Mangalesh Dabral’s poetry is easy to understand, good to translate

In 1990, Sahitya Akademi organised a translation workshop with 10 Hindi poets, where their work was translated into English. It was at this workshop, conducted by Daniel Weissbort, the co-founder (with Ted Hughes) of Modern Poetry in Translation, that Mangalesh Dabral’s poems were first translated, by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

Over the next two decades, in ways often unplanned, translations of his poems kept accumulating. And even though Dabral “never gave it a serious thought”, he had a book on his hands. A recent Poetrywala publication titled This Number Does Not Exist brings together, for the first time, a generous selection of his poems for English readers. Apart from Mehrotra and Weissbort, the translators include Asad Zaidi, Akhil Katyal, Sudeep Sen, Rupert Snell among others.

According to the poet, most translators have been faithful to the poems. “I think my poetry is quite translatable. It does not have linguistic intricacies... I write in very simple, understandable language.” At the same time, he admits that “visual quality of language is very important” to him.

It was this quality that Akhil Katyal was drawn to as an M.A. student in Delhi University, when Mangalesh Dabral came for “a poetry reading in or around 2006”.

“I remember hearing his poem then about the torch where the grandmother asked if she could borrow a little ‘fire’ from the torch to light her stove which was a very striking image. There was another poem about ‘touch’ and how various kinds of contacts are outlawed…which was all set in such a tender but an emotionally robust Hindi that one tries to grow as a poet simply by attempting a translation of it,” recalls Akhil. “If you can translate Mangalesh Dabral, you hope a bit of his craft will leak into you.”

Born in 1948 in a village in the Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, Dabral started reading and writing at a young age. He has authored five collections of poems in Hindi, two collections of literary essays and commentary and an account of his travels in Iowa where, despite never intending to, he spent three months as a fellow of the International Writing Programme. He is the recipient, among others, of the Sahitya Akademi Award (2000).

While his first two collections (Pahar Par Laltein, 1981, and Ghar Ka Rasta, 1981) are predominantly about his memories of childhood, of growing young, the latter collections are more modernist in their outlook. Hum Jo Dekhate Hain (1995) consists predominantly of prose poems, and Aawaaz Bhi Ek Jagah Hai (2000) comprises several poems on music and musicians. The poems in his most recent and overtly political collection, Naye Yug Mein Shatru (2013), are a debate about globalisation.

In the title poem from this collection, translated by Christi Merrill, which seeks to characterise the enemy of the new era, Dabral lists out a few identifying features: “Our enemy has lots of phone numbers piles of mobiles,/ He informs people you have won/ Your name was selected in a big contest/ You can ask for a huge loan buy countless things/ An unbelievable complimentary gift awaits you/ But when you return the call there is no voice at the other end”.

In his afterword to this volume, poet Manohar Shetty writes that Dabral’s “poetry is suffused with a sense of place coupled with displacement.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in This Number Does Not Exist” and The New Bank, both poems about erasure – of familiarity with people (“Where at the sound of footsteps doors would be opened/Now one has to ring the bell and wait in apprehehnsion”) and places (The new bank… “chases off the carts nearby selling cheap little things/ and replaces them with stalls for car loans”).

The city is an important presence in Dabral’s poems. “It is a lamppost for civilisation, but its tensions, its cruelty are also very overpowering,” he says. This contradiction is conveyed succinctly in City, translated by Giridhar Rathi, where Dabral writes “I looked at the City/ and smiled/ and walked in/ who would ever want to live here/ I wondered/ and never went back”.

Dabral has spent all his adult life as a journalist. The association between his two vocations has been a mutually rewarding one. “In journalism the language of literature helped me a lot. Journalism, in turn, kept me aware of the times, of the incidents around me. I learnt that if journalism is the first draft of history, poetry is its last draft.”