In an age of postmodernist utterances, the incessant babble of the hyper-real images on our T.V. screens, the cacophony of ‘discourses’, we are left injured and stupefied by the violence of words. Our word-weary souls seek respite. It is here that poetry comes to our rescue for we need the much deprived ‘quiet peace’ for reflection and introspection. The continuous blizzard of words freeze our responses and we lose the feel of the ‘word’ and its meaning. Poetry, perhaps, may bring back the much needed ‘thaw’. To review an anthology of poems by a seasoned poet like kunwar Narian, is a task half done or done clumsily. He has been on the Hindi literary scene for almost five decades. These days there is mass production of ‘one book’ wonders, the chosen incarnations of the market gods, who flash and then fizzle out. Kunwar Narain stands apart. He started writing way back in the 1950s (Chakra Vyuh, 1956), when the twin streams of ‘Progressive’ and ‘experimentation’, merged into the crowded movement in Hindi, called Nai Kavita or the ‘new poetry’
Writing for a long span of time is not however in any way a qualification for ‘greatness’. There is a strong commitment to writing poetry, quietly exercised, without fetishizing the very act of writing. A commitment so great comes so rare these days, and this to my mind is a great achievement in itself.The poems in this anthology, En Dino (135 poems), explore different segments of experience. It is an anthology of rare maturity and encompasses both depth and scope of vision. What draws our attention to this anthology is the ‘calm’ maturity that rebuts the image of juvenile aggression. Girdhar Rathi, in Survival: An Experiment in Translating Modern Hindi Poetry, says that Kunwar Narain’s poetry is mostly ‘meditative’, dwelling on the present through the prism of myth and history. Mythical situations are of course, lifted beyond their religious contexts. Myth in his poetry is not subverted with any postmodernist obsession of inverting the established and the pre-meant. Like many Indian poets writing in English, there is no commodification of ‘ethnicity’ and, no anxiety for ‘Indianness’. The poet is deeply anchored in his native cultural traditions and does not disown mythology to conform to western ideals of empiricism and rationalism. His poetry can be seen as Samkaleen poetry, which is a wide assortment of the old, and new schools and styles, many of them carried over with mutation.
The apparent simplicity of Kunwar Narain’s style can be misleading. There is no contrived writing, no clutter of planted images and no jugglery with words. Some of the short poems ‘Kuch Choti Kavitayen’, recall the poignancy of a Haiku. Readers who do not share the poet’s cultural background, may miss the very specific culturally coded references that he makes and which may entail a loss of meaning. In the ‘popular’ imagination, Hindi poetry has been seen either as ‘flat’ and ‘theatrical’ or simplistic, with an ooze of sentimentalism. For the so called adhuniks sometimes allege that it is ‘conventional’ and sometimes ‘regressive’. These allegations have sometimes sent some of the new poets to adopt a defensive position. Under cover of ‘experimentation’ they resort to writing ‘derivative’ poetry, by incorporating western discourses/poetics. Kunwar Narain has insulated himself from any such temptations.
Kunwar Narain is a representative of new thinking. He refuses to fall into the trap of any ritualistic paradigm of the golden past. He does engage in metaphysical questions about essence and existence, the meaning of cosmos and the relationship of man to God, time and eternity—but with all this, there is also an active engagement with life, this world, and the ‘here and now’. Every poem deals with the truth of a specific experience within a specific context. Poems like ‘Nadi Ke Kinare’, is an imaginary dialogue with ‘fire’. ‘Fire’ and ‘river’ have complex cultural connotations. Fire ‘burns’, ‘seasons’, ‘consumes’ is the ‘spark’ within and finally becomes the threshold to cross into the ‘other’ territory. The poet incorporates his own living world into the poems and is politically alert.
Poems like ‘Jale Makaan Ke Samney’, talks about man’s capacity for violence and indifference. Inhumanity, he shows, has become a daily spectacle in our lives. Poems like these, when contextualized become apt metaphors for massacres for the mindless savagery and barbarism—the madness of Partition, 1984 (sikh) riots, the Godhra massacre, and the like. ‘Shahar’ talks about the clutter, and the deadness of ugly urbanization, an objective co-relative of man’s state of mind today. ‘Neev Ke Pathar’ and ‘Ek ajeeb si mushkil’ and ‘Mera Ghansth parodsi’ are powerful poems, which envelop within them both an anguish and a dream—a plea for the reconstruction of the society. Poems like ‘Bharat’, imply how India is different and is not a ‘nation-state’ in the western sense of the term. There is a plea to save the social fabric of our pluralistic culture. His poetry is not reduced to mere polemics and goes beyond that.
