This is Raghuvir Sahai’s third volume of poems. His two previous ones: Seedhiyon Par Dhoop Mein (1960) and Atmahatya Ke Viruddha (1967) have already established him as a major Hindi poet of the post-sixties. As in his earlier poems, the poet once again deals with the dialectics of a peculiarly (post-Independence) Indian socio-political situation where democracy ‘has pinned us down between the glories of human existence on the one hand and a dog’s death on the other’.
And out of the absurdity and pathos of these tensions comes his poetry:
The armies kill the man, then
dig up the soil and patch up their tents
somehow the mango tree survives.
The armies then formulate a pact
to go fight elsewhere
and then a celebration
(to mark occasion of the land being vacated)
takes place under the same tree.
The question that comes to mind naturally is, at what level does the poet fight and resist the pressures of his environment, ‘the world where we are now being compelled to live even more than we did in the past’.
For Raghuvir Sahai’s poet these insidious pressures are mostly intellectual:
Laugh, you are under observation
Laugh, but not at yourself
for it will be rather obviously bitter and get
Laugh, so that you do not seem to be happy
or else you will be suspect
of not participating in the general shame
and be destroyed …
Laugh, but avoid jokes
for they have words
and the words might have meanings
centuries old …
Hanso hanso jaldi hanso
Obviously in tackling a theme of this magnitude, the temptation to fight the Establishment with linguistic weapons of its own forging: the catchy vehemence of the news media and the authoritative phrases of the politicians is too great. But where the use of their language may give the poems a certain ephemeral relevance to the times, it also deprives them of their credibility in the long run. Also, by succumbing to the prophet-martyr posture of the public man, the poet unavoidably links his poetry to definitive value judgments regarding what is good or bad, viable or otherwise. This eventually stunts the entire range of his poetic expressiveness, however genuine his vehemence. I have found Raghuvir Sahai’s poetry especially admirable in that by and large the poems skirt round these pitfalls, by choosing the only viable option of transmuting the material into an emotive force instead of treating it as the basic theme. There is no Kabir-like attempt here at solving social problems, nor a Tulsidas-like recounting of a traditional value system. But those who look for transcendental answers to contemporary problems in poetry are bound to be disappointed. Poetry by its very nature defies being bound down by definitive value judgments as the poet stated in his earlier volume of poems:
People, my fellow countrymen, leaders,
I am merely a poet
I cannot give you bread
nor the sorrow to wash it down with,
neither can I remove
your misgivings about there being a God
forgive me please
the best among the very best
I cannot come with you.
Pardon me, Leaders
But words in poetry do not merely call up visions and emotions, they also replace them, and never exactly in the same order in which they were before. The process of reading poetry thus, in a very subtle way, changes the configuration of our mind as also our original responses to feelings and situations. Inasmuch as these poems avoid becoming party manifestos or a piece of yellow journalism, they create a parallel life of their own which picks up familiar incidents and reactions, and sublimates them into a poetry that does not guide, but invites intelligent participation.
The world of these poems thus transcends the petty nationalistic interpretation of socio-political themes and focuses on a vaster understanding of the Indian psyche grappling with the problems and pressures that the age generates. The poet makes adroit use of traditional rhyme-schemes and rhythmic patterns but he juxtaposes these against a totally unfamiliar imagery and it is from the subtle interplay between these two that his poetry derives its special flavour and a unique brilliance. Playing with rhythm, traditional rhyme-patterns at that, is challenging vast and tricky powers, especially if one intends to experiment; for in order to reform these patterns to suit a different kind of poetry, one first needs to transcend all the phantom connotations these rhyme patterns have accumulated over the years. One slip and one may very easily sink into the banal or the absurd. What rescues the poems from this is the poet’s introspective humour and his intense humanity:
Be quick for the people are going to bloom
the women shall drink, the men shall eat—
a day will thus come—Ramesh
when no one may have opinions—Ramesh
there will be anger but no opposition
except little protest notes—Ramesh
there will be danger and a bell to signal
and the emperor will ring the bell—Ramesh
The Forthcoming Danger
The poems in this volume are different from the previous ones in that the poet’s world has widened by now, his attitudes have mellowed, and underlying the mocking tone of the past volumes there is a new undercurrent of sadness—that of an old man in a windy house—a remembrance of things past and a certain apprehension about the future:
She will grow older
slim and scared
and I shall not be there
neither the books nor the hopes
of her child-days
… She will be listening
thinking of me
because we sang together once;
she in tune and me hovering around the
And there will be a cradle
she will look at it and remember her young
no one will be hoping
for a future for their child by then
she will not either.
The Girl is Growing Up
There are, of course, a few banal poems here like Amar Sonar Dilli. Lines like,
I am with them,
meaning the mother with her child,
provided that the mother can avoid the rapist
and the child the gun
display clearly the dangers of borrowing the catchy phrases of the daily newspapers in an attempt to attract notice. But far superior to such poems are a cluster of poems that deal with the twin themes of the underdog in society and womanhood, Indian womanhood to be exact. Nowhere are the humour and the warm sympathy of his poetry more obvious than in poems like The Woman In the Fort, The Naked Woman, Ramdas or Atukant Chandrakant. True, in real life there are no protagonists like the women who appear in these poems, nor are there whimsical Chandrakants of Atukant Chandrakant or the scared and simpering Ramdas of Ramdas. Yet the unique rhetorical merit of the poems remains:
Maybe it is not poetry
but a mere restlessness of my hands
that in the broadest daylight
I go looking around for fire.
Mrinal Pande is a well-known Hindi short-story writer.