at it; it moves so fast that one can only catch fleeting glimpses of it. “A dead man now/has a lot more to say than anyone living/The blood oozing from his body/makes more noise than the blood in his body.” The poem concludes: “Reality is too much of a reality these days/its blood more visible than its body.” His picture of the new bank, “a smooth gleaming place” is almost surreal and works well as a metaphor for the impersonal transactions of the globalised world. In “One of Gujarat’s Dead Speaks”, written in the wake of the post-Godhra genocide, the dead man witnesses greater humanity in the dead than in the living. The elusive city he had come looking for haunts the poet; the distant star looks like the city lights and the traveller hopes that he can still reach that city of his dreams “tumbling along like a stone” (“The City, Again”). The translations done by various translators from Rupert Snell and Daniel Weissbort to Sudeep Sen and Girdhar Rathi have managed to capture the spirit of the original.

“Game of the unexpected”

Joy Goswami has been acknowledged as one of the most significant poets of the post-Jibanananda Das era in Bengali. Sampurna Chattarji, poet, fiction writer and translator of Sukumar Ray’s verses for children, has selected some of his most significant works and translated them excellently into English ( Selected Poems of Joy Goswami, Harper Perennial). Joy Goswami did not pursue formal education after school, devoting himself instead entirely to the reading and writing of literature, particularly poetry. He began to publish poetry when he was 19, and soon shot into prominence with his suggestive, sensuous, imagistic, energetic, and idiomatically innovative poetry. “In poetry, a limbless body can become an astral body,” he once told his translator in a conversation; like any genuine poet, he believes in delving into the deeper layers of language, beyond the surface meaning of words, liberating the word from its customary meaning and turning it into a sign with multiple connotations. Again, to quote the poet, “poetry penetrates, at the speed of thought, as if it wants to return to the beginning of time”.

He admires Shakti Chattopadhyay’s poetry as well as Rilke’s and believes, like them, that the life of imagination is more real than the so-called real life, which is plain, factual, mundane. He also thinks that every poet is a failed poet as no poet can ultimately write what he/she wanted to. “Writing poetry is the game of the unexpected.” The poet can only wait for that moment of surprise, of epiphany, which he may at times not even attain. The poet keeps moving towards the unknown, never knowing what is right and what is wrong. Creating beauty and joy is in itself an act of protest, a silent war, against an unjust and violent world. What matters is not whether the poet turns his poems into a social commentary, but whether his poetry has an emotional, imaginative truth at its core that would reveal the extraordinary interior of the quotidian. One can put one’s ears to the cover of a book and hear the earth’s blood circulating within. The poet reads everything on his way towards the poem and poetry comes from a love-union between the earth and language. And what matters is the poet’s voice, not craft taken in isolation.

One can find a great poet even in Joy Goswami’s early poems of Surjo-Pora Chhai ( Ashes, burnt by the Sun, 1999) where the poet imagines a blood-smeared God listening to his poems. Reading these poems, with their half-lines and invented compound words, is almost like reading Paul Celan: “On the earth’s metallic surface/Steel grass has risen/Under night’s cover, the sky sleeps/The unread Book of Lightning in his hand/The slave walks away, losing prison upon prison….” The fisherman here upturns his hat for the meteor’s pitter-patter. “One dawn his head catches fire, explodes/The moon pierces a hole in the roof of the sea.” The images are vivid, yet semi-abstract. It is as if Joy is discovering language for the first time and playing with it like a child. The landscape he paints in the poems of this collection is nightmarish and Dali-like; what fascinates us is the child’s eye, like that of Alice in the wonderland, which fills the world with wonder and makes strange connections. The poet seems to be raiding the inarticulate and wrenching words from a cosmic silence. There is a procession of strange images in these poems without titles: “In dreams the dead peacock, moon/Light on his skin”; “Into her cupped palmfuls of water the suns continually sink”; “On a sandbank above the water/One day there sat a bird as heavy as the earth”; “Today the body is a sapling/The wind a wandering boy/The girl a lantern/And this courtyard-mother!”; “Like wide-open knees/The chopping block/Put your face there/In the blink of an eye your head will shoot into the filed upfront”. Some images are nightmarish: a sacrificial goat, the mark of whose previous beheading remains like a garland around his throat, a blood-drinking bat crouched on the moon at night, a ghost trying to mate with the earth, penetrating active volcanoes. The poet declares in “Moutat Moheswar” ( Shiva, My High, 2005): “In softness I’ll set out from home/In birdness I’ll set out from language”; “This book is Salvador Dali’s clock melting under water/That person is me reading writing deleting under water,” and “Leaving old peacocks behind, liberation goes far into the untimely hours/What remains is the strain of flying.”

