Echoes of the past


Many facets of poetry commenting on the world in the light of history.

No Other World, Kunwar Narain, Trans. Apurva Narain, Rupa and Co., Rs.395

Kunwar Narain claims that his son and translator Apurva Narain, is as much a poet in life as in his work. Born in 1927, this eminent Hindi litterateur is known for the sophistication with which he achieves a composite simplicity. Narain is a poet who has always resisted labeling. No Other World is a collection of his verse drawn from five different anthologies – Chakravyuh, In Dino, Tisra Saptak, Koi Dusra Nahin and Apne Samne.

Many influences

Kunwar Narain journeys through history and the contemporary, speaking about things as diverse as Ayodhya in 1992 to the “ravaged ecology of a language”. In his introduction, Apurva Narain points out that his father’s work has been marked by several influences ranging from the Upanishads and the Indian epics to Kabir and Amir Khusro, Buddhism and Marxism to history and mythology. Unmistakable too is the influence of the French symbolists, especially Stephane Mallarme, Cavafy and Jorge Luis-Borges. The book is a bilingual edition and the translations have been arranged in eight different thematic sections, each poem preceded by the original Hindi version.

Employing as they do a mix of free verse and metrical verse, Narain’s poems continue to resonate long after you have read them, leaving soft little imprints behind. Yet many of the poems are profoundly political and speak of the destruction of certain ideals. In “Ayodhya, 1992”, he addresses Lord Rama:

“We humbly pray, O Lord, that you return/securely, with wife and home,/to some scroll – some sacred tome;/ these jungles are not the jungles of yore/ that Valmiki used to roam.”

In “Gujarat, 2002”, he writes:

“If only I had passed unstained/through these streets, it would have been nice/but if/the stain was inevitable, I wish/it was not innocent blood on my clothes,/but on my soul/the wound of some very big love/that never filled up.”

Kunwar Narain is a poet who has something to say about the issues that trouble the contemporary world, the events that he is witness to. He is equally a poet of small things, of things, events and people that would otherwise escape notice. And so in his poem “The River does not grow old”, a woman Meenakshi becomes his

“poem or story/which I could write or read/whenever whichever way I wished” and in “River Shadows” “rays play on lively leaves,/a thousand birds found a whole city.” His verse is remarkable too for its deft use of simile and metaphor: “Often, before a journey,/a long train-like chill/creeps down my spine” (“In the course of a Journey”).

Unenviable task

The translator in a note claims that he has “not followed any translation theory as such, but [his] nose instead.” He argues that the value of words is especially significant in the case of Kunwar Narain’s verse where both the choice as well as the placing of words is precise and nuanced.

It appears though that in attempting to capture what he calls the “verbal rhythm” of the poems, their “word-music”, the translator sometimes stumbles. Especially troubling is his mimicking of the rhyme scheme of the original poem as for instance in “These Lines Close to Me.’ Occasionally, one comes across word level translations that simply don’t work. In the poem “The Unease” for instance, the sentence “Scared silent, the surrounding gasps” sounds awkward. Yet, given the challenges in translating poetry, Apurva Narain’s must surely have been a difficult and unenviable task. This bilingual edition is both a useful as well as insightful addition to Indian literatures in translation.

The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. E-mail >