To read a poet like Kunwar Narain is to affirm witness to a new epistemological birth. Having been drawn into the quiet, unambiguous, and staunchly empathetic universe of his poetry, there is no turning back. One is led, as if by hand, from one reflection to another, from one musing to another, from one poem to another, so that page by page, there is a gentle revelation of a potent and intense alternative existential vision, and by the end of Witnesses of Remembrance: Selected Newer Poems, one has been resolutely weaned away from the world to which one is forced to return.
Widely regarded as one of India’s foremost intellectuals and literary artists, Kunwar Narain (1927-2017) chose to write primarily in Hindi. His rich literary career encompassed over seven decades of robust writing across disciplines and genres with multiple accomplishments and honours. A recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award and the Jnanpith award, Narain had a staggering oeuvre, including three epic poems, eight poetry collections, translations of world poetry, short story collections, criticism, essays, diaries, conversations, and writings on world cinema and the arts. His work has been widely translated and readers, globally, have testified to his cosmopolitan literary sensibility firmly grounded in Indian and Western thought.
A cosmos teeming with promises
As a poet reborn in the English language through exemplary translations of his work by his son, Apurva Narain, Kunwar Narain’s ninety-seven selected poems in Witnesses of Remembrance bring forth to the English reader his unique poetic voice in all its political, philosophical and aesthetic inflections. What strikes the reader from the very beginning, and with particular force, is Narain’s intrinsic faith in the grace and power of verse.
To write poetry well and to dwell in it are two different approaches to life and creativity. By endorsing the latter, Narain lays the framework for a new aesthetics, politics and ethics of poetry. His lived life, as Apurva Narain points out at many places in his insightful “Introduction” to the book, was inseparable from his poetry – “a way of life, a way to the inner sanctum of wonder and peace that literature and the arts were meant to cultivate.”
As an individual, he relished reclusion and in his literary career of seven decades “never launched his books, went to less than a dozen festivals, and remained reluctant about events, committees and positions of power”. One understands, on reading his poems, why such reclusiveness was vital to nourish and protect that alternative view of life that imbues Narain’s poetry with a rare visionary grace.
“I remember a river flowing inside my father and never growing old; a whole forest of intimate, detached trees, birds, people, stones and reveries evolving all around it; and the dark cosmic sea of a world hardly yet begun, in which we immersed,” writes Apurva Narain. Kunwar Narain’s poetry draws sustenance from this river of faith and begets a cosmos teeming with promises that no reality, however harsh, can break. It would not have been possible to gestate this extraordinary cosmos in conjunction and confrontation with the everyday world. A certain amount of distance would be prerequisite to its conception, creation and sustenance.
This, however, is not to say that the poet’s art was disengaged from life. Much to the contrary, Narain’s art speaks for a brave and relentless engagement with life’s poignancies, its paradoxes, its injustices and impossibilities. But this engagement – characteristic of his art – though sinewy, quiet, and though profound, entirely without fanfare. Thoroughly occupied with the existential and creative exigencies of his particular poetic universe, Narain has no space or inclination for creeds, ideologies or one-stop solutions to the world’s irreconcilable differences.
As a poet, his self-chosen task is not to criticise or reject the world that he sees around him but to affirm its potential for generosity, growth, sanctity and love. “In a lifetime with him,” states Apurva, “I never once saw him get angry, talk ill of anyone, or even swat a fly. Instead, he turned to the cosmos within, marvelling at the paradox of god in a godless world, the numen of nature in us, and the moral as an evolutionary counterpoise to the physical.” This active nurturance, in thought and action, of an “other-worldliness” as Apurva calls it, remains central to Narain’s vision as an artist and his intrinsic faith in the possibility of poetry to touch and transform consciousness.
Detachment and denouements
In “Hesitation”, the poet carries “today’s newspaper in one hand / and poems in the other”, unsure which one to read first to little children of the future, waiting “with bated breath / to see what our epoch/ brings for them after all…” Here, the very juxtaposition of newspaper with poetry amply indicates Narain’s stance. His interest and commitment, as is clear, is not so much to the outer public world as to the inner private one for he knows that it is the latter that shapes the former and not vice-versa.
In “Those Who Do Not Know”, Gandhi’s Ahimsa is resurrected with these words: “A path, which can always be walked / And freedom found / From any injustice, any oppressive / Condition of the world.” In “God is Our Witness”, the poet conjures the strange paradox of, first, affirming our biological ties to kith and kin and then negating them in the battle-field to act in accordance with dharma. Evoking the mythical context of the Kurukshetra, the poem is a poignant interrogation of the meaning and construction of God in the world.
In his historical poems in the collection, it is interesting to see Kunwar Narain’s imagination empathetically drawn to descents, to ruins, to denouements. It is not glory that attracts him in the past, every glory being, ultimately, short-lived. What remains significant to him on the pages of time is the reconciliation with loss, failure, betrayal and defeat. In “The Last Days of Chandragupta Maurya”, he asks the king to seek “a small abode / deep within which you will slowly go on / getting detached from this world”.
