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A little empty without you

So much about the ‘other’, who always seems to be leaving

Hindi poetry is in a bad way. Three big poets have been taken away by Doctor Death: Kailash Vajpeyi, Kunwar Narain and now Kedarnath Singh. Kedarnath seemed to be in good health when he read in November with some of us and with famous Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, one of Latin America’s best-known poets.

Kedar’s last volume, Banaras, translated into English, is unforgettable. When I settled in Delhi in 1974 he used to read his Truck poem everywhere, a broken-down truck turned into a metaphor. In ‘Desh aur Ghar’ he wrote, ‘‘Hindi is my country/ Bhojpuri my home.’’ He loved going to his village where he only talked in Bhojpuri. He wrote:

‘‘Words don’t die of cold

They die of lack of courage.’’


Tame translation. It could have read: ‘‘Cold doesn’t kill words/ cowardice does.’’ Six words instead of eleven, and they have greater punch. The punch, what the poet really intended, should not be forgotten.

Translators should learn boxing. Kedarnath’s wife died in her mid-30s. He begins ‘On My Wife’s 28th Death Anniversary’ thus:

“She was gone

and then were gone one by one

many days and flocks of birds

and several languages

and numerous water sources were gone

from the world

once she was gone.’’

In a poem on his mother, as he consigns her to Bhagirathi, he says, “As an earthen lamp is floated on the waters/ yesterday I floated mother away.’’ I am not sure if ‘floated’ is the right word here, possibly ‘set floating’ is more appropriate. In the end he tells the river, “Look after Mother/ She only speaks Bhojpuri.’’

John Oliver Perry, a fine critic of English poetry, and a great friend of India, passed away over a year ago. He compiled and published a book of poetry on the Emergency. I have always thought of both husband and wife as salt of the earth. His wife Sue, a painter, has come out with a superb collection of John’s haikus. To quote just one:

“Just because hate seems

More powerful than love does

Not make us love less’’

It is time to shift to poets unknown to most of us; best to start with a rhyme.

“Folks these are times

to consider the rhymes

of those not reviewed

in the Hindustan Times

and those never mentioned

and never assigned

a place in the Express

where the hoi polloi dine.’’

Remember Writers Workshop in Calcutta, pioneered by the great P. Lal, where poets like Vikram Seth, Deb Kumar Das and numerous others cut their poetic teeth? Now it is managed by Lal’s unassuming but very erudite son, Dr. Anand Lal. Some books have come my way from that stable. Adwaita Das studied English literature at Jadavpur University and Film Direction at FTI Pune. “Cheap laughter and cold kisses/ I sell for coins on roadpaths…/ Tears are for you,/ pawned and preserved with soul.’’ That’s how her book Songs of Sanity starts. She writes frenetically:

‘‘Nothing I grasp


Nothing I hold


Nothing I keep


Hers is a starry-eyed romp through adolescent love. She wants to “scrape clouds off windows’’ — that sort of thing. Here’s a whole poem: “The day’s light a little empty without you,/ the night air smelling of loneliness./ I have soaked the sheets with distraction/ since you left,/ not so long ago./ Yet so long, so soon.’’

Sibyls in India

The ghazals in Ujjain by Steffen Horstmann are landscape vignettes of seas and rain and lightning. Writing an entire book of ghazals is tough. When both Kali and Poseidon appear in the same poem you get uneasy. “Sparks pulsate in hooded shadows rising/ from the billowing pyres around us./ As sibyls chant prayers floating embers/ Crackle in the sphere of light around us.’’

How are sibyls trespassing here? Poets need to be sensitive to cultural borders and guard against a cultural artefact entering into another culture and muddying it. Bhoot- preth one would have tolerated, not trolls, sibyls or ogres, when dealing with funeral pyres.

Srividya Sivakumar “unlocks the uncomfortable rooms of the human heart,” says Arundhathi Subramaniam. We all go to her for our blurbs, don’t we, me included, and she like an Annapurna of blurbs, ladles them out. I am a bit of an ingrate, Arundhathi gave me a six-page blurb. Well, the rooms of the heart are really uncomfortable — AC not working, no soda in the fridge, no single malt in the bar. What’s the world coming to? And who are your companions — guilt, regret, unrequited love. Sigh.

Sivakumar holds an MS in Education Management, and a post grad diploma in advertising. Her second poetry volume, The Heart is an Attic, makes for an interesting though lopsided read. There are too many poems on the ‘other’, the love/ husband / boyfriend who always seems to be leaving. Poems start with “I talk about you like you are still in my life’’ or “You’ve left and left me with memories/ what do I do with these?’’

She has a fine ironic poem on Happy Women’s Day, and another on a devotee who “smokes, god looks after his lungs,/ he drinks god looks after his liver./ The devotee doesn’t pick up his garbage. God sends him a national cleanliness campaign.’’ Her best poetry comes out in a poem like ‘Long Distance’: “We work best in small measures and measured time/ in rare appearances and hesitant smiles…’’

The writer is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 29, 2020 9:32:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/a-little-empty-without-you/article23523262.ece

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