Jagannath Prasad Das who was recently awarded the prestigious Saraswati Samman is a versatile and outstanding Oriya writer who has been consistently writing poetry, fiction, drama and essays on art for almost four decades now. His poetry has ever remained alive to the traumatic contexts in contemporary Indian history: the starvation deaths in Kalahandi, the Emergency, the nuclear test in Pokhran, the war in Kargil, the genocide in Gujarat, the endangered freedom of expression, the continuing colonial patterns in education, the declining morals in realpolitik. . . If his poetry appears dark and desperate, the blame must go to the times we live in. Remember Picasso: when Franco’s General pointed to his ‘Guernica’ and asked him why he had done it, Picasso had retorted, ‘You have done it’ since the holy city had been bombed by the fascist forces. The title of the collection reminds us of Bertolt Brecht who had asked, ‘Will there be poetry in dark times?’ and answered it himself, ‘yes, poetry about dark times’.
The title reminds us too of Theodore Adorno’s famous statement, ‘Poetry is impossible after Auschwitz’ to which one of the poems in this collection makes a direct reference. What Adorno meant according to me was that . . . the old kind of ‘innocent’ ‘impartial’ ‘heroic’ and ‘celebratory’ poetry has become impossible; we need to create a new kind of poetry of concern that while raising all the basic questions that poetry has always raised it also has some space for criticism of the society. The poets of the Holocaust did create poetry, but of another kind, ‘a poetry for the horror-stricken, for those abandoned to butchery, for survivors, created out of a remnant of words, salvaged words, out of uninteresting words from the great rubbish dump’, to remember the words of the Polish poet, Tadeusz Roszevics.
J.P. Das has realized that even the ivory towers of pure aesthetes are not left unshaken by the tempests of history. It is such violent times that compel writers to forge an aesthetics of resistance like the one that Peter Weiss wanted to construct from Dante’s hell-fires that he rediscovered in the Nazi concentration camps. It is only proper that Dark Times opens with these lines from Brecht’s well-known poem, ‘To Posterity’:
Truly I live in dark times. The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs has simply not yet heard the terrible news.
Brecht had wondered what times are these when even a conversation about trees becomes a crime since it carries the silence about a thousand crimes. J.P. Das has chosen to speak about those crimes rather than the trees, though our changed time demands that we speak about trees and the environment too with the same sensitivity.
It is natural that some of these poems carry echoes of Pablo Neruda, that champion of ‘impure poetry’, Brecht who spoke of the need for ‘language-washing’ in times of untruth like the Nazi age and others like Ceslaw Miloz, David Diop or Nazim Hikmet who had all responded with intensity to the suffering of their times. Paul St-Pierre is right when he says in his introduction, ‘the overriding theme of the collection is the impingement of the world on consciousness, as it demands—and receives—recognition, and subsequent foreclosure. If the tone of the poems is somewhat sombre, this is due less to pessimism than to clarity of vision, to a willingness to directly face the difficulty of surviving in a world where survival can never be taken for granted.’ (p. 9)
The poems in Dark Times are divided into three sections. The first section carries poems that directly comment on incidents, confront historical situations or allude to them obliquely. The poet’s position is not judgemental or ideological, but essentially ethical: he is tormented by the injustice around him, whatever its source.Invoking Adorno’s comment on poetry after Auschwitz, cited earlier, the poet asks:
After Gujarat will there be poetry? Could poets write after Alexandria was razed After Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Vietnam after Emergency, after Babri Masjid, 9/11 and Iraq?
