‘I’ve a thirst for all forever, but the lines come to an end’: A requiem for poet Vijay Nambisan

He died at just 54, having published far less poetry than his contemporaries.

I first heard of Vijay Nambisan the day after the judges met to decide on the All India Poetry Prize. Nissim Ezekiel spoke of this wonderful poet, one who would certainly go places from Madras Central (the title of his prize-winning poem). I read him with a bit of envy and decided that he was worth every bit of praise and every prize.

I met him not long after and like everyone else from those days, I have a story of his falling flat on his face. This was also when Vijay and Kavery met each other for the first time and fell in love. Vijay lived up to the romantic image of the poet, both his own and many others’ – the haze necessary to help him work towards sobriety all the time, towards true understanding, towards the silence of poetry.

To reach there, he had to work on language, to know the weight of words and be weighed down by them as he tried to fly, to soar with their currents, to craft his visions and observations. It shouldn’t surprise us that he didn’t write as much poetry as many of his contemporaries. But he wrote enough for us to wish he had written more, so good is his poetry.

Taking on UR Ananthamurty

Vijay still belonged to a generation that was often and publicly challenged for writing in English in India. He took on UR Ananthamurthy and stated his case forcefully, showing up all the contradictions in UR’s positions and arguments. This debate made him think deeply about the politics of representation, the uses and abuses of English as well as the ethical purpose of using language and how language can embody ethics.

This was a serious wordsmith who couldn’t bear to live with less than full commitment to his vocation, to his tools of trade. This valiant defender of Indian English poetry also went on to translate bhakti poetry, albeit from a language he wasn’t actually fluent in. This has been every Indian English poet’s way of asserting belonging – I am as Indian as every one else, dammit, as Indian as UR! And one should not forget that he has a fine book based on his experiences in Bihar.

There was a major chunk of a decade between us, but both Vijay and I recognised our similarities. We had lived our lives in different languages, turned away from certain futures, but he, with greater abandon and I, with some caution! It seems to me that Vijay took to some people but he could easily disappear for years and then turn up as if nothing had happened.

The journey to publication

He once came to me with Jeet Thayil’s book of poems and asked me to review it, speaking highly of his friend and fellow-debutant. He was quite upset that I didn’t review the book. I didn’t get the opportunity and truth to tell I was unhappy that Jeet had a full length collection out before Vijay, who I thought was the more deserving! It was good to see Jeet egging Vijay on at the Delhi launch of Vijay’s collection.

By this time, Vijay had a cult following and his collection was eagerly awaited even if not expected. He had the image of a recluse, a sensitive soul, who would give of himself one day and then only to the most faithful of his followers. And he came out with First Infinities. It could have dented his image a bit (as a poet of deferment, one who didn’t care to collect his poems) but the poems in the collection did no harm to his reputation as a fine poet.

He knew himself – he could be quite ironic and witty and acerbic about how he thought others perceived him. He was always self-aware – he noted his absences as essential to his being. In his Duck Poems, he says that like ducks that seem to look down to see if they are all there, he too

Catch myself looking down to see if my feet 
Are still on earth
And so when I look up
I return where I belong, after long separation.”

— “Buoyancy”

A Bombay poet (not Mumbai though) by training – Dom Moraes was his mentor and Jeet Thayil’s, and Jeet and he debuted together with Gemini I) – Vijay paid his obeisance to the three who held court when he was there – Arun Kolatkar, Dom Moraes and Nissim Ezekiel – in this Dirge:

“Arun and Dom and Nissim – I will shun their hard-earned grief
And much though I will always miss ’em, in softer shadows find relief.”

“How well they wrote”, he says, when “the world was young” but he himself would rather “hold my words in”, happy to “In place of getting glory, kisses take from my missis”. Vijay was aware that he would be judged to have written far less than he should have and but he lived his life in poetry, language his true friend:

“This hand once penned those poems: never shall I find so true a friend.
I’ve a thirst for all forever, but the lines come to an end.”

As he said in another poem,

“After all the
Fact remains that death is chronic.

— “Medical Entry”

Poets have to die some time, lines do come to an end, but poetry lives on. Vijay’s will, even if he feared that while he may be lauded for his control of form (perhaps he did pay too much respect to metre and rhyme and he did abhor Indianisms), “one sick neuron” could “lay the sordid curse/Of unsuccess on all my meagre verse”. Perhaps we expected too much of him, his contemporaries who saw his great potential, but we were not wrong – his poetry speaks for itself.

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