The poems from Du Dondo Phowara Matro ( No More Than a Spurt of Time, 2011) are no less intriguing. They express the embarrassment of not finding a place to keep peace, of sitting guarding the bicycles of four friends who are learning from their female companion the ways to delay orgasm, watching students’ scattered dead bodies still twitching at Tiananmen after the tanks had run over them, remembering the lost parents, only to discover in the room a moon with eyes gauged out and heaps of wood burnt to ash, “not-telling” Ma something floating on water, seeing a human eye, fried baby fingers and breast-meat on a plate of food next to the curry, the east and the west turning into two pages glittering with death’s poem, the evanescence of relationships like receding water that leaves only silt for grass and weeds to grow, confronting the demon of hunger with a blazing sun in his stomach asking for some stale bread, civilisation, before dying, leaving the poet only the chains around its feet, the fisherman pulling the net to see the new sun caught in it.

The protagonists of these poems are mostly ordinary men and women, rag-pickers, fishermen, push-cart pullers, spice-grinders, ice cream vendors, vegetable vendors, cooks, garbage men, shop girls. And the poet, while retaining his playfulness, seems more mature and closer to a fuller, less fragmented, articulation of his vision in these poems than in the last collection. Sampurna Chattarji deserves our gratitude for having dared to translate these challenging poems and for having done it so well.

Rooted in religious traditions

H.S. Shiva Prakash, the celebrated Kannada poet in the post-Adiga generation (he is also a well-known playwright and translator), is different from both the poets discussed above as his mystical vision is rooted in the Shaivite, Buddhist and Sufi traditions. But that does not make his poetry less contemporary. In Other Words ( Selected Poems, 1975-2006), Poetrywala, Mumbai) is the first collection of the translations of his poems rendered into English by the poet himself. The 39 poems in the selection are adequate to give us a broad idea of the poet’s preoccupations and his often-dramatic mode of imagination.

In his brief preface, the poet says how he has been trying to call the muses home from the banks of the Thames and Seine where they had set up their new abodes. He turned to the Kannada classical and folk traditions for inspiration though he abhors being called a “nativist” or a “post-Colonial poet” as these terms reek of an Anglo-American mind-set. But while he travelled to the worlds that he thought were his own, he discovered that all poetry, even the most primitive, transcends the purely local by attempting a communion with the whole cosmos. He began to look at other worlds from the vantage point of his own tradition and reconnected with them unmediated by what was deemed fashionable and created his own system. He found that tradition was not a given, but an evolving process and poetry’s journey to greater freedom was a continuous journey. “Like Umberto Eco, I feel that cultures are translatable, not completely singular or vaguely universal.” Creativity is coeval with translation as equal exchanges—unimpeded by hegemonic attitudes—and are essential for the expansion of literary traditions. To quote the poet again, “‘Do not follow the footsteps of ancestors,’ said the great Japanese poet Basho; ‘Instead , seek what they sought.’ This sums up my relationship with my ancestors from my tradition and their counterparts in other worlds.”

In a hymn to Vachadbhoo (Murugan), the Lord of Speech, the poet wants the Lord to bring his cock to crow the new dawn and spring and command his peacock to dance this rainy season so that the world is reborn in him. In another poem on Milarepa, the Tibetan Buddhist yogi and poet, who did not care to restore his collapsed house as he realised the transient nature of all things, the poet wonders: “Can I bring back/The ones who bore and reared me,/Now buried memories/Amidst snowflakes /And scattered, broken, building blocks?” His dakinis (female spirits who embody diverse physical and mental powers) assure him that he can bring the dead back or turn the snowflakes into gold if Milarepa just says yes. But that is pointless as birth would again subject them to the torments of the karmic cycle. “On the brink of nirvana/even Buddha, the Master, suffered stomach-ache/Why should I make you again /Victims of the turning wheel/O father/O, mother?” In “The Child at the Fruit Stall”, the poet’s counsel is: “Become a fruit, child/Let taut ripeness/Wrap you round,/Like a ripe plantain full of cracks/Bend just a little/Well, not too much….. Don’t soar up/Like rocketing prices of apples/Better be a wayside berry/All can afford.”

