“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.”

— Bertolt Brecht

Ever since I opened my eyes to poetry, I’ve heard these lines from Brecht lustily quoted by activists, renegades, and poets. New to the beautifully brutal social world of Delhi as a fledgling university student in the 1990s – yes, Jawaharlal Nehru University, the cynosure of all eyes now – I discovered Brecht in another tongue: Urdu.

Often said to be hybrid, the mellifluous Urdu language alone could reflect such hope and defiance, I felt. In the campus theatre group where we trained our young minds to question and counter all that was typeset as norm, Brecht seemed to be our air to breathe and water to quench our thirst with:

kyaa zulmaton ke daur mein bhii geet gaaye jayenge?
Haan, zulmaton ke daur ke hee geet gaaye jayenge

As a poet myself from the Northeast of India, “zulmat (dark times or oppression)” had different shades of darkness for me. I was brought up on stories from my parents and older relatives of the 1942 famine, the Subcontinental partition with the 1971 war, and, later, as a witness to the Assam agitation, the Mandal Commission movement, and ultimately, Irom Sharmila’s tragically prolonged hunger strike in Manipur amid other stricken truths that defined the Northeastern identity for the likes of me.

Sharmila’s verse continues to occupy my conscience against all atrocities the region has seen and anchor my thoughts on the current chain of events in the country. She courts death as she lies in her hunger strike and says of her own spent body:

I’ll spread the fragrance of peace
From Kanglei, my birthplace
In the ages to come
It will spread all over the world.

— Irom Sharmila

This sentiment is even more relevant today. Student grievances against the University Grants Commission, Jadavpur University’s Hok Kolorob agitation, The Rohith Vemula tragedy and the resulting Dalit anger and challenge to upper caste hegemony, and now, the indictment of JNU as a seat of anti-nationalism and terror have all culminated to form a collective outrage. Poetry sustains in these moments and I hark back to Sukanta Bhattacharya’s lines. However stark, this particular verse has never failed to alert my senses to its beauty of metaphor and rhythm:

Proyojon nei kobitar snigdhota
Kobita tomaaye dilam aajke chhuti
Khudhaar rajje prithibi gawddomoy
Purnima chand jyano jhawlshano ruti

Who needs the soft touch of verse
begone, begone ye rhymes
for the hungry world’s all but prosaic
and even the full moon is a roti all burnt.
(Free translation.)

I must confess that my reading habits are less submerged in the mainstream. Rather, they bear more affinity to “beel-jaan-juri (Assamese for wetlands-canals-springs)” that abound in my home state. Add to that JNU and activism, an almost inextricable pair. As an alumna of the “notorious” institution, today I find that all voices of resistance merge in Paash, Parcham, and Gorakh Pandey.

sabse khatarnaak hotaa hai murdaa shaanti se bhar jaanaa,
naa honaa tadap kaa, sab kuchh sahan kar jana,
ghar se nikalnaa kaam par, aur kaam se loutkar ghar aana,
sabse khatarnaak hota hai, hamaare sapno ka mar jana
~ Avtar Singh Paash

Terribly dangerous indeed if we turn into a peaceful corpse,
strange the lack of restlessness, strange if we tolerate every bit of pain.
Leaving home to go to work and returning back home, it is as banal.
Dangerous indeed, for our dreams to wither and die.
(Free translation.)

Paash’s prophecy is not a warning, but a spirited call to the better days for which we are fighting today, right now.

Gorakh Pandey’s verses – as popular as urban legends, if one can categorise them thus – have been set to songs by the famous indie band Indian Ocean. As thousands of our students, faculty, intelligentsia and leaders march down the thoroughfares, nothing else rings better than these lines from Pandey:

Hille le jhakjhor duniya
janta ki chale paltaniya
deh gae rajwade deh gae maharajwa
rani kari dhool mein lutaniya
hille le Asia re hille le Amrikwa
hille poori jagat ki janataaa

When the people rise, the earth shakes in tremors; royalty and kingdoms fall by the wayside, queens fall to dust; Asia rise, America heaves, and so it is an uprising of the entire humankind… (Free translation.)

This, all souls sold to poetry know, is the driving spirit for the young and old who are invested in a new order, a just world, and never-sleeping dreams in their eyes.

There has not been any occasion on campus when Parcham’s “revolutionary songs (krantikari geet samuh)” have not reverberated in the air, be it for the current hashtags #RohithVemula or #StandwithJNU, or regular demands for bus services, water supplies, room for boarders, etc. Published in thin booklets from a local Delhi progressive printer, the most popular of Parcham’s evocations is an ode to a life as beautiful as the imagined heavens:

Tu zinda hai toh zindagi ke jeet par yakeen kar
Agar kahin hai swarg toh utaar laa zameen par

If you live, believe in the triumph of life
If there’s a heaven somewhere, bring it down to earth.
(Free translation.)

But who said we read poetry to see poets thrive only on emotions or imaginations of a utopia? Continued caste discrimination, deep sectarianism, rampant corporatisation, aggression on tribal land and forests, military terror in the Northeast, and more such grave injustices cannot ever vanquish the lyrical power of love, natural splendor, and the eternal human thirst for the unknown.

In this context, I would urge everyone to read the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda – a veritable guiding star for lovers, rebels, soul seekers and seers.

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I’ll tell you all the news.
And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!

— Pablo Neruda, translated from the Spanish by Nathaniel Tarn

And alongside, we read Frederico Garcia Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, Nizar Qabbani, Mahmoud Darwish, and, always, Mirza Ghalib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, although separated by historical time. Face to face with a crisis of freedom such as today’s, we, quite like the generations before us, cannot help but chant these fiery lines of Ghalib’s:

ragon mein daudte firne ke ham naheen qaayal
jab aankh hee se na tapka to fir lahoo kya hai ?

The blood flowing in our veins indicates that we exist, but does not mean that we are alive.
Being alive means being aware of others’ pain. The desire to alleviate this pain should be intense enough to make one shed tears of blood.
(Free translation.)

And these, of Faiz’s:

Ab bhi dilkash hai tera husn, magar kya keeje?
Aur bhi dukh hai zamaane mein muhabbat ke siwaa
Aur bhi dukh hai zamaane mein muhabbat ke siwaa
Raahatein aur bhi hain vasl ki raahat ke siwaa
Mujh se pehli si muhabbat mere mang

Your beauty still allures, but
what can I do?
There are sorrows in this world
beyond the pleasures of love.
There is more to happiness
than the relief of reunion;
so my love, do not ask from me
the love we shared once before.

— Faiz Ahmad Faiz, translated by Mustansir Dalvi

Besides Adil Jussawalla and K Satchidanandan, I read today with interest a contemporary young voice, of Akhil Katyal’s – irreverent, funny, and scathing, both protest and prayer:


You can chew the sun here & spit it out,
You can make the mighty eat dust,
It is a university that we’re talking about,
Not a king’s court where we must...

— Akhil Katyal


For Rohith Vemula

They might have rope enough
for his body,
have they rope enough
for stardust?

— Akhil Katyal

I would read them out at every opportunity, make the lines my arm band and flag and fist-clutched sweat.

Poetry is a creature born of reality and illusion. When Fascist forces awaken in a society, and the beast comes hurtling, I cannot but remember what Wislawa Szymborska so poignantly writes:

The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

— Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak

Read poetry, strike with poetry, and always win with poetry.