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An enigma in life and death

Pablo Neruda, poet and then Chilean ambassador to France, talking with reporters in Paris after being named the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. File Photo   | Photo Credit: Laurent Rebours

How we loved him when we were young! In our late teens, we were aspiring poets trying to find our way in the literary jungle. At that age, who will not be smitten by love poetry like this, “I want to do with you, what spring does with the cherry trees.” And “You are like nobody since I love you.” Or, a line that I still remember after more than 40 years, “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”

While his poetry offered nourishment to our souls, his death on September 23, 1973, in controversial circumstances in military dictator General Pinochet’s Chile further added to his mystique. Pablo Neruda was great in both life and death.

To us, the fact that he had received the Nobel Prize did not matter much. The Nobel has gone to so many undeserving individuals and is no yardstick of a person’s greatness. What impressed us most was Neruda’s status as the most popular poet of the Spanish language whose poetry was savoured by both the masses as well as the classes. He was by any reckoning one of the greatest poets of the 20 Century. Neruda was a close friend of Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was assassinated in the military coup staged by General Pinochet. Many years later, when I watched Z, the 1969 French Algerian film directed by Costa-Gavras, I felt as if it had anticipated the horrendous events of Chile. Neruda’s driver and close friends believed that he was poisoned by the military dictatorship although it was later claimed that he died of cancer.

In the 1970s, Neruda was one of the most popular poets among Hindi writers. Prabhati Nautiyal and Arun Maheshwari translated his poems from Spanish and English respectively and brought them out in a book form. Many Hindi literary magazines published translations of his poems. “Heights of Macchu Picchu” was one of his celebrated poems those days.

Neruda is no longer as popular among Hindi writers as he used to be. Yet, the attraction of his writings as well as his rich life is such that Granth Shilpi, a Hindi publication house managed single-handedly by Shyam Bihari Roy, commissioned well-known Hindi scholar and critic Karan Singh Chauhan to translate his memoirs. This is significant because Roy has dedicated his life with a missionary zeal to bring out only classics of social sciences in Hindi. In the case of Neruda, Roy made an exception and decided to come out of the confines of social sciences.

Karan Singh Chauhan is a former professor of Hindi and not a professional translator. He is also a perceptive literary critic, who is well versed in the nuances of literary expression. Consequently, the translation titled “Mera Jeevan, Mera Samay” (“My Life, My Time”) has turned out to be very readable and does not read like a translation. It retains the feel of the original.

Neruda’s memoirs once again underscore the fact that human beings, especially great creative writers and artists, are very complex and multi-layered creatures. They have to be viewed in totality and not on the basis of one or two facts or facets of their lives. Nowadays gender discourse is the flavour of the season and many variants of feminism are doing the rounds. Women are being projected as if they are always in the right and men are always in the wrong irrespective of the daily news reporting about the role of mothers in honour killings or of mothers-in-law in dowry deaths. How will such feminists react when they read about Neruda making love to a woman immediately after she had slept with his friend Alvaro?

Neruda had an Indian connection too. He had attended the Calcutta session of the Congress in 1928 and had met Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose. But, unlike Octavio Paz, he was never posted here.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 5:36:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/an-enigma-in-life-and-death/article6643154.ece

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