Kunwar Narain, the winner of the 41st Jnanpith Award, shares his literary journey

Just a few days ago, the Hindi literary scene felt a ripple. Newspapers and television channels flashed a relatively unfamiliar face and the common man gets introduced to the winner of the 41st Jnanpith Award. The winner – Kunwar Narain – is primarily a poet and though he is not the usual toast of the media, he is the recipient of almost every possible award in the Hindi literary scene, including the Kabir Samman, Tulsi Puruskar, Sahitya Academy Award and Premchand Puruskar.

Just as these awards and now the prestigious Jnanpith award sit lightly on his shoulders, the 82-year-old is unflustered by any controversy. Like the debates by some Hindi columnists in newspapers lately or the statement by an eminent poet-author, Rajendra Yadav who created a ripple recently by saying that there is no award in Hindi that cannot be bought.

“I enjoy such remarks. Such people keep the atmosphere alive,” is what he says. He, however, quickly adds, “Controversy should also have a character. It should not be uncultured”. Narain lives in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park with his “50-year-old Italian typewriter” as his best companion, and his family comprising wife and son Apurva Narain, who also translates the father’s poems into English.

Narain, whose literary oeuvre spans the last half century comprising some half a dozen literary movements and works in varied literary genres — poetry, short stories, epic, criticism, essay, musings on cinema and art — post graduated in English literature and got into the family automobile business for a living – all in Lucknow.

The shift to Hindi,” he explains, happened after he took history as a subject for his graduation in Lucknow University. “Exposure to knowledgeable people like Acharya Kripalani, Acharya Narendra Dev and Satyajit Ray widened my horizon.” Today, his encyclopaedic knowledge of mythology, Upanishads, Amir Khusrau, Ghalib, Kabir, and subjects as varied as Buddhism to modern poetry across the world is envied.

He looks back with a laugh, commenting, “When I started writing in mythology, the foggy idea was that it was a clichéd subject to write on. But there is so much in it.” But that’s not all, his radical poems, be on corrupt politics or incidents like the Babri mosque demolition, attracted a strong reaction from many but couldn’t move his resolve to hold his own.

He recalls, “I was heartbroken after the Babri mosque was demolished. I was in Lucknow those days. I wrote a poem (“Ayodhya 1992”). After it was published, a few men once almost gheraoed me during my morning walk. One of them asked, ‘Ayodhya tumne likhi hai?’ I said, ‘Haan. Maine likhi hai’. He sarcastically remarked, ‘achchi hai’, and they all moved away after staring hard at me. I could make out the ‘threat’ in his tone. But such incidents never kill my spirit.”

Public must participate

Narain shows the same spirit when it comes to the issue of Hindi literary awards being kept a secret till the end, unlike nominations for English literary awards like the Booker. “I don’t understand why Sahitya Akademi, Jnanpith or any literary award is not open to public discussions. Judges should also be judged. We insult our public by thinking that they are fools. If public can throw away an Emergency in just six months, and translate Upanishads in small villages, why can’t they be involved in literary processes? When the entire political fabric was in shambles, it’s the devotional poetry or Bhakti Movement from the public that sustained society,” asserts this scholar. Narain’s “Hashiye Ka Gawah” and a couple of more poetic collections will release soon.

More In: Books