Everybody who knew Dr. Ayyappa Paniker has fond memories of him. Meeting him for the first time in late 2002, I told him that it was great to be in the company of such a literary giant. He quipped with deadpan seriousness, “May be they should put me in the zoo, you know.” It was the first time I got a taste of his famous humour.
In Poetry at Midnight , a collection of his poems in English translation still relatively less known outside Kerala, which he never lived to see, we see the same wit and so much more.
Poetry at Midnight has been translated by Ravindran Nayar, a former student of Paniker's, from Pathumanipookkal (which means Ten o' clock blossoms in Malayalam). The translated poems first appeared in the journal Samyukta, in their special issue on Ayyappa Paniker in 2007, a few months after his death. The book was published in 2010.
Written around midnight, as explained in the Translator's Note, the 62 poems are marked by a philosophical strain, dwelling on life, death, love, sickness and poetry itself. Yet, the style is conversational besides giving readers a glimpse of his wry humour. All poems are addressed to a “friend” who sometimes is a lover or a companion, an animal or perhaps nature itself.
“A Story” insists that life and nature came into being only when the two friends met. It is a fascinating perspective of genesis presented like a lecture to an eager student friend.
“Once upon a time the sky/ had no stars./ The sea had no fishes/ The trees/ had no birds/ The forests/ had no animals…Then how did all these things/ Come into being, friend?/ Then, when we met each other/ And became one/ The rains came,/ Rainbow came/ Feathers came,/ wings came,/ Nests came,/ birds came…The sky and the stars came,/ And fishes in the ocean — Understand?”
In “The Quarrel”, Paniker talks about romantic love. “To cause worries to each other is a symptom of man-woman love… Prakriti should not quarrel with Purusha,” he says. And then the poem ends on a hilarious note so typical of Paniker: “When you wake up we can quarrel again, do you hear?”
Paniker's humour can be recognised in simple and child-like thoughts that perhaps many of us with active imaginations have from time to time but do not express, for fear of being mocked. “The Snake” narrates an episode where a snake coils around the speaker's leg. Mildly irritated by this experience, he muses: “Perhaps it has coiled taking me to be a tree./… But doesn't the snake have to go to office?/ Check the internet and email? Sign?/ May be it's an unemployed snake.”
Rural imagery and charming folk idioms run through the collection. The kavathikakka, a local crow; the village of Kavalam; the Kannadipuzha river that refuses to flow, disobeying a government order — are all a few examples of Paniker's affinity for the environment around him.
We also find a preoccupation with poetry and writing. A striking poem in this vein is the concluding one, “The Conversation” in which he gives some good advice to his poet friend. “Good poetry is conversation./ Sometimes only one person speaks./ Sometimes both./ That is the enduring characteristic of poetry. So write on, tomorrow also.”
However, “Writing” was the poem that created the moment of enlightenment for me. It is also a finely translated poem, except for perhaps the distracting punctuation:
“…Poetry is a means to know.
Not a manifestation of what is known.
He who thinks he has known.
Does not write anything.
If there is something to be known
There will be something written…
The writer in us is the other self.
Thus you write my poem
And I yours.”
In Poetry at Midnight , Paniker has written our poems, about you and me, and that is what makes this a fine collection. Translating poetry is a daunting task especially when the original poems are suspiciously simple. Occasionally, the translated lines may sound jarring to a non-Indian or non-Keralite reader. Nevertheless, Nayar's work is a fitting tribute because all that we see in the translated poems is Paniker.