There are, too, moments of fierce love as in “A Love Poem to the Twilight Girl”: “You have brought me, love,/The bread that tastes of light/Let us mix it with my salt and eat it /O , my companion of twilights… Let your flower-soft fingers feel and fondle my wounds….” The landscape, however, is a ruined one where nothing can grow and even the street lamps are melancholic. It is a bleak cityscape where the beloved’s memories are the only solace: “The flame you set me on the night before, the roars of invisible oceans, the flowering jungles are all turning into songs.” The poem on Bhimavva, the tanner woman who suckled Nagalinga Yogi back to life and became his mother, is a prayer to the saint to give the poet the suck of her heart’s milk, for his body now is an oven of hunger. The poem interrogates the caste system and brings out the nobility of labour in the tradition of Basava, the saint poet: “You are the hand/That sweeps the dirt of the earth/And makes manure out of dirt/And plant seedlings/You are the tree/The lust of Desais and Patels/Could not cut down.” Bhimavva is the “breastless virgin” and “unmarried mother”, “the bringer of rains, the mother of stars, moon, clouds and flames” whose heart’s milk can revive the earth. In “The Sutra of Doubt”, the poet is told: “Death is not /What comes only at the end;/There are many kinds of death,/Many kinds of living/Beyond such doubts/And beyond faiths.”

Kumaran Asan, the great Malayalam poet, has a long narrative poem called “Karuna” (Compassion) based on the legend of Vasavadatta, the courtesan who fell in love with Upagupta, a disciple of the Buddha who did not reciprocate her love, but brought about a change of heart in her by visiting her when she fell on bad days and was maimed for conspiring to kill a merchant who was her customer. Shiva Prakash has a beautiful poem titled “Vasavadatta” where the courtesan speaks of her desire and love for Upagupta, longing for whom her heart has become a restless clamouring sea. Upagupta had taken away as alms not rice or gold, but her very life-breath: “Other lovers came/Who filled my vessel with coral/And drew emeralds out/But nothing remained/But this emptiness/-me.” Before he came, she had been no more than a “doll of mud and flesh”: “Pluck the fruits/I am a tree/Taste the grapes of my eyes/I am a creeper/O, mahout,/Ride me,/A besotted elephant,/sweating the juice of intoxication….” She believes that Upagupta can never run away from her heart even though her arrows of lust have failed to hit him.

In another poem, a Bhikku tells the remorseful Ashoka that non-violence is an ineffectual weapon against the principal foe. Ambapali’s conversion is the subject of another poem. Rikyu, the Zen master wrongly suspected of treason by King Hidayoshi, is the protagonist of yet another poem. Another poem is based on Kumarasambhava and the events leading to Shiva’s marriage with Parvati, a reincarnation of Daksha’s daughter Sati (Dakshayani), who had immolated herself when insulted by her father whom she had persuaded to invite Shiva to the great sacrifice her father was performing. Dakshayani is told that she would return as the daughter of the mountains when “the harvest of blood and vengeance ends”. There is a poem addressed to Ashadullah Khadri Wali Shivayogi, who lived in Hebbal, a village outside Bengaluru, where the poet sees his teacher everywhere: “Guru in the switch/ Guru in the ditch/ Guru in airplanes, rockets,/In every line of every letter/Of every page of every volume/Of myriad worlds…/Guru in every dot of every line/waiting for Kaliyuga/To explode like a bomb.” In another dramatic poem, Tukaram appears praying to Vittala so that his manuscripts may float and survive while being forced by the upper castes to throw them into the river. Tehri, the mountain village drowned by the dam—Mangalesh Dabral’s place—is addressed in another poem, a farewell to the ancient city. In a poem on 9/11, the poet asks: “Tell me, dear friend Joe,/Why is only sin the solution/ For the sins of our world?” There are poems on Shams-i-Tabris, Rumi’s spiritual master, Nagarjuna, the Mahayana Buddhist mystic, and even a prayer for Baghdad in this collection that stands out for its secular spiritual vision.

There are many more books of poetry I would have loved to write about but have to postpone for constraints of space—like Arundhati Subramaniam’s When God is a Traveller, Hemant Divate’s Struggles with Imagined Gods (translated from Marathi by Mustansir Dalvi), Mamang Dai’s Midsummer Survival Lyrics, Jayant Parmar’s Pencil and Other Poems (translated from Urdu by Nishat Zaidi), and A. Ayyappan’s Selected Poems (translated from Malayalam by P.K.N. Panicker).


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