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Mangalesh Dabral: Poet of the masses

Print edition : January 15, 2021

Mangalesh Dabral (1948-2020) Photo: V. Sudershan

“This Number Does Not Exist: Selected Poems 1981-2013” by Manglesh Dabral, Poetrywala, 2014. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Noted Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral (1948-2020) lived, thought, spoke and wrote among the masses. His poems, notable for their simplicity and sensitivity, were reflections of reality and rootedness.

His language was born in better climes. It was meant for better times, too. Not for him a word written in anger, nor was language meant to be the vehicle of hatred or arrogance. Words used as weapons to alienate fellow citizens disturbed the eminent Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral profoundly, probably reminding him of the time when he left his home in the hills of Tehri Garhwal in Uttarakhand to carve out a career in Delhi.

The city was unsettling, impersonal and alienating. But a retreat to the hills was never an option once Dabral set foot in the city in 1960. He fortified his inner defences and stayed on in the city, working as a journalist for Hindi publications such as Jansatta, Sahara Samay, Hindi Patriot and Purvagrah, as well as the National Book Trust. His literary essays, critiques and obituaries had the touch of life and the warmth of a genuine article. A poet at heart, he had the rare knack of balancing his words with the accuracy of a mathematician. Understatement characterised much of his writing.

While his day job kept the kitchen fire burning, Mangalesh Dabral also wrote and translated poetry. His poetry had the same stark simplicity of his speech. He translated Pablo Neruda and Bertolt Brecht into Hindi. In a rare instance, his translation of Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, titled Apaar Khushi ka Gharana in Hindi, made fresh waves when it hit the market. Such was Dabral’s prowess. Such was his oeuvre.

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As he wrote in the Introduction to his volume of poetry titled This Number Does Not Exist: “My poetry was born in the mountains, lived among the stones and sang of water, clouds, trees, and birds; but soon it migrated to the cities where the world was not so simple and innocent despite all its attractions, its wide and ever-lit roads, squares and lamp posts, which looked like the signifiers of a new civilisation. It was filled with the strains between the loss of native spaces and the difficulties of coming to terms with the place of refuge.”

There is an interesting anecdote about how This Number Does Not Exist owes its origins to a translation workshop organised by the Sahitya Akademi in 1990, in which the poems of 10 Hindi poets were translated into English. It was here that Dabral’s poems were first translated into English by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. While the translations continued long after the workshop, it was over two decades later that the book itself was published, in 2014. Keeping Mehrotra’s translation company were those by poets such as Sudeep Sen, Asad Zaidi and Rupert Snell. Dabral was pleased. And in a manner slightly uncharacteristic of his self-effacing ways, he conceded: “My poetry is quite translatable. It does not have linguistic intricacies... I write in very simple, understandable language.”

This simplicity and sensitivity extended to five collections of poems, including Pahad Par Lalten (A Lantern on the Mountain), Ghar Ka Raasta (The Way Home), Hum Jo Dekhte Hain (What We See), Aawaz Bhi Ek Jagah Hai (The Voice is Also a Place) and Mujhe Dikha Ek Manushya (I Saw a Human Being). Dabral received the Sahitya Akademi prize in 2000 for his work Hum Jo Dekhte Hain; he returned the award in 2015 in protest against growing intolerance and increasing violence against minorities and dissenters in India.

It was this innate simplicity, and a longing for life without malice and manipulation, that made Dabral unhappy with cities. He once said in an interview with The Hindu: “It (the city) is a lamp post for civilisation, but its tensions, its cruelty are also very overpowering.” He expressed his angst in a poem titled “The City”: “I looked at the City/ and smiled/ and walked in/ who would ever want to live here/ I wondered/ and never went back.”

Dabral thrived in cities such as Bhopal, Lucknow and Delhi, yet the village never left him. He longed for the sparkle of childhood spent in a Tehri Garhwal village listening to his father play music. As he once wrote in The Indian Express: “I sat before Father as a pup sits before a gramophone on the records of His Master’s Voice. The entire family gathered around him as he sang a foot-tapping melody from the tribal region of Jaunpur-Jaunsar; full of rare and restless imagery. In the dim light of a lantern, he played the Durga, Malkauns, Sarang, Bhopali ragas and soulful songs of distant dialects of Jaunpur-Jaunsar. Malkauns and Durga were perhaps his favourite ragas. He immersed himself in music as he sang the basic composition of Durga ‘Sakhi Mori Rum Jhum, Badal Garaje, Barse’, which is often taught in curriculum.”

It was this music and this lantern that stayed in his subconscious, and helped him appreciate the good that the city offered, and accept the disappearance of villages as a collateral consequence of development. He once said that the biggest of civilisations, such as the Indus Valley Civilisation, had emerged from cities. He admitted: “I could never come to terms with a big city like Delhi, nor could I retain the identity of my native place. It’s a kind of refugee condition—as if I were a dislocated persona unable to be rehabilitated. When I arrived in Delhi, I suddenly felt that I have been banished from a raga. When I saw the last tree of my village diminishing away, the absence of that raga made its home within me.”

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Every time he visited his home in the village, he would listen to Raga Durga on the way. But that was a mere visit, not a return to his roots. This dislocation and sense of displacement equipped him to write about the loneliness of a poet in Kavi Ka Akelapan, just as his long innings in journalism equipped him to analyse the world around him, and appreciate the events unfolding in front of him.

When the last tree in his village was submerged in order to build the Tehri Dam, it was the lantern of his childhood that continued to flicker in Dabral’s mind. When confronted with the darkest of times, it was this lantern that lit the path for him. Whether it was expressing his anguish at a book launch or participating in a protest march, he was always there. In 2014, inspired by Modi’s demagoguery, he wrote the poem “Tanashah”. Then came a poem called “Folk Tale”, which talked of a king in a fictional land who changed clothes ever so often as he felt his clothes were stained. His reign would forever be remembered as the era of dirty and stained clothes.

That was typical of Dabral. His language was not that of a man confined to his ivory tower. He lived, thought, spoke and wrote among the masses. His work was a reflection of reality, not an expression of unbounded hope, nor a song of unrestrained sorrow. The rootnedness of his craft provided the warmth of familiarity. For sixty years, he nourished the language he wrote in; he used it to talk of the vicissitudes of humanity and the longing for hope and fulfilment. He, more than most contemporary litterateurs, had the right to feel cheated, even robbed, when the language he so loved was used as an instrument of social exclusion, abetting the spread of fascism. He wrote: “Although there is much that is being written by way of poetry, stories and novels in Hindi, in truth these forms have died, although there has been no pronouncement to this effect, simply because of the spate of writings. However, it is only themes like ‘Jai Shri Ram’, Vande Mataram and ‘just one place for Muslims: Pakistan or the graveyard’ that are alive in Hindi now. The fact that I write in this language fills me with remorse. How I wish it was not my mother tongue!”

Fellow poets and writers expressed disappointment at his interpretation; others understood his predicament. Dabral thought it best not to elaborate. He expressed anguish at the language being used to exclude, maybe even exterminate, people “not like us”, yet he himself did not wallow in sorrow. For him, it was more important to be human, and he continued to be engaging, articulate and persistent until the very end when COVID took him away on December 9, 2020.

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