May 30, 2020
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Uneven Brilliance

This narrative is like a vast desert with few oases

Uneven Brilliance
Yudhishtar And Draupadi
By Pavan K. Varma
Viking Pages: 104; Rs 195
INDIAN poetry in English has not yet ceased to be haunted by the anxiety of authenticity. Until a few decades ago it used to be identified with the Britishliterary tradition, at least in terms of idiom and sensibility. A poet like Sarojini Naidu, who considered her poetry an aesthetic extension of her nationalist ideology and strove to lend it an Indian flavour by choosing themes related to our social life, was, ironically, found to have been so Anglo-Saxon in her sensibility, language and prosody that enthusiasts like Edmund Gosse had to implore her to have some consideration for 'native passion' and to cultivate an idiom that would reveal 'the heart of India'. Orientalist as this counsel might sound, it also compelled the Indian writers and readers to take a second look at her and recognise that she was only reproducing colonial poetic discourse like some of her contemporaries.

A.K. Ramanujan, with his profound awareness of the great poetic traditions of Tamil and Kannada, was perhaps the first poet of the growing tribe to reconsider the question of Indianness in some depth and evolve a perspective and an idiom whose Indianness went beyond the thematic level and had something to do with the quality of perception. His poetry in Kannada as that of Jayanta Mahapatra in Oriya and of R. Parthasarathy in Tamil may be seen as an intense expression of this concern for a specific regional/national identity and tradition.

Pavan K. Varma seeks to decolonise the discourse through the older strategy of re-narrating an episode from an Indian epic, the Mahabharata in this case. He is too ambitious to be happy recycling the episode. His attempt is to write a riddlesome philosophic poem in the true Indian tradition, redeploying the 'Yakshaprasna' with Mahabharata where Yudhishtar enters a dialogue on life and death with the Yaksha on the tree—who, sphinx-like, interrogates and kills every tired passenger driven by thirst to drink from his pool in the woods.

Yudhishtar's younger brothers—who, in their weariness, did not pay heed to the Yaksha's questions—lay dead on the banks of the pool in Dvaitavana while the eldest was stoic enough to face the Yaksha's trial.

The poet uses this evocative context to philosophise upon the basic questions of existence and to explore the fascinating—if complex and uneasy relationship between the wise, austere Yudhishtar and the charming, intelligent Draupadi. Yudhishtar being the eldest was the first to be with her on the nuptial night though it was Arjuna's skills that had won the fair bride for the Pandavas. The poet is curious about what transpired between Yudhishtar and

Draupadi on the wedding night.

The Yaksha, bizarre in manifestation, is taken to be a symbol of wisdom in the spirit of the epic, also of the enigma of existence in the spirit of modern imagination. Yudhishtar is a man in adversity trying to redeem, through a single heroic act, the sins and errors that forever follow man's unpredictable destiny. In the poet's own words, "it is tempting to explore, in poetic form, the landscape of Yudhishtar's mind, the soil from which his answers sprout. Ultimately this work is about a man and a woman, and of their interaction, a world opaque to outsiders, a cosmos in itself." He thinks that through the ecstasy of reconciliation that followed Yudhishtar's heroic act the two gathered enough strength and resilience to withstand the violent calamities that were to overtake them in future.

So much for the aspiration. The achievement, to be moderate to the point of understatement, is uneven. The opening is unimpressive enough to warn the reader of the platitudes and cliches that follow. Here is a sample: "The Sun, its molten core restrained/festered low, dimmed from sight/ As darkness, settled on the scene/Nothing stirred in the shadowed light." This is neither good verse nor good prose. The blurb calls the work "a long poem in rhymed sonnets". Is any piece of verse with 14 lines of varying length and end-rhyme a 'sonnet'? A sonnet's first quality is to be complete in itself, something that these verses lack. The end-rhyme is often achieved with great strain, forcing the poet to intervene deliberately to bring in superfluous words and phrases.

To be fair to the poet, there are also instances of relief where the lines are cryptic enough to ward off this malady/melody as when the poet compares desire to a fish "that no sooner caught than we begin to hear/the muted death rattle of its imminent eclipse".

Following this narrative is like crossing a desert: vast stretches of grey dullness punctuated by a few oases. But even such lines cannot heal the violence of rusty lines like "She was not a sort of commodity to be casu -ally divided by a clan/they couldn't assume such authority/and parcel her out with such elan." It is as if the poet whose potential is in no doubt, gets tired of his own effort or loses his patience so that he leaves the editing and revision of the indifferent passages to the eager reader unaware of what is in store.

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