But he assures us that poetry cannot be banished; it comes back from Plato’s Republic, Stalin’s Siberia, to Pokhran and Kalahandi following the footprints of violence as the chronicler of Man’s fate. ‘As with history, to poetry there is no end’. The poem is full of rhetorical flourishes and strident statements: ‘Poetry will be written/ despite fatwas and bans./ Poetry will defy the Gulag; / it will ignore the censor’s blue pencil/ and the fundamentalist’s frown…’ References abound in the text: Ayodhya Godhra, Mumbai… leading to the conclusion, ‘After Gujarat, poems will be written/ to affirm the truth/ that there is no Ayodhya/ outside the poet’s epic imagination’—lines that again call to mind a statement made by Intizar Hussain, the great Pakistani writer after the demolition of the Babri Masjid: Ayodhya that had so far been just a fabulous kingdom, a resonance, an imaginary space, was suddenly reduced to an actual site on the map of India. He had to remap his geography as a writer after that incident to identify the birthplace of Rama with a little town in North India! ‘Archeology’ has echoes of Brecht’s poem about the worker who reads history and wonders whether there were only kings and conquerors in history who had won their wars and built their monuments without anyone’s help! Who saved them, who built the victory pillars, who created the cities, who were moaned by bereaved women and children? The poet alludes to several myths and legends and asks many questions. The thirsty souls of common people laugh hideously as they hear about coronations, conquests and proclamations. The echo of their laughter tells history, ‘Shut up, liar!’ In ‘History’ , a companion poem, the poet demonstrates how might has always been right in history and all claims to truth have been empty. History is but a fossil of broken swords, crumbling skulls and undeciphered alphabets. It can be auctioned to the highest bidder, consigned to flames by an angry mob or to sacrificial fire by a priest. It gets lost in conflicting intentions and keeps changing its hues and forms. History, he concludes, is only layers of falsehood, masks within masks.
Kalahandi to the poet is not just a village in a map. ‘Wherever there is hunger, there Kalahandi is.’ It is there in the living skeletons and pawned utensils, in famished crowds and markets auctioning children off and the sighs of girls sent to brothels. It is in the occasional contrition of our souls, the nagging of conscience, regret, nightmares, fears of bloodshed. ‘How can we then walk /through the celebrated portals/ of the twentyfirst century,/ and leave Kalahandi behind?’ (‘Kalahandi’) In the poem ‘Mahabharat’ the battle of Kurukshetra becomes a symbol of the war between the oppressors and the victims where neutrality becomes criminal, where all truces get broken and the war is unscrupulous where ‘losing is the only sin.’ ‘The Daffodil’ is an ironic poem that laughs at the total alienation of colonial education from immediate reality. We memorized Wordsworth’s poem without even seeing the flower once. The daffodils have survived the brief imperial spring and shine on blowing us off our feet in the inner eye of our colonial intellectual. ‘Tutelage’ looks at the new patrons of art in the era of democracy, the traders and tycoons. The artists who do not receive the patronage of these masters can only pass resolutions on artistic freedom in official seminars and heave a sigh of relief ! ‘War News’ and ‘Pokhran’ reveal the poet’s antipathy to the very idea of war. He connects Pokhran with Kargil and Hiroshima, where extinction is the only rule, where a million suns blind you and turn creation into a black hole. Nuclear tests are carnivals of lights from which the surprised poor go back to the starving darkness of their tumbledown huts. The poet sees the connectedness of things in the universe: ‘A leaf falls/ and there is turmoil in the outer space./ The line on your palm/shifts a fraction/ and stars and planets change their course’ (‘There are no Islands’) Here too he comes back to his dear themes: ‘Bullets in Sarajevo/cross countries and continents/ to strike an unknown man/on a peace march/in a distant land? The unremitting hunger/of Somalia or Kalahandi/ appears at dining tables/ in airconditioned homes in affluent cities…. All mankind stands/ hand in hand/ in an unbroken chain/ awe-struck at the anguish/ of the weak and the low.’