‘Homeland’ is the poet’s possessive space that he fears to lose. There is this cultural rootedness and the poet seems to draw cultural sustenance from ‘home’, his land and his culture. Poems like ‘Buddha’ and ‘Kabir’ imply the sustaining power of native traditions. He shows how Buddha and Kabir questioned the utopias of linear progress and the laments their ‘exile’ from our lives today. In the Introduction to Atmajayee (pp 6-7) he says: Any thinking on death should generate only pessimism towards life, this is not necessary – some altogether original point of view might, come forth. Buddha contemplating on disease, old age and death, has given life to such a philosophy which has been alive even hundreds of years after him.
The poet raises uncomfortable questions about the complex faith of the modern man. The responses cover a gamut of moods and emotions, ranging from dark disillusionment to hope and faith. The poet’s persona is cast in the role of an upanishadic explorer and does not believe in any violent hegemonic control over the ever-evolving, ever-shifting truths of life.
In a number of poems there is a process of ‘becoming’, whose dynamics work in a direction that inevitably gravitate towards the spiritual and the metaphysical but only through an intense and first hand experience of the physical and the existential. The self, with its ontological yearnings cannot discover itself, except in relation to the society. Journey becomes a ‘trope’ for both ‘exploration’ and ‘growth’, the voyage ‘beyond’. Journey is undertaken in search of life’s deeper content. To use Aurobindo’s terminology, the poet’s persona undergoes a long journey, starting from the intra-rational and culminating into the supra-rational, through the intermediate phase of the rational. Poems like ‘Jise bahut pehle aana tha’, talk about a new ‘vision’, and echoes Nachiketa like moments of hesitation and conflict.
No Not like this – not like this – not like this Life is a dharma – not to be condemned vehemently not to be thrown into an abyss, for the deadly dogs. (Atmajayee p. 58)
The poet shows that ‘becoming’ can also be the source of many opportunities for liberation. There is a frequent crossing over but he does this to expand the realm of reality. It is in no way a renunciatory path. These deceptively simple poems, cutting rhetoric dead, leave a deep mark on the reader—goading him on to introspect on the ‘here and now’, and reflect on the ‘there and beyond’. Different somewhere I am find me Look for me in every word See where I am — ‘Mein Aur Tum’
Trilochan’s poetry is a link between Nagarjuna and Shamsher but Trilochan was never canonized so enthusiastically as the other two. With his first anthology Dharti (1945) to Mera Ghar (2002), he has travelled a long distance through the alleys of time. Trilochan has been struggling to challenge stagnant styles, to find a new ‘poetics’ and ‘poetic vision’, long before the ‘end of things’ (‘the end of history’, ‘the end of imagination’ and perhaps the ‘end of poetry’ also).
Grounds for probing, in his poetry are philosophical. The voice of Trilochan is an echo of our own urges, the need to know who we are and what our desires are for as Aristotle says, ‘we are our desires’. His poems explore the Purusharthas—the aims of life. There is an open-mindedness to experience and a commitment to the ‘lived’ experience. He does not subscribe to any fixed ideology or set of poetic conventions. Govind Narayan, in his collection of critical essays, Trilochan ke baare mein, finds ‘simplicity’ as a hallmark of his poetry (simplicity not as opposed to complexity). Sometimes in the plainest of words, he expresses the most difficult, paradoxical and unparaphra-sable truths of life. Like Agyeya, Kunwar Narain and others, he is in search of the perfect ‘word’, the primal ‘vac’, what Raja Rao, would perhaps call ‘word as mantra’. In the poem ‘shabdon se mera sambandh chhoot jayega’, he explores this problem of finding the perfect ‘word’.
Trilochan talks about tradition but he does not surrender his reasoning self to tradition because he knows that such an unthinking surrender would be regressive. There is no blind attempt at ‘revivalism’. As Nirala says, Bhram mein jo liya, gyan mein lo tum gin gin, bhram mein jo diya, ayan mein do tum gin gin. (whatever you accepted in ignorance, you should accept with knowledge, whatever you rejected in ignorance, you must do so with free knowledge).