“The Estrangement of Bhartrihari” visualises detachment as a superior form of attachment to the world without doubt or self-interest – “creating an eternal space – / not torn by people and things/ or trifling news from kith and kin”, to visualise the world as “a sculptor sees a statue in stone, / a poet sees a soul in a statue,/ a saint sees the universe in a soul…”
“Bazaar Anarkali” recalls the tragic story of love punished by history, “a savagery / tyrannical by tradition”, and sees the ghost of “a heavy-hearted prince” placing “a lighted lamp / in the alcove of a nondescript wall”. This historical memory is so painful that “beyond the endurance of so many nightfalls/ the eyes of a sky well up / and spill out stars…”
A remarkable number of poems in Witnesses of Remembrance speak from an earth-centred perspective, illuminating the eco-spiritual strain that runs strongly in the poetry of Kunwar Narain. In “The Estrangement of Bhartrihari”, the poet says “neither the universe has a limit / nor sentience…” Sentience, for Narain, is a keyword. His own sentience is awake to all entities of experience – animate and inanimate – and his intense consciousness visualises a soul in all he sees. In fact, this extension of human sentience to acknowledge and empathise with all that the universe holds, is integral to Narain’s vision and project as a poet.
In “The Beings of Stones”, the poet regards the sculptor as violating the stone’s integrity and finds his hands “blood-sodden”. In “The Door”, the door becomes a sad reminder of “the seeds of a tree / the legend of a grand forest / one tied up in servitude today”. In “Next to a Paved Road”, a paved road is visualised as coming up and saying – “grandpa, / look, we have come / so close, to live by your side now!”
In Narain’s original poems, the Hindi language allows for considerable ambiguity in terms of pronouns. “Waha” in Hindi could be “that”, “he” or “she” depending upon the context. The fertility of such ambiguity is considerably arrested in English where pronouns are, by nature, more revelatory of the identity of the noun. Despite this limitation, one is convinced of the fact that Narain’s poetic cosmos teems with presences. In his world, nothing is subordinate, subsidiary or non-essential. His ethics repudiates the very idea of marginality.
By such poetic logic, the great also has no place in Narain’s oeuvre. In “Mega Truth”, for instance, he expresses anguish on account of “the endangered lives of our / tiny child-sized truths”, anxious that the mega truth will be “a giant machine, an assembly / of countless circling cogs.”
“Living an Ordinary Life”, again, asserts the value of the commonplace over the exceptional by pointing out how living the commonplace life in all its sanctity, is an exception too – “Living ordinary lives too / people have been seen/ quietly getting martyred.”
This extension of sentience to every single object and experience leads the poet to contemplate an existential minimalism. Note, for instance, the Beckettian poem “Buried in the Earth Up to the Neck”. Here, the body of the protagonist being buried up to the neck, it is only the face that enters into communion with the world. And yet, Narain insists that this face with its five organs of sense is more than enough to participate in life’s drama and to leave it enriched “a billion times bigger / than the world could be/ a humanesque idea”.
The world represents, as he points out in “The Killing of the Heron”, “the bad times / of a man with an axe/ hatcheting his own roots…” This tide of violence and self-destruction can be turned only through the vital force of love. “Laughter is also a kind of nearness,” the poet asserts in “Nearness” and in each poem emerges the necessity of establishing communion with the world in order to embrace and heal its paradoxes. In Narain’s existential minimalism, one does not need much to live a peaceful life. “…somewhere inside of us, a corner / where the schism between earth and sky/ between people and God/ is the least…” is enough.
One marvels at the committed task of translation that has brought these precious poems into being. Translation can be an arduous project, given the quiet elegance of Narain’s verse and the absence of precedence of such commonplace yet profound and dignified simplicity in the English language. The endeavour can be further challenging when the relationship between the poet and the translator is as intimate as the father-son bond is.
While proximity does have its advantages, intimacy often leads to an erosion of objectivity – a vital consideration for a translator, however subjective the act of translation may be. It goes to Apurva Narain’s immense credit as a translator to not have lost the requisite critical distance in bringing to birth his father’s poems in English. Further, he uses his intimate knowledge of his father’s mind and life to considerable advantage in resolving the ambiguities of translating between languages, his subjective choices in translation speaking for the original poems with felicity and substantial poetic authority.
Poetry, for Kunwar Narain, “is not a declaration, but a witness” and “even if one wants one cannot stop / its testimony in language”. “There are some words / that if abased / leave life and language / of their own accord,” writes the poet in “Words that Disappear”. His entire life was an active crusade to preserve the words and sentiments that mattered. For these poems to not have found a life in English, would have been a grave injustice to the English language.
The repertoire of Indian Writing in English stands richer and prouder by these graceful translations. Prouder, however, stands our nation in offering to the world the witnesses of remembrance of a rare poet who spent a lifetime interpreting indefatigably and with unsparing vigilance, the meaning of existing as an ordinary, finite being in an infinite world.
Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College, affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa, and loves, rebels, writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. Her second collection of poems is titled Stitching a Home.
Witnesses of Remembrance: Selected Newer Poems, Kunwar Narain, translated by Apurva Narain, eka.