When Kunwar Narain breathed his last on November 15, 2017 at the age of 90, he had been in coma for more than four months and, much against the hopes of his family members, friends and admirers, never emerged out of it. During the last years of his life, he had nearly lost his vision and had become hard of hearing. A man who never aspired for anything but excellence of intellect, he received all the important literary and state honours including the Sahitya Akademi Award and Fellowship, Padma Bhushan and Jnanpith Award. His was truly a life fulfilled.
Many years ago, I accompanied Hindi poet-critic Girdhar Rathi who was going to meet Kunwar Narain who had left Lucknow to settle in Delhi. During the meeting, he came through as a patient listener whose responses were mild and measured. Although I do not have a vivid recollection now of what we discussed, but the fragrance of that meeting stayed with me for very long. He was an urbane, cultured, humane person who hardly ever lost his poise. The same was true of his poetry.
Muktibodh, the iconic Marxist poet whose birth centenary is being celebrated by the Hindi world this year, captured the essence of Kunwar Narain when he wrote about him: “Poet Kunwar Narain wants to become only a human being. This is his disquiet, his dilemma.” It was not without reason that Ghalib had this to say about human destiny: “Aadmi ko bhi mayassar nahin insaan hona” (It’s not given to a man to become human).
In a perceptive critical appreciation of Muktibodh’s poetry, Kunwar Narain too offered a detailed analysis of the conflict between the content and form and he was perhaps the only person who underlined a striking resemblance between Muktibodh’s way of understanding and expressing reality in his poetry and that of Kafka in his fiction.
Born on September 19, 1927, Kunwar Narain spent his childhood in the twin towns of Ayodhya and Faizabad. Early in his life he lost his mother and 19-year-old sister. He moved to Lucknow with his elder brother and lived in a joint family with his uncle and cousins. During the 1940s, he came in close contact with two important Congress leaders — Acharya Narendra Dev, a Marxist-socialist who was a great scholar of Buddhism, and Acharya J. B. Kripalani, a Gandhian. He joined Lucknow University and did his Masters in English Literature in 1951 while simultaneously taking part in the city’s vibrant intellectual and literary life. Belonging to a well-to-do business family but not much interested in business, he went abroad in 1955 and visited Poland, Czechoslovakia, China and Russia where he met well-known poets like Nazim Hikmet and Pablo Neruda.
Next year, he came out with the first collection of his poems Chakravyooh (Circular Siege) and was immediately noticed by the literati. In 1959, he was one of the seven poets included by ‘Agyeya’ in Teesra Saptak (Third Heptad). Incidentally, Muktibodh was one of the seven poets that were brought together by ‘Agyeya’ in Tar Saptak , the first volume in this series.
With the possible exception of Jaishankar Prasad, no other Hindi poet turned to the myths, epics, history and philosophy as Kunwar Narain did. His first collection of poems Chakravyooh dealt with the poignant Mahabharata story of Abhimanyu, a great lad-warrior who got killed in an unfair manner after being trapped in a unique and impregnable arrangement of the Kaurava armies known as Chakravyooh, and used this powerful metaphor to poetically explore human destiny. In a way, it reminded the reader of Jean-Paul Sartre’s celebrated play No Exit, as the Chakravyooh too was known for allowing no escape. His second book of poems Parivesh: Ham-Tum (Surroundings: Us-You) appeared in 1965 but what drew the literary world’s attention most was his 1965 offering Aatmajayee (Self-Conquerer) wherein he turned to the story of Nachiketa and the philosophy of Kathopanishad to understand and delineate the relationship between life and death, and the eternal struggle that goes on between the two.
Completing the circle
Kunwar Narain’s growth as a poet never stopped. He began with Chakravyooh (Circular Siege) and completed the full circle with Vajashrava Ke Bahaane (On Vajashrava’s Pretext) and Kumarjeeva. While the former returns to the story of Vajashrava and his son Nachiketa, the latter deals with the life and philosophy of a famous Buddhist philosopher Kumarjeeva (344 CE-413 CE) who spent a long time in captivity of a Chinese warlord, meditating upon the meaning of life.
While Bharatiya Jnanpith published Aatmjayee, Vajashrava ke Bahaane and Kumarjeeva , Rajkamal Prakashan has brought out his other important books such as poetry collection Koi Doosra Nahin (No One Other) and Shabd aur Deshkaal (Word and Time-Space), Rukh (Stance), Tat par Hoon par Tatasth Nahin (On Shore but not Neutral), Aaj aur Aaj se Pahle (Today and before Today), and Lekhak ka Cinema (A writer’s Cinema) that contain his essays, interviews, diary entries and short comments on contemporary Hindi writers.