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“Will there be poetry in bad times,” asked Bertolt Brecht, and answered it himself: “Yes, poetry about bad times”. I first thought Gulzar must have had his own ideas of the aesthetics of poetry in mind when he named his new collection Suspected Poems (Mashqooq Nazmein, in his own Urdu version) as the poems here are all political, even if subtly—as it should be with poetry—unlike the majority of his earlier poems that dealt with the beauty of nature and with the paradoxes of the human condition. His dedication (“for the promised times”), and his short preface, about the difficulty of speaking today, as any word you utter will easily be suspect and subjected to multiple interpretations and imputations of unintended meanings, speak volumes. He refers, for example, to the ambivalence of someone like Anupam Kher, who would inevitably answer the question, ‘kyaa matlab thaa?’ (What did you mean?), with ‘meraa vo matlab nahin thaa’ (That is not what I meant). The ambivalence which is inherent to language gets further foregrounded in times like ours, where ‘good days’ mean days of hatred and intolerance, ‘democracy’ means the will of the majority imposed upon the minorities, ‘India’ means a nation imagined by and for a few Hindu fanatics and ‘nationalism’ means furthering a communal agenda.
When Adorno said that poetry was impossible after Auschwitz, he probably did not mean it literally, but was hinting at the impossibility of irresponsible ‘pretty’ writing in times of trauma. After all, we know the Nazi concentration camps produced a whole corpus of Holocaust poetry by scores of poets, from Primo Levi and Paul Celan to Abba Kovner and Nelly Sachs. Only, theirs was “a poetry for the horror-stricken, for those abandoned to butchery, for survivors, created out of a remnant of words, salvaged words, created out of uninteresting words from the great rubbish dump”, to recall the words of Tadeuz Rosewicz. Pablo Neruda’s concept of “impure poetry” and Nicanor Parra’s idea of “anti-poetry” too come from the awareness that there are no more ivory towers of pure beauty where poets may seek escape from reality, however much they long to. Octavio Paz had foreseen the contemporary situation: “Reality has cast aside all disguises and contemporary society is seen for what it is: a heterogeneous collection of things ‘homogenised’ by the whip or by propaganda, directed by groups distinguishable from one another only by their degree of brutality.” And Cseslaw Milosz had warned: “The poet remembers.” In these days, when India seems to be moving closer to a new model of authoritarian populism with defined fascist tendencies, writers can hardly live in secure seclusion.
Urdu poetry has always had an oppositional strain in it right from Mirza Ghalib to Mohammed Iqbal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, Majnun Gorakhpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi and Ali Sardar Jafri. This is true also of the contemporary poetry of poets like Nida Fazli, Javed Akhtar, Mohammed Alvi or Jayant Parmar. Gulzar, a multi-lingual poet, is seldom identified with the progressive movement itself and has never professed any ideology, but this collection, like the last one of his Green Poems, proves his credentials as a poet of deep human concern, even anguish. As Pavan K. Varma notes in his translator’s preface, these poems “constitute a carefully crafted commentary that is a subtle but definitive evaluation of some aspects of our evolving republic”. Gulzar does not make a show of his commitment and is nuanced and inward-looking as always, but his anxiety about the destiny of the nation comes through clearly, though not loudly, in these poems. They are very well translated by Pavan K. Varma, despite the challenges involved in the translation of poetry, especially Urdu poetry, that places a lot of emphasis on the craft, turns of phrase and on associations of words with their earlier usages in the poetic tradition of the language—in other words, the ‘aura’ of the words that is the source of much of their suggestiveness and communicative energy.
The collection opens with a poem on New Delhi—There’s Nothing New in New Delhi, where the poet finds little that is ‘new’, except old issues being converted into new schemes, opening scabbards afresh and unsheathing useless, rusted laws. One can hardly miss the references here to the renaming of existing schemes by the present regime and their invocation of penal colonial laws to silence dissent. In Shall we talk about the Country (the original word, ‘vatan’, is certainly weightier) he says how the paradise we had dreamed of is still far away and yet we keep climbing the steps with blood-soaked feet hit by axes and talk about drowned hopes and murdered longings. In 26th January, the state of our republic is suggested by the polio-afflicted flag-seller, who, the poet believes, must also figure somewhere in the colourful Republic Day parade. The Latest News is a jibe directed at the nation as well as the media that keeps on ‘breaking news’, forgetting it when something meatier comes up. There is profound irony when shepherds are ‘herded’ like sheep by terrorists who shoot them dead and leave their bodies in the sun “where the sunflowers blossomed”. It is as if time continues to chew these murderous events like floods and terror attacks on the innocent like paan: they happen regularly; every time they are just meant for a day’s consumption. The theme is developed in the following poems—Newspaper, The Same News and Searching for a Missing Man, where repeatedly uttered and repeatedly forgotten promises are compared to chewing gum. The lines get poignant when the passport commissioner asks a Sikh for an indelible mark on his body and the man takes off his shirt to show him a burn mark from 1984; or when the pale fellow-traveller of many years shrinks, his hopes grow dim and he gets lost in a melee that throngs the streets, a mass of nameless and shapeless ‘common men’.
