The story of Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral, who was born in Tehri Garhwal in 1948 but for most of his career as a journalist lived and worked in Delhi, is the story of Uttarakhand. It is the tale of young men and women leaving the hills for the cities in search of education and employment — as defence and government servicemen; as drivers and dishwashers; and as poets and politicians. The persistent sense of alienation and nostalgia for home is a constant theme in Dabral’s poetry, but he also expresses an acceptance of urban life with all its challenges, conflicts and rewards.
In the introduction to his new collection, This Number Does Not Exist (BOA editions), Dabral writes: “My poetry was born in the mountains, lived among the stones and sang of water, clouds, trees, and birds; but soon it migrated to the cities where the world was not so simple and innocent despite all its attractions, its wide and ever-lit roads, squares and lamp posts, which looked like the signifiers of a new civilisation. It was filled with the strains between the loss of native spaces and the difficulties of coming to terms with the place of refuge.”
Best known as a distinguished Hindi poet, Dabral has published five anthologies of verse beginning with his first collection in 1981, Pahad Par Laltein (Lantern on the Mountains). Among his recent works is Naye Yug Mein Shatru (Enemy in a New Era). He has written numerous essays and works of criticism as well as a literary commentary and also a memoir, Kavi Ka Akelapan (Solitude of a Poet). His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages in India and abroad. As a translator himself, he has rendered into Hindi the works of writers like Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht and Tadeusz Rozewicz. Among the many honours he was awarded is the Sahitya Akademi Award which he received in 2000 for his poetry collection Hum Jo Dekhte Hain.
When it comes to the shaili (style), Dabral’s poetry is remarkably accessible, unencumbered by the bureaucratic vocabulary and officious syntax of certain forms of literary Hindi. His verses are colloquial without being regional, simple without being simplistic, direct without being didactic.
As a bilingual edition, Ye Number Maujood Nahin (This Number Does Not Exist) allows readers to move back and forth between the original Hindi and the English translations, much like holding up words to a mirror and gaining new meaning through a reversed reflection. As Dabral writes:
Some words scream,
Some take off their clothes,
And barge into history,
Some fall silent.
At his best, Dabral fulfils the role of a poet as an observer who allows us to see the world through a new set of eyes. He takes ordinary moments or mundane objects and makes them shine in a way they’ve never been shown before:
I closed the door and sat down to write a poem,
outside a breeze was blowing,
there was a little light,
a bicycle stood in the rain,
a child was coming home,
I wrote a poem,
which had no breeze no light,
no bicycle no child,
Many of Dabral’s poems contain a nuanced voice of protest, with a muted yet audibly political tone. He writes with the rational sensibility of a humanist who still finds mystery in family photographs, a lantern on the mountain, or the recorded message on a cell phone that tells us, “This number does not exist.”
In a poem titled “Gunanand Pathik”, he recalls the presence of a Marxist balladeer hailing from the town of Tehri — one that no longer exists, submerged as it is beneath a reservoir:
In just a glance one could fathom
the whole life of Gunanand Pathik.
Many must have seen him on the main road
of the decaying Tehri town, entering
the bus stand in a wave of musical notes.
The old harmonium hung from his neck
pamphlets of his songs in his shoulder bag
that he sold first for a quarter of a rupee
and later for a half.
Dabral goes on to describe how Gunanand set his revolutionary lyrics to the tunes of women’s folk songs and how he was a regular fixture at Communist rallies. When the Tehri Dam came up, “many new musical instruments resounded in the mountains” but Gunanand kept singing his old songs, he says. Despite the protests, the dam was built and the city of Tehri disappeared beneath the rising waters, its iconic clock tower the last crumbling relic to be seen before it vanished too:
The leftover Communists kept planning
a big reception to honour him.
But Gunanand Pathik had given up his harmonium by then
and people had forgotten him like they forget a folk song.
The political poignancy of these verses has a personal resonance for Dabral, whose childhood home overlooks the Tehri Dam. In another anthology, Doobti Tehri ki Akhri Kavitayain (The Last Poems of a Drowning Tehri), Dabral published a different version of this poem, in which he compared the ancient capital of Tehri to both the singer and his songs of protest, all of which are soon forgotten.
This new anthology is carefully edited and beautifully produced. The selection of verses will please admirers of Dabral’s work while attracting and inspiring new readers. The translations are particularly good, some of them by poets like Nirupama Dutt, Vishnu Khare and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, as well as by Hindi scholars like Robert Hueckstedt and Rupert Snell. Both in the original Hindi and in the English renditions, Mangalesh Dabral’s voice remains true and honest, an eloquent cry from the mountains that echoes in the city.
Stephen Alter is the author of more than 15 books. He lives and writes in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand.