India in translation

These seven poems by Ashok Vajpeyi show why Hindi poetry matters

Continuing our new series of works of Indian literature in translation.

In Our Ancestors’ Bones

We live in our ancestors’ bones –

we pick a word
and the syntax of some earlier century
is disturbed,
we open a door
and the sound echoes somewhere in an ancient house –

we live like worms
under the thick cover of plants.

We leave our children
with our ancestors
when we go to work.

We carry in baskets
our burdens and time.
We eat simple food, drink cold water and walk on
along the road to eternity
gradually fading
out of the scene
so completely that if someone looked
they wouldn’t be able to tell
that we ever existed.

We live in our ancestors’ bones –

(1986)


The Earth Rescued from Parrots

Our house lies on the route
the parrots take
to go to the jungle
and to come back from there.

Green lines of countless parrots
go to and fro in the sky above us
and a few of them
even stop to rest on our trees.
We live in the city,
how could we know
from what jungle to what forest
from what daybreak to what workplace
the parrots go every day –

often my daughter and I
place bets
on which flock of parrots
will stop or not stop on our trees.

the parrots don’t see us
because their sights are always
trained on the trees and their fruit.

The parrots
turn into a green sky
and cover the earth.
the parrots leave the earth behind
like half-eaten fruit.

My daughter
chases after the parrots,
to save the fruit,
the earth.

In the sky, in the dark
the parrots vanish into the distance.

My daughter is left standing
shining with green
caressing the earth, comforting it.

(1985)


To my Father

Now when nothing remains between us
except some sadness and regret
and we’ve forgotten
your anger, your failures
your apprehensions about me,
we can see that
while prestige may be easy to come by
dignity in life only comes with great difficulty.
Life is a miser with dignity
and we’ve both had delusions of possessing it.

We were able to forget
no insult, whether from gods or devils,
even though such forgetting is natural, even necessary
to get through the struggles of life.
Why did we find
insult more memorable than failure,
perhaps it is a familial failing,
the self-respect of a farmer’s son,
the self-deception of a small-town poet.
It’s thirty-five years since you left
and I am older now
than you were then.

You never had the time to understand me
and I was always trying to test you:
now when nothing remains between us except some sadness and regret,
if you saw how weary I am you’d feel
that in my wilfulness, in my unwillingness to let an insult pass
I have only emulated you:
the truly sad thing is not
that so many years passed in misunderstanding
but that
in the end I’ve turned out to be a pale imitation of you
which neither you nor I
ever suspected
or desired.

(2007)


Mallikarjun Mansur

Setting his own pace
Mallikarjun Mansur comes in
late
and marches ahead of time

ahead of a time
that’s filled with confusions, riddled with wounds
that’s growing more and more inconsequential,
a time that trails him
grovelling
destitute and crippled
begging for alms with outspread hands –
panting

Mallikarjun Mansur
advanced in years but standing tall
leans over
death
keeps a hand on its shoulder
stops and lights a beedi
then starts walking once more towards some new destination

his saintly hands take nothing for themselves
they only give wherever they go
and so he sings his way through the wide world
if god
came this way
he would not be able
to tell himself from Mallikarjun Mansur

(1992)


Shubhsrava

There’s a river mentioned in the Puranas, called Shubhsrava. An ancient river: who knows what unknown forests it flows through. What sort of vegetation grows on its banks, what tributaries come and merge with it. Where is its origin: how small, almost imperceptible. Insubstantial in the beginning. Gradually taking on the shape of a river. Full of water, full of plants, full of fish. Full of sound, and brimming with waves of beauty. A river of childhood: a young river in the abode of ancients. A river untouched by gods. A river untouched by geography. A river of only words. A river made up of words. A river that flows beside the pure and radiant, then disappears. A river called Shubhsrava, yet unnamed. A river held in an infant god’s scripture. An impossible river, a hidden, a vanished river. A river in Shubhsrava: a river in every river. Flowing from the Puranas down to these words: a river, Shubhsrava.

(1990)


On Suddenly Remembering a Painting by Husain

Two deep red eyes of light
are trained upon the road
that passes close to the darkness
of my home.
In the fog that sleeps upon the lake
someone laughs
a giggling grey laughter.
Over the tops of the dark lines of trees
someone laughs.
The sky become overcast – black
– my home, released from the deep red eyes
emerges and sinks
in the darkness, on the road,
endlessly in the dim yellow light…

(1959)


Being Earth, Nonbeing Sky
From a requiem for Kumar Gandharva

The grass growing on the ruin’s walls
is a green sign from the earth
that it’s time
to return to dust.
Being has a time
has colour
has turns and descents
nonbeing is timeless, colourless.
Time
sitting on a branch of a tree in some garden
nibbles away like a parrot
at being –
in nonbeing, there’s not even a footprint of time.
Time knocks
on the door of a house
where no one lives.
Time stands with its begging bowl
outside that door
from which no one will emerge.
There is no time now
no provisions for the journey
no tired feet
no sweat on the brow.
The steps leading to the temple
the final cries of sacrificial animals
the bloody end
of goat song.
In the sunlit darkness of blood
the scream of stone
the call of grass
the cries of greenery.
Being
earth
nonbeing
sky.

(1992)

Excerpted with permission from A Name for Every Leaf: Selected Poems, 1959–2015, Ashok Vajpeyi, Translated from the Hindi by Rahul Soni.


Ashok Vajpeyi is a Hindi poet-critic with fifteen books of Hindi poetry to his credit. He has published many volumes of criticism, in both Hindi and English, on poetry, literature, the visual arts and Indian classical music. Book-length translations of his poetry have appeared in French, Polish, German, English, Bengali, Marathi, Oriya, Gujrati, Urdu and Rajasthani. A recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award (1994), Dayavati Kavi Shekhar Samman (1994) and Kabir Samman (2006), he has also been decorated by the President of the Republic of Poland with the outstanding national award ‘The Officer’s Cross of Merit of the Republic of Poland’ (2004), and by the French government with the award of ‘Officier De L’Ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres’ (2005). A major institution-builder and a cultural activist, he lives in Delhi after retiring from the civil service.

Rahul Soni is a writer, editor and translator. He has edited Home from a Distance (Pratilipi Books, 2011), an anthology of Hindi poetry in English translation, and translated Magadh by Shrikant Verma (Almost Island Books, 2013) and The Roof Beneath their Feet by Geetanjali Shree (HarperCollins India, 2013).

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