Bonds of the Shoah (clock wise from top left) Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs and Abba Kovner
Many poems are illuminated by such existential metaphors. “For seventy years, I am caught in a traffic jam”, says the poem Traffic Jam, where a real traffic snarl on Parliament Street in Delhi becomes a metaphor for life in India. Elsewhere, a pothole gets filled with the blood of men caught in a riot and the board proclaims, “Work in progress, use diversion” (Use the Diversion). The dumb person at the town square is found to be an intellectual or a writer: “Someone had asked him for his views/ And then cut off his tongue”: a sure pointer to the growing culture of intolerance, censorship and the murder of thinkers and poets in the country. It is even more evident in the poem named after a murdered writer, Kalburgi, a great Kannada scholar and historian and follower of Basava, the Kannada Shaivite saint who had preached egalitarianism and founded a model community. It recaptures the context of his assassination and says it is not that person who is dead, but his belief: “There was a belief in his head/ Which had a voice; /That belief is now lying inert on the threshold”. Another poem is around the suicide of farmers, where the poet asks someone to inform the poet Iqbal—who had written that we should burn the crops of wheat that cannot provide bread to the farmer—that the crops have survived and no revolution has happened despite the suicide of several peasants. The poem also reminds us of Brecht’s lines, where he says that if an injustice happens in a city, that city should turn to ashes before sunset. In The Seven-Coloured Rainbow, the poet, taking off from Faiz, expresses his anguish over the rainbow turning black, enveloped in cobwebs, the sick morning and the aged sun, the old trees where birds fear to build their nests and the doctrines of faith shattered by people whose sharp pieces pierce our soles in our march towards the future. “Which hope should unfurl its wings to fly/ And clean this seven-coloured rainbow?”
No aspect of reality escapes the poet’s notice. In Self-Made, we see a mother in Punia who keeps aside her sickle to give birth to her baby, a son, who, thanks to our kind society, grows up to be a ‘self-made’ beggar in the temple premises, soon learning to rob, then becomes a hired killer and a small-time don. There is sharp irony in a poem like Shroud, reminding us of Premchand’s Kafan, where the beggar girl is told not to worry, as poverty is older than our culture and she should be happy with the left-overs of ritual food at the burning ghat. Vivid imagery hits the reader pell mell: Crows looking like black flags of protest at someone’s arrival or grief at someone’s departure; the candidate in the elections has one hand on the mike’s throat and the other around people’s necks, insistently demanding his vote; the hired man in the party procession demands food instead of a speech lengthier than the GT Road, that lasts half a century, and, in the process, makes all the poor vanish from history by a sleight of hand. The citizen who complains to the leader has to listen to the leader’s complaints about the system; the kites flying over the place where the home to a god—Babri Masjid, in this case—had once stood; the uprooted Tibetan refugee holds on to the fragrance of his Buddhist faith, the lines on the palm, once the markers of individual destiny, now drawn on the ground to divide countries and partition homes; the train of democracy that runs according to the driver’s sweet will; the red flag in the party office at Kottayam, whose colour has ebbed away like the betel juice in Comrade Menon’s paan; rioters celebrating as if they had won the World Cup; the idol of Ram in Ayodhya, now behind barricades, surrounded by iron bars like a minister who cannot move an inch without security; people dying with the same slogans on their lips despite colonial statues having been replaced by that of Gandhi— these images will haunt readers.
There is a bunch of poems on the plight of Dalits too: the Dalit being thrown out of office like a cracked cup, leaving a crack on every face in the office or hanging from a knife’s edge, like an ant before being slashed, or asking the higher caste man to wear high-heeled shoes, as he is shorter than him, or turning into oxen, ploughing the land with feet riven like hooves and neck drooping with the weight of the yoke. In Blood Test, the examination of a Dalit’s blood for ailments discovers in it traces of slavery, loyalty and poverty, but also some signs of hot-bloodedness and ego that have not been entirely wiped out. There are also critiques of the visa regime the suspicion between Pakistan and India manufactured by rulers: “Eyes don’t need a visa/ Dreams have no frontiers/ Every day with eyes closed, I go across the border/ To meet Mehdi Hassan!” But these poems are not entirely without hope, as symbolised by the grass in the poem This Useless Grass: “Whether you beat them, pound them/Murder them or set them on fire/ People have a great will to survive.”
James Joyce once said of writers: “Squeeze us, we are olives”, meaning writers yield their best in times of torment. This collection, which invites us to “come see the blood on the streets”, proves the truth of Joyce’s statement.
(K. Satchidanandan is a Malayalam poet, translator, editor and a bilingual critic)