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Hither Jaitley stand by me

There’s rhythm even in the falling rupee

Can one write poems on subjects economic, GDP, trade balance, inflation? My opinion of economists has fallen further, since they only now noticed the disastrous demonetisation. I, who left economics after intermediate studies, realised this in December and wrote a parody of the Wenceslas hymn. The king starts with the question ‘Hither Jaitley stand by me/ is the rupee falling?’

It ends with Wenceslas ordering his version of bread and wine for the hungry peasant — ‘bring rotlas exceeding fine…’ and of course buttermilk. Demonetisation was the BJP’s first scam. But the political spin put on it was one of a triumph. Our bowlers R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have a lot to learn from the BJP.

The UPA had many more scams, except theirs were for greed. The BJP’s scams are due to a lack of planning and forethought. Being the polite man that I am, I never use the word ‘stupidity’.

Burning earth

Another doggerel that occurred was about goddess Lakshmi queuing up before a bank in the broiling sun. She has brought her notes in an ox cart, to give another seaport to Adani and a few billions to Ambani, but the queue is never-ending. Finally, exhausted she says, “Bring in the goats/ to whom I have got to feed my notes.”

It can be fun ferreting out biographical details of a poet solely through his poems. I refer to the Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral, whose bilingual book This Number Does not Exist was brought out by BOA, New York, last year. The translators are drawn from American poets teaching Hindi in the states, Rupert Snell from the University of Texas, Robert Hueckstedt (University of Virginia) and Christi Merrill (Michigan). Poems like ‘Lantern on Mountain’ tell you he hails from the hills, from Garhwal.

The poverty of the area comes through, ‘In the jungle are women/ Unconscious under bundles of wood/ In the jungle are children/ Buried before their time/… In the jungle blood has slept.’ And of course ‘The burning earth rolls on her side/ And the sky revolves like a huge millstone.

Like all true poets he speaks in images: days just don’t go by, but flicking out their tongues the days/ slither past. Then comes the arrival in Delhi (‘City’).

I looked at the city

and smiled

and walked in

who would ever want to live here

I wondered

And never went back

Poets migrate to cities and live there, hating it. After all, publisher and reader and school for the kid are in the city. So are the critics who’ll carve you up. Am reminded of the Czechoslovakian Antonin Bartusek who wrote in his poem ‘Epitaph’:

This is my city

where men are buried alive.

But throughout Dabral’s book the village in Garhwal from where he hails haunts him, as also its memories. Look how he crafts his poems. In the poem ‘In Passing’, he moves from hunger in the first stanza to ennui in the next, then to hope, then the city and lastly the world. It could not be spontaneous, and must have taken a deal of crafting. ‘Passing here now and again/ I thought of ennui/ that dripped from our faces/ and formed a tremulous puddle/ on the table we sat around.’ A nice way to turn something as abstract as ennui into an image — actually that is what poetry is all about.

Drunk on jazz

In a poem ‘Civilization’ we find that ‘cameras rush to record a caveman’s nakedness.’ These cavemen ‘worshipped masks and worried about nothing but talking to the birds and trees.’ But when the bystanders placed their own masks on the cavemen, ‘one by one birds fell at our feet.’

The finest poems in the book are ‘New Orleans Jazz’ and ‘The Accompanist’. ‘The moon sends all its black sons here/ the night sends all its daughter here,/ here the falling stars become men and women — Jazz,/ Jazz, Jazz, you can get drunk on Mississippi./ In the French Quarter, the slaves came three hundred years back,/ herded like an army of buffaloes from Africa, and/ whenever the whips rested/ the songs started, the dance broke out...’ Wonderful.

The translations are universally good. Now and then you come across a slack line. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra tackles Chidiyan apne hisson ki awazen kar chuki hain thus: the birds have made their sounds, a very tepid translation. There could have been better alternatives, for instance ‘The birds have called from their roosts’. The shrillest cacophony of birds at sundown that I have ever heard comes from the bamboo groves in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens. Fine poet though Mehrotra is, I am unsure about his translations.

I picked a book on Kabir translations and found Kabir saying things like “Don’t bulls**t me”. Nah, nah I said to myself, I ain’t gonna read this book.

It is often said these days that the book is dying. Let me quote William Shakespeare to the doubting Thomases. ‘He hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink; his intellect is not replenished; he isonly an animal, only sensible in the duller parts.’

How do you like that line from Love’s Labour Lost? How complicated and difficult must it have been to produce a book those days, churning them out in old printing presses of Caxton vintage. Surely some of us can think of a recent minister of education or culture who ‘hath not drunk ink’ and hence whose ‘intellect is not replenished.’

The author is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 12:32:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/hither-jaitley-stand-by-me/article19777662.ece

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