Library of India

A tribute to Kailash Vajpeyi (1936-2015): India’s modern Sufi poet

‘Vajpeyi was the dervish who went way beyond himself and his mental barriers, speaking of far greater realities than could be seen on the surface.’

When I was 22 years old, I had my first close encounter with death. Baba, my grandfather, was 68. He wasn’t ready to leave. I wasn’t ready to let him go. It all happened way too suddenly, probably because his desire to live and my need of having him around for a few more years were far too insignificant in the scheme of things.

His death created a loss and void I desperately needed to fill. I needed some answers. I needed to decode life and death, which made sense, and yet made no sense at all.

It was the same year I discovered poetry. It was the same year I came across Kailash Vajpeyi’s Sufinama purely by chance.
Jab tum paida huye the
Tab nahi poocha kyun
Jab tum mar chuke hoge
Tab nahi poochoge kyun
Phir ye beech ki awadhi mein
Kyun kyun kyun

(When you were born / You didn’t ask why / When you die / You won’t ask why / Why then, in between/All these whys)

It was the first poem that I had read, almost as if sent to me as a signal from somewhere. Later, when the flood of grief had subsided, and when I went from one poem to the other, I realised that his words had the power to pierce my barren numbness.

Only poetry can say what cannot be told in ordinary speech.  As I experienced the poems, even though I didn’t understand them too well, I began to meet myself.
Tum agar aur kahin kuch
Ho sakte hote to ho gaye hote phir
Yehaan nahin hote
Ismein bhi uska shukra maanna

(If you could have been someone else / Then you would have / You would not have been here / For this too you must be grateful to Him)

Sufinama stayed at my bedside for the longest time possible, and the poems that I often read out to my highly distressed soul were, quite simply, transformational. Those poems redeemed my faith in the eternity of life, and reawakened my curiosity in things inexplicable.

Kailash Vajpayee, as I would come to understand later, was less of a poet and more of a dervish – a spiritual seeker. Among spiritual seekers, there is an innate tendency to disparage the mind, because the reality of true self can barely fit into the confines of the mind. But they will teach you to expand that same mind, which then displays its extraordinary capacity to take us to the path of awakening.

Vajpeyi was the dervish who went way beyond himself and his mental barriers, speaking of far greater realities than could be seen on the surface. He showed us how the same mind could be used to shatter and expand itself.
Aankh bhi na band ho
Aur ye duniya aankhon se ojhal ho jaaye
Kuch aisi tarkeeb karna
Doobna to tay hai isliye, naav nahin
Nadi par bharosa karna

(The eyes won’t be shut / And yet the world will disappear from sight / Find a way to do this / Since drowning is inevitable, it’s not the boat / But the river that you must trust)

He wrote through his breath, sound, rhythm and silence – all at once. And so what looked like a physical collection of words and hidden connotations had a far deeper metaphysical connection.

The challenger

Vajpeyi’s writings were reflections on death and detachment through continuous dialogue between conscious and supraconscious. His poems, for example Dehant se hatkar (Beyond death), often had death as the dominant theme. Even when he wrote in romance and optimism, there was a dark streak underneath. His poems had the lilt of the Bhakti era – the fascination with mortality and divine existence that is the hallmark of Indian Bhakti traditions.

His words carried with them a sense of inquisitiveness, and yet were gentle and compassionate. They baffled and challenged our simple understanding, which tends to put the world and worldly deeds in fixed and neat boxes.

Perhaps, like me, you too read poetry through alliteration, consonance and assonance. These tools, however, are merely a way of weaving the body and soul together through the resonance of verse.

Poetry affects each and every sense of our body and soul in ways beyond cognitive control. Vajpeyi’s poetry did exactly that. He never ceased to explore through his poems the frontiers of consciousness, addressing subjects that remained eternal to the humanity.

Hawa mein Hastakshar, for which he won the Sahitya Academy Puraskar in 2009, transcends traditional religiosity and mythology and delves deep into mysticism. His quest for inner truth was such that he never ceased to explore.

No wonder, then, that his pursuit led him to several other media – such as television, radio and documentaries – where he continued to explore the relationship between the real, the surreal and the divine. Even in his regular columns, Vajpeyi wondered how technology, while offering us material comforts, takes us away from spirituality.

The mystic

Mystics are always looked upon as outsiders, and more so in a world where the virtual is becoming more and more real. Despite this Vajpeyi would continue to express himself in his intimate and unobstructed voice with a familiarity that only someone extremely warm and humane could bring. He would make us believe that if there could be anything crucial and lifesaving within us, it had to be our capacity for intricate thinking, our appreciation for ever-expanding questions.

On Wednesday, as I was moving house, I discovered that Kailash Vajpeyi is dead. I tried in vain to look for my copy of Sufinama in all the packed cartons, so I could quote the lines I had once highlighted in desperation.

My constant regret since then has been that I will no longer find an opportunity to ask him those questions that I had written along the margins of the book.

Can grief for the death of a close one become the source for the growth of our spirit? How do you keep in touch with yourself through the unceasing struggle of life? How long have spiritual masters been in search of the source of light?

I may not find the answers now, but my real tribute to this modern Sufi poet will be to go back to his writings all over again.

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