Trilochan’s poetry highlights the centrality of the Indian spiritual tradition, both ‘margi’ and ‘desi’ and orbits within these two traditions of Indian thought. There is no dogmatic return to the ultimate word of the Vedas. Hindu myths, scriptures, and metaphysics colour his poetry but there is no enthusiasm or restlessness to valourize the sacred over the secular. There is this prime importance assigned to ‘karma’ i.e. action and participation in life. It is through action that man emancipates himself from the quagmire of ordinary living. His poetry shows how the great Sanskritic ideals of ‘moksha’, ‘nishkama karma’—do not celebrate renunciation as the climax of life.
In poems like ‘marne mein kya hai’, he moves from the documentary realism to grapple with a more abiding version of reality. For when death today is a matter of statistics, the ‘breaking’ news flashed on the ‘periphery’ of our T.V. screens—both death and life have become devoid of significance. In his poems, death is not feared, but is accepted as a pilgrimage, a journey into ‘eternity’. It is taken as a passing phase in the evolution of the immortal spirit. He seems to echo what Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet says—the question is not whether there is life after death, the real question is whether there is life before death. Contemplation on death yields an altogether new vision—a vision that trusts life and shows a renewed concern towards it.
The title poem ‘Mera Ghar’ is a poem, written in the great Vedantic tradition, which reminds us of Whitman’s great ‘inclusive vision’ also.
The world is my home But I do not know it well. — ‘Mera Ghar’
In this Whitman like vision, there is an uncanny self-reflexivity with human scepticism. The poet suffers, because his mind is alert and discerning, a ‘modern’ man, he is both blessed and cursed with the yearning from an integrated self to which his highly developed self-consciousness is an obstacle. ‘Home’ becomes a place of emotional and cultural sustenance as also of ‘alienation’. There is no dislocation of the poet like the diasporic communities today, so this experience is not encoded in his poetry. There is no ‘exotic’ constructions of ‘home’ and no search for ‘imaginary homelands’. The trope of ‘home’ is used for vertical growth. A journey to the interior or ‘home’ becomes the proverbial last straw that can possibly arrest a person from further slip.
The poems derive their meaningfulness and meaning, their cultural value from the poets’ own context. Reading the poems in context means how to see the contexts appear simultaneously at local, regional and national level. In ‘Goleiya aksar chal jati hein’, Trilochan talks about issues which impinge upon our daily lives. Poems like ‘Aadmi ki gandh’, ‘Mahanagar mahatmya’, are a protest against the orientation of a post-technological world that is forever being guided by the despotic technocracy of science and its believers. He shows how we have ‘lost’ ourselves somewhere, and forgotten who we are. His orientation towards values in evident. His attitude towards ‘modernity’ is deeply ambiguous. This ambiguity does not stem from any uncertainty about whether to be for or against modernity—the uncertainty is because we know that to fashion the form of our modernity, we need to have the courage at times to reflect on the ‘modernity’ established by others. Today, the time perhaps has come once again to mobilize that courage. His poetry does put forth an idea of alternate thought systems in non-eurocentric situations.
Trilochan has been experimenting for a long time with sonnets. His sonnets have been landmarks of innovation and originality Commenting on his sonnets, Namvar Singh says “he is the ‘vishay’ of his poems and also ‘vishayee’, more than ‘vishayee’, ‘vishay’.” Some of the poems in this anthology like ‘yaad’, ‘geet’, ‘achha din’, tend to work within a limited range of images. They could have been replenished, had the poet shown poetic ingenuity to unsettle the set conventions of poetry. Reading through these poems, our interest sags but we are rewarded with a bunch of excellent poems in ‘awadhi’, at the end of the anthology, titled ‘ghar ke boli’.
For a perceptive reader, the poems open a world. If the meaning of the poem is to reveal itself, it reveals itself to a ‘sahyadriya’. We are so easily seduced by alien cultural codes that we end up hammering our own culture-specific creations into their moulds and the result is a gross distortion of meanings decoded. Deconstruction will not mind it, but common- sense resents it. The eastern discourses/codes are like the Pied Piper, whom we have followed blindly almost to the edge of the mountain, oblivious of where we need to go and what our goals are. Why western poetics should come in as a point of reference and declarations opposed to it thought to be necessary, is something one has to ponder on. It is time we realize that we do not need that alien guest to lead us—we have to make our own journeys, choose our own dreams and destinations, however small and insignificant they may be.
A poet like Trilochan may be seen as ‘relic’ of the old school but has great insights to offer, showing how change, if, any, has to come from ‘within’ (‘cultural context’ and ‘self’). This certainly is a good collection, which exhibits a promising vision of integration in which the emphasis has shifted from the culture-specific to the comprehensive.
Tania Mehta teaches at the Department of English, Panjab University, Chandgiarh.