The story of how a boy from Kapurthala ended up as poet laureate of three cities in Germany. Meet Rajvinder Singh…
To me, it is a gorgeous forest. To him, it is the subject of his verses. Shrubs growing feral, swaying to a gentle wind; lofty pines stretching their arms wide; ageing deodars, their bark plastered with grey moss. To make matters more scenic, the Shimla-Kalka metre gauge train is chugging by perilously, a few metres below the hill. Adding a poetic stroke, clouds descend rather low to meander through the trees.
I am in Baluganj, Shimla, looking out from the balcony of a modest flat occupied by Indo-German poet Rajvinder Singh, a National Fellow of Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS). We are looking at the same sight and reading it differently. Between sips of Shiraz, Singh says, “I just love trees; in fact, I am attracted to all the elements… trees, wind, water. They are full of answers; you need to find the questions.” Take wind, for example, he prods. “No one has understood what wind is. It is blowing, waiting to be recognised and understood.”
As the sun sinks in the horizon, Singh talks of his rather fascinating trajectory as a poet; of a boy from Kapurthala who left home to work at a local fodder factory because he refused to follow his father’s dream of becoming a doctor; who adored Punjabi literature, wrote poems in it, and went on to be feted in faraway Germany for verses in their language. “And also for coining German words in the process,” he adds.
Singh continues, “I am perhaps the only living poet, certainly the only living Indian poet, whose verse has been cast in stone.” In 2007, Singh was declared the poet laureate of Trier, the German city where Karl Marx was born. The environmental senator of Trier unveiled “the poetic stone” dedicated to Singh at a park there “under the shadow of a tall tree”.
Host of honours
This honour is only one in a host of others bestowed on him in Germany. In 1997, he was chosen as the poet- laureate of Rheinsberg. This was followed by the release of a compilation of his poems chosen by seven well-known German poets. “The Art Council of North Rhine-Westphalia state also chose me to occupy the newly created chair of writer-in-residence at Remsheid in 2004.”
Singh has published 11 books of German poetry and one book of German short stories, apart from two books of Punjabi poems; one is part of the syllabus of the M.A. course in Punjabi at Kurukshetra University.
“My specialisation is semiotics; I used to teach at the Technical University, Berlin. I learnt the language and started writing poetry in it. I threw away the first 30-40 poems I wrote in German. The first one I let live is ‘Mit dem Winde tanze ich gern’ (I fondly dance with the winds), penned in 1984.”
He adds, “I am not the first to write in another language. There was Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett and Joseph Brodsky who wrote in a language that they learnt at a ripe age. I learnt German at the age of 24.”
The focus shifts to how he “coined” German words. “I learnt German the way it was once spoken. Many Germans today don’t speak it like that. So I guess I had an advantage,” he begins.
Some of the words he created are dialogsuechtig (dialogue addict); stiefmutter-sprache (stepmother-tongue); baum-wimper (baum means tree; wimper means lashes); and worter-wehen (worter means words and wehen has three meanings — labour pain, wind comes, the pain the words cause). Such profundity of thought crafts his poems, “some have 300 lines, some just three.”
Singh notes, “For me, home is a gamut of flights. It doesn’t really matter where you are born; you need to find where you belong.” So, for the last 33 years, Germany has been home to Singh. Once his two-year fellowship at IIAS finishes next year, he will fly “homewards”. Contrary to Kipling’s words, he says, “I see that East and West meet in me.”
Though poets are often accused of living in a bubble, Singh states, “I live and breathe poetry but I am also watching life from very close.”
He recalls, “During the Emergency, I went to jail. I was branded a Naxalite, had to leave Chandigarh, went to Jammu to pursue my Phd but was hounded there too. Finally, I left the country and look at what I have become.”
Back in the present, he talks about “presenting to the world, two volumes comprising a short history of Indian languages. In the West, when one talks about Indian writing, it is often Indian writing in English. But we write in 23 languages besides English. So I thought of these volumes, which will discuss the work of three to five authors and poets from each language. One volume is almost ready,” he says. Though his “heart beats for contemporary Indian literature and poetry,” he recently convened — for the first time in India — the 11th International Conference on Early Modern Indian Languages of North India.
As night caps the evening, Singh recites lines from his first poem in German: “Ich habe keine Himmel/bin trotzdem ein Stern/…Met dem winde tanze ich gern. (I am this, as well as that/not only either-or, this-that/but yes, of course/…I fondly dance with the winds). The words from a faraway land seem to dance fondly in the Himalayan winds.