February 19, 2020
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Wrestling With Shadows

Books llike this, featuring the work of a single poet competently translated, are a rarity.

Wrestling With Shadows
A Season On The Earth: Selected Poems Of Nirala
By Translated By David Rubin
Oxford University Press Pages: 152; Rs 292
At the time of his death in Allahabad in 1961, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’, arguably one of the greatest Indian poets of the past century, already was a legend. He once barged into Harivanshrai Bachchan’s house, and there challenged the effeminate Sumitranandan Pant to a wrestling match. The match was to decide who was the better poet. "I’m not Nirala," he said, "I’m Tuttan Khan’s son Munnat Khan, I’m Gama, Zbisko, Tagore, and I’ve flattened them all."

Was Nirala of unsound mind? It may be he was just independent-minded, his behaviour as unorthodox as his art. Magazine editors would return his poems because he practiced "verse known as ‘free’". He touches on the subject in the haunting elegy he wrote for his daughter, Saroj, in 1935: "The flock of editors,/no wise impressed, skimmed through it all and sent it back/with a line or two in answer."

A small amount of bad Indian poetry is available in worse English translation in a few anthologies. Books like the one under review, featuring the work of a single poet competently translated, are a rarity. I can think of only one other poet whose work is similarly available: Tagore. The clubbing of their names would have pleased Nirala. It should make us sit up and take notice.

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