The second section of the book deals with broader contexts. Many of them have an element of fantasy in them and the poems seem a series of nightmares. The poet returns to the city of his childhood with nostalgia, but the streets are deserted, the houses desolate; there is no warmth, no one responds to his knocks on the door, taps are dry, innocence is caught between flying bullets. ‘I have a dream before my eyes,/there is a city in my dream/and there is/ a curfew in the city.’ (‘Curfew in the City’) The village in ‘Basti’ is a nameless slum, of submission and subjugation ravaged by conquests; even civilization gives it only drugs and venereal diseases while democracy brings only rallies, effigies, jeeps and microphones. Religion even comes here with knives and batons, calling for arson and rape and the destruction of temple and mosque. Newspapers speak of false promises, riots, curfews and public statements. ‘The basti survives them all/like a small child/newly orphaned/playing on the street corner/still unaffected/by religion, democracy,/civilization and history.’ The poems, ‘Riot’ and ‘Savages’ articulate the gory violence of our time. In ‘Savages’ beasts take over the city; birds are caught in wild fire; sacred letters seek shelter behind bloodstained posters; history is charred and scattered. ‘Prehistoric beasts/marched through/street after street/across the bosom / of the burning city.’ In ‘Metropolis’ newspapers bring only terrible news, the sky has the colour of gunpowder, seasons come and go according to routine, a corpse lies rotting on the road and everyone shuffles along ‘for his own fifteen minutes of fame’. The city of childhood in the poem, ‘City’ has steel-trees with neon flowers and minds’ minibuses play hide-and- seek in concrete labyrinths. The poet’s friends have met varied fates: some are lost, ‘some managed / through the green lights, /some were stopped/by the reds’, some joined the stream of glass and steel, some got scattered in alien lands. The city is now difficult to identify, roads have new names, faces are hard to recognize. The last bus has left, leaving the poet alone in the desreted city square. In ‘The Unreal City’, the nightmare continues: ‘On the barren lamp posts / lights flutter like fireflies/ from a lost childhood.’ The poet only longs for the sullen sulk of a coy woman and the cries of a restive child to brighten up the solitude.
The poems in the third group are comments on man’s disjointedness with the world. The beggar, his present in the broken plate and future in his begging bowl, waiting in vain for the God descending from the car and piously flinging a few coins into his grateful tin bowl, (‘Beggar on the Temple Street’), the body lying in the middle of the road indifferent to the lights and crowds (‘The Body’), the solemn temple with the tired echoes of the mantra, with its chorus of prayers wandering like a lost child, its hymns trapped in walls and the god in the sanctum contented in its holy solitude, in the harsh authenticity of its own iconography (‘The Temple’), fear haunting the mind in diverse forms as the ‘heavy boots in times of curfew in the lanes of impotent men’ and ‘the roar of the motor cycle emerging from the temple with a mask and a hitlist in the pocket’ (‘Fear’), the poet losing his way and measuring the distance ‘between one despair and another’ on the lines of his palm (‘Homecoming’), the plundered city with its copulating men and women growing restless inside the coffins in fear of unrealized love (‘Last Limits’), the masks with which the poet entertains guests, makes love, speaks to God and gets lost among crowds (‘The Masks’), the nightmare in which his frustrated yearnings appear like miles of bodies under stone-slabs and he hears the wail of a stone-statue (‘Midnight’), the lovers who meet at six in the evening crossing processions only to be confronted by a curfew (‘At the Stroke of Six’): these are all symbols or metaphors of our angst that takes many haunting forms. The poet confronts the scary nothingness in himself in a poem like ‘Talisman’ for which he gets out of himself and tries to understand the quiet whispers of the stars, the lines on the wind’s palm and the hieroglyphs of the sand on the seashore. His mind gets filled with an eternal void as sterile spaces seek shelter in him. He walks backwards and looks for his talisman amidst ‘newspapers, cigarettes and small coins’. The skeleton with a dead child that refuses to leave the rearview mirror of the car is again the embodiment of dread: the horror of living in a world of impossible disparity.
J.P. Das’s is a poetry of concern, of dread and angst in a world growing darker day-by-day. It does not offer you quick and easy solutions to cheer you up with a facile and baseless optimism. It is sad and sombre, deeply realistic even in its surreal-seeming nightmares, rediscovering Dante’s hell-fires in Auschwitz and Sarajevo, Gujarat and Kalahandi. The poet has realized that it is impossible for poetry to remain neutral or ‘pure’ in an unjust world. He looks at reality through the eyes of the victim. This is what turns his vision tragic and his lines melancholy. It is futile to look for indirectness, formal experimentation or complexity in such poetry : its virtues are to be sought in its moral earnestness and its faithfulness to the gruesome historical reality of our times of torment.
- Satchidanandan, writer, critic and translator, was Secretary, Sahitya Akademi.